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Episode 38 - The Swoon Theory

A popular counter argument people make against the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, is that they postulate that perhaps Jesus didn't actually die on the cross. What if Jesus only passed out, and the executioner that was crucifying Jesus "thought" Jesus was dead, so they put Him in the tomb before He died. If this was what happened, then the future sightings of Jesus wouldn't have proven a resurrection at all!

In this episode, we'll look at different philosophical critiques surrounding this argument, and then in the next episodes we'll go into the historical and scientific reasons to think it's impossible that Jesus could have not died.

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Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. For a while now we’ve been going over the resurrection argument, which uses historical data to show that Christianity is true. In the past few episodes we’ve looked at different counter arguments against the resurrection of Jesus. First, we looked at arguments against miracles, and then we looked at the idea that maybe there was an imposter on the cross, rather than Jesus. Another big counter argument that comes up in these debates is what is often referred to as the “swoon theory”. The idea here is that, if Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, and instead He merely passed out, and later revived, then the disciples seeing Jesus alive after the crucifixion wouldn’t be a resurrection, it would merely be a resuscitation. This would then completely destroy the Christian faith, since the faith is built upon the idea that Jesus died for our sins, and physically resurrected. For this episode, we’re going to be looking at the philosophical points related to the argument, how it works, and the various problems with it. In the next episode, we’ll be diving more into the historical elements of crucifixion, then after that we’ll look at the medical and scientific elements of the nature of crucifixion itself, so as to show that something like the swoon theory isn’t possible.

The swoon theory started back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, during a time when skepticism against Christianity started to become popular. I won’t go into all the details regarding this theological movement of skepticism and deism right now, but essentially, different writers came up with alternative explanations to try and kick the legs out of the fundamental truths of Christianity. A main focus in this effort was to undermine the resurrection. In this case, stories went around that Jesus had deliberately faked his own death by taking drugs, or that Jesus had merely passed out, and later woke up in the tomb. The popularity of these ideas didn’t last too long, however, because, as we’ll see today, they’re filled with so many problems. The main reason these ideas failed historically was because of the work of a theologian named David Strauss. While Strauss wasn’t an orthodox Christian by any means, he still couldn’t see the rationality of the swoon theory, and through his writings he showed everyone how ridiculous the idea is. So the swoon theory lacked a real following for a long time, except for the influence of the leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who brought back this idea that Jesus had only swooned, because apparently he was unaware of the devastating critique Strauss made of it. The theory had a few adherents in the 1900s, and then it started to make a bit more of a come back in our recent years, due to a new interest in the concept of the “historical Jesus”. Basically, this 200-year-old idea that was dead on arrival, was shown to be badly reasoned from the very beginning, but has gained popularity now because there are non-historians writing what is called “pseudohistory” about Jesus, essentially making stuff up, without any real scholarship behind what they’re doing, and it gains a following. A good example of this is the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and many others that attempt to do similar things, where the authors, having no historical credentials or education, will attempt to distort history into a more interesting story, which leads the public to believe this is accurate history, which then gains a following, and there’s gross misinformation being spread among the world. A great example of this sort of “pseudohistory” is Dan Brown’s, The DaVinci Code. While it didn’t deal directly with the resurrection of Jesus, the whole book is filled with historical misinformation, but it’s treated as if it’s fact. Dan Brown himself, when addressing this, said that, while the story elements of the book like the plot and characters are fictional, all the historical details in his book are facts… when that’s obviously not true at all, when a person actually knows the history and the facts of the matter. This sort of new pop culture development of pseudohistory is why today many people will default to something like the swoon theory in regards to Jesus’ resurrection. They are ignorant of the actual facts, and are merely believing something they read in a meme on the internet, or saw on some video on YouTube, rather than doing any actual research at all. So on that note, let’s dive into the facts of the matter, and see what we can make of the idea that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross.

As I’ve said, the swoon theory came about during a time where skepticism against the Christian faith was beginning to get popular, starting around 1800 or so. During this time, the advancement of rational thinking, and the challenging of Roman Catholicism through the Protestant Reformation, had caused people to start rethinking all their old beliefs, and specifically, to start doubting miracles in general. A good example of this is the Thomas Jefferson Bible. Jefferson was the president of the United States for eight years, and then a little over a decade after his presidency, he published his own version of the Bible, where he had literally cut and pasted various sections of the New Testament together, to try and bring out the real historical elements of Jesus’ life. Realistically, what he did is he started with his bias against miracles, quite literally cut out all the supernatural and miraculous elements from the Bible, and pasted what was left back together, and called that “the real Jesus”. This is what we find when we look at the origins of the swoon theory, where the pre-existing bias of these writers was that miracles never occur, and Jesus wasn’t divine, so they needed to explain away the resurrection somehow. This is the context that brought about the swoon theory argument.

