Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 11: The “Winding Sheets” Objection

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 11: The “Winding Sheets” Objection September 12, 2019

WHERE WE ARE AT

In his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (hereafter: HCA), Peter Kreeft attempts to refute The Swoon Theory.  But in order for his case for the resurrection to have any chance of success, he actually needs to refute the more general view that I call The Survival Theory (hereafter: TST), the theory that Jesus survived his crucifixion (i.e. Jesus did NOT die on the cross).  I am examining Kreeft’s nine objections against The Swoon Theory, to see whether they refute The Survival Theory.  So, far I have shown that Objection #1, Objection #2, Objection #3, and Objection #8 all FAIL to refute The Survival Theory.

Peter Kreeft is a Christian Philosopher and Christian Apologist who is highly respected by tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Christian believers.  But I find his arguments to be vague, unclear, illogical, and usually lacking in factual and historical evidence that would be required to make even halfway decent arguments.

In short, Kreeft seems to be intellectually lazy and sloppy and incapable of creating or expressing solid and respectable arguments for Christian beliefs.  His defense of Christianity is unworthy of a professional philosopher.  However, I have read the writings of many Christian apologists, and he is far from being the worst thinker among them.  He is above average in that group, which is a sad fact about the state of Christian apologetics.

 

The Entombment of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

OBJECTION #4: THE “WINDING SHEETS” OBJECTION TO THE SURVIVAL THEORY

Here is Kreeft’s fourth argument against the Survival Theory:

The body was totally encased in winding sheets and entombed (Jn 19:38-42).

Kreeft is so intellectually LAZY and SLOPPY, that he states this entire argument in just one short sentence.  If he were a freshman in an Intro to Philosophy class, this would earn him an instant “F”.  But he is a published Christian Apologists, so hundreds of herds of Christian sheep gobble this sort crap up, and pay their hard-earned cash to put more of Kreeft’s pathetic books on their shelves.

As an atheist and a skeptic it irritates the hell out of me that I have to REPAIR the CRAPPY arguments of intellectual sloths like Kreeft.  Why can’t Christian apologists create intelligent and respectable arguments?  Why should skeptics have to clean up their crappy reasoning, to dig down deep and struggle to find some tiny morsel of intelligence hiding behind this IDIOCY and MINDLESSNESS?

Oh well, that is the world we live in, so if you want to be a skeptic, and you want to be objective and fairminded, then you have to make an effort to find something intelligent and meaningful in the vague, unclear, and illogical thinking of Christian apologists like Kreeft.  It is a dirty job, but somebody has got to do it.

OK.  We know what the ultimate conclusion of Kreeft’s argument is, so here is a bare-bones reconstruction of the argument constituting Objection #4:

1. When Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, the body was totally encased in winding sheets and placed in a stone tomb.

THEREFORE: 

2. It is virtually certain that The Survival Theory is false.

Isn’t that a terrific freakin’ argument?  Not exactly a brilliant piece of reasoning.  This is what we critical thinkers refer to as a non sequitur.  The conclusion (2) does NOT follow logically from the premise (1).   More accurately, it is NOT in any way clear that the conclusion follows from the premise, or even that the premise is RELEVANT to the conclusion.

We could add a conditional claim to bridge the logical gap between (1) and (2):

1. When Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, the body was totally encased in winding sheets and placed in a stone tomb.

A. IF when Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, the body was totally encased in winding sheets and placed in a stone tomb, THEN it is virtually certain that the Survival Theory is false.

THEREFORE: 

2. It is virtually certain that The Survival Theory is false.

That turns the initial “bare-bones” argument into a logically valid deductive argument.

However, we are still left puzzled as to why Kreeft, or anyone else, would believe premise (A) to be TRUE.  What do “winding sheets” and being “placed in a stone tomb” have to do with The Survival Theory?  Based on all of the information and detail that Kreeft has provided here (just one short sentence), God only knows what connection Kreeft thinks exists between “winding sheets” and the Survival Theory.

 

WHAT DO OTHER APOLOGISTS SAY ABOUT “WINDING SHEETS” AND THE SWOON THEORY?

There are two elements to premise (1).  The first concerns the “winding sheets” and the second concerns the placement of Jesus’ body into a stone tomb.  I am going to begin by focusing on the first element, the use of “winding sheets” to prepare Jesus for burial.

I suspect that Kreeft ripped this argument off of some other Christian apologist (as I suspect is the case with most of the arguments in HCA), so in order to try to make some sense out of this UNCLEAR piece of CRAP that Kreeft has given us, we should look at what other apologists have said about “winding sheets” and being “placed in a stone tomb” in relation to the Swoon Theory (or the Survival Theory).  Maybe other apologists have provided more detail and explanation or justification that will help us to understand WHY somebody would believe that premise (A) is TRUE.

First,  there are some Christian apologists who don’t mention “winding sheets” or “grave clothes”  or “linen sheets” in their criticisms of the Swoon Theory:

  • The Resurrection of Jesus by James Orr (1908): see pages 42 & 43
  • The Resurrection and Modern Thought by W.J. Sparrow-Simpson (1911): see pages 43 & 44
  • Resurrection by Hank Hanegraaff (2000): see pages 18 to 22
  • The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona (2004): see pages 99 to 103

Second,  there are some Christian apologists who mention “winding sheets” or “grave clothes”  or “linen sheets” in their criticisms of the Swoon Theory, but who don’t bother to explain how this is RELEVANT to the Swoon Theory:

  • Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison (1930): see p.96
  • The Son Rises by William Craig (1981): see page 39
  • Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli (1994): see page 183

Third, there are a few Christian apologists who mention “winding sheets” or “grave clothes”  or “linen sheets” in their criticisms of the Swoon Theory, and who also indicate or explain how this is RELEVANT to the Swoon Theory:

  • The Resurrection Factor by Josh McDowell (1981): see page 98
  • Jesus: Who Is He? by Tim LaHaye (1996): see pages 250 & 271
  • The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel (1998): see page 202
  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (2004): see page 305
  • The Passion and the Empty Tomb by John Ankerberg and John Weldon (2005): see page 185 & 186

Some apologists view the “winding sheets” as constraints on physical movement by Jesus.  The idea is that he was basically tied up and thus was unable to stand up or to get out of the tomb or to walk into town.  For example, Josh McDowell makes this comment about the Swoon Theory:

Then an incredible thing happened, according to this theory.  The cool damp air of the tomb, instead of killing Him, healed Him.  He split out of his garments, pushed the stone away, fought off the guards and shortly thereafter appeared to His disciples as the Lord of life.  (The Resurrection Factor, p. 98)

The implication is that it is “incredible” that Jesus was able to “split out of his garments” (i.e. the “winding sheets” or “grave clothes”) inside of which his body had been wrapped.

Tim LaHaye makes the same sort of point about the Swoon Theory:

…then [according to the “swoon theory”] miraculously [Jesus] woke up, found himself tightly wrapped in grave clothes, yet got out of them without disturbing their order and proceeded to move a two-ton stone. (Jesus: Who Is He?  p.250)

Lee Strobel also indicates that it would have been very difficult for Jesus to get out of his “linen wrappings”:

Let’s speculate that the impossible happened and that Jesus somehow managed to survive the crucifixion.  Let’s say he was able to escape from his linen wrappings, roll the huge rock away from the mouth of his tomb, and get past the Roman soldiers who were standing guard.  (The Case for Christ, p.202)

Although he does not say so explicitly, it is clear that Strobel believes that is is very unlikely that Jesus would have been able to “escape from his linen wrappings”.

