David P. Diaz, Ed.D.
Hypotheses that Attempt to Explain the Purported Facts
Based on the reliability of the Greek text, the early dating of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15, and other corroborating factors (i.e., early, independent, and multiple historical attestations), I believe we have good reason to think that the four facts about Jesus reflect the consensus beliefs of the earliest Christians. These four facts are: (1) the followers of Jesus believed he died by crucifixion and was buried, (2) key individuals had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and appeared to them, (3) key groups of people were believed to have seen a risen Jesus, and (4) the apostles of Jesus believed that the risen Jesus appeared in bodily form. (For more information, see Part 1 under the main heading, “Four Purported Facts about the Resurrection.”)
However, just because people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. Nevertheless, such widespread belief regarding the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, especially in the face of imminent persecution, begs the question of why. If you agree that the four facts are credible, then let’s consider why so many of the earliest Christians believed in the risen Jesus.
The type of case that I will be presenting is an inference to the best explanation. This process does not intend to prove the resurrection but, in this case, aims to find the most probable explanation for the beliefs of the early Church about the death, burial, and resurrection appearances of Jesus. If it can be shown that one hypothesis is more probable than all others, then it is rational to believe in the truth of that hypothesis.
The Resurrection Hypothesis
The traditional Christian position is that Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and was raised physically from the dead. We will call this H1, the Resurrection Hypothesis. Of the five hypotheses, this is the only one that requires supernatural causation. However, if you have suspended any preconceived bias against God and the supernatural, as I requested in Part 1, you can at least consider this hypothesis.
The competing positions that will be discussed in this essay are as follows: H2, the Hallucination Hypothesis (all purported appearances of a risen Jesus were hallucinated), H3, the Apparent Death Hypothesis (Jesus didn’t really die), H4, the Conspiracy Hypothesis (i.e., the disciples or other friends of Jesus stole the body), and H5, the Myth Hypothesis (the resurrection of Jesus was merely a myth).
In the end, you may find that none of the hypotheses are convincing enough to sway your beliefs. But keep in mind that the following discussion is not about determining what we can know with certainty. It’s about which hypothesis best explains the facts. If one theory seems more plausible or probable than the others, then one is rationally justified in believing that hypothesis, at least until a better one comes along or until more information is available to influence one’s position. In other words, in the current context, a belief is justified (provisionally) if the evidence favors one hypothesis relative to all others being considered. An inference to the best explanation asks us to use our reasoning processes to determine which hypothesis provides the best explanation of the facts. Such an argument does not prove that a given hypothesis is true, but it can show that one hypothesis is more plausible or probable than the rest and is, therefore, the more rational choice between the views presented.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a hallucination as “a false sensory perception that has a compelling sense of reality despite the absence of an external stimulus.” In other words, when a person hallucinates, they are seeing, hearing, or feeling something that is not there.
One of the more common naturalisticexplanations of the purported appearances of Jesus to his disciples is the Hallucination Hypothesis: the disciples and others who believed Jesus appeared to them were hallucinating the appearance. This hypothesis doesn’t necessarily dispute that Jesus died by crucifixion; it merely suggests a different explanation for the other three facts.
Skeptic biblical scholars Michael Goulder and Gerd Lüdemann think that certain psychological conditions (i.e., hallucinations, delusions, visions, etc.) brought about the experiences of a risen Jesus in the disciples. Goulder refers to hallucination experiences as “communal delusions,” while Lüdemann prefers to describe hallucinations as “nonveridical [i.e., not genuine] visions.”
There are several reasons to doubt hallucinations as a credible hypothesis. First, the incidences of hallucinations in the general population have ranged from a low of 1.7 percent to a high of 38.7 percent. However, a comparison of five different studies conducted on a general population (n = 48,230) revealed the incidence of hallucinations to be just 16.55 percent. Women are more likely to experience hallucinations than men; some personality types are more susceptible than others, and, as one gets older, he or she is more likely to suffer hallucinations. There is no way to know for sure if the same percentages would hold for first-century Palestinian Jews. But even if we assume that 50 percent of the general population of that time were likely to experience hallucinations, it begs the question of how 100 percent of the male disciples hallucinated Jesus.
