Swoon Theory: Did Jesus pretend to die and resurrect?
Clarifying the question
Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. After the Romans ostensibly confirmed his death, Jesus's body was taken down and reportedly placed in a rock-hewn tomb. A couple days later, various disciples of Jesus were saying Jesus appeared to them alive from the dead. How do we explain their experience? One proposed explanation is that Jesus in fact did not die on the cross, but survived. He awoke in the cool of the tomb and made his escape, presenting himself. In addition to being called the “apparent death theory,” this explanatino has been called the “Swoon theory” or “Swoon hypothesis.” Is this hypothesis true?
Historians say “NO”
- Murray Harris (NT professor at TIU, Cambridge): “This view, sometimes called the 'swoon theory' or the 'apparent death theory,' enjoyed considerable popularity among eighteenth and nineteenth-century German rationalists… but the theory is now totally discredited.” [From Grave to Glory (Zondervan, 1990), 114.]
- Thomas James Thorburn: “…this now practically obsolete theory…” [The Resurrection Narratives and Modern Criticism (Kegan Paul, 1910), 183.]
Jesus would look half-dead
A severely injured Jesus would not have seemed to witnesses like he had been “resurrected.” This explodes the swoon theory because, as noted by on skeptical historian:
- David Strauss: “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 least yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the 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, 2
- A New Life of Jesus vol. 1 (Williams and Norgate, 1879), 412.
• Bernard Weiss comically remarks on the swoon theory and Strauss's famous critique: “At present day, it is not worth while to dissolve this phantasy, destitute of all historical meaning, in the destruction of which Strauss earned his laurels as a critic.”
Many since Strauss have echoed the argument:
• Christopher Bryan (NT professor at Sewanee): “I have scarcely more time for suggestions that the New Testament witness was the result of Jesus' revival in the tomb. Anyone who imagines that the survivor of a crucifixion would be in a state to convince anyone that he was the victorious conqueror of death clearly has very little idea what a crucifixion was like. To put the matter mildly, people did not walk away from it.” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 163.] • Karl Theodor Keim: “Then there is the most impossible thing of all; the poor, weak, sick Jesus, with difficulty holding himself erect, in hiding, disguised, and finally dying--this Jesus an object of faith, of exalted emotion, of the triumph of his adherents, a risen conqueror, the Son of God! Here, in fact, the theory begins to grow paltry, absurd, worthy only of rejection.” [Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 6, 327-328.] • J. N. D. Anderson (Inst. of Advanced Legal Studies director, dean at London U.) “instead of proving the inevitable end to His flickering life, that he would have been able to loose Himself from yards of grave-clothes weighted with pounds of spices, roll away a stone that three women felt incapable of tackling, and walk miles on wounded feet?” [“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Christianity Today (March 29, 1968), 7.] (Cited by McDowell) • Gary Habermas (NT scholar at Liberty): “A crucified but still-living Jesus would have been in horrible physical shape: bloodied, bruised, pale, limping, unwashed, and in obvious need of medical assistance. Such a condition would have hopelessly contradicted the disciples’ belief that Jesus had appeared to them in a resurrected body. True, Jesus would have been alive, but not raised! Additionally, the frequently repeated New Testament teaching that believers would someday be gloriously raised just like Jesus would be groundless. Such a sickly body would hardly be an inspiration for theology.” [The Risen Jesus (Rowman & Littlefied, 2003), 16.]
Jesus wouldn't try
Even if Jesus did manage to survive Roman crucifixion and somehow escape the tomb, and somehow find and reach some of his disciples, it is highly unlikely that Jesus would even try to pass himself off has having been eschatologically raised from death by God.
Consider four kinds of evidence for this:
- Jesus would be wittingly waging war on God, friends, and family.1
- Jesus at most would say he was resuscitated, not resurrected.2
- Jesus, if he survived etc., would be far more careful in reappearing.4
This is relevant because the soon theory is dead in its tracks if it is unable to additionally support the thesis that Jesus would plausibly try to convince the apostles that God resurrected him.