Norman Geisler and Frank Turek also indicate their belief that escape from the grave clothes is very unlikely:

…even if he [Jesus] did survive the cold, damp, dark tomb, how could he unwrap himself, move the two-ton rock up and away from the inside of the tomb, get by the elite Roman guards…, and then convince the scared, scattered, skeptical cowards that he had triumphed over death?  (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.305)

John Ankerberg and John Weldon also express their skepticism about a similar list of alleged improbabilities of the swoon theory:

After three days without food or water, He [Jesus] unwrapped Himself (even though His arms had been pinned against His body and the spice-soaked linens had probably dried and hardened by this point), moved the one-to-two-ton stone from the grave entrance, and walked some distance on mutilated feet to find his disciples so He could falsely proclaim himself to be the resurrected Messiah and conqueror of death.  (The Passion and the Empty Tomb, p.185 & 186)

In addition to the point that “winding sheets” would have been a constraint on physical movement by Jesus, is the idea that it would have been harmful to his health,  potentially killing off a weak and wounded Jesus.  Here is a comment by Josh McDowell along these lines:

…100-plus pounds of spices and a gummy substance were encased around His body–He must have breathed through it all… (The Resurrection Factor, p.98)

McDowell is suggesting, without explicitly stating this, that being “encased” in all those spices and “a gummy substance” would probably have caused Jesus to asphyxiate and die, if he was still alive at that time.  Tim LaHaye is more explicit in making this point:

…if the crucifixion hadn’t killed Jesus, the tightly wrapped grave clothes, the cold, damp, sealed tomb and three days without treatment certainly would have. (Jesus: Who Is He?, p.271)

Unlike McDowell, however, LaHaye doesn’t indicate or explain WHY “tightly wrapped grave clothes” would have caused Jesus to die, or would have been a major contributing factor in causing Jesus (who, according to the Swoon Theory, was still alive after removal from the cross) to die.  Out of all of the apologists and defenses listed above, McDowell is the ONLY ONE who has indicated WHY “winding sheets” or “grave clothes” would have caused a surviving Jesus to die: asphyxiation.

There is one more reason given for how the “winding sheets” constitute an objection or problem for the Swoon Theory.  This third reason comes from Geisler and Turek:

It is highly unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:40) would have mistakenly embalmed a living Jesus. (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.305)

In other words, it is not so much the “winding sheets” themselves that establish the death of Jesus, but rather the process of wrapping Jesus’ body with the “winding sheets” that matters, because this would involve handling Jesus’ body and provided opportunities for Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to detect any sign of life in Jesus.  Their failure to detect any sign of life provides further evidence confirming the diagnosis that Jesus was truly dead.

So, although Kreeft provided NO EXPLANATION WHATSOEVER as to WHY the “winding sheets” have any relevance to evaluation of the Swoon Theory, there are a few Christian apologists who have provided us with some indications and explanations about how the “winding sheets” work as evidence against the Swoon Theory.  The most common explanation is this:

WSO1. The winding sheets would have been a constraint on Jesus’ physical movement (like being tied up with ropes), making it difficult or impossible for him to sit up, get out of the tomb, and walk into town.

The next somewhat less common explanation is this:

WSO2. The winding sheets and the spices and gummy substance placed in the sheets would have caused a surviving Jesus to die of asphyxiation, or would have made it very difficult for a surviving Jesus to breathe.

The least common explanation was given by Geisler and Turek:

WSO3. The application of the winding sheets to the body of Jesus would have given Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus  a good opportunity to detect any remaining sign of life in Jesus’ body, and their completing of the burial process implies that they did not detect any sign of life in Jesus’ body.

 

PROBLEMS WITH THE “WINDING SHEETS” OBJECTION

We have in essence, now, three different objections to the Swoon Theory, or to the Survival Theory, that are based on the “winding sheets” element of Objection #4.

A key premise of Objection #4 consists of an historical claim:

1. When Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, the body was totally encased in winding sheets and placed in a stone tomb.

There are a number of historical and factual issues that can be raised against the first premise of Objection #4:

  • It is NOT a fact that Jesus’ body was removed from the cross. 
  • It is NOT a fact that Jesus’ body was totally encased in winding sheets. 
  • It is NOT a fact that Jesus’ body was placed in a stone tomb. 

That Jesus’ body was removed from the cross is, however, assumed by the Swoon Theory, so both the Christian theory and the Swoon Theory make that assumption.  But the Swoon Theory does NOT assume the truth of the other two historical claims.

All of these are historical hypotheses that must be evaluated in terms of historical facts and evidence.  And this is something that Peter Kreeft NEVER DOES, on almost any important historical issue related to Jesus and Christianity.  Unfortunately, Kreeft is not alone in having no concept of the requirement to present historical facts to support an historical claim or hypothesis.  This is par for the course in the intellectual wasteland of Christian apologetics.  So, Kreeft’s Objection #4 is a FAILURE simply because he makes NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to show that any of his historical claims and assumptions are actually TRUE.  (“But other than that, did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?”)

Of course, it is also the case that Kreeft made NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to show his unstated assumption (A) to be TRUE:

A. IF when Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, the body was totally encased in winding sheets and placed in a stone tomb, THEN it is virtually certain that the Survival Theory is false.

So, Kreeft’s Objection #4 is a COMPLETE FAILURE, because it is based on two QUESTIONABLE premises, and Kreeft has made NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to support or justify either one of these two basic assumptions.

However, to help Kreeft out a bit, I have looked into what OTHER Christian apologists have had to say about the issue of “winding sheets” and the Swoon Theory.  If none of the three explanations or reasons provide sufficient support for premise (A), then that will cast serious doubt on (A).

After that I will explore explanations or reasons for (A) having to do with the placement of Jesus’ body into a stone tomb.  If none of those explanations or reasons supporting (A) provide sufficient support for premise (A), then we can reasonably conclude that premise (A) should be rejected, and that Kreeft’s Objection #4  is a COMPLETE FAILURE.

 

PROBLEMS WITH WINDING SHEETS OBJECTION 1

Here is the first, and what appears to be the most common reason why “winding sheets” constitutes an objection to the Swoon Theory:

WSO1. The winding sheets would have been a constraint on Jesus’ physical movement (like being tied up with ropes), making it difficult or impossible for him to sit up, get out of the tomb, and walk into town.

This is clearly NOT a conclusive objection against the Swoon Theory.  First, Harry Houdini could escape from modern straight jackets which were designed to prevent physical movement and escape by the person wearing the jacket.

Second, even assuming the general reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial:

  • we DON’T KNOW the dimensions and quantity of the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ body
  • we DON’T KNOW the thickness, strength, and structure of the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ body
  • we DON’T KNOW how carefully and how tightly Jesus’ body was wrapped with this material
  • we DON’T KNOW the specific pattern and number of layers of wrapping that was used on Jesus’ body

In short, we lack MOST of the important DETAILS that would allow us to determine whether WSO1 was TRUE or FALSE.

Third, even if the winding sheets made it impossible for Jesus to sit up, or leave the tomb, or walk into town, Jesus could have yelled for help, and somebody else could have helped him to remove the winding sheets so that he would be able to sit up, leave the tomb, and walk into town.  WSO1 is a WEAK OBJECTION to the Swoon Theory.

Another problem with WSO1 is that it is not clear that the Christian theory has a significant advantage on this point.  Suppose God raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus would still have the winding sheets around his body, and his physical movements would still be constrained.  Of course, if Jesus were the divine Son of God, then he could miraculously make the winding sheets vanish into thin air, or he could miraculously cause them to burst into flame, while preventing his body from being burned by the fire, or he could miraculously turn himself into a gas or vapor, seep out through the tiny pores of the cloth, and then miraculously reform himself into a solid body.

The problem is that there is NO PROBLEM AT ALL that a divine and omnipotent being would be unable to overcome by the use of SUPERNATURAL POWERS.  But then the Christian theory doesn’t really provide a better explanation than the Swoon Theory, for how Jesus managed to escape from the winding sheets.  The Christian theory basically says: “then MAGIC happened”.   This is not a particularly GOOD explanation, so it is NOT clear that the Christian theory provides a better explanation of this point than the Swoon Theory.