Second, hallucinations are private experiences that occur in an individual’s mind. They are not collective experiences but represent a “misattribution of private events.” Thus, there is a limited possibility for individual hallucinations to be shared across persons.
Third, hallucinations do not adequately account for all purported appearances of Jesus. It is understandable why some might believe that certain individuals cited in the New Testament suffered a hallucination. Peter, for example, must have felt guilty (for denying Jesus and running away) and was grief-stricken by the loss of his Master. He was a true believer and wanted the resurrection to be true. Thus, Peter was perhaps the perfect candidate for hallucination. According to one view, Peter purportedly hallucinated Jesus’s appearance and then shared his experience with other disciples who had similar hallucinations. These hallucinations were subsequently spread to groups of different sizes. However, even if one accepts the idea that a “chain reaction” of hallucinations was started by Peter and spread like an infection to the other disciples, this will not explain Jesus’s appearances to James and Paul, who stood outside the chain. Neither James, “the Lord’s brother” (see Gal. 1:19), nor Paul was a follower of Jesus during his ministry. Therefore, there is no compelling reason to assume they were in the right frame of mind to experience a hallucination. Paul couldn’t care less about Jesus’s death; he opposed Christianity until his conversion experience (Acts 8:1–3; 9:2). James did not believe in the work of his brother Jesus and stood opposed to him throughout his earthly ministry (Jn. 7:3–5).
Fourth, the hallucination hypothesis lacks a corpse. If the resurrection appearances were hallucinations, then the belief that Jesus physically appeared could have been easily dismissed by simply producing the corpse of Jesus. But a body was never produced.
Fifth, the hallucination hypothesis relies on attempts to diagnose hallucinations (or delusions, or visions) in people “who are not only absent but who also lived in an ancient foreign culture.” According to Licona, such an exercise “involves a great deal of speculation and is a very difficult and chancy practice.”
Considering the preceding five points, H2 seems an unlikely explanation for the experiences of the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:5), the five hundred (v. 6), James and all the apostles (v. 7), and Paul (v. 8).
Apparent Death Hypothesis
The early creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 demonstrates that the earliest Christians believed in the gospel message (v. 1) that Jesus died for sins (v. 3). As attested by Paul, most of the five hundred witnesses (i.e., those to whom Jesus was said to have appeared) were still alive at the time of his writing (v. 6), which implies they could serve as confirming witnesses to any who might inquire. As stated earlier, each canonical gospel authenticated Jesus’s death by crucifixion and extrabiblical authors also confirmed that Jesus was crucified. Together, these reports represent early, multiple, and independent attestations of Jesus’s death by crucifixion, which count against the apparent death hypothesis.
The principal difficulty with this theory is that to be crucified at the time of Jesus but not die was an unlikely occurrence. Crucifixion was a common practice in the eastern Mediterranean long before the Romans adopted the method. The Romans, however, turned crucifixion into a deadly art form. Standard practices were: scourging before the crucifixion, the condemned carrying the crossbeam, and guards stationed at the cross until the death of the victim. Other practices included driving nails through the wrist and ankle bones of the victim, crurifragium (breaking the legs to expedite death), and a final spear thrust to the heart to determine death. Thus, it is plausible, if not probable, that crucified people died from the experience.
There is only one account in history where a person was claimed to have survived crucifixion. Josephus related this occurrence, which took place on an official visit to a village called Thecoa. Upon seeing three former acquaintances crucified, Josephus described how he pleaded on their behalf to the Roman commander, Titus, who promptly released them into the immediate care of a physician. Despite this prompt attention, two of the three died, and one recovered. This example shows that even under the best conditions, a crucified victim most likely died.
Today, even among agnostic and atheist historians, Jesus’s crucifixion and death are considered established facts. According to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (agnostic), “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” Atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann adds, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, who thought that Jesus’s deity was, at best, a mere metaphor, stated that there is not the “slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate” and “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”
Because there is substantial evidence that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, H3 seems to be improbable.
This leads us to a theory that suggests that perhaps Jesus’s body was stolen, either by the disciples or other friends of Jesus. To what purpose might the body of Jesus have been stolen? Apparently, we are to believe that the disciples knew that Jesus did not die or rise from the dead, and yet, for some unknown reason, they convinced themselves and other early followers to risk their lives, futures, and the fates of their loved ones by preaching the gospel of Jesus. While many people believe untrue things and are even willing to sacrifice their welfare and lives for something they genuinely believe, it begs the question of why anyone would willingly suffer such widespread risk of abuse for something they knew was a lie.