- Given his medical state, it is highly implausible that Jesus would recognize his survival as anything other than luck. This is relevant because, if Jesus swooned, then he had chosen to systematically deceive almost everyone he loved (friends, and family) into believing he was God's son, leading them to endure a life of sufferings and untimely deaths in his name. Pretending it was anything more would be wittingly waging war on God's truth and wittingly bringing others against God's truth with him, as a deliberately false messiah or false prophet. This would require a special kind of immorality that is prima facie difficult to seriously apply to Jesus.
One must also be overly skeptical of the historical reports concerning Jesus, and suppose implausibly that Jesus, after appearing, just mysteriously vanished for no clear reason, and apparently despite the subsequent growth of the movement.
Ernest Hermitage Day (c. 1946): “For if Christ had appeared to the disciples as One recovered from a swoon He would have explained the circumstances. They believed Him to be risen from the dead: if they were self-deceived, or the prey of illusions, he must needs have undeceived them, or be Himself account such a deceiver as the Jews had accused him of being. [On the Evidence for the Resurrection (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1906), 50.]
Ibid: “ …if the swoon-theory be accepted, it is necessary to eliminate from the Gospels and Acts the whole of the Ascension-narrative, and to account for the sudden cessation of Christ's appearances by the supposition that He withdrew Himself from them completely, to live and die in absolute seclusion, leaving them with a whole series of false impressions concerning His Own Person, and their mission from Him to the world.”
- Jesus at most would try to convince the apostles that God had miraculously brought him back to life—a resuscitation. This is very different from the “resurrection” (ανάστασις; anástasis) that the apostles attributed to Jesus. The latter was a technical term in Jewish eschatology, and it was understood to apply to all men[Forthcoming] and at the end of history[Forthcoming].
So to be clear: Jesus would have appeared half-dead, needing medical attention, and he would have known that the apostles would consequently see exactly what had happened. Jesus had merely survived by natural means rather than supernatural. And given Jewish perceptions of hanging on a tree, Jesus would anticipate that the apostles could no longer take seriously the idea that God was with him.
- One can very plausibly think that Jesus would not risk being seen again. At the very least, a swooned Jesus would tread carefully. That is to say, even if a swooned Jesus looked healthy (as if divinely revived) etc. and was willing to re-appear in public (very questionable), he would not choose to announce the time/location of any such appearances in the way reported in the gospels (e.g. resulting in a crowd waiting for him at Galilee [Mt 28:16-19]). After all, Jesus would know both (a) the obvious fact that his survival would be considered by Jews as a miraculous/divine vindication of Jesus's messiahship, and (b) that Romans, being aware of this, would re-double their efforts to find and have Jesus executed (Jesus would be judged many times more threatening than he was originally).
Jesus couldn't escape the tomb
Even if Jesus had somehow survived his crucifixion, having swooned on the cross, he would have died in the tomb. It wasn't the kind of thing he could have escaped from alive.
- Jesus couldn't move the stone.
- Guards were stationed at the tomb.
This explodes the swoon theory because it implies Jesus would have died in the tomb anyways. So Jesus could not then have presented himself as alive to the apostles, and that is an essential part of the swoon hypothesis.
Jesus really died on the cross
Rather than surviving crucifixion, we can be confident that Jesus's life sincerely did pass away while he was nailed to the cross.1
See 6 arguments showing Jesus truly died on the cross:
This spells doom for the swoon theory because, by definition, the theory requires at least that Jesus survived so that later he falsely could present himself as having resurrected.
- • Bruce Chilton (NT professor at Yale): “These executioners knew what they were doing, and theories that Jesus somehow physically survived the cross represent a combination of fantasy, revisionism, and half-baked science.” [Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Doubleday, 2005), 75.]