As we approach Easter, we are reminded that our faith stands or falls on whether Jesus rose from the dead. Either our faith in Jesus as God in flesh is founded on a verifiable fact of history, or we are following a false messiah who failed to prove his claim to be God. Last week I gave five evidences the tomb was really empty that first Easter morning. What is the best explanation of this fact? Besides Jesus’ bodily resurrection there are six other explanations often given. This week and next I’ll unpack these and show why they are inadequate to explain all the facts. The only adequate explanation of the empty tomb that first Easter morning is the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Alternative Explanation #1: Everyone Went to the Wrong Tomb
Perhaps the women, in their duress and overcome by grief after the crucifixion of Jesus, mistakenly went to the wrong tomb. They may have gotten turned around. They may have forgotten exactly which tomb Jesus was in. Whatever the cause, they found that tomb empty, and hurried back to tell everyone else Jesus had risen. The others, following the women and also in much duress, went to the wrong tomb as well.
There are at least three problems with this explanation. First, it was well documented where holy men were buried, so they could be venerated (see last week’s post). Duress and grief would not cause one to forget something as religiously important as this. This is even more so given that tomb site was that of a very prominent member of Jewish society (Joseph of Arimathea), and so the location of his tomb was well known.
Second, the women watched Joseph and Nicodemus take Jesus’ body off the cross and put it in the tomb on Friday afternoon (Matt. 27:61). So they had been there just 36 to 40 hours earlier. It is hard to believe they would not be able to return to the right tomb in such a short time. Furthermore, according to Jewish religious practice the body had to be ceremonially embalmed (Sunday morning, as soon as the Sabbath was over). To accomplish this critically important task they had to be sure they knew where the body was. It is unthinkable that they would not know how to find the correct tomb!
Third, even if the women and the rest of the disciples went to the wrong tomb, the Jewish and Roman authorities certainly would not! They wanted to make sure the body wasn’t disturbed (Matthew 27:62-66). They would have been more than happy to show the women, disciples, and everyone else exactly where the correct tomb was, along with the body of this false messiah!
Alternative Explanation #2: Jesus Was Revived, Not Resurrected
It may be that Jesus didn’t actually die while on the cross, but passed out and just appeared to be dead. Three days rest in the cool tomb revived him, and he got up and came out of the tomb. So there is a perfectly good physical explanation for this “resurrection.”
While initially plausible, upon closer inspection there are at least four inadequacies with this explanation. First, Roman soldiers were expert executioners. They had crucifixion down to a science. Jesus first received thirty-nine lashes with a whip, which would have exposed organs through his back. Then he had a crown of Palestinian thorns driven through his skull and into his brain (they were each two inches thick and hard as iron). His wrists were nailed to the cross with the equivalent of railroad spikes. He was then suspended in the hot sun for six hours. Death was certain.
If there was even the hint someone had not died after being nailed to a cross they broke the person’s legs to ensure death (so he could no longer stand up to take a breath). The fact that they didn’t need to break Jesus’ legs is a clear sign that to their expert eyes he was already dead. To be sure they stuck a spear in his side, and the emission of blood and water was another indication they had succeeded. He was dead.
But let’s assume, for sake of argument, that Jesus survived all this. In the tomb, when he came out of the coma, he had to get out of the wrapping (cloth strips hardened by a paste solution). He then had to move the one-ton bolder from the tomb entrance. This would all be amazing accomplishiments for someone who had gone through the process of a Roman beating and crucifixion just 72 hours earlier!
Next he had to defeat the Roman Guard (at least 4 men) posted at the tomb entrance. The Roman Guard were equivalent to modern day Navy Seals, trained in hand-to-hand combat and well-armed. If they allowed Jesus to escape they would be executed themselves, so they would do everything in their power to prevent his escape. No one could get past them, much less Jesus in the condition he would have been in at this point.
Finally, if he succeeded in all this, he still had to make the seven-mile walk to Emmaus, and then back to Jerusalem and convince everyone he met that he was the resurrected Lord of life, not a man in desperate need of rest and medical attention. When the facts are known even the most liberal theologians have a hard time believing this is a plausible explanation.
Explanation #3: Post-crucifixion Sightings of Jesus were Hallucinations
It may be that it was not the physical Jesus that everyone saw, but simply hallucinations. After all, the disciples desperately wanted Jesus to be “the One,” and so perhaps they imagined they saw him. They thought he was resurrected. But he was not.
This explanation has more problems than the previous two. First, the resurrection appearances fail to meet the five criteria of a hallucination:
(1) Hallucinations occur to those who have vivid imaginations or nervous makeups. But the appearances were to all type of people, including those like hard-headed Peter.
(2) Hallucinations come to those who so intensive want to believe something that they project that desire into reality. Skeptics don’t hallucinate. But the women, disciples and others didn’t understand Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and so were not looking for a resurrection. The women were going to the tomb to anoint the body, assuming he was dead. The disciples were in a state of fear, doubt and despair (Luke 24:36-43). The skepticism is apparent in their response to the women’s report in Luke 24:11, “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” These are not the hallucinating type.
(3) Hallucinations are always consistent with a person’s belief system. But the belief system of the disciples and all other Jews of the time was that the Resurrection was a corporate event at the end of time. They had no idea of just one person being resurrected before then. So there was even less possibly of them “projecting” their belief in Jesus’ resurrection as a hallucination, because they didn’t believe this was a possibility in the first place. (This is why they never understood Jesus’ prophecies of his resurrection.)
(4) Hallucinations are extremely subjective and individual. They are not consistent among individuals, but are “private events.” Only one person has a given hallucination at a time. But many people at the same time have Jesus appear to them.
(5) Hallucinations tend to occur over a long period of time with some regularity. But the appearances of Jesus occurred over a 40-day period, and then stopped abruptly and never repeated.
Furthermore, the Hallucination hypothesis doesn’t deal with the fact of the empty tomb, discussed last week. So even if many did somehow have this same hallucination, others could check the tomb and take those hallucinating there for a final cure. This explanation is also inadequate.
Next Week: Three Conspiracy Theories
The final three alternative explanations are “conspiracy theories”: someone, or some group stole the body and covered it up (the prime suspects are the Jews, the Romans and the Disciples). I’ll discuss these next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Chapter 8 of Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig.