Investigating Easter: Were the Disciples Simply Influenced by Limited “Spiritual” Sightings?

As an unbelieving investigator of the gospels, I made a list of explanations for the what the gospel authors reported about the Resurrection of Jesus. I was a committed philosophical naturalist at the time, so I rejected the Resurrection as unreasonable. Instead, I believed there had to be a better explanation. Were the disciples lying? Did they imagine the Resurrection? I searched for a more “acceptable” alternative. In recent years, some skeptics have offered one such alternate explanation: Perhaps one or two of the disciples had a “vision” of the risen Christ and then convinced the others that these “spiritual” sightings were legitimate. They argue that additional sightings simply came as a response to the intense influence of the first visions.

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Investigating Easter: Were the Disciples Fooled By An Imposter?

As an atheist, the Resurrection of Jesus seemed preposterous to me. I was willing to accept the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, but I rejected the supernatural claims of the New Testament Gospels, especially the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. When I eventually decided to investigate the Resurrection, I made a list of all the possible explanations for the claims of the disciples. Were they mistaken about the death of Jesus? Did they lie about the Resurrection? Were they hallucinating? I examined a number of explanations, including the possibility that an imposter tricked the disciples and convinced them that Jesus was still alive. If this were the case, the disciples might have unknowingly advanced a lie.

While imposter theories may account for the observations of the disciples, they require an additional set of conspirators (other than the apostles who were later fooled) to accomplish the task of stealing the body. Many of my partners spent several years investigating fraud and forgery crimes prior to joining us on the homicide team. They’ve learned something about successful con artists. The less the victim understands about the specific topic and area in which they are being “conned,” the more likely the con artist will be successful. Victims are often fooled and swindled out of their money because they have little or no expertise in the area in which the con artist is operating. The perpetrator is able to use sophisticated language and make claims that are outside of the victim’s expertise. The crook sounds legitimate, primarily because the victim doesn’t really know what truly is legitimate. When the targeted victim knows more about the subject than the person attempting the con, the odds are good that the perpetrator will fail at his attempt to fool the victim. For this reason, the proposal that a sophisticated first-century con artist fooled the disciples seems unreasonable. There are many concerns with such a theory:

1. The impersonator would have to be familiar enough with Jesus’s mannerisms and statements to convince the disciples. The disciples knew the topic of the con better than anyone who might con them.

2. Many of the disciples were skeptical and displayed none of the necessary naïveté that would be required for the con artist to succeed. Thomas, for example, was openly skeptical from the beginning.

3. Who would seek to start a world religious movement if not one of the hopeful disciples? This theory requires someone to be motivated to impersonate Jesus other than the disciples themselves.

4. This explanation also fails to account for the empty tomb or missing body of Jesus.

5. The impersonator would need to possess miraculous powers; the disciples reported that the resurrected Jesus appeared miraculously (Luke 24:36), performed many miracles and “convincing proofs” (John 21:6, Acts 1:3), and ascended into heaven miraculously (Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9).

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Investigating Easter: Did the Disciples Imagine the Resurrection?

In the many centuries since the disciples of Jesus reportedly observed the risen Christ, critics of Christianity have challenged the supernatural claim of the Resurrection. Some skeptics believe the disciples, as a result of their intense grief and sorrow, only imagined seeing Jesus alive after His death on the cross. These critics claim the appearances were simply hallucinations that resulted from wishful thinking. But this proposal fails to explain the empty tomb and only accounts for the resurrection experiences at first glance.

As a detective, I frequently encounter witnesses who are related in some way to the victim in my case. These witnesses are often profoundly impacted by their grief following the murder.

Investigating Easter: Did The Disciples Lie About the Resurrection?

Did Jesus really rise from the grave on Easter Sunday? Is the Resurrection of Jesus a fabrication created by the disciples in an effort to start a world religion or accomplish some other nefarious goal? Some skeptics claim the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the grave and later fabricated the stories of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. While this explanation may account for the empty tomb and the resurrection observations (as lies), it fails to account for the transformed lives of the apostles.

