The resurrection of Jesus may be the most controversial event in human history. It’s certainly the foundational event of the Christian faith. That’s why the apostle Paul can write,

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (1 Cor 15:14, 17, 18).
It’s also why, ever since Jesus was raised from the dead, the opponents of Christianity have tried to prove that the resurrection didn’t happen. To disprove the resurrection would be to strike a major blow against the Christian faith.

You may find it interesting to consider some theories that people have put out in an attempt to explain away the events of Easter weekend by some other way than the rising of Jesus from the dead. It’s interesting that the skeptics don’t deny the basic facts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, burial and empty tomb; they just seek another explanation for them. Strange to say, it requires more faith—and more imagination—to believe in some of these theories than to believe in the resurrection.

It is an embarrassing insight into human nature that the more fantastic the scenario, the more sensational the promotion it receives and the more intense the faddish interest it attracts. People who would never bother reading a responsible analysis of the traditions of how Jesus was crucified, died, was buried and rose from the dead are fascinated by the report of some “new insight” to the effect he was not crucified or did not die, especially if his subsequent career involved running off with Mary Magdalene to India. Whether sparked by a rationalism that seeks to debunk the miraculous or by the allure of the novel, often such modern imaginings reproduce ancient explanations that dismissed the death of Jesus on the cross, explaining it away through confusion or a plot [Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 2:1093].

Let’s look at a few of these theories, and the holes in them.

#1 THE STOLEN-BODY THEORY There are two versions of this theory. The first maintains that the disciples stole the body; this is the earliest attempt at explaining the resurrection away (see Matt 28:11–15). But there are several holes in it. Is it credible that disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested and hid while he was crucified would come out of hiding to steal his body when he was dead? And if they did show such courage, the guards would have prevented the theft (which was what they were there for!). Nor could the disciples have moved the stone and taken the body without disturbing the guards, if the guards were all asleep. And then there’s the nature of conspiracies: most of them unravel quickly. If the disciples had plotted to steal Jesus’ body, one of them would eventually have admitted it under the pressure of an investigation by the authorities. Would they really be prepared to die for something that they knew was a lie? Also, to tell the people such a lie would be contrary to Jesus’ teaching, and to what we know of the disciples’ own ethics. We may also note that grave robbing was considered very impious, which was one reason why it was punishable by death. Also, grave robbers carried off goods. It was virtually unheard of for them to carry off a body. Above all, the idea that the disciples stole Jesus’ body does not explain the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples.

Another version of this theory maintains that it wasn’t the disciples who stole the body but the Jewish authorities, moving the body to another tomb for safekeeping. But why would they do themselves what they were afraid the disciples would do (see Matt. 27:64)? And if they had, why didn’t they explain what they had done and produce the body when the disciples began to preach the resurrection?

#2 THE WRONG-TOMB THEORY This theory was first put about in 1907. It claims that the women who went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning didn’t know where Jesus was buried, or got lost in the dark, and went not to Jesus’ tomb but to another one, which happened to be empty. There they met a young man who said to them, “He is not here; see the place where they laid him” (apparently one is to imagine the young man pointing to another tomb). This ignores several things. First, it leaves out an important part of what the young man says in Mark 16:6. He doesn’t say, “He is not here, he is over there;” he says, “He is not here; he is risen.” Second, the Gospel narratives say that the women saw where Jesus was buried (Mark 15:47). Third, that the women should get lost in the dark is not impossible; but in only a few minutes it would have been light enough for them to realize their mistake. Fourth, this theory implies that the male disciples also went to the wrong tomb when they went to verify the women’s story. Finally, if the disciples (women and men) had gone to the wrong tomb, the Jewish authorities would have been quick to point out the error and produce the body.

# 3 THE SWOON THEORY This theory maintains that Jesus only seemed to be dead when he was taken down from the cross. He was then revived by the cold damp air of the tomb. He then climbed out of the grave clothes he had been tied into (and which were further weighed down by 75 lb./34.5 kg. of spices), broke the seal, pushed the stone away from the tomb entrance and fought off the guards (or moved the stone without attracting their attention), then walked naked and barefoot on nail-pieced feet through the streets of Jerusalem without being noticed. Some versions of this theory even have Jesus arranging this himself, by instructing Judas to betray him, taking a drug which would simulate death, and arranging for a doctor to hide in the tomb and care for him after he had been buried. But his plan was foiled when a Roman soldier stabbed him in the side, piercing his right lung and heart and killing him for real. All this strains credibility. And the idea that anyone could survive the mistreatment involved in crucifixion seems equally incredible. And then there’s the reaction of the disciples. As Lee Strobel points out, “After suffering that horrible abuse, with all that catastrophic blood loss and trauma, he would have looked so pitiful that the disciples would never have hailed him as a victorious conqueror of death; they would have felt sorry for him and tried to nurse him back to health” [The Case For Easter (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 26].

