Most Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross and then miraculously returned to life. But some non-Christians have proposed other theories to explain what happened. Several of these resurrection theories originated in ancient times, but others are modern. Here are brief descriptions of the best-known theories:
Some early opponents of Christianity claimed that the followers of Jesus secretly stole his body from the tomb and then invented the whole story of the resurrection. The Gospel of Matthew mentions this accusation in verses 27:64 and 28:13, and refutes it by saying that the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers.
This accusation may have even prompted the Romans to enact a new ordinance known as the Edict of Caesar. This ordinance, which is engraved on a marble slab found in Galilee, prescribes the death penalty for anyone convicted of unlawfully removing a body from a tomb. It's possible that this law was enacted because of accusations against the followers of Jesus.
The Stolen Body Theory is one of the oldest and best-known resurrection theories. But there are two good arguments against it. First, a hoax involving so many people would be difficult to pull off. And second, the followers of Jesus would have had no plausible motive for carrying out such a plot.
A more likely possibility is that someone else took the body from the tomb without Jesus' followers knowing about it. In fact, according to John 20:2-16, this is exactly what Mary Magdalene thought when she first discovered that the tomb was empty. This explanation would probably occur to most people who found themselves in a similar situation.
There is a variation of this theory in which everyone goes to the wrong tomb, which happens to be empty. But all forms of the theory have the same basic difficulty, because a missing body, just by itself, probably wouldn't be enough to convince most people that Jesus had returned to life. Still, the evidence strongly suggests that the first visitors to the tomb did find it empty, and this could very well have been the initial step toward the eventual belief in the resurrection.
The basic assertion of the Swoon Theory is that Jesus wasn't completely dead when he was removed from the cross. In fact many people have been mistakenly pronounced dead, even by modern doctors. In some cases breathing becomes so shallow and heartbeat so faint that both are very difficult to detect. If modern doctors can be fooled, then so could the Roman soldiers at the cross.
The gospels indicate that Jesus died much sooner than most victims of a crucifixion. According to Mark 15:44, Pontius Pilate was very surprised when he heard that Jesus was already dead. Proponents of the Swoon Theory often argue that this could indicate that he was actually still alive.
Some people have suggested that the early death might have been caused by the wounds that Jesus suffered during his scourging. Also, according to John 19:34, a soldier thrust a spear into his side shortly before he was removed from the cross. Even if he wasn't already dead, this probably would have finished him off.
On the other hand, some scholars think that the story of the spear thrust is a fabrication, purposely invented by the author of John to try to refute the idea that Jesus wasn't completely dead. The other three gospels, which were probably written before John, say nothing at all about a spear thrust. As for the scourging wounds, most experts doubt that they would have been fatal.
In some versions of this theory, Jesus revives for only a short time, just long enough to make a few appearances, and then actually does die. In other versions he makes a full recovery, but soon leaves the country to avoid recapture.
The Swoon Theory is usually regarded as one of the most plausible resurrection theories. But unless new evidence comes to light, it will continue to be based mostly on speculation.
This is similar to the Swoon Theory, except that the apparent death on the cross is induced by a drug. Such a possibility does have a scientific basis, because experiments have shown that a plant-derived drug called Reserpine can put mice into a temporary death-like state for several days. This, or some similar drug, might very well have the same effect on a human being.
A detailed account of this theory was given by Hugh J. Schonfield in his book The Passover Plot. The author argues that a death-simulation drug was given to Jesus as part of a plot to allow him to survive the crucifixion.
Although such a scenario is possible, this theory is usually rejected on the grounds that it is too complex and involves too much conjecture.
There are two main versions of this theory, both based on the idea that Jesus had a twin brother. In one version the twin dies on the cross instead of Jesus, and in the other version the twin appears as an impostor after Jesus dies.
Proponents of these ideas claim to find supporting evidence in certain names which can be translated as "twin". But both versions of the theory are obviously very far-fetched, and it has few supporters.
There are other variations on the idea that a mistake in identity caused someone else to be crucified instead of Jesus. Some early Gnostic writings say that Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross, was also the man who died on it. And a fraudulent book called the Gospel of Barnabas says that Judas Iscariot was the man who was actually crucified. But both of these ideas are just as far-fetched as the twin theory.
