Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 13: The Sickly Jesus Objection

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 13: The Sickly Jesus Objection October 8, 2019

WHERE WE ARE

Peter Kreeft believes that he can prove that Jesus rose from the dead by refuting four skeptical theories that provide alternative explanations to the standard Christian view that Jesus rose from the dead.  One of those skeptical theories is The Swoon Theory.

However, refuting The Swoon Theory (and three other skeptical theories) will NOT work to establish the resurrection, because The Swoon Theory is only one particular version of a more general theory that Kreeft must refute: The Survival Theory, the view that Jesus SURVIVED his crucifixion and because of that was able to appear to some of his followers after the crucifixion, which led to the mistaken belief that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Kreeft must refute not just The Swoon Theory (which specifies that the Roman soldiers willingly released the body of Jesus because Jesus had fainted and because they mistakenly inferred from his death-like appearance that he had died), but Kreeft must refute the more general explanation: The Survival Theory (hereafter: TST), which does NOT specify that the Roman soldiers willingly released the body of Jesus, NOR that Jesus fainted on the cross, NOR that the Roman soldiers released the body of Jesus because they mistakenly believed Jesus to be dead when he had in fact only fainted.

(If the Roman soldiers were drunk, or drugged, or bribed, or threatened, or distracted, or tricked so that they released the body of Jesus knowing that Jesus was still alive or  so that they let the body of Jesus be taken away without their authorization, The Swoon Theory would be FALSE, but The Survival Theory would be, or could be, TRUE.)

In Chapter 8 of his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (hereafter: HCA), Kreeft has raised nine objections against The Swoon Theory, and I am critically examining those objections to determine whether they are sufficient to refute The Survival Theory (TST), the more general theory that Kreeft must refute in order for his case for the resurrection to succeed.  So, far I have argued that Objection #1 FAILS, Objection #2 FAILS, Objection #3 FAILS, Objection #4 FAILS, and Objection #8 FAILS.   It seems likely, given the consistent FAILURE of his objections so far, that the four remaining objections will also FAIL to refute TST.

 

OBJECTION #5: THE SICKLY JESUS OBJECTION (SJO)

I am very familiar with Kreeft’s Objection #5, and am confident that it, like all the previous objections,  FAILS.  So, right now I am confident that at least six of Kreeft’s nine objections (at least 67% of his objections) FAIL to refute TST.

Here is Peter Kreeft’s fifth objection against TST:

Descent from the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens

 

The post-resurrection appearances convinced the disciples, even “doubting Thomas,” that Jesus was gloriously alive (Jn 20:19-29). It is psychologically impossible for the disciples to have been so transformed and confident if Jesus had merely struggled out of a swoon, badly in need of a doctor. A half-dead, staggering sick man who has just had a narrow escape is not worshiped fearlessly as divine lord and conqueror of death. (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 183)

This is one of the most common objections raised against The Swoon Theory.  I call it the “Sickly Jesus Objection” or SJO.

This objection comes from the skeptical and influential Jesus scholar David Strauss, and when Christian apologists make this objection, they often quote the following passage from Strauss:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which 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.  (The Life of Jesus for the People, Volume 1, 2nd edition, 1879,  p.412)

Some Christian apologists use SJO, but fail to attribute the objection to David Strauss:

  • Ronald Nash in Faith & Reason (1988).  See footnote 25 at the bottom of page 268.
  • Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks in When Skeptics Ask (1990).  See pages 122 and 123.
  • Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli in Handbook of Christian Apologetics  (1994). See page 183.
  • Murray Harris in 3 Crucial Questions about Jesus (1994).  See page 37.
  • Norman Geisler and Frank Turek in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (2004). See  page 305.

Some Christian apologists use SJO and attribute the objection to David Strauss, but don’t quote from Strauss:

  • Gary Habermas and Terry Miethe in Why Believe? God Exists! (1993, reprinted 1998).  See page 264.
  • Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ (1998).  Interview of Dr. Alexander Metherell in Chapter 11; see page 202.
  • Hank Hanegraaff in Resurrection (2000).  See pages 20 and 21.
  • Gary Habermas and Michael Licona in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (2004).  See pages 102 and 103.

Many Christian apologists use SJO and quote all or part of the above passage from Strauss:

  • William Milligan in The Resurrection of Our Lord (1st edition: 1881, 2nd: 1883, 3rd: 1890, 4th:1894, reprinted 1927).  See page 77 and quote in note #36 on pages 264 and 265.
  • James Orr in The Resurrection of Jesus (1908).  See page 43.
  • W.J. Sparrow Simpson in The Resurrection and Modern Thought (1911).  See page 44.
  • Frank Morison in Who Moved the Stone? (1930, paperback edition published in 1958).  See page 96; footnote #1 at the bottom of the page contains the quote.
  • Josh McDowell in The Resurrection Factor (1981).  See pages 98 and 99.
  • William Craig in The Son Rises (1981). See pages 39 and 40.
  • Tim LaHaye in Jesus: Who is He? (1996). See page 272.
  • Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman Jr. in 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists (2002).  See page 224.

Two of the current leading defenders of the resurrection of Jesus are William Craig and Gary Habermas. Both of these apologists are Christian philosophers and they both think very highly of SJO:

…one liberal scholar ended up decimating the swoon theory.  The German scholar D.F. Strauss wrote that it was not plausible that… (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, p.102)

David Strauss administered the death blow to the swoon theory… (Why Believe? God Exists! by Gary Habermas and Terry Miethe, p.264)

Strauss’s critique really put the nails in the coffin for the apparent death theory [i.e. the swoon theory]. (The Son Rises by William Craig, p. 40)

Don’t get your hopes up, though.  SJO clearly FAILS, just like all of the previous objections presented by Peter Kreeft.

 

THE MAIN PROBLEM WITH THE SICKLY JESUS OBJECTION

The main problem with SJO is that it assumes that Jesus appeared to his disciples on the first Easter Sunday, less than two days after he was crucified. Consider the time element in the following sentences from Kreeft’s Objection #5:

It is psychologically impossible for the disciples to have been so transformed and confident if Jesus had merely struggled out of a swoon, badly in need of a doctor. A half-dead, staggering sick man who has just had a narrow escape…  (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 183, emphasis added)

Kreeft is assuming that Jesus left the stone tomb early on Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after Jesus was crucified, and that Jesus met up with his inner circle of disciples that same day.  The importance of this assumption can be more easily seen in the statement of this objection by a couple of other Christian apologists.

Murray Harris states the objection this way:

If Jesus merely swooned on the cross from exhaustion and loss of blood and later revived in the cool tomb, how are we to account for his rapid recovery after the Roman scourging (Mark 15.15) and crucifixion (Mark 15.24) and the lance thrust (John 19.34) so that he appeared to his disciples some 40 or so hours later as someone in no need of medical attention? (Raised Immortal, p.59, emphasis added) 

Tim LaHaye states the objection this way:

How does a weakened and emaciated Christ, a man who would have taken weeks to recover, inspire His disciples to go out and proclaim His resurrection in power?  (Jesus: Who is He?, p.272, emphasis added)

We can see from the above reasoning that SJO is based on the fact that human bodies require more than 40 hours to recover from multiple serious wounds.  But this means that SJO is based on the ASSUMPTION that the first appearances of the “risen” Jesus to his disciples took place in Jerusalem on a Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was crucified.  This assumption, however, is dubious, which means that SJO is a WEAK objection, and that SJO thus FAILS to disprove or refute TST.

It is more likely that the first appearances of the “risen” Jesus to his inner circle of disciples took place in Galilee, which means those appearances took place at least one week after the crucifixion of Jesus, and might well have happened two or three weeks after his crucifixion.  In that case, Jesus would have had significantly more time than just “40 hours or so” to recover from his wounds, making SJO a WEAK objection.

