There are many stories in the Bible that elicit skepticism. The one that seems to draw the most attention is most definitely the resurrection of Christ, due in part to its significance within the framework of salvation from sin and reconciliation with God. Yet, what I find very intriguing about skepticism of the resurrection is that it didn’t start in the halls of prestigious universities or the courts of Rome. Doubts of the resurrection originated from the people most devout to Christ: His disciples.
Doubt among the Disciples
Throughout Jesus’ ministry we read of numerous times when disciples had doubts in Jesus’ claims. These doubts only escalated when Christ’s crucifixion began. One might immediately think of Peter’s multiple public denials of Christ, or the fact that only a handful of Christ’s followers were present at the time Christ’s death. But no doubts seemed more profound than those that followed Jesus’ death.
What we read of in scripture is a full and complete acceptance of Christ’s death among His followers. There is no inclination what so ever that any of the disciples thought they’d see their Messiah alive and well again. Why would the women go to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body unless they honestly believed He was dead. Why did many of the disciples that saw Jesus resurrected think He was a ghost unless they honestly thought He was dead. We can rest assured that the disciples were certain Jesus was dead.
Thus, we would naturally expect strong skepticism from the disciples when reports began to trickle in that Christ had risen from the dead. And this is exactly what we read of. The disciples continually did not believe the testimony of those that claimed they saw Jesus (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:11, 41; and John 20:25). To me, this is a very important line of evidence in the authenticity of the Gospel accounts because it shows the same logical thought that any rational skeptic today would have upon hearing of a dead man’s resurrection. And what follows is even more profound: That such skeptics would immediately do a 180 and begin boldly preaching of their risen Messiah.
Naturally, skepticism remains today, and a variety of theories have been developed to explain away the disciples’ behavior at this important juncture. There is a theory that Christ rose again spiritually not physically, another that Jesus actually survived the crucifixion and escaped alive without ever dying, and there is a theory that the disciples stole the body. It is not worth discussing such theories in this article because the conclusive doubts of the disciples already disproves them and they are, for lack of better term, ridiculous, as the Gospel accounts in no way support such theories and they would require feats so miraculous it would defeat the whole motive behind these theories, which are to explain away the miraculous. But there are two theories worth exploring that are commonly used to explain the disciples change in behavior after the death of Christ: The Hallucination Theory and the good old fashioned Liar Theory.
The hallucination theory maintains that the disciples were so distraught at the death of their leader that they hallucinated his return as a coping mechanism. Thus, the disciples went on preaching what they thought to be true, though it really wasn’t. To anyone who doesn’t know the particulars of the gospel narratives that may seem like a plausible scenario, but when the content of story is analyzed its feasibility is remote.
The first thing to consider is the cause(s) of hallucinations. According to the National Institute of Health hallucinations are caused by the following: Drug or alcohol intoxication, dementia, epilepsy, fever, narcolepsy, psychiatric disorders, sensory impairment, and sever illness (1). Next we need to account for the supposed appearances of Christ after His death. Reappearances of Christ occurred to multiple people at multiple locations, at one point occurring to 500 people. And therein lies the problem with this theory: The causes of hallucination would need to apply to all the witnesses (over 500) at various different times and locations. It is incredibly unlikely for so many people at different times and locations to suffer from these symptoms. It is even more incredible that all these people would, at different times and locations, hallucinate in their own minds, the very same thing. Such a claim seems so preposterous it would necessitate a miracle, which is exactly what the theory looks to dismiss.
Now one might try to escalate the plausibility of this scenario by downplaying the amount of people that hallucinated of the resurrected Jesus. After all, we were told that 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus, but that could very well be an exaggeration. The visions may very well be limited to the disciples alone, and thus, the plausibility of the hallucination theory remains.
This rebuttal, however, overlooks Paul’s declarations regarding these hundreds of witnesses, of which Paul declared that half of the people that had witnessed these events were still alive and could testify of them (1 Corinthians 15:6). Apologist Timothy Keller writes, “Paul indicates [in this text] that the risen Jesus not only appeared to individuals and small groups but he also appeared to five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing and could be consulted for corroboration. Paul’s letter was to a church, and therefore it was a public document, written to be read aloud. Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up, since during the pax Romana travel around the Mediterranean was safe and easy. Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist,” (Keller, pp. 204).
So considering Paul’s very public declaration of Christ’s resurrection it is unlikely that he would embellish on the number of witnesses, leaving the original problem of such a wide variety of people suffering the same hallucinations. With that, it would be rational to conclude the hallucination theory holds no weight. The late apologist and associate professor of evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield Illinois, Paul E. Little, writes, “To hold the hallucination theory in explaining the appearances of Christ, one must completely ignore the evidence,” (Little, 56).
A Foundation of Lies
With the hallucination theory out of the way the only other scenario skeptics can resort to is the very basic and commonly held notion that the disciples flat out lied about Christ’s resurrection. The theory goes that the return of their Messiah is a concocted tale with motive ranging from saving face to emotional shock. Yet this theory does not hold under pressure either.