The Swoon Theory can at least offer a somewhat plausible and ordinary explanation (e.g. “Jesus wriggled one of his hands free, and then began to unwrap the winding sheets” or “Jesus yelled for help, and somebody passing by heard him and helped him to get free from the winding sheets”).  Of course, a Jesus who was raised from the dead by God could also “wriggle one of his hands free” or “yell for help”, but in that case the explanation of the winding sheets issue would be the same for both theories.

WSO1 is a WEAK objection to the Swoon Theory, so if this is what Kreeft had in mind, then this element of Objection #4  FAILS, and that casts serious doubt on Objection #4.

 

PROBLEMS WITH WINDING SHEETS OBJECTION 2

The second winding-sheets objection makes a more direct attack against the Swoon Theory:

WSO2. The winding sheets and the spices and gummy substance placed in the sheets would have caused a surviving Jesus to die of asphyxiation, or would have made it very difficult for a surviving Jesus to breathe.

This objection indicates that the wrapping of Jesus’ body in winding sheets would have been likely to kill Jesus off if he was still alive when he was taken down from the cross.  It is NOT a fact that Jesus was totally encased in winding sheets after being removed from the cross.  However, assuming that Jesus was wrapped in winding sheets, there is a good deal we don’t know about this:

  • we DON’T KNOW the dimensions and quantity of the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ body
  • we DON’T KNOW the thickness, strength, and structure of the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ body
  • we DON’T KNOW how carefully and how tightly Jesus’ body was wrapped with this material
  • we DON’T KNOW the specific pattern and number of layers of wrapping that was used on Jesus’ body

It is also important to note that, according to the Gospel accounts, Joseph of Arimathea had very little time to get the body of Jesus removed from the cross, transport the body to the stone tomb, and prepare the body for burial.  He had to complete these tasks before sunset, when the Jewish sabbath day began on Friday evening.  Thus, we CANNOT simply assume that Joseph performed the wrapping of the body in a slow and careful manner, as he might have done if there were several hours available for these tasks.

In terms of the possibility of asphyxiation, there are some other important details that we don’t know:

  • we DON’T KNOW the dimensions and quantity of the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ head
  • we DON’T KNOW the thickness, strength, and structure of the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ head
  • we DON’T KNOW how carefully and how tightly Jesus’ head was wrapped with this material
  • we DON’T KNOW the specific pattern and number of layers of wrapping that was used on Jesus’ head
  • we DON’T KNOW if the spices and gummy substance was used in the wrapping of Jesus’ head

Tight wrapping of winding sheets around Jesus’ body might have constrained his breathing, but the main threat to his life would have been the winding sheets wrapped around his head.  If those were loose or just a couple of layers and contained little or no spices, and little or no gummy substance, then it is UNLIKELY that the wrapping would have caused Jesus to asphyxiate.  The problem here is that Christian apologists have engaged in creatively imagining a worst-case scenario for Jesus, but we don’t have enough FACTS and DETAILS to determine whether there was a REAL THREAT of asphyxiation to Jesus or not.

This second objection based on winding sheets is clearly relevant, because it directly addresses the issue of whether Jesus would have died in the hours immediately following his removal from the cross, had he been alive when taken down from the cross.  But it is still a WEAK OBJECTION to the Swoon Theory, because there simply is not enough INFORMATION to determine whether the application of winding sheets to Jesus’ body constituted a REAL THREAT of asphyxiation for Jesus, had Jesus still been alive after being removed from the cross.

WSO2 is a WEAK objection against the Swoon Theory, so if this is what Kreeft had in mind, then this element of Objection #4 FAILS, and that casts serious doubt on Objection #4.

 

PROBLEMS WITH WINDING SHEETS OBJECTION 3

The third, and least common, objection to the Swoon Theory based on winding sheets is concerned with the diagnosis of Jesus’ death:

WSO3. The application of the winding sheets to the body of Jesus would have given Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus  a good opportunity to detect any remaining sign of life in Jesus’ body, and their completing of the burial process implies that they did not detect any sign of life in Jesus’ body.

