The Doctrine of Christ (part 14)

June 23, 2008     Time: 00:38:38


Craig continues on the Doctrine of Christ (Christology). Conspiracy theory. Apparent death theory. Subjective vision theory.

[Dr. Craig goes over some tidbits of news, announces the launch of, and opens with prayer.][1]

You will recall that one of the earliest theories that was launched against the resurrection of Jesus by the English deists was the so-called Conspiracy theory. The Conspiracy theory held that the resurrection of Jesus was the result of a hoax by the earliest disciples. They had enjoyed the easy life of preaching that they had with Jesus, and so out of a desire to see that propagated after his death they made up the resurrection appearances, lied about it, stole the body out of the grave, and thus the belief in the resurrection was born.

It hardly needs to be said that this has been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. There is no contemporary scholar – whether historian or biblical critic – who would defend the Conspiracy theory today. It has been dead since at least the beginning of the 1800s. What is wrong with this theory? Let me mention just a couple of points.

First of all, it is psychologically implausible. The theory does not really take seriously what a catastrophe the crucifixion was for these earliest disciples. They had believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. Messiah, when he came, was to throw off the yolk of the enemies of Israel (and that meant Rome in this case), to establish the throne of David in Jerusalem, restore the Kingdom of God, and reign forever.[2] He was not going to be humiliatingly executed as a criminal by the enemies of Israel. So the crucifixion of Jesus didn't just mean that their beloved master was gone. Rather, it put a question mark behind any messianic hopes that they had entertained. Thus, the disciples were absolutely shattered by the crucifixion of Jesus. The idea that they would conspire together to produce this hoax of technicolor proportions is just utterly implausible psychologically. It is more like a Hollywood movie than serious history.

The second problem with this theory is that it is anachronistic. That is to say, it reads the disciples' situation through the rear view mirror of 2,000 years of Christian history. We now believe in the resurrection because we stand on the other side of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. But to put yourself in the place of the disciples, you have to go back before those events to the crucifixion itself. When you do that, you understand that there was absolutely no idea in Judaism of a Messiah who would be crucified much less raised from the dead. So the idea of stealing the body and hoaxing the resurrection would even enter their minds. The resurrection in Judaism was an event that never occurred within history, and it never occurred to an isolated individual. The resurrection was going to occur after the end of the world when God would put an end to human history and all the dead would be raised and the Kingdom of God would be ushered in. So the theory is completely anachronistic in reading a hope of resurrection back into this first century mentality of these Jewish disciples.

That is why no one really would defend the Conspiracy theory today.

What about the Apparent Death theory? According to this theory, you'll recall, the body of Jesus was taken down alive from the cross, placed in the tomb where he revived, and somehow escaped to convince the disciples he was risen from the dead. So the resurrection of Jesus was basically a misunderstanding. It was a mistake.

Again, this theory has been completely given up. It has been dead since 1835 when D. F. Strauss refuted the theory. Basically, again, there are two simple problems with this.

One, what it imagines is medically impossible. It would be medically impossible for Jesus of Nazareth to survive the torture of his scourging and crucifixion, much less even if he had been taken down from the cross, not to have almost immediately died from exposure when placed in the tomb. Josephus tells the story of three persons that he knew who were crucified. Josephus had influence with the powers that be and had them removed from the cross and given immediate medical attention to try to save their lives. Still, two out of the three died even with the best medical attention that could be give at that time. So the idea that Jesus placed in the tomb wrapped in linen cloth would not have died if he hadn't been dead already is really medically impossible.

Secondly, the theory is explanatorily inadequate anyway. This was the point that Strauss made against the theory. A half-dead Jesus who had crept out of the tomb, desperately in need of medical attention and bandaging, would hardly have elicited in the disciples the belief in him as the risen Lord and the conqueror of death rather than someone who had just managed to escape the executioner. So the theory is just explanatorily inadequate to explain the origin of the disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection.

