Top 5 Resurrection Myths – #5: Christ Never Really Died

This is a series on objections to the resurrection. It is to promote Gary Habermas’ course on the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus that he will be teaching here at the Credo House. We are attempting to get backing for this course right now. Please help us make this 30 session, seminary level course available to everyone. It will be available as DVD, streaming video, CD, steaming audio, and on the Credo Course App (coming after 6 Credo Courses are completed—early next year). We need your help to make this course a reality.

It is difficult to deal with alternate theories regarding the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. The difficulty lies not in that there are not many out there, but that it is hard to choose which ones pose the most legitimate challenges. One thing is certain: if a prima facie rejection of the possibility of a truly dead person coming back to life through the power of God was not present, then there would be no alternatives to the resurrection of Christ, as the evidence for any of these alternatives is not present. One has to reject the possibility of God raising a person from the dead and then begin to seek explanations that would not otherwise be evident.

The first alternative that I wish to talk about is the “Swoon Theory.” “Swoon” means to faint. This theory proposes that Christ never really died at all. Although not very popular (but, to be truthful, none really have a wide acceptance), this theory was promoted by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in their 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (which is primarily known for its use by Dan Brown in his best seller The Da Vinci Code). As well, the theory has been popularized recently among Muslims, who traditionally reject Christ’s death on the cross. It was first proposed by H. E. G. Paulus in The Life of Jesus (1828).

Explanation of the Swoon Theory:

Jesus never really died on the cross. He was either thought dead and taken down, or intentionally taken down before death. He was placed in the tomb for a couple of days, then he regained his strength and presented himself alive to many people, including his Apostles. They were convinced that he had risen from the dead and spread this story, which formed the basis for the Christian message.

Why this must be rejected:

1. The nature of crucifixion.

Christ’s crucifixion was ordered by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The executioners were not a rogue group of lynchers who attempted to kill a man, but experienced soldiers who employed what was probably the most common form of capital punishment of the day. Crucified men generally died from asphyxiation due to collapsed lungs, but the executioners had a fail-safe to guarantee the death of the victim. In order to speed up the suffocation, they would break the legs of the crucified. In doing so, there was no longer any way for the dying man to use his legs to give his lungs room to breathe. Though one could live days on a cross without dying, once the legs were broken, death came very quickly. Additionally, if there was any uncertainty as to whether the man had perished, there was another way to finalize his death. They would spear the victim in the chest (which we see done to Christ). To say that Christ was still alive after all that is to say that the Roman executioners were incompetent in their job (an idea which does not have any extrabiblical historical support, as Romans were widely believed to have perfected the “art” of crucifixion) and that Mary and Josephus, along with all those involved in the burial, were mistaken in their belief that Christ was dead. This is very difficult to believe with intellectual integrity.

2. The glory of the resurrection.

Let us assume that Christ did somehow survive the crucifixion. While very implausible, it is not impossible. Here is what we have to deal with next: Christ, a man whom the Romans just attempted to crucify, was barely alive, wrapped in burial cloths (complete with one hundred pounds of burial spices), and placed in a tomb with a heavy rock rolled in front of it as guards kept watch outside. Somehow, Christ was able to wake up, recover sufficient strength to roll the stone away, and avoid the guards. More than that, he approached Mary, the other gals, and the Apostles over the next few days and claimed to have risen from the dead. More than that, this broken, bruised, stabbed, pierced, and whipped-to-shreds man was able to convince the Apostles that he was their Savior, glorified and complete. It seems more likely that he would have been rushed to the hospital immediately, shrieking in pain the whole way there. Surely, he would have died a few days later of infection and blood loss. The fact that he didn’t may be even more miraculous than the resurrection itself.

Even David Strauss, who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, rejected the Swoon Theory in his A New Life of Jesus (1879):

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to his disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, and impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry . . . . Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship. (1.412)

3. The ascension into heaven.

Finally, let’s say that he was not really dead and somehow his wounds were not fatal. Let us suppose that he did convince the Apostles that they should believe he was the Messiah and the first-fruits of the resurrection. Even if both of these were true, we still have to remember the Apostles’ complete testimony — that not only was Jesus raised from the dead, but that he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9).

4. The lack of evidence.

This is probably the most important point  we can make: there is simply no evidence to support the “Swoon Theory.” There is nothing in Scripture or the contemporary writings of the day to suggest that this is what happened. Therefore, to hold to such a theory, or even to suggest that it is a plausible alternative to the resurrection, would take a greater leap of faith than belief in the resurrection. 

This post was written by Michael Patton, not Gary Habermas. However, if we are able to get enough support, we will record Gary Habermas teaching on this and many other alternative theories to the resurrection, showing their weaknesses in much more detail (and far greater scholarship) than I have done. Please help us kickstart this project here.

8 Responses to “Top 5 Resurrection Myths – #5: Christ Never Really Died”

  1. One thing is certain: if a prima facie rejection of the possibility of a truly swooned person only appearing to die through the power of God was not present, then there would be no alternatives to the swooning of Christ as the evidence for any of these alternatives is not present. One has to reject the possibility of God miraculously enswooning someone and then begin to seek explanations that would not otherwise be evident.

  2. That is if there was some evidence for swooning. And I did grant the possibility but then let it play out. In doing so I showed how wanting it was. Where was the wrong turn I took that males the swoon theory appealing to you stair?

  3. No evidence for swooning? My evidence is: accounts purporting a man was crucified, and accounts purporting he was seen walking around a few dozen hours later.

    It is only your dogmatic presupposition that miracles cannot occur which leads you to cast about for some theory, any theory, which does not involve miraculous swooning.

    Or miraculously appearing twin brothers.

    Or miraculous corruption of the textual transmission.

    Or miraculous group hallucinations.

  4. MarvinTheMartian August 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    @ #3

    Your attempted reductio ad absurdum argument is absurd.

  5. Once you allow for the possibility of supernatural suspension of the natural order, then nothing is evidence of anything. The only reason fingerprints on a gun are evidence of who used the gun is because we understand the natural processes that cause the patterns from the human fingers to appear on other objects and we believe that those processes act consistently. If we thought those patterns appeared by divine fiat, we couldn’t draw any inference from their appearance on a gun handle. We depend on the natural order to draw inferences from evidence.

  6. MarvinTheMartian August 20, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Once you allow for the possibility of supernatural suspension of the natural order, then nothing is evidence of anything.

    Only if you adhere to strict naturalism.

  7. No Marvin, it is a limitation of the available intellectual tools. Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause. If we cannot rely on known processes of cause and effect, we have no basis to draw an inference.

  8. Pop Quiz for Apologists

    Which one of the following claims depends on the dogmatic assumption that miracles can never happen:

    A) humans do not rise from the grave after having been dead for three days

    B) humans do not survive crucifixion for six hours

    C) humans do not have collective hallucinations

    D) A.N. Sherwin-White proved humans do not accumulate legends within the space of a few decades

    E) All of the above

    F) None of the above

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