#4 THE HALLUCINATION THEORY This theory maintains that the resurrection appearances were hallucinations constructed in the imaginations of grief-stricken disciples. But this flies in the face of the psychodynamics of hallucination. Hallucination is a rare phenomenon, usually caused by drugs, mental illness or bodily deprivation. And those who hallucinate usually quickly realize that they are hallucinating. Hallucination requires expectancy—and since the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus again (in spite of his predicting it), they would hardly imagine his presence with them. One may note also that the disciples included the hardheaded Peter, the skeptics Thomas and James, and the persecutor Paul—men scarcely likely to imagine things. And hallucination is an individual thing, which comes from the subconscious; it’s impossible to control what someone else hallucinates. This also means that a group of people won’t all hallucinate the same thing at the same time; and Jesus appeared to groups of people (whether a few people, the Twelve, or more than five hundred) more often than he did to individuals. The hallucination theory would require that over a period of several weeks, people of different backgrounds and temperaments imagined seeing the same person in various places. And if the disciples had imagined seeing the risen Jesus, his body would still be in the tomb, something that the Jewish authorities would be quick to point out.

#5 THE MYTH THEORY This theory claims that the Easter story is patterned after the stories of dying and rising gods found in pagan religions. But there are several problems with this theory. First, many of these stories didn’t arise until after the New Testament was written—perhaps these pagan stories were patterned after the Easter story rather than the reverse. Second, most of these pagan stories take place in a mythological “once upon a time.” By contrast, the death and resurrection of Jesus took place in history, in a definite time and place. Third, words like “resurrection” and “baptism,” which originated in Christianity, are often not accurate when applied to paganism. These stories are not as close to the Easter story as using these words makes it appear. Finally, we must remember that Christianity has its roots in Jewish monotheism, which warns against mixing God’s truth with other religions. “I am the LORD, and there is no other” (Isa 45:18). In the New Testament, Paul similarly warns Christians against mixing Christianity with paganism. “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8).

# 6 THE SPIRITUAL-RESURRECTION THEORY This theory claims that the resurrection was a spiritual event, not a physical one. The body of Jesus decayed in the tomb like any other. But this disregards the fact of the empty tomb, which not even Christianity’s opponents denied. And for Jews, the word “resurrection” implies the physicality of coming out of the tomb. And in Luke 24:39 Jesus proves that he isn’t a ghost. We may say that this theory lacks substance.

# 7 THE MUSLIM SUBSTITUTION THEORY Islam sees Jesus as one of Allah’s servants; it sees him as a prophet, but no more than that. The Qur’an says that a substitute was crucified in Jesus’ place. It isn’t certain what form of Christianity Mohammed came in contact with. There may have been Gnostic heretics in Arabia in his time, so it’s possible that he learned about Christianity from them rather than from orthodox Christians. Islam believes that Jesus ascended into heaven and is waiting there alive to return to earth at the end of time. There are two problems with this theory, a historical problem and a moral one.

The historical problem is that the Scriptures don’t refer to the death of a substitute. In the Old Testament, it’s the Messiah’s death, not a substitute’s, that is prophesied (Ps 22:16; Isa 53:5–10; Dan 9:26; Zech 13:7). In the New Testament, Jesus predicts his own death, not a substitute’s (Mark 8:31; 9:12; 10:33–34; John 3:14; 8:28; 12:34). We may also point out something obvious—that if someone else had died in Jesus’ place, Jesus could not have risen from the dead.

The other problem with the Muslim substitution theory is a moral one. Why would God allow an innocent substitute to suffer, especially if Jesus was going to ascend to heaven anyway? And why would God allow Jesus’ family and disciples to go through the anguish of watching the crucifixion of a fake Jesus? (We should note that Islam reveres the mother of Jesus). “If the substitution theory were true, God would be directly responsible for one of the greatest deceptions in history” [Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence For the Resurrection (Ventura:Regal, 2009) 212].

These are a few of the theories that have been put forward to explain the resurrection away as something other than the rising of Jesus from the dead. All of them have serious defects; none of them accounts for all the facts. The only explanation that does that is what the church has believed since its beginning—that Jesus did return from the dead.