It is NOT a fact that Joseph of Arimathea obtained the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, and it is NOT a fact that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus in winding sheets, and it is NOT a fact that Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body into a stone tomb.  As I have already pointed out, Kreeft MAKES NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to establish these historical claims on the basis of historical FACTS and EVIDENCE.

But setting aside the complete absence of historical facts and evidence from Kreeft’s various objections against the Swoon Theory, there is a very SERIOUS FLAW with WSO3, even if, for the sake of argument, we grant the assumption that Joseph obtained Jesus’ body, and that Joseph wrapped Jesus body in winding sheets in preparation for burial.  Consider the following comment by a Christian apologist about the alleged wrapping of Jesus’ body by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus:

And had there been any Signs of Life in it [Jesus’ body], they [Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus] would have undoubtedly taken the proper Care to recover it, and not immediately have placed it, wrapt in Spices, in a cold and damp Sepulchre, which was the most effectual way,  wholly to extinguish all Remains of Life.  But Joseph’s thus burying him, shews there was no Imposture intended, and renders every Pretence and Insinuation of his not being really dead, quite impertinent and groundless.  (The Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Re-Examined by Samuel Chandler, 1744, p.63)

This comment by Samuel Chandler indicates that this “objection” against the Swoon Theory actually provides some support for the Swoon Theory!

Suppose that Joseph and Nicodemus did wrap the body of Jesus in winding sheets, and suppose they did detect some signs of life in Jesus’ body.  If they were indeed followers or admirers of Jesus, then as Chandler suggests, they might well have made a serious effort to help Jesus recover from his wounds and injuries.  They might have, as Chandler suggests, immediately taken Jesus away from the tomb to someone’s home where Jesus could rest and heal and be cared for while he recovered.  Perhaps the women who were watching Joseph and Nicodemus take the body of Jesus to the stone tomb left just a few minutes before Joseph or Nicodemus discovered signs of life in Jesus.  Thus, the women simply inferred that the wrapping of Jesus’ body and the entombment of the body were completed shortly after they left the scene, but this inference was mistaken, because Joseph and Nicodemus left the scene carrying the body of Jesus to someone’s home.

Alternatively, Joseph and Nicodemus might have noticed signs of life in Jesus’ body, but did NOT take immediate action, for fear of word getting out that Jesus had survived crucifixion, and this leading to a search for Jesus’ body by Roman soldiers with orders to find Jesus and finish the job (perhaps by cutting off his head).  To avoid such a threat to Jesus and to their own lives, Joseph and Nicodemus might well have kept silent about the signs of life that they detected in Jesus, and proceeded with wrapping and entombing the body, to prevent a massive “search and destroy” mission by Roman soldiers.  They could have then returned to the tomb a short while after closing up the tomb and after the women who were watching them prepare the body had left the scene.  In this case, the women would have witnessed the completion of the wrapping of Jesus’ body, and of the entombment before they left.  They would have no idea that Joseph and Nicodemus would return less than an hour later, open the tomb, and take Jesus to a nearby home to recover from his wounds and injuries.

Of course, I have no proof that this is what actually happened, but this is a plausible scenario, and this scenario and its plausibility are supported by WSO3, especially in light of the comments made by the Christian apologist Samuel Chandler.  Therefore, WSO3 is not a WEAK objection against the Swoon Theory, it is actually a line of thought that provides SUPPORT for the Swoon Theory.  Thank you, to the Christian apologists Geisler, Turek, and Chandler for providing this bit of ammunition in SUPPORT of the Swoon Theory!  Needless to say, if this is what Kreeft had in mind in terms of the significance of winding sheets, then this element of Objection #4 FAILS, and this casts serious doubt on Objection #4.

 

IN THE NEXT POST

In the next post of this series, I hope to complete my evaluation of Objection #4, by examining the second element of this objection: the placement of Jesus’ body in a stone tomb.


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