The swoon theory is still alive today, even if it’s on life support. It should have been pronounced dead on the table centuries ago. For those of you who don’t know, the swoon theory is the idea that Jesus faked his death on the cross. He just appeared to have died. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds.
This theory was popular back in the 18th and 19th century among German rationalists who felt compelled to explained the evidence for the resurrection without appealing to a miracle. In my ‘the explanations’ section on the site, I didn’t bother including it because honestly, the I thought the theory has been given a proper burial already. Pun intended. But to my surprise, there are a handful of people who believe the swoon theory is a live option.
So what are the arguments in favor of the swoon theory?
The swoon theorist will say things like this: It was rare for a healthy person to die as rapidly as Jesus did on the cross. Mark reports that Jesus was crucified at 9 am and died at 3 pm, just 6 hours after the crucifixion. Pilate himself was surprised to hear that Jesus had died so soon (Mk 15:44). The average time someone hung on the cross before dying is 2-4 days, it was meant to be a lingering and painful death.
Josephus tells us in his autobiography that he knew of three crucifixion victims that were taken down before death. After medical treatment, only one lived, but that’s still a 33% chance.
Additionally, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, quickly asks for his body and gives Jesus a swift burial. What allegedly follows from this is that there’s a lack of public scrutiny with what Joseph did with the body. Jesus would have room to recover from his trauma in a burial chamber on private property.
Now if your bunk detector is going off right now, I understand. The swoon theory is plagued with problems.
Here are 7 reasons the swoon theory fails:
1. Jesus wouldn’t trick his own followers and family.
I mean, what’s to be gained here? David Mirsch is one of the few people who still hold onto this theory. He says Jesus was some kind of secret revolutionary who aspired to overthrow Rome. If so, Jesus was one of the worst Jewish revolutionaries ever. He preached enemy love (Matthew 5:44-48) and to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s. (Mark 12:17). He said the greatest in the kingdom was those who serve. (Matthew 23:11) When asked if he was the king of the Jews by Pilate, Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). In response, Pilate says “I find no fault in this man.” (Luke 23:4) Jesus’ apostles taught to the church to submit to governing authorities. (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:17)
It’s impossible to read Jesus’ teachings and believe that this is the same person who would systematically choose to deceive his followers and family members (1 Corinthians 15:7, 9:5) that he was the Son of God, leading them to endure a lifetime of suffering. He failed to overthrow Rome and disappears from the scene after 40 days of appearances. His followers go on preaching an upside-down kingdom of service and love.
2. Roman law laid the death penalty on a soldier who let a prisoner escape.
When Paul and Silas experienced the miracle of their prison doors being opened, we read that the jailer was going to kill himself, thinking they escaped. (Acts 16:27) When Peter escaped from prison in Acts 12:3-9, Herod orders his imprisoners to be executed. The Roman soldiers were very good at performing executions, for their own necks were on the line. Furthermore, the presiding Roman centurion pronounced him dead (Mark 15:24)
3. John claimed to be an eyewitness. He claimed to have seen blood and water come from Jesus’ pierced heart (Jn 19:34-35). This shows that Jesus’ lungs had collapsed and he had died of asphyxiation. This is a medically confirmed fact that we know today.
Quoting one medical doctor, “After Jesus’ death, the soldiers break the legs of the two criminals crucified alongside Him (John 19:32), causing suffocation. Death would then occur quicker. When they came to Jesus, He was already dead so they did not break His legs (John 19:33). Instead, the soldiers pierced His side (John 19:34) to assure that He was dead. In doing this, it is reported that “blood and water came out” (John 19:34), referring to the watery fluid surrounding the heart and lungs.”
The Roman author Quintilian (35-95 AD) reports of this very procedure the soldier performed on Jesus being done in his work Declarationes Maiores (6:9).
4. A half-dead Jesus wouldn’t be able to convince anyone that he was the resurrected Lord of Glory.
David Strauss wrote at the height of the swoon hypothesis, and he effectively put it to rest. Even though he didn’t accept the resurrection himself, he wrote:
“It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at least 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, and impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”
I don’t think I need to say anything more here.
5. A half-dead Jesus was in no shape to roll away a heavy burial stone.
Mark reports that 3 healthy adult women were going to anoint Jesus’ dead body. The asked among themselves “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?“. (Mark 16:1-3) The idea that Jesus, being whipped, flogged and crucified would have been in any shape of rolling the stone away. He would’ve died trapped on the inside.
Pastor John Stott is spot on here:
“…are we to believe that after the rigors and pains of the trial, mockery, flogging, and crucifixion He could survive thirty-six hours in a stone sepulcher with neither warmth nor food nor medical care? That he could then rally sufficiently to perform the superhuman feat of shifting the boulder which secured the mouth of the tomb”
6. A half-dead Jesus wouldn’t be able to slip past the Roman guards.
The Jewish authorities spread the story that the guards fell asleep and the disciples stole the body (Mt 28:11-15). Roman guards wouldn’t fall asleep like that, and if they did, their lives would be forfeit, as we addressed on point #2. And even if they did fall asleep, if Jesus had started to escape, rolling away a stone would’ve been pretty noisy. The guards would’ve woke up and greeted Jesus with swords and spears.
7. The swoon theory doesn’t explain the conversion of Paul.
Paul converted based on a resurrection appearance. He said that his conversion was the result of a glorious appearance. Jesus, even if he had healed, wouldn’t look all that glorious, he’d look scarred and disfigured.
For these reasons, I think the swoon theory is one of the lousiest explanations there is for the resurrection appearances and empty tomb of Jesus that there is. No credible historical Jesus scholar holds to it today. Those that do hold combine it with a lot of ad-hoc and fanciful fantasies. The swoon theory needs to stay buried six feet deep where it belongs.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.