Three non-miraculous explanations
The Bible teaches that Jesus was executed by the occupying Roman Army at
the time of a Passover in Jerusalem. Most theologians believe that this
happened during the springtime of either 30 or 33 CE. A common
belief is that he died on a Friday afternoon and was resurrected sometime
before sunrise on the following Sunday morning, perhaps a day or a day and a
half later. This was when, according to
the Gospels, Mary Magdalene (alone or in the company of other women; the
gospels differ) visited the tomb. Most, but not all, Christians believe that
he was resurrected (either under his own power or as a result of God's
intervention) in his original body.
When normal people die, their heart stops pumping blood through their
brain. Brain death occurs, and various degenerative processes soon begin;
the body starts to rot; rigor mortis sets in. The processes are irreversible; they never come back
to life. According to the gospels, Jesus remained dead for perhaps 33 hours
or more -- from Friday afternoon until early on Sunday morning. This would
have been a sufficient interval to "leave no doubt as to the reality of
His death." 1 Yet, he was described as having returned
to life, leaving the tomb, and subsequently appearing before various groups
of his followers. This, of course, would be a miracle.
Ever since the first century CE, alternative
explanations have been offered to account for the stories in the Gospels.
Muslims, for example, believe that Jesus' crucifixion never happened.
Rather, another person was executed in Jesus' place.
Alternative explanations have been promoted by individuals who deny that
the resurrection miracle happened. They believe that most, but not all, of the components of the
gospel stories are correct: that Jesus was actually attached to a stake or
cross by the Roman occupying army, and was believed to have died. He was removed and taken away by his
supporters. But other components are believed to be myth, fiction, and
perhaps a pious fraud.
Some alternative scenarios are:
The swoon theory:
Jesus did not die; he only became unconscious on
the cross. He was removed by a few of his followers, laid in the tomb, and
left. He recovered there, and later appeared to his followers. Afterwards,
he might have sneaked away and
continued to live on in secret. He would have feared persecution from Jewish
groups or the Roman authorities
if he were discovered to be still alive. Most of his followers may not have been
aware of his recovery. They may may have adopted the story of his resurrection as the
most likely explanation of his apparent death and reappearance.
- The Roman Army had a quite efficient executing procedures. The
soldiers in charge of the death squad would have themselves been
sentenced to crucifixion if they had let one of the convicted criminals
live. Many historians feel that It is unlikely that they would have been
fooled by an unconscious victim.
- Normally, a crucifixion takes many days of agony before the victim
dies. Jesus was only on the cross for a matter of hours. It is
quite conceivable that he could have survived a few hours of exposure without
- Medical science in 1st century Palestine was very
primitive. Some people had been known to have entered a coma, appeared
to have died, and recovered days later. Thus, a Jewish tradition was
established in which the deceased's body was set in a tomb before
sundown on the day of their death, and visited a few days later to make
certain that the body had truly died. Decomposition of the body would be
very obvious by that time, considering the high ambient temperature
during a Palestinian springtime. If doctors could be fooled by a coma,
perhaps the Roman Soldiers might have been also.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that if Jesus was placed in "a
sealed sepulcher for thirty-six hours, in an atmosphere poisoned by the
exhalations of a hundred pounds of spices," that the environment
alone would have caused his death. 1 However, we only
know the maximum length of time that Jesus was presumably in the tomb:
from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. Nobody knows how long he would
have been actually exposed to the spices. He might have emerged from the
tomb on what the Jews considered Saturday morning (our Friday night) after a short interval, and the tomb only found to be empty some 33
Jesus died on the cross.
His body was laid in the grave and later stolen by some of his followers
and buried elsewhere. He was never resurrected.
- Matthew 28:12-14 described how the Jewish elders promoted this
theory. "...they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye,
His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if
this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you."
Some suggest that the events of this passage never happened. If the soldiers were
found to have fallen asleep on the job, they would themselves have been executed.
No amount of money would persuade them to run that risk.
- Critics of this theory have suggested that his disciples appeared to
be discouraged and disillusioned by Jesus' arrest and death. Something
changed them so that they quickly became vigorous proselytizers, totally
committed to the spreading the gospel message, in spite of the personal
hazards involved. The critics suggest that this change could not have
happened as the result of a lie.
- It is conceivable that only a small number of Jesus' supporters
could have arranged for the body to be removed -- perhaps only a single
person, with some hired help. The removal of the body could have been
done in secret without the rest of Jesus' disciples finding out. The
followers could have experienced a mass hallucination, and believed that
they had seen and met the resurrected Jesus.
The empty tomb, Jesus' appearance to his female followers, and his later meeting with
his male disciples and others were individual visions or mass hallucinations. The
disciples were familiar with the concept of resurrection from the grave,
because of certain passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. Job 19:25 and Daniel 12:2
are perhaps the main examples. So, as observant Jews, they would have
been anticipating Jesus return from the dead. His death would have come as
a shock to them; they might not have been willing to accept it as a
permanent fact. Perhaps Mary Magdalene had a vision or hallucination in
which she mistook Jesus for the gardener.
"What she believed that she
had seen, others immediately believed that they must see. Their
expectations were fulfilled, and the conviction seized the members of the
early Church that the Lord had really risen from the dead."
The Catholic Encyclopedia criticizes this theory. Their most convincing
argument is that "visions such as the critics suppose have never been
known to last long, while some of
manifestations lasted a considerable period." The authors of the
Encyclopedia note: "that the manifestations were made to numbers
[of people] at the same instant." 1 They deny the
possibility of mass hallucinations.
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
"Resurrection of Jesus Christ," Catholic
Encylopedia, New Advent, at:
Copyright © 2003 to
2008 by Ontario Consultant on Religious Tolerance
Essay originally written: 2003-APR-13
Essay last updated: 2008-SEP-30
Written by: B.A. Robinson