Proposed Explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus

When Jesus lived, his enthusiastic followers anticipated great things of him, but then he was captured and killed. His followers were dejected and demoralized; the great things they anticipated did not happen and now their failed leader was dead, and the movement he led was dead as well.

Empty Tomb

credit: morguefile

The Greatest Evidence for the Resurrection

The movement was dead because they had no reason to go forward. People will fight and die for money, power, an idea, or a strong leader—but not a dead leader who has failed in his mission. They had no prospect of money or power and there was no great idea for them to champion. All they had was Jesus himself and he was dead.

But something happened. Jesus came back to life and energized them to spread his message of life to others. Within forty years, the message of Jesus had spread far and wide and even the Roman Emperor Nero took notice of Jesus’ followers.

The Difficulty of Accepting the Resurrection

Many people question the resurrection however, and this is understandable—resurrection is unnatural; it is inconsistent with our observations of what is possible. This is why it’s important to not accept the account of the resurrection uncritically. On the other hand, if it did occur, then it certainly gets our attention and causes us to consider who Jesus is and what he says.

In response, some believers point to the empty tomb—but this is not useful. With a little help, I can produce an empty tomb. We need evidence, and I think the evidence is that the defeated followers of Jesus were energized by the resurrection to spread his message even in the face of death.

Skeptics suggest alternative scenarios to an actual resurrection. An objector shared this with me in a recent online discussion:

There are just too many natural explanations for such a reaction from the followers of Jesus than that he actually came back to life after being dead for 3 days: 1) they all lied in order to further their Christ beliefs, 2) the cognitive dissonance they were struggling with in their extreme grief caused them to imagine that they had seen Jesus alive again, or 3) they were mistaken in thinking that Jesus had actually died.

Which is the Most Persuasive Scenario?

These are reasonable suggestions, but let’s look at them.   

1. The followers of Jesus lied about the resurrection. This is the conspiracy theory: Jesus was killed and his followers invented the resurrection story in order for the movement to maintain traction. But the resulting body of believers that formed in Jerusalem was persecuted by the local authorities. One of the ‘conspirators’ was killed and another was about to be killed when he escaped prison. People are not often willing to die for a known lie.

2. The followers only thought they saw a resurrected Jesus. This is the hallucination theory: Jesus’ followers did not really see Jesus. The energy with which the followers of Jesus responded to the resurrection and the boldness they displayed indicate that they were quite certain they had seen Jesus. The way he looked, the way he talked, the way he related to them was convincing. It is unlikely that they experienced some sort of group hysteria.

3. Jesus really didn’t die—they just thought he did. This is the swoon theory: Jesus did not die; he just passed out and then revived in the tomb. But remember, Jesus was beaten and crucified. He was in no shape to revive and appear to them as anything more than a mangled mess. This is unlikely to inspire the energized results we see.

Incredible as it seems, I find the actual unique resurrection of Jesus to be the most plausible based on the reaction of his followers.

If Jesus’ resurrection did occur, we need to pay attention!

Your observations and comments are welcome below.
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10 Responses to Proposed Explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus

  1. I suppose there’s another possible view. I have no idea how plausible this is; you’d need to talk to textual scholars.

    What if Christ’s followers didn’t believe he rose from the dead? What if this belief got added on in the intervening years between the death of Christ (33 AD) and the writing of the first Gospel (probably 70 AD). Mark was written by a Greek, right? So the story had already done a few rounds of Chinese whispers (that’s the game Americans call ‘telephone’) and been translated by the time it reached him.

    We also don’t have a fragment of the Gospel of Mark before the third century, I understand. Many scholars think the ending of Mark, which contains events following the resurrection account, was a later addition.

    Also, maybe earlier ideas about the resurrection were spiritual, rather than physical.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Interesting proposal Jonny!

      You are correct that Mark was written in Greek, as were all the NT books. I think it was likely written earlier that 70 AD, but that would still mean 25-30 years after the death of Jesus.

      However, many of Paul’s letters were written even earlier than this. His entire missionary career occurred and ended (with his death) before 70 AD. Paul said little about the life of Jesus, but his strongest assertion was the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, information which he stated he received from the original followers of Jesus.

      I think your second suggestion, a spiritual resurrection, has more weight. Even Paul makes a distinction between the natural body and a spiritual resurrected body, but that is still a resurrection–not some ghostly apparition.

      I do not know the particulars of the resurrection of Jesus, but it was unique and significant, and it foreshadows what type of resurrection we can anticipate.

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  2. Pingback: Jesus as a Failed Leader | Jesus Without Baggage

  3. republibot3 says:

    I believe in the physical resurrection, but I have to point out that there is another option. Actually two, one less credible than the other.

    The first, and most widespread, is the idea that Jesus DID die, but that His resurrection was merely spiritual. he continued to interact with people for a time, and appeared to have a body when He desired to, could obscure His appearance, walk through walls, etc. there is some evidence that some early Christian groups believed this, though we don’t know how early. It was certainly very popular with a lot of Gnostic groups. I don’t buy it, but it is at leas a belief that we know for a fact some people had in antiquity.

    The second and less likely option is one proposed by noted conspiracy theorist, Dr. robert Eisenman, who suggests there was a supernatural being known as “The Son of Man” who inhabited Jesus, and after Jesus died, this entity survived (a kind of resurrection, though pushing the borders of the definition admittedly) and was passed on to James, then when James died it was passed on to Cephas, and after that to whomever. Again: not buying it, but it’s an option, but no real solid proof that anyone believed this.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Repub, the first theory you present is not totally out of bounds, though I would not characterize it as ‘spiritual’. For Jesus to be resurrected would not require that he return to his body as it once was, but the significance is that he returned at all–and with his identity intact.

      In my opinion, it is not natural for a dead person to be anything but dead. For Jesus to come back, with whatever kind of form, is unnatural. The resurrection simply indicates that Jesus was no longer dead, and his resurrection demonstrates his power to effect our own resurrections to eternal life at some point after death.

      If you are interested, you might wish to read https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/conditional-immortality-and-natural-death/

      The second theory you mention seems contrived. I have not previously heard of this idea, but I really can’t imagine what the author would use for support.

      Thanks for your comments this post–it is one of my earlier ones!

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      • republibot3 says:

        Well, I did say I didn’t buy either of them. Of the two, the first was far more widespread, and was particularly popular among some gnostic groups. I was just pointing out other options.

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I’m sorry Repub that my response was not more clear. I did realize you were not accepting of either option. My thoughts were sparked by your comment; I thought it was quite interesting and I appreciate your posting it. I didn’t mean to come across as disagreeing with you because actually I do agree. My apologies.

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  4. I’ll just go with the precepts of the Jesus Seminar–in effect a modification of your second thought. From a Progressive perspective the baggage gets even lighter and we can move on to the really important intellectual work of examining the metaphorical and historical nuances of The Rabbi’s words and life.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks Bill; I appreciate your perspective. However, I don’t think belief in the resurrection is baggage. It is an integral part of both the Rabbi’s words and life. I enjoy much of the contribution of the Jesus Seminar, but I find that some of their conclusions are unnecessarily skeptical without sufficient critical basis.

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