Reginald Fuller is an NT scholar who is an expert on the resurrection of Jesus, and his view is that the first “appearances” of Jesus took place in Galilee:

Mark, generally regarded as the earliest Gospel, originally contained no appearance stories, but merely pointed to subsequent appearances in Galilee (16.7).  (“Resurrection of Christ” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p.648, emphasis added)

There is also indication that the disciples verified the women’s discovery [of Jesus’ empty tomb] (Luke 24.12, 24; John 20.3-10).  Probably this followed the disciples return to Jerusalem, after their visions in Galilee; they must have welcomed the empty tomb as congruous with their Easter faith, which they had already arrived at through the visions. (“Resurrection of Christ” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p.648, emphasis added)

The Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John portray the verification of “the women’s discovery” by Jesus’ male disciples as taking place on the first Easter Sunday, but Fuller rejects this chronology in favor of what is clearly implied by the earlier Gospel of Mark, namely that the first “appearances” of the risen Jesus took place in Galilee.  Fuller believes those appearances were “visions” rather than physical bodily visits of Jesus to Galilee, but the main point here is that Fuller, a leading expert on the resurrection of Jesus, has concluded that the first “appearances” were in Galilee, not in Jerusalem.

E.P. Sanders is a leading Jesus scholar and he agrees with Fuller on this point.  In the chapter on the resurrection in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, Sanders points out the contradiction between Matthew (and Mark) and Luke about where Jesus’ disciples went when Jesus was crucified:

According to Matthew (hinted at also in Mark) Jesus appeared to the women [in Jerusalem on Sunday morning when they went to the tomb where they expected to find Jesus’ dead body] and then later to the disciples in Galilee.

[…]

According to Matthew and Mark, the disciples went to Galilee and saw Jesus there; according to Luke, they did not leave the environs of Jerusalem. (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p.276)

Clearly, Sanders does NOT believe that the accounts of where the disciples initially experienced appearances of the “risen” Jesus in Matthew and Luke are both historically accurate.  At least one of those accounts must be mistaken.

Two pages later, Sanders indicates that although it is difficult to arrive at conclusions about details of what really happened in relation to the “appearances” of the “risen” Jesus, he does conclude that Matthew’s account (and Marks’ account) is more likely to be correct than Luke’s, in terms of where the disciples initially experienced appearances of the “risen” Jesus”:

Faced with accounts of this nature–sharply diverging stories of where and to whom Jesus appeared, lack of agreement and clarity on what he was like…–we cannot reconstruct what really happened.  Throughout this book I have offered suggestions about what lies behind passages in the gospels.  On the present topic, however, I do not see how to improve on the evidence, or how to get behind it.  I have views about parts of it, such as the movement of the disciples: they fled to Galilee and then returned to Jerusalem.  Luke’s view, that they never left the environs of Jerusalem, is explained by the ‘Jerusalemo-centric’ character of his two-volume work, Luke-Acts.    (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p.278, emphasis added)

So, the contradiction between Matthew and Luke on this point is resolved by Sanders in favor of Matthew, and Luke’s account is rejected by Sanders, on this key point.

The location of the first “appearances” of the “risen” Jesus to his inner circle of disciples is important because this is a BIG CLUE as to the span of time between the crucifixion of Jesus and the occurrence of those first “appearances”.  It takes several days to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee, so it would have taken Jesus’ disciples several days to return to Galilee.  That means that if the first “appearances” of the “risen” Jesus took place in Galilee, then those appearances took place at least a week after the crucifixion, and might well have taken place two or three weeks later.

Therefore, it is PROBABLY FALSE that the first “appearances” of the risen Jesus to his inner circle of disciples took place “40 hours or so” after the crucifixion, and it might well be the case that those first “appearances” took place two or three weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus.  Therefore, Kreeft’s Objection #5, the Sickly Jesus Objection, is a WEAK objection, and it FAILS to disprove or refute TST.

 

DAVID STRAUSS HIMSELF REJECTED THE SICKLY JESUS OBJECTION!

It should be noted that David Strauss himself argued that the first “appearances” of Jesus took place in Galilee several days or even weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus.  Read The Life of Jesus for the People, Volume 1, “50. Time and Place of the Apostolic Visions of Christ” on pages 429 to 440.   Strauss himself rejected the traditional Christian assumption that the first “appearances” of Jesus to his inner circle of disciples took place on Sunday less than 48 hours after Jesus was crucified.  Strauss himself rejected the basic assumption that the Sickly Jesus Objection rests upon.

