Resurrection - Alternative Theories

Continuing the discussion from McGrew's Argument of Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels:

SImple explanation: It is a legend that had been subsumed as part of the oral and written tradition by the time the Gospels were written.

Hello @Faizal_Ali, sorry to dig up an old post, but McGrew’s book is one of my favorite, and I would like to understand your position regarding the gospels, especially the resurrection.

If you have time, could you perhaps expand more on why and how the resurrection legend arose? Whose or what purpose does this legend serve?

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We cannot know. Legends arise all the time about people. Why did so many people believe George Washingon admitted to cutting down a cherry tree when he was a child? Why did that legend arise?


I ask that question rhetorically, but as it turns out we know the answer:

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Are there any socioeconomic or historical factors for this conclusion?

Or do you mean that any incident / claim that seems too outlandish, should be treated as legend until concrete proof is available?

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I wouldn’t say “proof” is necessary, if by proof you mean that we need some sort of absolute certainty before extraordinary claims are accepted.

But in general I would certainly say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence before we accept them as true. That also implies that it is possible, at least in principle, to provide enough good evidence to substantiate a claim of an extraordinary event so it would justify believing it.


I think a lot of Christian Apologetics have tried to provide good enough evidence, some of which can be read here:

Personally, for the purpose of this post, I am more interested in learning more about alternative theories regarding the resurrection. In my opinion, the resurrection claim is probably one of the most important issues to address, both as a society as well as individuals.

Could be. Who knows?

I think any claim should be subjected to the same degree of analysis in order to determine whether it is true. IOW, if there are rumours being told that someone died then came back to life last weekend, you should demand the same amount and type of evidence before accepting this is true as you would if someone claimed it happened 2000 years ago.


I disagree with the term “alternative theory.” It implies that somehow it is an accepted conclusion that the resurrection actually happened, and any other views are mere “alternatives”, like creationism is an “alternative theory” to evolution.

The most likely position in my view is that people mistakenly believe Jesus arose from the dead.

For instance, at the moment there are literally thousands of people who believe the illness associated with the COVID-19 virus is actually caused by 5G Internet.

It’s like that.


I would change the title to just resurrection theories, but I don’t know how. Anyway, alternative is defined as ‘‘another possibility’’, so that will do for now.

The people who mistakenly believe Jesus rose, do you mean disciples who were with Jesus, or people during the period when the gospels were written?

Everyone who has believed it.

We do not know for certain what the disciples who were with Jesus believed. We just have accounts of what people have believed the disciples believed.

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Those alternative theories would be similar to the “alternate theories” for Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates, Muhammad riding a winged horse through the sky with the angel Gabriel, or Kim Il Sung magically turning a pine cone into a grenade.


Can you find any theories that fall outside the categorization of this article?


That seems exhaustive to me. However, it commits one error that it seems is made by all apologists: It presumes naturalism for all accounts that do not involve an actual resurrection, then suddenly changes the rules when considering a resurrection as a possible explanation and allows a “supernatural” explanation, but only of that specific one.

And the odd thing is he comes so close to realizing that error. On p 576, he argues that even if there was a medically documented example of mass hallucinations that resemble the “resurrection” in its diversity and multitude, the question could be asked: How do we know this was actually a hallucination, and not a manifestation of some other “supernatural” entities like evil spirits?

Well, why not indeed? If the rules of the game are that we consider “supernatural” explanations, then it is entirely possible that the disciples were deceived by spirits who, out of malevolence or perhaps as a prank, wanted them to believe their leader had been resurrected?

How does the apologist argue against this possibility?


Interesting. You don’t see a difference between that hypothetical scenario and the Ressurection accounts?

Obviously, they are different.

I am just interested in seeing if there is an rigorous method, analogous to the scientific method, by which those who believe in the “supernatural” are able to determine what can and cannot happen within that worldview? How does one test a hypothesis that “Post-mortem appearances of people only happen if the person in question is a god” or something of that nature?


There are rigorous ways of assessing historical, textual, and testimonial evidence. By those standards, the Resurrection just clearly falls into a different category than, say, Joseph Smith’s visions.

