The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The "Swoon," "Hallucination," and “Contradictory Gospel Accounts” Theories of the Resurrection

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Perhaps the most absurd of all theories created to explain away the empty tomb is the "swoon" theory. Those who hold this view believe Jesus didn’t die on the cross. Rather, he almost died. Mistaking him for dead, the soldiers placed the bloody and fainted body of Jesus in the tomb. After three days, he came back to strength and convinced His disciples that he was truly alive.

The first challenge to this theory is the vivid account of the details surrounding the death of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Scripture indicates that before He was crucified, Jesus nearly died from scourging. Dr. Truman Davis describes the effects of the Roman flagrum used in whipping:

The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across [a person's] shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the beating is finally stopped. [1]

He was so weak and bloody from the beating that couldn’t even carry the cross bar (Luke 23:26). After Jesus had hung on the cross for several hours and gave up his spirit, the guards pierced his side with a spear and a mixture of blood and water poured out (John 19:34). Medical experts have concluded that this is a sign of heart failure. Lastly, the Romans often broke the legs of those who hung on the cross to hasten their death. But Jesus was already dead and his legs didn’t need broken. There are simply too many historical details that indicate Christ was truly dead before he was buried.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that Jesus did not die. How feasible would it be that He could proceed from the tomb as victorious over death? Imagine the scenario. Three days after his near death experience, a man bound in mummy-like burial cloth, laden with pounds and pounds of spices and laid in a cold tomb suddenly jumped up and rolled back a gigantic stone. Hobbling on scarred feet he walked past the guard and into the city to convince his disciples that he had conquered death. This is hardly a scene of victory. The most obvious flaw with this theory is that Jesus would eventually die a natural death in the future, which would simply cancel out his earlier claim of victory over the grave!

Refuting the “Hallucination” Theory

Another theory claims that all of Christ's followers simply experienced a hallucination and imagined that they saw the resurrected Christ. Of course, Jesus was seen by hundreds of people. From the women who found the empty tomb and the disciples to the men on the road to Emmaus and the 500 witnesses (1 Cor. 15:6). It is impossible that so many people at different times could all hallucinate a risen Lord. Thomas J. Thorburn states,

It is absolutely inconceivable that as many as (say) five hundred persons, of average soundness of mind and temperament, in various numbers, at all sorts of times, and in diverse situations, should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions—visual, auditory, tactual—and that all these manifold experiences should rest entirely upon subjective hallucination. We say that this is incredible, because if such a theory were applied to any other than a “supernatural” event in history, it would be dismissed forthwith as a ridiculously insufficient explanation.  [2]

Refuting the “Contradictory Gospel Accounts” Theory

Sometimes skeptics will avoid the difficulty of explaining away the empty tomb and simply attempt to discredit the Scriptures altogether. One popular approach is to say that Gospel accounts are contradictory and are therefore false testimony. It is true that there are four somewhat differing accounts of the Resurrection of Christ given in the Gospels. But believe it or not these slightly different accounts actually confirm the reliability of the Gospels! Imagine that you witnessed a car accident. The police interviewed you and three other witnesses who were all at slightly different vantage points when the accident occurred. Would your accounts be identical? No. The main points would be the same but the details may be recorded with slight variation. In fact, if the accounts were absolutely identical then one could assume that there was a conspiracy. Sayers states,

One is often surprised to find how many apparent contradictions [in the Gospel Resurrection accounts] turn out not to be contradictory at all, but merely supplementary… Divergences appear very great on first sight… But the fact remains that all of [the Resurrection accounts], without exception, can be made to fall into a place in a single orderly and coherent narrative, without the smallest contradiction or difficulty and without any suppression, invention, or manipulation, beyond a trifling effort to imagine the natural behavior of a bunch of startled people running about in the dawn-light between Jerusalem and the garden. [3]  Her comments are in her introduction to the radio plays on the life of Christ she prepared for BBC Radio. Also see, George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 79f.)) John Wenham, Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992). ))

In conclusion, we must remember that Jesus and His disciples gave the world the highest ethical standards. Would they build their entire lives on a lie and be willing to die for it? No. That's why the Gospel has changed countless individual lives and the course of history for the last 2,000 years. In the final part of this series we will consider how the Resurrection of
Jesus Christ changed the world.

  1. Davis, C. Truman, “The Crucifixion of Jesus,” Arizona Medicine (March 1965).[]
  2. Thomas James Thorburn, The Resurrection Narratives and Modern Criticism (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1910.[]
  3. Dorothy Sayers, The Man Born to be King (Harper and Brothers, 1943), 19f.[]

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