I don’t believe that Strauss was contradicting himself.  His point in the passage that Christian apologists frequently quote, was NOT that the Swoon Theory was FALSE.  His point was, rather, that:

IF one assumes that the Gospels provide historically reliable information about Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and about the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, THEN the Swoon Theory should be rejected.

(This is not a quote from Strauss; it is my interpretation of Strauss.)

But Strauss himself was striving to promote the view that the Gospels DO NOT provide historically reliable information about Jesus.  So, the objection that Strauss raised to the Swoon Theory was an AD HOMINEM argument; it was an argument based on premises that rationalist supporters of the Swoon Theory in Strauss’ time believed (i.e. the Gospels are historically reliable), but that Strauss himself rejected.

Strauss’ actual point was that the rationalist supporters of the Swoon Theory were logically inconsistent in accepting the historical reliability of the Gospels while maintaining the probability of the Swoon Theory.  Once one follows Strauss’ lead, and rejects the historical reliability of the Gospels, his Sickly Jesus Objection against The Swoon Theory FAILS, and it also FAILS as an objection against The Survival Theory.

 

OTHER SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITH THE SICKLY JESUS OBJECTION

There are a number of other serious problems with the Sickly Jesus Objection (SJO) that are basically the same as the problems with the second bullet of The Entombment Objection (TEO) that I covered in the previous post, Part #12 of this series.

Here is the second bullet point of The Entombment Objection (TEO):

  • Jesus bleeding from various serious wounds, without any medical treatment, for 36 hours

Norman Geisler specifies various alleged wounds of Jesus in When Skeptics Ask (see pages 120-121):

  • Jesus “had been beaten and whipped repeatedly…with a Roman scourge”
  • A “crown of thorns had been pushed onto” Jesus’s head
  • Jesus “suffered five major wounds” on the day he was crucified [four nail wounds and one spear wound]

NONE of these alleged wounds is an historical FACT, and each of these alleged wounds is questionable and subject to reasonable doubt (see my discussion of this in Part #12).

Furthermore, each of the alleged wounds could occur with different degrees of severity (no whipping or light whipping or moderate whipping or severe whipping, and no crown of thorns or relatively harmless crown of thorns or harmful crown of thorns, and no nailing or nailing of hands but not feet or nailing of feet but not hands or nailing of hands and feet, and no spear wound or moderate spear wound or  severe spear wound).

The fewer of the alleged wounds that were actually inflicted on Jesus and the less severe the wounds that were inflicted on Jesus, the weaker the Sickly Jesus Objection would be.  Since NONE of the alleged wounds is an established historical FACT, and since the severity of each wound is also NOT an established historical FACT, that means that SJO is a WEAK objection, and thus SJO FAILS to disprove or refute The Survival Theory.

 

CONCLUSION

The strength of SJO depends upon a number of ASSUMPTIONS made by Christian apologists.  One key ASSUMPTION is PROBABLY FALSE, namely the assumption that:

The first “appearances” of the “risen” Jesus took place less than 48 hours after Jesus was crucified. 

Because this key assumption is PROBABLY FALSE, SJO is a weak objection.

Other ASSUMPTIONS about Jesus’ alleged wounds are required in order for SJO to be a strong objection:

  • Jesus was severely whipped with a Roman scourge prior to being crucified
  • a harmful crown of thorns (with long sharp thorns pointing inward) was shoved forcefully onto Jesus’ scalp prior to his crucifixion
  • both of Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross
  • both of Jesus’ feet were nailed to the cross
  • Jesus received a deep and severe spear wound to his side while he was still on the cross

Because NONE of these assumptions about the alleged wounds of Jesus is an established historical FACT, and because all of these assumptions are questionable, SJO is a weak objection.

We have good reasons to conclude that SJO is a weak objection, and thus that SJO FAILS to disprove or refute the Swoon Theory, and that it FAILS to disprove or refute The Survival Theory.


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