one, two, three, four, and five.
So how do the two most likely naturalistic explanations of the facts surrounding the resurrection hold up under scrutiny? Remember, the facts we are considering—agreed to by nearly all historians, Christian or not—are 1. the empty tomb, 2. the appearances of Jesus after His death, and 3. the belief of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And again, the criteria we are using to evaluate these explanations are listed in Part 2, linked above.
The Legend Hypothesis
The legend hypothesis says simply that there were no resurrection claims, at least not originally. Much like the childhood game “Telephone,” rumors of Messianic expectations grew rapidly until, before you know it, there were full-fledged resurrection claims, which were then promptly written down and preserved in the New Testament. This hypothesis obviously explains present data and so passes criterion (1), but what about the rest?
Its scope (2) is limited to the appearances of Jesus after His death and the disciples’ belief in the resurrection; it does nothing on its own to explain the empty tomb. Regarding how well it explains the first two (3), it must maintain that the disciples’ belief in resurrection was based on the rumored appearances, which were themselves either just mistaken or invented. However, given the extreme implausibility of the resurrection accounts being simply mistaken (they claim not just to have “heard,” but to know—some of them even claiming eyewitness status), the defender of the legend hypothesis is left claiming that they were invented. This hypothesis thus easily reduces to the conspiracy hypothesis (already discussed), and so suffers all the problems of that one as well.
The legend theory is also highly implausible (4) on its own. First, Jews were inherently resistant to legend, particularly about a divine man; 1st century Palestine would have been entirely the wrong environment for such a legend to grow. Second, there was simply not enough time for legend to grow. All the evidence suggests that from the very beginning, the disciples preached the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Our earliest accounts date back possibly to within 5 years (or even earlier) of the crucifixion itself, and even the very latest are still within the lifetime of eyewitnesses and those who knew them. Third, legends generally reinforce the values of the culture in which they are birthed. The resurrection “legend” did not do this, but rather created a brand new concept of resurrection, defying all Messianic expectations. Finally, legends tend to make heroes of their founders (think Muhammad or Joseph Smith). The five accounts that we have of the resurrection do not do this; they even rely on the testimony of women, which as we have seen, was virtually without value at the time.
The legend hypothesis avoids being overly ad hoc (5), unless of course it reduces to the conspiracy hypothesis, in which case it will need all the same assumptions to function. It is also disconfirmed (6) by our knowledge of Jewish culture and Messianic expectations.
The Hallucination Hypothesis
Interestingly, this hypothesis is probably the most common among non-Christian scholars. In that sense then, it represents the best explanation we have of the facts in question, other than the Christian claim.
As usual, this hypothesis meets the first criteria but then immediately has trouble. Its explanatory scope (2) is rather narrow, since it is really only useful as an explanation of one of our facts: the appearances of Jesus after His death. Neither the empty tomb nor the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection is explained, so this hypothesis would need to be paired with another for its full strength. But even considering the appearances of Jesus post-crucifixion—the fact the hallucination hypothesis is supposed to explain—many holes remain. For example, how can hallucination account for the variety of appearances that are claimed? Perhaps if only one or two of Jesus’ closest followers had ‘seen’ Him risen once, then some sort of psychological phenomenon might be sufficient. But the accounts we have are from multiple, independent sources, and take place in different locations at different times. It might be tempting to claim some sort of connection between the claims, so that only one actual hallucination is needed, and the rest of the disciples merely picked up the story. Such a theory, however, ignores the fact that some of the claims come from skeptics, namely Paul and James, and it also does nothing to account for the diversity within the reports themselves. So much for explanatory power (3).
Regarding plausibility (4), it must rely on either highly suspect psychological theories and read a great deal into the text, or it must again assume that what the disciples are describing are mere visions, a category of experience that we have already shown in the last post would be clearly distinct from a bodily resurrection to a 1st century Jew. Also, we know from years of case studies that hallucinations tend to reinforce expectations (however delusional); however, as we have seen, no Jew expected a resurrection of the sort described. So, as William Lane Craig puts it, “with respect both to its psychoanalysis of the witnesses and its reduction of the appearances to visionary experience, the Hallucination Hypothesis suffers from implausibility.” *
The hypothesis is also ad hoc (5), in that it must invent out of thin air complex psychological explanations of the disciples’ straightforward claims, in order to provide reasons for such powerful hallucinations. Given its reliance on outmoded theories, and its ignorance of the relevant cultural data, the hallucination hypothesis also fails criteria (6), disconfirmation by accepted beliefs.
For all these reasons, it is at best only slightly more plausible than any of the other naturalistic theories. And of course, we have not yet reviewed the Christian explanation.
* William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 386-7.