That is why this theory as well is not found among scholars today even though you hear things like the Conspiracy theory and the Apparent Death theory bandied about in the popular press.

What about Strauss' own Mythology theory? This theory was still popular until very recently – probably until around the 1950s – in which there was a major category shift in New Testament historiography. I think what scholars basically discovered is that mythology is the wrong category for understanding Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are not mythological documents. Rather, the Gospels are Jewish documents and need to be understood against the background of first century Judaism, not Greco-Roman mythology. Let me mention just two respects in which the mythological category for understanding the resurrection is wrong.[3]

The first category mistake is that when you examine the supposed mythological parallels to the resurrection – supposed dying and rising Gods like Osiris and Adonis and Tammuz and so forth – what you discover is the parallels is spurious. These are not really parallel to the resurrection of Jesus at all. These myths of dying and rising Gods are not thought to be historical. Nobody actually came back from the dead. Rather, these are merely symbolic stories of the crop cycle – as the vegetation dies during the dry season in the Middle East and then comes back during the rainy season. These dying and rising Gods are symbols of the crop cycle, of dying and rising vegetation. There is absolutely no thought in the mind of these ancient pagans that anybody historical actually died and came back from the dead again. For paganism, death was a one-way street from which no one ever returned. So the parallels are really quite spurious.

But secondly, in any case, there is no causal connection between these myths and the disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection. The Jewish people were aware of these pagan myths and they found them abhorrent. That is why there is virtually no trace of the worship of dying and rising Gods in first century Judaism. Not until the time of the emperor Hadrian in the second century after Christ that you begin to see some of these cults appear in Palestine. But during the time of Christ these were simply shunned because they were thought to be abhorrent. In fact, the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead – that you die once and at the end of the world God will bring you back to life again – acted as a kind of preventative device against people believing in these pagan cults. So there simply is no causal connection between these myths and the first disciples of Jesus who came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead.

In that sense, the whole category of trying to explain the Gospels by mythology is the wrong category. What scholars have discovered about the Gospels is that when you compare them with other forms of ancient literature, the genre of literature that they most closely resemble is the genre of ancient biography – the so-called “Lives” of great men like Plutarch's Lives of the Caesars and other Greek and Roman figures. Ancient biographies were not like modern biographies in that they didn't try to tell a chronological detailed story of the life of the hero from the cradle to the grave. Rather, ancient biography was thematic. It would attempt to illustrate the character qualities of the hero by telling various anecdotes that would illustrate his great character and virtue. These didn't have to be always chronologically arranged. When you compare the Gospels to ancient literature, it is closest in its literary type of genre to these ancient “Lives.” So what we in fact have in the Gospels are four “Lives” of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, which is really astonishing when you think what an obscure person Jesus of Nazareth was relatively speaking. We have more historical information about Jesus of Nazareth than we do for many of the major figures of antiquity – the Caesars and other major political figures. Four different “Lives” of Jesus of Nazareth as well as all of the information we find in the letters of the apostle Paul. The type of literature that the Gospels exemplify is not mythology; it is ancient biography. One of the main purposes of ancient biography was to be historically accurate. They tried to tell a historically accurate story of the life of its hero.[4]

Moreover, a second important consideration here is the dating of the Gospels. A. N. Sherwin-White, who is a classical historian (a Greco-Roman historian or a historian of the era roughly contemporaneous with the New Testament), points out that the sources for Greco-Roman history that he has to work with are usually biased and they are usually removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events that they record. He says nevertheless modern historians treat these sources as important biographical sources. For example, the earliest “Lives” that we have of Alexander the Great come from about 400 years after Alexander's death. Yet, classical historians still treat these as largely reliable sources for the career of Alexander the Great. Sherwin-White says we can chart the rate at which legend and myth accrues. He says that the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard historic core of oral tradition. When you turn to the Gospels, there simply isn't sufficient time for the Gospels to be legendary. Jesus died about AD 30. The book of Acts was probably written sometime in the early AD 60s, prior to the death of Paul. That means that the Gospel of Luke was written even earlier than Acts since it precedes Acts, probably in the late AD 50s. When you think that Luke used Mark and may have used Matthew, that means that Matthew and Mark were written sometime in the AD 40s to 50s. So you are back within 10 to 15 years of the events! Yet, according to Sherwin-White, even two generations is too short a time span to allow mythological tendencies to wipe out the hard historical core of oral tradition.