One of the interesting things about this time period in theology is that there were many theologians writing critiques of Christianity, while at the same time, all these critics were criticizing each other’s works as well! One of the world’s foremost scholars on the resurrection is Gary Habermas, and he makes a bit of a joke out of this, saying that all you really need to do to destroy all the counters against the resurrection is read the theologians who were giving these counters. This is because they all rip into each other’s theories. A good example of this is David Strauss, who is known as the one who defeated the swoon theory, basically immediately after it began. Strauss is the reason why no real historians or theologians actually hold to the swoon theory anymore, because it’s just not tenable, given all the historical evidence we have. Here’s a quote from David Strauss, in his work, The Life of Jesus for the People, Volume One:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill and wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given the disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression that lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made on them in life and in death, at the most could only have given an elegiac voice, but by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.

Strauss’ basic point here is this: after Jesus had gone through the beatings and torture, and then been crucified, His body would have been an absolute mess, and even if He hadn’t died, His health would have been dangerously low, to the point that the Roman professional executioners thought He was dead. Even if Jesus had survived somehow, his incredibly terrible physical state would not have been an encouragement to the disciples. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ focuses on things like Jesus defeating death, having a glorified body that will never get sick or suffer, that He will never die again, and that His resurrection was nothing but miraculous. If Jesus had appeared to His followers half dead, covered in blood, with His skin and muscles ripped off in many places, at times even exposing the bones, their response would not be to fall at Jesus’ feet as the resurrected Son of God. Gary Habermas once again makes a very interesting joke about this, where you can imagine that, when the disciples meet the half dead Jesus covered in blood, the proper response would be to get some towels and warm water, find Him a place to lay down, and call a doctor. If this was what happened, it would absolutely be amazing that Jesus survived, and they could even consider it miraculous, and praise God over it. However, there is no way they would consider this half dead, bleeding out, bruised and mangled Jesus to have been resurrected, or the Son of God. To further the point, there is no way the disciples would excitedly say to one another, “one day we too will get glorified bodies just like that!”

The swoon theory becomes even more ridiculous when you consider all the different steps involved. The Roman executioner would have to mistake a living body for a corpse. Then, the soldier stabs Jesus in the side with a spear, obviously for the sake of ensuring death. He would have to miss all the vital organs like the heart, something that he would have been quite proficient in. When taking Jesus off the cross, and moving Him to the tomb, everyone involved would have to have not noticed the fact that Jesus was still warm, with a pulse, and breathing. As the story for the swoon theory goes, they would then have placed Him in the tomb and wrapped Him up. Jesus would then have had to awaken, unwrap his burial cloths from the inside, stand up on his agonizing and painful pierced feet, then use his equally agonizing and pierced hands to push aside a massive boulder that would normally take multiple healthy men to move. After somehow moving the stone aside, He then overcame the two Roman guards, without a weapon, and while completely naked. After this impressive feat, Jesus then walked to the disciples, again, totally naked, still bleeding, with exposed bones, on His pierced feet, and presented Himself to His friends. Not only does the idea of them considering Him divine not make any sense, but the story leading up to meeting them is even more ridiculous.

When considering these problems with the theory, Habermas comments, “Every once in a while, the swoon theory appears again. But it has not really been very popular since Strauss’s devastating critique in 1835. By the turn of the century, it was declared to be only a curiosity of the past.” Another major apologist, William Lane Craig, also comments on this by saying, “Strauss’s critique really put the nails in the coffin for the apparent death theory. Again, I want to emphasize that no contemporary scholar would support such a theory; it has been dead over a hundred years.” Again, as I said earlier, the swoon theory is really only ever held by non-historians, with an ignorance as to the facts of the matter, or worse, because they have an agenda they need to force. The idea is just too ridiculous to have any merit.

Now with all that said, some raise a criticism to this approach. I’ve seen times where someone will argue against Christian apologists using David Strauss’ comments this way, considering David Strauss did not believe in the resurrection. I can understand where they’re coming from, because we’re using an argument from a non-Christian to argue in favor of Christianity. However, David Strauss was making a critique of the swoon theory, and he did a good job, so his argument is worth consideration all by itself. If it’s a good argument, it doesn’t matter who said it, or why they said it; what matters is whether the argument works, and it does. It’s not “unfair” to appreciate someone’s argument, simply because you come to a different overall conclusion. The only way it becomes unfair is if the person made additional arguments that work against our position, and we conveniently ignore those points. So, in order to make sure we’re not doing that, let’s look at what David Strauss thought was true regarding the death of Jesus.