In my years working robberies, I had the opportunity to investigate (and break) a number of conspiracy efforts, and I learned about the nature of successful conspiracies. I’ve written about this extensively at ColdCaseChristianity.com. Based on my experience, I am hesitant to embrace any theory that requires the conspiratorial effort of a large number of people, over a significant period of time, when there is personally little or nothing to gain by their effort. This skeptical apostolic conspiracy theory requires us to believe that the apostles were transformed and emboldened not by the miraculous appearance of the resurrected Jesus but by elaborate lies created without any benefit to those who were perpetuating the hoax. In addition to this concern from the perspective of a detective, there are other concerns that have to be considered when evaluating the claim that the disciples lied about the resurrection:

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Investigating Easter: Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?

Some skeptics have offered the possibility that the disciples were mistaken about Jesus’s death on the cross. They propose that Jesus survived the beating (and the crucifixion) and simply appeared to the disciples after He recovered. After all, the Biblical record in John’s gospel indicates the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus were still alive when the soldiers arrived to remove the bodies from the crosses:

John 19:31-35
Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

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Why I Know the Disciples Didn’t Conspire to Fabricate the Resurrection of Jesus

How do we know the resurrection of Jesus really occurred? Were the gospel authors and disciples telling the truth about this central claim of Christianity, or did they conspire to fabricate the most compelling story of all time? Is the Resurrection simply a lie? In my experience as a detective, I have investigated many conspiracies and multiple suspect crimes. While successful conspiracies are the popular subject of many movies and novels, I’ve come to learn that they are (in reality) very difficult to pull off. Successful conspiracies share a number of common characteristics:
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The Resurrection Matters

The resurrection of Jesus is not just the reason for Easter. It is the most important event in the history of the world. Not only does Christianity rise and fall on the reality and the power of the resurrection, but the very fate of the human race also depends on it.

The apostle Paul said as much in his first letter to the Corinthian church: And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17).

What does that have to do with the human race? Well, if there’s no resurrection, there’s no Jesus, at least not the Jesus portrayed in the Bible. The biblical Jesus is the Son of God, who came to earth to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). In his death Jesus took on the sins of the world. In his resurrection he conquered death and those who believe in him to experience God’s forgiveness and be forever reconciled to God.
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Our Great Needs and the Ideal

Carved in to the façade of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, is a quote credited to Victor Hugo. The first part of the quote is this: “the human soul has still greater need of the ideal than the real.” These words face the rather famous Country Club Plaza and I noticed them all over again as my children and I milled around the sculpture park that decorates the green space in front of the museum recently.

Approaching Easter, my thoughts naturally (and supernaturally for that matter) turn to resurrection and then to the pressing global needs that cram airwaves, news tweets, and editorial blogs. Will Iran spiral in to a war with Israel? Has the rise of the Western economy stopped and it’s now the rise of the rest that will dominate the future? Is there a ‘new world’ being developed somewhere on earth with immigrants looking for a home for their family and faith? Does anyone notice that the tomb of Jesus is still empty?

Back at the sculpture park, my children are racing from one piece to the next and we’re playing a game that I unapologetically started.

What if Jesus Is Still Dead?

There have been a lot of great religious teachers throughout history. Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed are three of the most recognizable, and all have millions of followers to this day. Yet there's one thing about all three--and every other great teacher from the past--that should be somewhat disconcerting to their followers: they're all dead.

Then there's Jesus, the greatest teacher of all. Like Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed, Jesus died. But unlike the other great spiritual leaders and self-proclaimed prophets who have walked the earth throughout history, Jesus came back to life.

Now, this may not matter to some people (and by the sheer numbers people who follow dead teachers and prophets, it must not), but it should matter to you. if you are a follower of Christ, you need to know that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the most important part of your faith. 

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Passion Week is a Calling and You're Called

My friend walked up to me weeping. I asked him what was wrong. He responded, "I just read the Gospel of Luke. I think I need to sell everything and follow Jesus. ... But that's not what makes me sad; it's that I am so far from Christ. All these years I've been following Him and I'm just now realizing what it means to actually follow Him. He was willing to give everything for me, and I must give everything for Him."

I cried too. It changed my life. I wanted to respond with some scholastic copout about metaphors or hyperbole, but I knew that wasn’t the truth. Christ has called us to give everything for Him.

But I must tell you that God is still working this great work in me. And as for my friend, I recently brought this story up to him, and he said that God is still doing the great work in him as well. What we share in common is that Christ has seriously transformed both of us since that day.

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