Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Resuscitation of the Swoon Theory - Part 1

1.1 Skepticism about the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubt about the resurrection of Jesus is not restricted to atheists and agnostics, nor is it confined to a small circle of liberal theologians. Although the vast majority of Americans consider themselves to be Christians[1], four in ten Americans believe that Jesus was crucified but do not believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.[2] Three in ten born-again Christians in the U.S. hold this skeptical view of the resurrection, as do about three in ten church leaders.[3] About 4 in 10 Christians in Britain doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.[4]

There are two main forms of skepticism about the resurrection of Jesus. The most common skeptical view accepts that Jesus died on the cross, but doubts or denies that he came back to life.[5] A less common skeptical viewpoint is one that doubts or denies that Jesus died on the cross. There are various sub-categories of this second form of skepticism. Some argue that Jesus is just a legendary figure and thus that the crucifixion of Jesus did not actually occur.[6] Others believe that Jesus was an historical person, but claim that he was never crucified (e.g. someone who looked like Jesus was crucified).[7] Finally, some believe that Jesus was in fact crucified, but doubt or deny that he actually died on the cross.[8] This last skeptical viewpoint is the one that I will defend.

1.2 The Swoon Theory or Apparent Death Theory

The view that Jesus was crucified but did not actually die on the cross is commonly referred to as the "Swoon Theory" or the "Apparent Death Theory" (ADT). Here is my understanding of ADT:

Jesus was crucified, but when he was taken down from the cross he was still alive (i.e. Jesus might have been unconscious, comatose, or even clinically dead, but he had not entered into a state of brain death). At some point after being removed from the cross, without any divine intervention or violation of the laws of physics and chemistry, Jesus recovered sufficiently from the crucifixion to be able to walk and to converse with other people. At some point after being taken down from the cross, Jesus met up with one or more of his disciples, and walked and conversed with the disciple(s). Partly as a result of one or more such post-crucifixion meetings with Jesus, some of his disciples came to believe that Jesus had literally risen from the dead and to believe that this happened because God had raised Jesus from the dead.

ADT assumes that Jesus existed, that he was crucified, and it also accepts the Christian belief that Jesus met and talked with some of his disciples at some point after the crucifixion.

According to one Christian apologist, ADT is “a theory of modern construction” that “first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century.”[10] Another apologist says, “It is interesting that until the 1800s, nobody ever thought that Jesus hadn’t died. Everybody believed he had.”[11] This view of ADT as a modern invention is mistaken. For one thing, there are indications of early doubts about the death of Jesus in the Gospels. Some Gospel passages appear to be shaped by the apologetic purpose of combating such doubts,[12] so skepticism along the lines of ADT might well go back to the first century.

As the New Testament scholar Paul Beasley-Murray points out, doubt about the alleged death of Jesus was publicly expressed as early as the second century:

Almost from the beginning there have been those who have maintained that Jesus did not die on the cross—he simply fainted from exhaustion. According to Celsus, a second-century opponent of the Christian faith, Jesus did not die…[13]

Gerald O’Collins, a Catholic scholar who has written extensively on the resurrection, agrees: “From the start of Christianity various arguments were raised against the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and even against that of his death.”[14] The idea that Jesus did not die on the cross is also suggested by a passage in the Koran, which was written about 700 CE.[15] So, ADT is an ancient theory that appeared long before the 18th century.

Modern European support for the theory came from German theologians and scholars: first by Karl Bahrdt who suggested (in the 1780s) that the death of Jesus was faked by a secretive religious society,[16] next by Karl Venturini who theorized (in the first decade of the 1800s) that Jesus barely survived the crucifixion with the help of some medical care after being removed from the cross, but not as the result of a planned deception,[17] and then by Heinrich Paulus (in 1828) who produced a more detailed version of ADT, claiming that Jesus appeared to die on the cross but actually survived without any immediate assistance.[18] Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology, also supported ADT in lectures that he gave in the 1820s.[19]

Today, most Christian apologists, theologians, and New Testament scholars believe that ADT was refuted about 170 years ago by the German scholar David Strauss. William Craig, a Christian philosopher and leading defender of the resurrection, puts the point this way:

Strauss’s critique really put the nails in the coffin for the apparent death theory. Again, I want to emphasize that no contemporary scholar would support such a theory; it has been dead over a hundred years.[20]

Another Christian philosopher and leading defender of the resurrection, Gary Habermas, agrees with Craig on this point.[21] Contrary to what Craig and Habermas say, Strauss's objections against ADT are weak and defective. Contrary to widespread scholarly opinion, ADT remains a viable hypothesis that is worthy of serious consideration.

One prominent philosopher of religion disagrees with the view that ADT has been refuted. Commenting on a debate between the skeptic Antony Flew and Christian philosopher Gary Habermas, Charles Hartshorne stated his position:

As to the New Testament Resurrection story, the swoon theory … says that Jesus may have been only apparently dead at the end of the terrible hours on the Cross and may have revived later in the tomb and lived for a few weeks longer. I neither believe nor disbelieve this hypothesis. I simply wonder if we can ever know.[22]

This comment implies that ADT has not been refuted by Strauss or anyone else. I will show that Hartshorne's evaluation of ADT is correct. Contrary to widespread opinion, ADT has not been refuted, and it remains a viable hypothesis.