As I mentioned, even though he argued against the swoon theory, David Strauss was not a Christian. Strauss thought that, after Jesus had died, all His followers were still so excited and filled with religious passion for Jesus, that they began to apply and fulfil all the prophecies regarding the messiah to Jesus, retrospectively. Strauss’ thought that the Early Church looked at things this way, “When the expected messiah comes, he will do all these miraculous things; Jesus is the messiah; therefore, Jesus must have done these things.” So when the New Testament authors wrote their books, they were adding a great deal of legend to the life of Jesus, trying to force Jesus into fulfilling what the Jews thought the messiah would be like. The reason for this wasn’t really based on solid historical data, but instead, Strauss was trying to echo the sentiment of the worldview of his age. The liberal Christian scholarship of two hundred years ago, during Strauss’ time, was criticizing Christianity, and trying to hold a more naturalistic view of religion, limiting it to merely ethical principles, and removing all the supernatural elements. So Strauss, falling in line with this naturalistic worldview, was trying to reshape Christianity and Jesus into something more palatable for his present day. He argued that no educated person could believe in and worship the God of the Bible, and instead, religion became more about his humanistic ethic. He thought that we could likely know next to nothing about the real historical Jesus, and that the Christianity that had developed surrounding Jesus was mostly mythological. This led to a lot more criticism in general regarding the historical Jesus, and in many ways Strauss did far more harm than good for Christianity, even though we can appreciate the argument he made against the swoon theory.

Again, Strauss’ view here wasn’t really reasoned from the historical data, or solid logical thinking. Instead, he was merely following the cultural biases of his time. In other words, his view of Jesus and how Christianity started is completely made up, merely for the purposes of aligning with his biases. There are no reasons to think those opinions of his are true, and to make matters worse, there are very good reasons to think his position is false. Firstly, the Jewish beliefs regarding the resurrection involved the resurrection occurring at the end of human history, as a final event. The idea of someone being resurrected in the here and now didn’t make any sense to them. We can see a clear example of this in John 11, where Lazarus has died, and Jesus is speaking to Martha, Lazarus’ sister. Martha confronts Jesus, basically blaming Lazarus’ death on the fact that Jesus didn’t get there fast enough. As a response, Jesus says Lazarus will rise again. The interesting thing here is Martha’s response, she says to Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”. In other words, Martha understood the doctrine of the resurrection, and that it will happen in the end. However, Jesus is trying to tell her that he’s going to bring Lazarus back right now. So Jesus told her this, and her response is still confused regarding the nature of resurrection, because she merely affirms that Jesus is Lord, the Christ, the Son of God, but doesn’t say anything about believing in the resurrection “right now”. Jesus then asks for the stone to be removed, and again, we see Martha doesn’t understand, because she comments on the fact that the body will smell by this time. Even though she was being told plainly right to her face that Jesus was going to raise Lazarus, she couldn’t grasp the concept, because there was no place for it in Jewish resurrection theology. For David Strauss to say that the disciples were inventing the story of Jesus retrospectively, making things up to fit their own Jewish biases, makes absolutely no sense when considering their views of resurrection. Jesus was challenging their thoughts regarding resurrection when He brought people back from death, and was challenging their theology even more when He physically rose from the dead with a glorified body. In their minds, this shouldn’t be happening yet. If they were to invent a story of Jesus where He fulfilled all their expectations, it would not have looked like this.

For a second example of Jesus shattering their preconceptions, we can look at what the Jews at that time thought the messiah was going to be like. Again, if David Strauss is correct, then the disciples were inventing a legend of Jesus to fit their preconceptions regarding the messiah, but what we find is the exact opposite of what Jews thought the messiah was going to be like. During the time of Jesus and just before, there were actually quite a few Jews who claimed to be the messiah. For these fake messiahs, their goal in being the messiah was to overthrow Rome, and bring back the sovereignty of Israel. The Jews had a lot of expectation and hope during this time that the messiah would come and free the Jews from the bondage of Rome, restoring the nation of Israel to what it once was. We even see examples of this in Scripture. The first example of this “conquering king” messiah concept is in John 6:15 where Jesus recognized the crowds were going to try and force Him to become king, so He left. A second example is in Luke 24:21 where, after Jesus had been crucified, two of his followers commented, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” A third example is in Acts 1:6 where Jesus had been resurrected, and His disciples asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” The entire premise behind what it meant to be the “messiah” to the Jews during the first century was that the messiah would come, be king of Israel, set them free from the Roman oppression, and restore Israel to its place of prominence in the world. So David Strauss’ argument makes even less sense, because if the New Testament writers were creating a messiah legend out of Jesus, retrospectively, they would have made Jesus more like this conquering king they had in mind, which is the opposite of how Jesus actually presented Himself. If the disciples were inventing a legend, why invent a legend that completely goes against all the beliefs the Jews held?

