XFiles Friday: Swooning and swiping

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

With all the fun we’ve been having on the day blog (and thanks to all our commenters for keeping things so lively and interesting!) it almost seems like a vacation to get back to Geisler and Turek and their attempts to discredit skeptical views on the resurrection. We’ll start off with an easy one: the “Jesus didn’t really die” theory, aka the Swoon Theory.

Is it possible that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross? Perhaps Jesus merely swooned. In other words, he was still alive when he was placed in the tomb, but he somehow escaped and convinced his disciples that he had risen from the dead. There are numerous fatal flaws with this theory as well.

This one’s easy enough: Geisler and Turek are correct. Law of averages, eh? They were bound to get one right sooner or later, and this may well be it. The “swoon” theory just doesn’t work, and G&T quite gleefully rip it apart, appealing to testimony regarding the nature of Jesus’ wounds, the unlikelihood of a critically wounded Jesus saving himself from a sealed tomb, and the improbable responses of the disciples. For me, it’s enough to note that a genuine “swoon” would not have produced the gospel story as we have it today.

One of the frequent themes of the Gospels is that prior to Jesus’ death, the disciples never really understood that he was going to die. I think this is a half-subconscious admission that the whole resurrection and redemption idea is a post-hoc rationalization for Jesus’ unexpected demise. Writing after the crucifixion, the apostles and other NT writers projected their anachronistic perspectives into their record of what Jesus allegedly said, but I rather doubt that he really said, or intended to say, that death was part of God’s plan for His messiah. Only after Jesus’ death was an inescapable fact did it become a necessary element in the Gospel story.

Some of our readers might want to dispute that, and it’s purely a speculative inference on my part, so take it for what it’s worth. I just don’t think that the resurrection-based Gospel existed, in any form, prior to the point where it became a practical necessity, so if Jesus had merely swooned, and emerged battered but alive from his assassination attempt, I doubt that any of the disciples would have finished him off out of a fear that the Gospel would be frustrated unless Jesus really died.

What’s less debatable is that the swoon theory fails to account for Jesus’ abrupt disappearance immediately after his crucifixion. Had he still been alive, he would have escaped like Paul did, and continued preaching from someplace less dangerous. After all, the Kingdom of God would be far too important to give up his ministry just to pull off a fake death, especially after having been seen alive by reliable witnesses. Had Jesus swooned, we still would have had a story of God’s miraculous salvation; it would just have been Jesus who got saved, not the rest of us. The subject of resurrection wouldn’t even have come up, because they would have been too busy praising God for having brought Jesus through his trials like Noah went through the Flood (and so on).

So let’s move on to the next skeptical objection: that the disciples stole the body.

The theory that the disciples stole Jesus’ body cannot support the skeptic’s last option—that the New Testament writers were all deceived. Why? Because the theory makes the New Testament writers the deceivers, not the deceived ones!

Sounds pretty ironclad, right? But it only takes a single hole to sink a ship, even if it’s made of iron. Geisler and Turek’s argument doesn’t just have one hole, it has several.

First of all, as we’ve mentioned before, the disciples were not all of one mind, nor were there only 12 disciples. There were a lot of disciples, and various factions within the early church, even before Pentecost. All it would take would be a handful of disciples, acting on their own initiative and without the approval or knowledge of the apostles, to empty the tomb. The New Testament writers could very easily have been deceived, simply by virtue of not being part of the group of disciples that did the body snatching. It might be difficult to keep such a thing secret, but then again, according to Matthew, the secret did leak out, and the Jews in Palestine did report that disciples had taken the body.

Geisler and Turek also overlook the fact that it’s possible for the disciples to be both the deceivers and the deceived, since nature of religion is such that believers often fool themselves before they fool anyone else. Remember Jonestown? Jim Jones certainly was a deceiver, but can we be sure he did not first deceive himself? And if we can’t say for sure that the leader was not deceived, then what about all his followers? They surely saw signs that ought to have alerted them to the deception, but they chose to interpret them differently. They deceived themselves.

Substitute “Branch Davidians” or “Al Qaeda” or even Mormons if you like. Geisler and Turek try and make the claim that if you’re a deceiver, then you’re not deceived. Religious history says otherwise more often than not. It’s entirely possible that the disciples deceived themselves first, and then recruited others to bolster their story and thus reassure themselves.

This is especially likely when you consider the spiritual nature of Jesus’ alleged “resurrection body.” It supposedly appeared and disappeared at will, walked through solid doors and walls, changed its form, and is even explicitly declared to be a “spiritual body” by Paul, in I Cor. 15. If the resurrection is the raising of a spiritual body, it’s no great stretch to suppose that the physical body, the empty husk of the seed that was sown (to use Paul’s imagery), is irrelevant. So what if the physical form is still dead? It can’t inherit the kingdom of God anyway. It’s too materialistic, too perishable. Of course that thing perished, and remains perished. The spiritual part is the eternal part, and that’s the part that was raised. Nobody even cares whether the corpse is still dead.

Assuming the New Testament writers held beliefs similar to Paul’s, and were willing to talk themselves into believing that the death of Jesus was actually part of some grand, exalted, spiritual victory by God, then they would consider the resurrection of Jesus to be a genuine, valid, spiritual truth, even if they themselves had been the ones to dispose of the corpse. Before deceiving others, they could and would have deceived themselves, as many believers do today (and even as people in general, for example when love and sex are involved).

