If all of these naturalistic theories have on their own some logical weakness, perhaps the answer to this lies in a combination of the various suggestions. Here is one such option. Maybe, just maybe, the disciples of Jesus went to the wrong tomb because they had forgotten exactly where Jesus had been laid. That much is reasonable enough. They discovered that this tomb was empty and the stone rolled away and they didn’t realise their mistake – this was the wrong tomb. Having suffered the most acute trauma and grief, one by one, they all began to suffer from hallucinating experiences in which they saw Jesus in their memory. However, they were each so damaged by the events of the previous week that their ability to have rational thought was dysfunctional, and they therefore began to believe that they saw the same image as soon as another described ‘seeing’ him. Thus, these hallucinations were, to a point, shared experiences. Motivated by these mind-unsettling experiences, they emerged with a totally misguided, yet firm conviction that Jesus was alive again, and to them, the ‘wrong’ empty tomb proved it. They began preaching this revelation and many people accepted their testimony. But amazingly, some of these also ‘saw’ Jesus including an astonishing incident when 500 believers experienced the same ‘hallucination’ at the same time.
The Jewish priests and scribes were put out by this and went to the real tomb – they knew for sure where it was of course – and wondered what they might discover, knowing that they had organised guards to keep watch over this tomb. To their astonishment, the tomb was indeed empty! Unbeknown to them, the man who had initially buried Jesus had returned, re-interred his body into a more suitable location, and then had promptly left town without telling anyone, never to return. Thus, the truth about Jesus’ body was never discovered. The guards had also disappeared from the city so they couldn’t be consulted – perhaps they had each suffered a fatal illness or been killed in combat with Jewish zealots or bandits, or some other unlucky happenstance.
Either way, the Jewish rulers accepted that the body was missing and that the tomb was empty. But undeterred by this, they began to spread alternative theories to try to quell the disturbance caused by the preaching of the disciples. Such was the fervour of the situation, however, that incredibly, James and the other members of Jesus’ household began experiencing hallucinations of Jesus as well. Despite believing that their brother Jesus was out of his mind, when he was alive, they began to ‘see’ him from time to time and were converted.
Saul on the other hand, the prominent Pharisee critic, had a terrible personality crisis, ridden with guilt and an anti-establishment tendency, and suffered a sudden onslaught of post-traumatic stress disorder in which he hallucinated in the same way as all the other disciples. Saul was convinced and without further ado, he threw away his career, his livelihood and his reputation to take on a life of suffering, hardship and persecution that would ultimately lead to his execution.
All of this together just about explains all the facts and therefore, this, or something like it could be the set of events that bridge the three day gap in history.
And yet, if we are creative enough, we could probably dream up other possibilities that fit the facts. These would all be possible explanations, but in historical investigation we need to ask how likely a set of circumstances is. How likely is it that all these slightly bizarre coincidences happened?
There is a philosophical principle that was coined by a medieval monk, William of Ockham, which has come to be known as Occam’s Razor and defined as:
“One should not multiply entities beyond necessity.”
In basic terms this means that an explanation with the fewest set of assumptions is much more likely to be true than a series of ad hoc assumptions, all of which are fairly unlikely in themselves. The principle is not watertight, but it does help to put perspective on the question before us when we are comparing the various explanations that have been suggested.
The five facts we have established demand an explanation. There must be something that coherently accounts for all of the five facts at the same time. The naturalistic theories that we have looked at appear to fail in having sufficient explanatory power. It is possible to multiply assumptions and imagine a string of scenarios to arrive at an explanation that meets all the criteria, however each of the steps along the way are in themselves fairly unlikely. It feels like entities are being multiplied unnecessarily. Isn’t there a simpler explanation for the curious events of 2,000 years ago that have irrevocably changed the world?
Perhaps we should begin to seriously consider what the disciples claimed. They asserted that on the third day Jesus was revived from a death state and brought back to life, and had appeared to several people.
Now this would adequately explain the transformation that the disciples experienced, from coarse, rural fishermen to emboldened preachers. It also explains the fact that the tomb was empty. It explains the appearances that the disciples claimed to have experienced and furthermore, it has sufficient scope to explain the conversion in James and Paul.
In fact, it really does fit all of the facts that we determined right from the outset.
This is a simple, straightforward hypothesis, without any ad hoc assumptions. This feels like an explanation that might just have weight. An explanation, don’t you think, that is convincing enough to fill the greatest and most important hole in history?