‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-The Sign of Four
I ran Plantinga’s argument (see Blog #4) by my nineteen-year-old son, to see how acceptable the acclaimed philosopher’s thoughts would be taken in a real-world context. My son didn’t buy it. Perhaps his innate common-sense realism just didn’t buy into it. Nevertheless, it could indeed be the case that any naturalist who may read this blog won’t buy it either. Firmly holding to his materialistic ground, the resurrection skeptic sets forth several options that explain the resurrection naturally. This post will consider some of the common naturalistic explanations that have been proposed and the common retorts. Gary Habermas rightfully explains that to say “resurrections just don’t happen” is insufficient. Denial is a claim only and not a theory. The skeptic must provide his own explanation. Hopefully, by the end of this post, reader and author alike will confirm Sherlock Holmes’ point above and accept the truth, no matter how improbable it may seem.
The first refutation of the resurrection of Jesus is found in the pages of the Bible itself. Matthew 28:11-15
Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
The obvious thing to note here is that the text plainly tells us this naturalistic explanation is a hoax, a conspiracy, and the real story had just been presented. If we take the Bible for what it says, the objection must immediately be dismissed. But perhaps the Bible is using some sort of psychological trick to disguise the truth and the hoax actually lies with its own explanation. The author is the conspirator after all and the disciples did steal the body.
For the sake of argument then, let’s consider the events and why that theory is implausible. It is implausible for several combined reasons. First, these tombs were built intentionally to keep grave robbers out, not to keep dead people from escaping. A 2016 article form the Biblical Archaeological Society explains that the traditional thought that the tomb was sealed with a disk-shaped stone is very unlikely. Of the 900 contemporary tombs, only four were disk-shaped. Of course, the rare of anything is set apart for the ultra-rich, nobility. The other 896 were square (cork-shaped) and were used by commoners, even wealthy ones like Joseph of Arimathea. The disk-shaped stones were designed to be re-opened, to entomb multiple family members over the course of time. The cork shaped ones, as seen in the picture below, could not be moved about easily, once set in place.
Moving a giant cork-shaped stone would certainly be a very difficult project physically for the disciples. Though perhaps eleven men could do that. However, they would have to perform this feat with a Roman guard on duty. Here “guard” indicates a company, and not a single soldier. Notice the plurality mentioned in the Matthew text above. Having been in the military, I know that falling asleep on watch is a punishable offense. I am sure for a Roman soldier, the penalty could cost him his life. These soldiers would all have to be asleep to such a degree as to remain undisturbed despite such activity all about them. This theory simply replaces one miracle with another. It is highly unlikely that the disciples, who were observed in public soon afterwards, stole the body of such a locally famous person and successfully hid it. Also, it is very unlikely that these disciples would be willing to die for a hoax, and most did die for their testimony of Jesus. Furthermore, the empty tomb is only half the story. The stolen body theory does not answer the eyewitness’ accounts of Jesus’s appearances.
The more common theory in our day is the hallucination theory. Habermas writes:
After a decades-long hiatus, the subjective vision theory [hallucination] is making a comeback and is again the most popular natural response to Jesus’ resurrection. The most influential version is that argued by German theologian Gerd Lüdemann. After a study of the major resurrection texts in the NT, Lüdemann appeals to “stimulus,” “religious intoxication,” and “enthusiasm” as the states of mind leading to the visions seen by Peter, as well as by others who concluded that Jesus was alive. Lüdemann prefers to speak of these experiences as visions rather than hallucinations, but he is clear that nothing literally happened to Jesus himself.
One problem with this theory is that the disciples’ state of mind was far from being euphoric. They were quite the opposite. The disciples were grieving the loss of their leader. The spirit of the objection is the disciples experienced an extreme emotion—great joy or great grief. But the better rejoinder is not to argue the disciples’ emotional state as the stimulus for hallucinating. Rather it is not likely that groups of people experience the same extremities and the same hallucination simultaneously. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage, which is one of the “minimal facts” approved texts, states that Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brethren at one time.” Furthermore, Paul states there “many of whom remain until now.” The implication is that his readers did not have to take Paul’s word for it, they could talk to the eyewitnesses personally, if they wish to corroborate the story. This theory also does not account for the Apostle Paul’s testimony, witnessed by others, of an experience with the risen Christ three years later. And we must remember that he was not a disciple in a euphoric or depressed state, instead he was an enemy to Christians, a thoroughgoing unbeliever. Paul was not the only skeptic to have changed his position on the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. The story of “doubting Thomas” and Jesus’ own skeptical brother, James, provide two examples of non-euphoric eyewitnesses. For these reasons, the hallucination theory also seems implausible.
The last naturalist theory that gained wide acceptance in generations past was the so-called “swoon theory.” This argument proposed that Jesus did not really die and that he recovered. The swoon theory has largely faded into oblivion. Jesus’ crucifixion is among the most reliable historical accounts in ancient history. The depiction of His death unmistakably describes death. First, the Romans were experienced crucifiers. They employed various techniques to hasten the death if needed. They would brake ankles in to prevent the person’s ability to push himself upward to inhale, ensuring suffocation. This technique was considered, but the crucifier recognized that Jesus had already expired, according to the Apostle John. To ensure death, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear. The famous description “blood and water poured out” indicates the pericardium sac, surrounding the heart, had been punctured. An article entitled, The Science of the Crucifixion by Cahleen Shrier, PhD. explains this. The swoon theory also decreases in feasibility when we consider again the cork-shaped stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. If Jesus survived crucifixion and a stab to the heart, how could he possibly remove the stone seal? Again, the naturalist theory replaces one miracle with another.
Given the reliability of the death of Jesus, acknowledged even by skeptics, as recorded in the Bible, no naturalistic theory can account for all of the data. Surely, we can see that all naturalistic theories fall short. When this is combined with the overwhelming historical accounts in the affirmative, the skeptic surely must acknowledge that best explanation is the improbable one; namely, Jesus was raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is true.
This post is meant to be an introduction to the various alternative, naturalistic explanations that are offered for the resurrection of Jesus. I urge the reader to research the topic using the links I provided. You will find ample material to read or watch which present far more exhaustive and reasoned arguments from both sides of the issue.
http://garyhabermas.com/articles/trinityjournal_latetwentieth/trinityjournal_latetwentieth.htm accessed March 10, 2017.