Eminent New Testament scholar Dale C. Allison Jr. tells us that a conspiracy theory requires conscious deception on the disciples’ part. But to what end? Did the disciples think that if they pirated Jesus’s body, they would gain favor among the Jewish leaders? Did they believe that such a lie would lead them to a rewarding and lucrative vocation for the rest of their lives? Probably not. As Sean McDowell notes: “The apostles proclaimed the risen Jesus to skeptical and antagonistic audiences with full knowledge they would likely suffer and die for their beliefs.” Licona puts a fine point on it: “The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs.” Even if the disciples did not end up dying for their faith, at the very least, they endured public scorn and persecution and put their lives and the fates of their families at risk, all while genuinely believing that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Perhaps the only version of this hypothesis that would have some hypothetical weight would be if one or more of the other followers of Jesus, unbeknownst to the disciples, spirited away Jesus’s body (perhaps to restore his good name) and kept this fact hidden from the disciples and everyone else. Though some might find this sub-hypothesis acceptable, it seems far-fetched that such a deception could have emerged and persisted without the disciples and others finding out. It is unclear what motive would have coerced a group of followers to keep such a fact from the disciples, the family of Jesus, and everyone else.
The critical weakness of H4 is that it is predominantly ad hoc. No evidence demonstrates its truth. It’s a convenient idea for skeptics but lacks supporting facts.
Some believe that the resurrection was a mythical tale, either concocted by the disciples or perhaps produced by others after the original followers of Jesus were deceased. However, this doesn’t square with the fact that the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 demonstrates that Christians most likely believed in the death, burial, and resurrection very early, perhaps even weeks or months after the crucifixion. There was simply no time for mythical development. The reliability and early dating of the creed severely impact the credibility of any hypothesis that claims the early Christians believed in a mythological story.
Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White tells us that Herodotus’s tales of the Persian Wars provide us an opportunity “to test the tempo of myth-making.” He concludes that “the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” The creed in 1 Corinthians 15 suggests that the resurrection of Jesus was part of the belief system of the earliest Christians. Not even one generation had passed before Paul introduced the creed to the Christians at Corinth: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Thus, H5 seems unlikely.
The preceding article listed four facts that find their source in a creed that most likely accurately represents the beliefs of the earliest Christians. Why did so many people develop and maintain these beliefs so soon after the crucifixion of Jesus? I presented five hypotheses to account for these proposed facts. I also pointed out the limitations of each naturalistic hypothesis (H2–H5).
The facts support the contention that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus died by crucifixion, was buried, and within three days appeared alive to many of his followers. You may be saying, so what? Why would anyone care if some people believed Jesus appeared to them? Does that make it true? No, it doesn’t. But ask yourself the following question: Which of the previous five hypotheses best explains these early beliefs? The best explanation is the one that explains more of the evidence more simply than any other.
The primary weakness of the resurrection hypothesis (H1) is that it relies on the existence of God. If God doesn’t exist, then Christian doctrine is in error; miracles don’t exist, and resurrections don’t happen. But let’s say we are at least open to the possibility of the existence of God; what then? If one is open to supernatural causation by God, then H1 sufficiently explains why each of the proposed facts was believed by the earliest Christians: the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus happened.
If one denies supernatural causes outright, then one is left with one of the naturalistic hypotheses (H2–H5) or some other theory than those I have presented. Perhaps some other hypothesis would better explain the four historical facts than the resurrection hypothesis. Nevertheless, none of the naturalistic hypotheses presented in this essay sufficiently explains why so many people in so many different situations believed that Jesus—after he was crucified, died, and was buried— appeared to them alive and well. Only the resurrection hypothesis fully and consistently explains the four historical facts.
