Years ago, some critics were fond of a quasi-psychological explanation for the Resurrection. They alleged that the appearances of the risen Christ were a mass delusion based on wishful thinking. The disciples saw not Christ, but visions of Christ (1). But if a nonsupernatural vision is so compelling that the subject believes it is real, it is indistinguishable from a hallucination. In ordinary terms, then, the attempt to psychologize the Resurrection reduces to the hypothesis that the disciples, overcome with grief at the Crucifixion, beheld Christ in hallucinations.
This explanation is not in the least scientific, however. A typical hallucination presents images in confusion, without the internal logic of reality. Moreover, no two people ever hallucinate exactly the same impressions. There is no such thing as a mass hallucination (2). Yet it would have required more than one mass hallucination to persuade the disciples that they had not only seen Christ, but joined Him on several occasions for protracted fellowship.
If we search everywhere within the bounds of natural human experience for phenomena akin to the Resurrection appearances, we find nothing, for at no other time have hundreds of people agreed among themselves that they have repeatedly, over a period of weeks, met and conversed with the bodily presence of a man who in fact had recently died. The appearances of the risen Christ are unique. Therefore, it is foolish to suppose that mere visions caused the church to proclaim the Resurrection.
If the appearances of the risen Christ were no more than visions, they would not have abruptly ceased at the end of forty days (3). The psychological dynamics that might conceivably have fostered an excess of imagination during this period persisted long afterward. A new appearance at any time in the years to come would have rallied the movement and brought prestige to those who saw Him.
Some have charged that the Resurrection appearances were a hoax that someone perpetrated on the disciples. Whereas the disciples believed that they saw Christ, they really saw an impersonator. But who was he? What were his motives? How did he succeed in foisting such a deception on intelligent adults? In the effort to answer these questions, advocates of this counterhypothesis have indulged in wild speculation that, by its absurdity, destroys their case. Two considerations altogether rule out the possibility of a hoax.
- The disciples enjoyed extended interaction with the risen Jesus. He appeared to them at least ten times over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3). The circumstances were varied (4). He came to them both at night (John 20:19) and in broad daylight (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:29; John 21:4), both indoors (Mark 16:14; John 20:26) and outdoors (Matt. 28:16-17; Acts 1:9). He met them singly (1 Cor. 15:5, 7-8), in small groups (Luke 24:13-15; John 20:19, 26), and in large groups (1 Cor. 15:6; Acts 1:6-15). He joined with them in such activities as eating and walking (Luke 24:15, 50). In their presence He did the work of preparing a meal (John 21:9-13). They held lengthy conversations with Him (Luke 24:27, 45-49; John 21:15-22). It is not rational to suppose that the familiar friends of the real Jesus went through all these encounters with an impersonator and yet failed to penetrate the disguise.
- When first reports of the Resurrection came to the disciples, they were not eager to believe (5). Rather, they greeted these reports with skepticism.
9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
10 And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.
11 And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.
12 After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
13 And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
14 Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.
10 It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.
11 And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.
24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Others regard the Resurrection appearances as highly embellished truth. The truth, they say, is that some disciples, in their extremity of grief and in their desperation to believe Jesus' prophecy that He would rise again, saw Him in the faces of strangers and in the movements of night shadows. They say, moreover, that through imaginative retellings, such illusory sightings evolved into the Gospel stories of the Resurrection (6).
But again, the disciples were of a mind that was skeptical rather than gullible. So far were they from mistaking illusion for reality that they nearly mistook reality for illusion. Their first reaction when Christ came to them was to dismiss Him as an apparition (Luke 24:37) (7). Besides, embellishing the truth is still lying, and the charge that the Resurrection accounts contain the stuff of lies does not square with the manifest sincerity of the early Christians.
Disappearance of the body. All three counterhypotheses fail at the same point. They fail to explain why Jesus' tomb was open and empty on Sunday morning. Somehow, Jesus' body had disappeared. Christian proclamation of the empty tomb rests not only on the testimony of Jesus' followers, but also on two incontestable facts.
- The authorities could not produce Jesus' body. Central to the preaching of the early church was the joyous assertion that Jesus had risen from the dead. The story of the Resurrection raged like a fire through the streets of Jerusalem and won thousands of converts. To deflate the new religious enthusiasm, the authorities used every expedient in their power. They harassed, arrested, threatened, and flogged the apostles (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41). Then they unleashed a persecution that made Stephen the first martyr of the church (Acts 6:8-8:4). Surely, to silence the preachers who said that Jesus was alive, the authorities would not have hesitated to disinter and display His dead body. Their failure to do so creates a strong presumption that indeed His tomb was empty and His body was missing (8).
- The preaching of the Resurrection was especially rankling to the party of the Sadducees, who held as a chief tenet of their religion that the dead would not rise again.
1 And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them,
2 Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.
The authorities said that Jesus' disciples came to the tomb at night and stole away His body while the guard slept. The story that the authorities put out to explain events on Easter morning is preserved in the Gospel of Matthew.
11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done.
12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,
13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.
14 And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.
15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.
We need not doubt that Matthew's version of the official story is correct. At the time he was writing, everyone in the region of Palestine either knew what the authorities had said, or could easily gain the knowledge of it from enemies of the church. Thus, Matthew could not have falsified the official story without bringing discredit and scorn upon himself.
It appears that the same accusation against the apostles was still current a century later. In about AD 155, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr stated in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew,
You [the Jews] not only have not repented, after you learned that He [Jesus] rose from the dead, but, as I said before, you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven (9).
It is evident that Justin's knowledge of the accusation does not depend solely on the Gospel of Matthew. He reaches beyond Matthew's account when he says that the Jews have appointed men to carry the accusation throughout the world. In a dialogue with a sophisticated Jew, Justin would not have made allegations obviously contrary to fact. Trypho certainly knew whether the Jews had done as Justin said. We surmise that Justin is giving us accurate information. His comments thus provide an independent witness to the story reported by Matthew. Perhaps Justin first heard the story when he was a lad in Palestine, where he was born of pagan parents in about AD 100.
The importance of the official story lies in what it takes for granted. It concedes that shortly after Jesus' death, His body disappeared from the place of burial (10).
Military guard. The official story also concedes that the authorities secured the place of burial by posting a guard. Thus, two facts that undermine every attempt to deny the Resurrection—the fact that the authorities took stringent measures to prevent the theft of Jesus' body, and the fact that His body disappeared anyway—emerge from the very accusation that the authorities threw against the preaching of the Resurrection. It is evident that the authorities would have denied or suppressed these facts if they could have done so. The constraint that squeezed out their avowal of facts damaging to their interests must have been common knowledge. They could not hide what was already well known to everyone in Jerusalem.