By Dr. Gary Habermas
One of our first thoughts when we hear someone claim to have witnessed a miracle is that there must be some sort of natural explanation. After all, even if they do occur, miracles are not the norm in nature.
In the Gospels we are told there was a similar response relating to Christ’s resurrection. When the Jewish priests were told the report of the empty tomb, they spread the tale that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body (Mt 28:12-15). Even believers reacted this way. When Mary Magdalene initially saw Jesus, she made a natural assumption, supposing He was the gardener (Jn 20:10-15). When the disciples heard the report of the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb, they thought the women were spreading rumors or false tales (Lk 24:11). Later, when they saw the risen Jesus, these same followers thought they were seeing a ghost or hallucination (Lk 24:36-43).
Throughout history many have had similar responses regarding Jesus’ resurrection, attempting to come up with naturalistic theories to explain away the resurrection. These attempts were far more common in the nineteenth century than they are today. Even if we were to ignore the majority of the information in the Gospels, appealing only to those historical facts that are acknowledged by virtually every scholar who studies this subject, both conservative and liberal, we still have many major response3s to each of the naturalistic theories. Not surprisingly, comparatively few scholars today think any of these alternative hypotheses really works.
For example, few critics have proposed that Jesus never died on the cross but instead “swooned”—fainted and only appeared dead. Dozens of medical studies have shown how death by crucifixion really kills and how this would be recognized by those present. Most of these reports argue that the chief cause of death in crucifixion was asphyxiation (death from being unable to breathe). It is even easy to ascertain when the victim was dead—he remained hanging in the down position without pushing up to breathe. Additionally, a death blow frequently ensured the victim’s demise. The prevailing medical explanation of Jesus’ chest wound is that the presence of blood and water indicated He was stabbed through the heart, thereby ensuring His death.
But many scholars think another serious problem dooms the swoon theory. If Jesus had not died on the cross, He would have been in exceptionally bad shape when His followers saw Him. Limping profusely, bleeding from His many wounds and probably even leaving a bloody trail, stoop-shouldered and pale, He hardly would have been able to convince His disciples that He was their risen Lord—and in a transformed body at that! Many historical reasons and the near unanimity of scholarly opinion indicate that Jesus’ disciples at least truly believed they had seen Him resurrected. On such grounds the swoon thesis is actually self-refuting. It presents a Jesus who would have contradicted the disciples’ belief in His resurrection simply by appearing in the horrible physical shape that is demanded by this view!
But could the disciples have stolen His dead body? This approach has been almost ignored for more than 200 years because it would not explain the disciple’s sincere belief that they had seen the risen Jesus—a belief for which they were clearly willing to die. Their transformations need an adequate explanation. Neither would the theft hypothesis explain the conversions from skepticism by James, the brother of Jesus, or Paul, occasioned by their own beliefs that they had also seen the risen Jesus. These facts are noted even by critical scholars.
Might someone else have stolen Jesus’ body? This approach addresses nothing but the empty tomb. It provides no explanation for Jesus’ appearances, which are the best evidence for the resurrection. Further, it fails to account for the conversions of James and Paul. Besides, many candidates for the body stealers would have had no motivation for taking the body. This alternative accounts for far too little of the known data. It is no wonder that critics virtually never opt for it.
There are myriads of problems with hallucination theories, too. We will mention just a few. Hallucinations are private experiences, whereas our earliest accounts report that Jesus appeared to groups as well as to individuals. Further, the dissimilar personalities witnessing the appearances clearly militate against everyone’s inventing a mental image, often at the same time. So do the reactions of those disciples who responded to reports of the resurrection by doubting. The conversions of James and Paul are extremely problematic for this vie3w, since unbelieving skeptics would hardly desire to hallucinate about the risen Jesus. And if hallucinations are the best explanation, then the tomb should not have been empty!
Could the resurrection accounts have developed later as mere stories that grew over time? A few of the potential responses should be adequate. Here again, the fact that the disciples truly believed they had seen the risen Jesus is highly problematic for this view, since it indicates the original accounts were derived from the eyewitnesses themselves, not from some later stories. Further, the fact that these appearances were reported extremely early, within just a few years of the crucifixion, attests that at least the core message was intact from the outset. Moreover, the empty tomb would be a constant physical reminder that this was not just some ungrounded tale. Both James and Paul again provide even more insurmountable problems for this view, for these skeptics were convinced that they had also seen the risen Jesus; tales developing years later fail to account for their conversions.
For reasons such as these, most critical scholars today reject the naturalistic theories as adequate accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. They simply do not explain the known historical data. In fact, many liberal scholars even critique the alternatives that are periodically suggested!
Here we have a strong witness to the historical nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Naturalistic theories have failed. Further, many historical evidences favor the resurrection. Taking all this together, we have strong reasons to believe that this event actually occurred in history. After all, the more thoroughly the alternative theories fail, the more we are left with the evidences themselves, and they are powerful indicators that Jesus rose from the dead.
Adapted from the Apologetics Study Bible, pgs 1621-1622