And speaking of deceiving ourselves, look at this argument from Geisler and Turek:

In addition to the disciples’ severe conflict of interest, adherents of this theory cannot explain other absurdities required by their theory. For example, how did the disciples get past the elite Roman guards who were trained to guard the tomb with their lives?

For the past 2,000 years, give or take, the Bible has been stating, in quite plain and unmistakable terms, that the tomb guard was not even requested until after the Sabbath, the day afterJesus was crucified. That is, for more than 24 hours after Jesus was placed in the tomb, there was no guard. All a disciple would need to do to retrieve the body and take it somewhere else would be to violate certain religious taboos, like Sabbath keeping. And by strange coincidence, Jesus’ pre-crucifixion ministry was most famous for (besides the alleged healings) his cavalier and liberal attitudes towards religious constraints like Sabbath keeping!

Geisler and Turek surely ought to know this. But they don’t. They read the words, but the meaning escapes them. They fool themselves into believing that the story of the better-late-than-never guard is enough to create an impossible “absurdity” should anyone suggest that disciples had taken Jesus body. It’s not just that they are trying to fool other people; they first fool themselves. The deceivers are the deceived.

Geisler and Turek continue their tactic of trying to disqualify all of the contributing factors by insisting that each one must individually explain all the facets of the Resurrection stories. Thus, for example, they point out that a stolen body would not explain how Jesus could appear to Paul on the road to Damascus. And they’re right: this particular contributing factor is not responsible for that particular aspect of the story. Hallucination is (which would also explain how Jesus could “appear” to Paul without being seen by any of the men who were right there with him at the time). The resurrection myth is a complex phenomenon growing out of the complex interactions of a number of components, none of which is the sole explanation for everything, but each of which contribute something vital to the whole.

If disciples did take Jesus body, especially without the consent or knowledge of the apostles, then this could have been a very significant component in the evolution of the resurrection myth, the seed idea that got the apostles and other disciples thinking in terms of “undoing” the death, and thus turning defeat into a glorious victory. Pretty appealing idea to the followers of an apparently failed Messiah, eh? Once planted in the fertile ground of the disciples’ superstitions, and watered by the not-uncommon phenomenon of post-bereavement hallucinations of the departed loved one, not to mention the subconscious awareness of similar themes in famous pagan resurrection tales, it’s easy to see how this notion could have sprouted and flourished until it was a full-blown urban legend, complete with eyewitnesses who were sure they’d seen it happen.

And thus the Church is born. From little denials, like the refusal to acknowledge that Jesus’ body was left unguarded, to bigger denials, like the refusal to accept that Jesus was permanently gone and that his ministry had failed, people build one rationalization on top of another until faith becomes more important to them than fact. And the rest is history. Sad to say.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Swooning and swiping”

  1. Kenneth Says:

    “One of the frequent themes of the Gospels is that prior to Jesus’ death, the disciples never really understood that he was going to die.”

    Perhaps Jesus didn’t understand this either? Or perhaps he had second thoughts on what he got himself into? I’m not suggesting that the swoon theory is best but people under stress do very strang things sometimes. If I were arrested as a terrorist and been executed-but-survived, I might hightail it to India in the middle of the night. And I probably wouldn’t go around first telling all my followers.

    Is it impossible for someone to survive crucifixion? Do we have unassailable evidence concerning the exact nature of his particular crucifixion?

    I think we can safely say that something(s) improbable happenned but we won’t be able to pin down the exact chain of events.

  2. rgz Says:

    Are you suggesting Jesus is real? Because as far as I know that has not proved yet.

    None of the historians of the time wrote about him and all references to him appeared years after his supposed death, coming from the same bible that claims his divinity.

    Am I missing some new findings?

  3. 5keptical Says:

    We don’t even need a “flee to india” story. The stab wound to the gut would have him dying from peritonitis in short order.

    It could have all been a hoax that went horribly wrong because of an over-zealous guard.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it… 🙂

  4. Dave Says:

    For me the stories about Jesus told in the Bible make sense when they are taken for what they are: stories.

    Geisler and Turek begin with an assumption that there was a Jesus, which is bass ackwards to the way rational thought should proceed. There never was such a person as Jesus, divine or mortal.

    So far, everything we’ve discovered about Jesus contracts his existence. His birthplace is more than suspect. There was no Roman census, and even if there was, the Romans wouldn’t have ordered those being counted to return to their homes of birth. (But such an order is a good story element to put Joe and Mary on the road, looking for a place for the humble birth of Baby Jesus.)

    Arguing about whether or not there were guards in front of Jesus’ tomb, or whether it’s possible he might have “swooned,” are meaningless, because there was no Jesus.

  5. jim Says:


    Whether or not there was an actual man at the core of the biblical accounts has become a back-burner issue for me; I’ve read lots of the stuff pro and con, and none of it seems definitive enough to place me decidedly in either camp. But I agree wholeheartedly about the fictional nature of the narratives. If there’s any real history to be had there, it’s so threadbare as to be functionally inconsequential. If there ever was a guy named Jesus, the new testament ain’t him. The gospels float above reality like a precariously tethered balloon. One gets the sense that they exist in their own little time/space bubble cut off from the real world, notwithstanding the rather lame attempts to ground them in historical fact through sometimes ludicrous and errant use of names and places.

    Your point about ‘stories’ is well taken.