The basic idea of this theory is that the earliest belief in the resurrection was based on illusory visions of a ghostlike apparition of Jesus. In ancient times many people believed that divine beings sometimes used visions as a method of communication. A person who had such a vision knew that it was a vision, but thought that a divine being had created it. Thus, the belief in the resurrection could have originated when some followers of Jesus imagined that he was using visions to communicate with them. Then later, as the message was carried to people in other communities, stories about visions could have gradually evolved into stories of a real physical resurrection.
Supporters of this idea argue that the severe emotional impact of the crucifixion would have made the followers of Jesus susceptible to such visions. Their expectations for him had been so high, and his arrest and execution had occurred so suddenly, that many of them could have found it difficult to accept the reality of what had happened.
Some of his followers could have still been in a state of denial two days later when his tomb was found to be empty. That discovery could have given them hope that he had somehow survived after all. Fervently believing that he actually had survived, they could have had hallucinations in which they saw his ghostly form trying to communicate with them. Others may have seen him in dreams, or simply "felt his presence."
Proponents of this theory often point out that the apostle Paul apparently based his belief in the resurrection on a hallucinatory-like experience. As related in the Book of Acts (9:3-9), Paul was on the road to Damascus when a bright light flashed around him, then he fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus. The experience was so traumatic that he was blind for three days.
The letters of Paul are the earliest known Christian writings. Yet he never explicitly says that Jesus was resurrected in bodily form. And in 1Corinthians 15:3-8, he adds his experience on the road to Damascus to the list of other post-resurrection appearances, suggesting that he thought they were all of the same nature.
Another example of a vision of Jesus is found in the re-discovered "Gospel of Mary". One surviving fragment of this work contains a passage in which Mary Magdalene tells the other disciples that Jesus appeared to her in a vision and gave her a special revelation.
Some scholars think that Mary Magdalene may have been the first believer in the resurrection. It is an interesting fact that she plays the biggest role in the stories of the empty tomb and the first post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, yet she is rarely mentioned anywhere else in the gospels. Luke 8:2-3 says that seven demons had been expelled from her, and this could indicate that she was a very emotional person. As already noted, she apparently had at least one vision of Jesus. Perhaps her attachment to him was so strong that she couldn't accept the reality of his death, and she took this vision as proof that he was still alive.
Many people consider some form of the Vision Theory to be the most plausible alternative explanation for what happened.
Some people have suggested that visions of a risen Jesus could have been caused by post-hypnotic suggestion. This is in line with the theory that Jesus used hypnosis to perform some of his miraculous cures. If he could use hypnosis to cure people, then perhaps he could have also used it to implant a post-hypnotic suggestion into the subconscious of his followers.
Although this scenario is theoretically possible, most people think it is unlikely.
Some modern Christians, and even a few theologians, believe in a spiritual (rather than bodily) resurrection of Jesus. According to this view, his human body either vanished or was removed by God, and he reappeared in his eternal spiritual form.
Some scholars think that this was also the original belief of the earliest Christians, and that the idea of a bodily resurrection didn't appear until later. Possible evidence for this can be found in some of the earliest writings, including the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Thomas. Surviving writings of the gnostics indicate that this group of early Christians may have believed in a spiritual resurrection. In fact the evidence suggests that different groups of early Christians disputed this very matter, and some scholars suspect that several passages in the gospels may have been invented to try to refute the idea that Jesus arose in spiritual form. The best-known example is John 20:24-29, in which Jesus invites the disciple Thomas to touch the wounds made by the nails and the spear thrust. Some scholars doubt that this actually happened, especially since none of the other gospels say anything at all about nails or a spear thrust.
The belief that Jesus returned in a spiritual form is also consistent with the various gospel stories in which he suddenly appears and disappears, or passes through walls, and with the stories in which his followers don't initially recognize him, or are told not to touch him. Many scholars think that these stories are older than the stories in which he invites the disciples to touch him.
Note that the Spiritual Resurrection Theory is fundamentally different from the Vision Theory. In one case there is an actual spiritual resurrection, whereas in the other case there are only hallucinations.
In all likelihood the followers of Jesus did find his tomb empty, and this was probably the first step toward the belief in his resurrection. The empty tomb is also a key part of most of the alternative theories, though their explanations for it differ. One of the best-known explanations, that the body was stolen, doesn't seem convincing to most people. The Drugged-Body Theory, the Twin Theory, and the Hypnosis Theory are also usually rejected.
Many people consider the Vision Theory to be the most plausible of the alternative theories, but the Swoon Theory also has supporters. And some Christians prefer the idea of a spiritual resurrection to the traditional belief in a bodily resurrection.