Another point against Strauss’ opinion is that the disciples weren’t excited, they were terrified. Part of Strauss’ view is that the excitement and passion of the disciples caused them to start exaggerating the story, to the point it became a legend or myth. The problem here is that Jesus had been publicly humiliated and executed in front of all of them. It makes perfect sense that they would have all run away, hidden, and eventually go back to their old jobs. This sort of thing actually happened with the other fake messiahs I mentioned. When the messiah would be killed by the Romans, their followers would run away, some of them going back to their old lives, and others finding a new rebel or messiah figure to latch onto. No one in their right mind would still want to follow a dead messiah that had been publicly humiliated, pierced and hanging from a cross, naked, body torn apart, bleeding everywhere. We even find in Scripture that the response of the disciples to Jesus’ crucifixion was indeed to run away, and go back to their old jobs, like fishing. Strauss’ idea that they were so impassioned that they started making up stories about Jesus, and spreading them around, makes little sense. It makes even less sense when we realize these same disciples would be tortured and killed for the sake of these stories they were inventing.

A last major flaw with Strauss’ view of a naturalistic history of Jesus which ended up being mythologized is that the foundational beliefs of Christianity go right back to the time of the cross. We’ve discussed this already in episode 25 of this podcast, but we can see in 1 Corinthians 15 a very early creed that had existed in the Early Church. Scholars attempting to date this creed show us that it goes back to just a year or two, or even only months, after the cross. Strauss’ opinion is that legend developed, and myths surrounding Jesus came about, but if these foundational beliefs regarding the resurrection were around only a year after Jesus’ crucifixion, then it’s impossible for it to have been a myth that developed. There would have been many people still alive that could contradict it if it weren’t true (which is exactly what it says in 1 Corinthians 15, stating that over 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus, and many of them were still alive while he was writing the book). Additionally, the ones that were advancing the idea that Jesus rose were the very ones that knew Jesus the best, and were claiming to have witnessed all this with their own eyes. It was personal eyewitness testimony, not an exaggerated second or third hand account. Overall, the idea that this was mythology or legend that developed because people were excited just doesn’t make any sense, given the historical data we have.

Even though his opinions on Christianity were largely not reasoned well, and merely telling people what they wanted to hear, Strauss’ argument against the swoon theory was still quite good. The idea that someone would survive crucifixion is non-sensical, and it’s even worse to think of Jesus escaping the tomb and making it to the disciples, and worse still that this half dead Jesus would inspire the beliefs we see in the Early Church, which became the foundations of Christianity. So even if he wasn’t a Christian, and even if his other arguments fail miserably, Strauss still made a good argument against the swoon theory. If anyone is going to try and still hold onto the idea of the swoon theory, they had better have a pretty compelling argument, one which handles this critique.

When looking at the historical facts, we see that Jesus was crucified by Romans, and immediately after this the earliest Christians had a rejuvenated faith, where they were passionately preaching the Gospel of Jesus, and even willing to die for it, all while telling everyone that they had personally witnessed that Jesus was resurrected. Even if we grant that Jesus could survive the crucifixion somehow, and even if we grant that Jesus could somehow escape the tomb, get passed the guards, and make His way to the disciples, the proper response of Jesus’ disciples would be to care for His wounds, and very likely they would hide as well. If Jesus had been through the torture of a Roman scourging, and then crucified, there’s no way the disciples could mistake his survival for a resurrection. Jesus wouldn’t have a “glorified body”, and thus, there would be no reason for this rejuvenated faith. They would likely see this as a miracle still, but nothing like the belief the Early Church had, which was that Jesus Christ was the resurrected Son of God.

While this argument is one of the main reasons no historians hold to the swoon theory anymore, and why the idea of that seems just so ridiculous, there are still people that try to advocate for the position that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. So next time we’re going to evaluate an argument like that which goes in a bit of a unique direction, which will then give us reason to start looking at the other historical sources that deal with crucifixion, so we can evaluate what crucifixion was like from a historical perspective. So I hope you’ll join me next time for the historical elements of crucifixion, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.


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