In this paper, I have not attempted to prove the truth of the resurrection, nor have I claimed to refute every naturalistic hypothesis. I presented four facts, which are widely supported, and I offered five possible explanations for the proposed facts. It is my contention that the resurrection hypothesis represents the best explanation of the facts. If there are other hypotheses that you think are better than the ones I proposed, then I recommend you study them and compare them to the resurrection hypothesis. Ask yourself how well each hypothesis explains the facts. If you are reluctant to accept the resurrection hypothesis solely because it requires the existence of God, then perhaps you should reevaluate whether an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Being (i.e., the God of Christian theism) exists. There are plenty of theistic arguments that have been put forth to demonstrate God’s existence.
So, right now, let me challenge you to pick a horse in the race. If you think that one of the hypotheses (i.e., H1–H5) represents a better explanation of the facts than the others, then run with it. Your decision will not be written in stone. It is simply a judgment that reflects your current thoughts about the different options presented. Ask yourself if the naturalistic hypotheses—hallucination, apparent death, conspiracy, or myth—make better sense of the facts. Or does the resurrection hypothesis seem a more probable explanation? Focus your future studies on whatever hypothesis you choose and test it to be sure it holds water.
In my opinion, the resurrection hypothesis provides a better, more consistent, and coherent explanation for why so many early Christians believed in the resurrection appearances and lived the rest of their lives proclaiming this good news to all who would listen (even to those who would do them harm). Thus, one can be rationally justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead unless or until there are other hypotheses that better explain the beliefs of the early Church.
In closing, let me say this: If you have succeeded in keeping an open mind about the truth of each hypothesis, you have managed to accomplish that which many others have not. If you have suspended, even temporarily, your prior biases and presuppositions, then you have allowed yourself to pursue a broader path toward truth. In other words, you haven’t closed your mind to any potential explanation.
I hope that you can continue this journey and that it will one day—if not today—lead you to believe in the resurrection, or at least to further consider its truth. The facts surrounding Jesus’s resurrection convinced the earliest Christians. I hope that you will discover, as they did, the inner conviction and courage attendant to the good news of eternal life and trust in Jesus Christ.
About the Author
David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is an author, retired college professor, and the publisher and owner of Things I Believe Project. His writings have spanned the gamut from peer-reviewed technical articles to his memoir, which won the 2006 American Book Award. Dr. Diaz holds Bachelor’s and Master of Science degrees from California Polytechnic State University and a doctoral degree in education from Nova Southeastern University.
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 APA Dictionary of Psychology, Accessed April 26, 2022. https://dictionary.apa.org/hallucination. Though not everyone defines hallucinations in the same way, for our purposes, hallucinations lack an external object of perception. In this sense, a hallucination is different from a vision or an illusion.
 A naturalistic hypothesis is one that does not appeal to supernatural causes.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, chapter 5.
 Ibid., 479–82.
 William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate between William Lane Craig & Gerd Lüdemann, ed. Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli (InterVarsity Press, 2000), Kindle location 2049.
 Andre Aleman and Frank Larøi. Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008, Kindle location 1276.
 This is especially true in older adults who have recently lost a close loved one. See the 1991 study by Tien in Aleman and Larøi (2008), Kindle location 1261.
 Such a high figure is entirely speculative and is, thus, ad hoc. There is no evidence for the prevalence of hallucinations in the first century, but it seems far-fetched to think that such psychotic episodes were more common than 50 percent.
 Aleman and Larøi, Hallucinations, Kindle location 2185.
 Lüdemann as cited in Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 498.
 William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Edwin Mellin Press, 1989), 289.
 Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection, 285, n21, 22.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 505.
 Craig A. Evans, Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture (Peabody, MA: Endrickson Publishers Marketing, 2015), 163.
 For the gruesome nature of scourging and other physical aspects of the resurrection, see William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyed E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” JAMA 255, no. 11 (1986): pp. 1455-1463, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1986.03370110077025.
 Evans, Jesus and the Remains of His Day, 164–65.
 Joe E. Holoubek and Alice Baker Holoubek, “A Study of Death by Crucifixion with Attempted Explanation of the Death of Jesus Christ,” The Linacre Quarterly: Vol. 61: No. 1, Article 3 (1994): pp. 10–19. https://epublications.marquette.edu/lnq/vol61/iss1/3.
 Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, 76.420–21.
 As cited in Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 600.
 Ibid., 311.
 Dale C. Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History (London: T&T Clark, 2021) 15.
 Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus (London, UK: Routledge, 2018), 264.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 370.
 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 190.