Every Easter season, it seems that at least one old supposed refutation of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ is itself resurrected and trotted out to ridicule the central tenet of the Christian faith: that Jesus was crucified, died, and by His own power was raised from the dead three days later.
I was a bit surprised to see what is commonly referred to as the ‘swoon theory’ being used by quite a few people this time around, particularly since it has been so thoroughly disproven many time in the past. But, since it seems to be fairly popular once again, I’ll briefly deal with it here.
The variations of the swoon theory all state that Jesus did not really die when crucified; he merely became unconscious (“passed out” or ‘swooned”) and woke up while in the tomb. Sometime before the discovery of the open tomb, he either rolled the stone away himself, or someone opened it for him, and he simply walked out.
There are so many ways to refute this argument that it is hard to decide where to start. I’ll begin with a quick rundown of the relevant facts of the case, using the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Gospels.
1. Jesus was flogged within a few hours of His crucifixion. See Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, and John 19:1. Flogging was done by beating the subject with either rods or whips consisting of leather straps with metal, bone, or stone fixed to the ends. Many victims died as a result of the blood loss and broken bones.
2. Jesus was crucified, and before he was buried his lungs and probably heart were pierced by a Roman spear. (John 19:34)
3. He was wrapped in spices and linen before being placed in the tomb. (Matt. 59-60, Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50 – 53 John 38-40)
4. After burial, the tomb entrance was covered with a stone large enough that it would take multiple people or at least a very strong man to move, sealed with an official Roman seal, and a guard posted to make sure the tomb was not tampered with. (Matt. 27:64-66)
5. On the first day of the week, the tomb was discovered empty, with the stone rolled away from the entrance. (Matt. 28:1-4, Mark 16:1-6, Luke 24:1-4, John 20:1-7)
The first of these facts, the flogging, could be seen as possible confirmation of the swoon theory in that it would have resulted in a weakened state, and Jesus would be more likely to become unconscious on the cross because of it. However, it much more convincing confirmation that Jesus died given the nature of death by crucifixion. Death by crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death of asphyxiation. Unconsciousness would result in death within minutes unless the subject was taken down almost immediately. If anything the flogging would have made it more likely that Jesus died, not less.
Next, we have the crucifixion itself. Roman soldiers put on “crucifixion detail” were specially trained for the job. In addition to training on how to most efficiently affix the victim to the cross, they were trained in how to prolong and maximize the agony of the crucifixion as well as how to make sure the victim was dead before removal from the cross. In addition, since those to be crucified were considered criminals, should the subject survive the ordeal they would be legally considered having escaped punishment – and any Roman soldier put in charge of a criminal would be charged with allowing a criminal to escape. The punishment for that, as was the punishment for falling asleep on watch, was death. In other words, the soldiers who crucified Jesus were not only well trained executioners, they had a very high incentive to insure His death as well.
Coupled with the fact that one of the soldiers punctured Jesus’ lung and possible heart with a spear, resulting in an issue of blood and water, (in and of itself a sign of death) the odds of His survival at this point are so low as to be ridiculous to consider.
But engage in a bit of willing disbelief of the facts so far and consider the preparation for burial.
John 19:39-40 states that Jesus was prepared for burial according to Jewish custom. This involved washing the body, then wrapping it in strips of linen layered between a paste of spices and oils. Essentially, the body was encased in a kind of plaster wrap which typically weighed between 100 to 250 pounds.
Swoon theorists would have us believe that during the preparation of the body, no one noticed that Jesus was breathing, that the process of wrapping the body didn’t suffocate Him, and that with massive loss of blood, extreme dehydration, and typically mortal puncture wounds He somehow was able to not only survive a night in such condition but free himself from a tightly bound full-body cast as well! Not only that, be we’re told that He was able to walk out of a sealed tomb unnoticed by trained guards who where specifically placed to ensure that no one either entered or left that tomb.
Put all of the above together, and it is very clear that the swoon theories are nothing more than the wishful speculation of those who are desperately grasping at any straw they can find to deny accountability to the God of the universe.
The fact is that Jesus died, was buried, and by His own power rose alive from death in order to provide the ONLY way to restore our relationship with our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.
Some additional reading:
Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred Wight. The title is a link to the online pdf version.
The Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli is available from a number of online booksellers as well as a Logos Bible Software resource. Page 183 gives nine evidences refuting the swoon theory.
Finally, here’s a video that discusses the subject at length.