A major criticism comes from Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “It will not do… to say that Jesus’ disciples were so stunned and shocked by his death, so unable to come to terms with it, that they projected their shattered hopes onto the screen of fantasy and invented the idea of Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ as a way of coping with a cruelly broken dream. That has an initial apparent psychological plausibility, but it won’t work as serious first century history. We know lots of other messianic and similar movements in the Jewish world roughly contemporary with Jesus. In many cases the leader died a violent death at the hands of the authorities. In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead. They know better. ‘Resurrection’ was not a private event. It involved human bodies. There would have to be an empty tomb somewhere. A Jewish revolutionary whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest himself, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. We have evidence of people doing both. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was,” (Wright, pp. 63).
Additional criticism stems from issues in motivation. What motivation did the disciples have for concocting this lie? They surely would not financially or physically prosper from it as they had already left their lives behind to follow Jesus. Lastly, and most obviously, would the disciples have willingly sacrificed themselves for something they knew to be untrue? A majority of the disciples were killed for their beliefs. It is one thing to die for something you believe to be true, it is quite another to die for something you know to be a lie. The fact that many disciples died painful deaths after a duration of being tortured, without recanting, testifies to the fact that they believed in what they preached, that their leaders was alive. If they had made the whole thing up, they surely would not have willingly died in such ways, or at the very least would have recanted during torture. With that said, the liar theory is not adequate either.
One very interesting source of authentication of this story comes from world famous philosopher, and skeptic, David Hume. Though Hume questioned the claims of scripture in general, he found value in the disciples’ actions after Christ’s death. He writes,
“The direct testimony for this event appears to me to be very feeble… But the indirect evidence is much stronger. We have testimony to the effect that the disciples were exceedingly depressed at the time of the Crucifixion; that they had extremely little faith in the future; and that, after a certain time, this depression disappeared, and they believed that they had evidence that their Master had risen from the dead. Now none of these alleged facts is in the least odd or improbable, and we have therefore little ground for not accepting them on the testimony offered us. But having done this, we are faced with the problem of accounting for the facts which we have accepted. What caused the disciples to believe, contrary to their previous conviction, and in spite of their feeling of depression, that Christ had risen from the dead? Clearly, one explanation is that he actually had arisen. And this explanation accounts for the facts so well that we may at least say that the indirect evidence for the miracle is far and way stronger than the direct evidence,” (Broad , 142-143). To Hume, it is the very change in behavior among the disciples from depressed doubters to highly motivated evangelists is what provides the strongest evidence for Christ’s resurrection.
Little further expands on this, “What was it that changed a band of frightened, cowardly disciples into men of courage and conviction? What was it that changed Peter who, the night before the crucifixion, was so afraid for his own skin that three times he denied publicly that he even knew Jesus. Some fifty days later he became a roaring lion, risking his life by saying he had seen Jesus risen from the dead. It must be remembered that Peter preached his electric Pentecost sermon in Jerusalem, where all the events took place and his life was in danger. He was not in Galilee, miles away where no one could verify the facts and where his ringing statements might go unchallenged. Only the bodily resurrection of Christ could have produced this change,” (Little, 56).
In conclusion, the actions of the disciples after Christ’s death provides compelling evidence to support the claims they made. And with all other conspiracy theories debunked, we’re left with only one explanation that is reasonable, which is that Christ did rise from the dead. Though this will obviously be difficult for skeptics who do not believe in the supernatural to accept. Dr. Jared M. Compton, Assistant Professor of the New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary explains, “If the facts are patiently considered and one’s worldview is not illegitimately predisposed against the miraculous, then Scripture’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead is at least a possible conclusion. In other words, the Resurrection could be historically reliable. We might even say, for the moment, that since no better alternative explanation of the facts has arisen, Scripture’s explanation is presently the most satisfactory or plausible. The trouble is, Scripture, not least its divine Author, is not content with the Resurrection being deemed ‘possible’ or ‘most satisfactory.’ In fact, Scripture is not even content with ‘definite’ and ‘best,’ because its purpose points beyond belief in historical events. Scripture’s goal is not simply assent to history but, rather, conversion. As such, Scripture not only demands the events it records to be recognized as historical, it wants the explanations it gives those events to be believed (e.g., “Jesus was raised for our justification,” Rom 4:25),” (Compton).
British Bishop, scholar and theologian Brooke Foss Westcott once declared, “Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it,” (Westcott, pp. 4).
Alas, doubt of Christ’s resurrection may have originated with the disciples, but it is this same doubt, and the actions that followed afterwards, that go great lengths in authenticating the story.
(1) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003258.htm, accessed 6-22-2013.
-Broad, C.D., (1965) “Hume’s Theory of the Credibility of Miracles,” as written in Alexander Sesonske and Noel Fleming’s Human Understanding, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth).
-Compton, J.M., (March 2010) “Is the Resurrection Historically Reliable?” http://www.biblearchaeology.org
-Keller, T., (2008) The Reason for God; Christian Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (New York, NY: Dutton).
-Little, P.E. (2000) Know Why You Believe, 4th Edition, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
-Westcott, B.F. (1879) The Gospel of the Resurrection, (London).
-Wright, N.T., (1993 ) Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)