The place where the rigor falls apart is in setting priors. How do we set the prior on whether or not God exists and whether or not He would reveal Himself by raising Jesus from the dead?

In my view, the prior should be low, perhaps even very low. Even the Christian faith (historically and in Scripture itself) acknowledges up front that this is non-intuitive and deeply surprising claim, so much so that Paul calls it “foolishness.”

There is a difference, however, between a prior that is close to zero and one that is zero. What are we to make of highly unlikely events that may in fact have taken place? I don’t think that is an easy problem to overcome, and I do not know a systematic mathematical approach. Perhaps practicing “open mindedness” and “curiosity” is a better angle in this case?


That’s not what I asked.

Maybe, according to some sort of “science” of the supernatural, we could determine that the disciples really saw something that they took to be the resurrected Jesus. But, in fact, it was some group of spirits or demons playing a practical joke. How has that been tested and ruled out?


Ah, I see what you mean…

This ultimate comes down to a theological question. One thing that is important about the Resurrection is that it rises out of the Jewish faith, both continuous and discontinuous with it.

There is a theological story unfolding over centuries there. The Resurrection was totally unexpected, altering the beliefs of these orthodox Jews in a way that no one anticipated, such that they begin to include Gentiles. In that way, it was a discontinuous break.

At the same time, though the Resurrection was not expected, it was also, at least in retrospect, a coherent step in the story, deeply consistent with prophetic statements and imagery and language in the story. For example, the Messiah was supposed to be a “light to the Gentiles” and God was going to “bless the nations” through Abraham.

So that simultaneous continuity and discontinuity is surprising at the least. More importantly, it should be clear that the Resurrection was not confirming preexisting biases. The Resurrection was surprising for everyone, and ended up unsettling everyones preexisting biases. That gives some credence then to this:

Turns out that people were asking this of Jesus…

Matthew 12:22-28

22 Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the [a]blind and mute man both spoke and saw. 23 And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by [b]Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.”

25 But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.

That starts to make some more sense of how to reason about this. For example, if one believes there are “demons” out there, that are not God, would we expect them to raise Jesus from the dead? Why would they do it? What would it accomplish? Did what happened before or afterwards, was it consistent with these evil beings raising Jesus from the dead?

Starting from the belief that Jesus really did die and rise again, I don’t know of any serious attempt to build a coherent case that it was demons who did this, and that the idea of demons doing this is more plausible than a good God doing so. Do you know? How would you answer those questions?


The basic answer to this, I think, is that the resurrection fits better with the overall context, in the way that Joshua already pointed out, while the “supernatural prankster” hypothesis is unmotivated and ad-hoc by comparison.

Furthermore, if you’re already working from a theistic perspective (which I think is highly reasonable on philosophical grounds, though you may disagree) then any supernatural activity is (a) subject to God’s sovereignty and (b) significant in a way that natural occurrences are not (when miracles happen, they point to the supernatural - people back then knew that dead people don’t rise naturally as well as we do). So in addition to how well a supernatural deception hypothesis fits the context, or whether it is ad hoc, or whether we can find a plausible motive for a supernatural being to pull a fast one on the disciples, we can consider whether God would allow a supernatural deception in this case. I think it is arguable (again, working already from a theistic perspective) that a resurrection is a significant enough miracle that God would not allow it to be used for supernatural pranks.

I tried to expand on @Andrew_Loke’s method in a series of blog posts a while back (The Historical Argument (V) – Structure of Truth) to include some of these considerations. And I think has a couple pages discussing this question as well.


This is a feature of good fiction: That developments in the plot are at once surprising, but also make sense in terms of what has happened before. So your description is quite consistent with the view that the story of the resurrection is a myth or legend, since myths and legends are fictions that people just happen to believe are true.

Who knows? I am sure if there was a powerful, influential and wealthy cult devoted to the belief in these demons, quite detailed and persuasive explanations for their actions would have been developed over the ensuing 2000 years.

I don’t find either of those explanations even remotely persuasive, so I don’t feel any great need to answer that question. I am just trying to play the game by your rules. So far, those rules seem to be unfairly tilted in favour of one particular explanation. That should not be necessary if that explanation was demonstrably true.