I think the Mythology explanation of the resurrection just doesn't hold water. It is using the wrong category to understand the Gospels. The Gospels are not mythological; rather, they are ancient biographies. They try to tell a historical story. Given the date of the writing of these events so shortly after the events themselves while eyewitnesses were still alive, there is every good reason to think that these authors were capable of giving an accurate life of the hero that they portrayed, in this case Jesus of Nazareth.

What about the Subjective Vision theory? The Subjective Vision theory holds that the disciples saw hallucinations of Jesus after his death, and they mistakenly inferred on the basis of these hallucinations that Jesus of Nazareth was alive from the dead and therefore was risen from the dead. Let me just mention a couple of problems with this theory.

Number one – it is psychologically implausible. Hallucinations are usually associated with either drug abuse or mental illness. In the case of the disciples, you don't have either one by way of preparation.

Moreover, the variety and the frequency of the resurrection appearances are beyond anything in the psychological case books on record. Jesus didn't appear just one time, but many times. Not just to one person, but to many persons. Not just to individuals, but to groups of people. Not just at one location and under one set of circumstances, but at a variety of locales under a variety of circumstances. Not just to believers, but also to skeptics, unbelievers, and even enemies. It completely bursts the bounds of anything found in the psychological case books. In order to construct psychological analogies to the resurrection appearances, you have to cobble together different hallucinatory experiences and try to put them all together into one scenario.[5] But there is simply nothing comparable to the resurrection appearance stories in the psychological case books concerning visionary experiences.

Secondly, it is explanatorily inadequate. Here we recur to the point I made earlier; namely, why would the disciples come to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead if they saw hallucinations of him after his death? Given Jewish beliefs about the resurrection, a resurrection within history to an isolated individual didn't occur. The resurrection wouldn't occur until the end of the world. So if the disciples were to hallucinate visions of Jesus after his death, they would project visions of Jesus glorified in Abraham's bosom in paradise where the righteous dead went to await the resurrection at the end of the world. But in that case they would not have proclaimed Jesus' resurrection from the dead. At most they would have proclaimed his ascension into heaven or his assumption into heaven like Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament. They would have seen Jesus in glory in heaven and said that is where God has exalted him. But they wouldn't have proclaimed his resurrection from the dead which ran contrary to Jewish beliefs. So even given hallucinations, it doesn't explain adequately the origin of the disciples' belief that Jesus was literally risen from the dead.

Finally, the third point is that hallucinations have too narrow an explanatory scope – they cannot explain all of the evidence. What I am speaking of here, of course, is the empty tomb. The Hallucination hypothesis is offered as a way of explaining the resurrection appearances, but it says absolutely nothing about the empty tomb. In order to explain the empty tomb you have to conjoin an independent hypothesis to the Hallucination hypothesis. But as such you have a more complicated theory. The Resurrection hypothesis is the simpler theory with broader explanatory scope, and therefore is to be the preferred explanation.

For all of these reasons, I think the Subjective Vision theory fails as well.

What we will do next time is look at the Objective Vision theory and the so-called Interpretation theory. Then finally I want to discuss with you the original interpretation of the resurrection appearances and empty tomb, namely, the Literal theory – that it really happened – and look at what are the principal objections to that that we will face today, and then how we might respond to those.[6]

[1] 18:20

[2] 20:00

[3] 25:07

[4] 30:00

[5] 35:08

[6] Total Running Time: 38:38 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)