Resurrection or Resuscitation of Jesus

Controversy in a British Medical Periodical

The Light & Islamic Review (US), November/December 1991 Issue (Vol. 68, No. 4, pp. 4–5)

In our last issue we reported news-items in the press referring to a paper in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London (April 1991, pp. 167–170), written by Dr. Trevor Lloyd Davies, a retired honorary physician to the Queen, and his wife Margaret, a theological scholar, in which the authors reasoned that, in the light of modern medical knowledge, Jesus did not die on the cross but swooned, and was taken away and revived by some of his followers.

We now have sight of the full paper. Also before us is the next issue of the same quarterly (July 1991), from which it is apparent that these views caused much controversy, indeed outrage and offence. The Editor writes that the article

“elicited a large number of letters to the editor, many from people who had not read the article itself but were offended by what they had heard or seen in the newspapers”.

Several letters are then printed, followed by a review of the debate by Rev. Prof. Gordon Dunstan, Professor of Moral and Social Theology at King’s College, in the University of London.

Original Article:

The original paper is quite brief, most of it outlining the events of the crucifixion.  It is only the authors’ “hypothesis” which would be of interest to our readers.  They say:

“At his crucifixion, Jesus was in shock and hypotensive, and lost consciousness because of diminished blood supply to the brain.  His ashen skin and immobility were mistaken for death and there is no doubt that the bystanders believed he was dead.  The cry (and there is little agreement about what may have been said) may not have been any more than a loud expiration preceding syncope.  Oxygen supply to the brain remained minimal, but above a critical level, until the circulation was restored when he was taken down from the Cross and laid on the ground.  Chill during the eclipse of the sun helped to maintain the blood pressure.

“As Jesus showed signs of life he was not placed in a tomb (which may have been the intention to avoid burial rites on the Sabbath) but taken away and tended.” (p. 168)

It is curious, however, that as regards Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after the crucifixion, the authors’ explanation is that these were merely experiences of imagination caused by the disciples having been

“under intense psychological pressure far beyond their capacity to cope with emotionally”

and therefore suffering from

“hysterical suggestibility”.

One would think that the subsequent appearances of Jesus provide strong proof of his escape from death on the cross, and it is therefore surprising that the authors should treat as imaginary these experiences which, if taken to be real, as generally accepted, support their own theory.

The paper ends as follows:

“Faith does not require the abandonment of thought or the assent to concepts not scientifically acceptable. The Church will be stronger if it accommodates proven knowledge within its creeds. If it does not, all that is left is blind belief, far beyond the credulity of most people.” (p. 168)

Outline of Reactions:

The letters published in the following issue of the Journal in July [1991] show the how central and fundamental the belief in Jesus’ death on the cross is to Christianity, and this proves that when Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad chose to fight on this ground, by showing that Jesus escaped death on the cross, he was really attacking the very heart of the church doctrines.

An aggrieved surgeon from the University of Liverpool concludes his letter as follows:

“The fact of the death of Jesus on the cross is of central importance in the Christian faith. In the face of all the suffering in the world, we base our belief in a God of love on the fact of Jesus’ voluntary death for us on the cross. The attempt to show that Jesus did not actually die raises the possibility of major theological problems.” (p. 269)

A retired surgeon accuses the authors of showing

“a complete contempt for the historical record”,

which according to him is the New Testament, and adds:

“any speculation on the events of the crucifixion which contradicts the historical record is a work of fiction”.

The view of a Professor of Rheumatology from Leeds is that accepting any such suggestion

“would make Jesus, regarded as the greatest moral teacher of all times, party to the greatest hoax foisted on mankind”.

For medical men to hold the belief that Jesus returned from the dead, back to this life, is so obviously inconsistent with their own daily professional experience, that once a human being has died there cannot be any return to this life.  If it is argued, in reply, that this was a supernatural, unparalleled occurrence, above and beyond the laws of nature which govern us, then it ought to be backed up by much stronger evidence, especially as the alleged event is made the very basis of faith.

Dunstan’s Note:

In his review of the debate, the Christian theological Professor G. R. Dunstan makes the following point about the response of Christians on this matter:

“We may distinguish at least two sorts of response to these medical hypotheses which may be expected from members of the Christian Church who affirm, in the oldest of their Creeds, that Jesus ‘was crucified, dead and buried’ and that ‘on the third day he rose again from the dead’.  If we may judge from some of the references cited by your correspondents, it seems likely that they stand in a tradition which attaches faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus to an essential acceptance of the empirical details, the literal accuracy of the words in which the narratives are written.  If these are unreliable, it would be contended, the doctrine is incredible: faith is undermined.

“The response of Christians from a central theological tradition — now, in its present form, more than a century old — which accepts the application of historical and literary analysis to Holy Scripture, would be different.”

Let us pause to clarify the meaning so far. He says that some Christians, like the doctors who wrote letters to the journal, base their belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection on the details of the events related in the Gospels. In the words,

“If these are unreliable … the doctrine is incredible: faith is undermined”,

there is a tacit admission that the account given in the Gospels does not reliably show that Jesus died on the cross. Hence Dunstan then mentions the response of the Christians from the

“central theological tradition”

as being different. He continues:

“This tradition, while grounding the Christian faith in history, recognises that the Church was founded on a conviction, unchallenged from within and defended against challenge from without, that God had raised Jesus from the dead; it was this conviction that gave the Church its being and sent it on its world-wide mission, taking with it the Gospels as they came to be written. This conviction, having emerged in time earlier than the written evidences which embody it, stands unshaken by both verbal and physiological inconsistencies in the narratives themselves.” (p. 272)

So, the belief of this second, more central, tradition, in the resurrection of Jesus, is just based on “a conviction” which is said to have existed since before the Gospels were written, but for which no reliable evidence was preserved in the Gospels.  A critical consideration seems to be that this belief is the very basis of the foundation and the world-wide missionary activities of the Church.  To put it simply, Jesus must have risen from the dead because if he did not then the foundation of the Church and its work collapses.  Dunstan closes by drawing an analogy with the Biblical description of the creation of the world:

“Those who live in the second tradition alluded to above … would not think of claiming historical or scientific veracity for the creation myths which now stand in the first two chapters of Genesis. They are literary expressions of a faith in God as Creator. They are not the origins of that faith, nor its necessary foundation.”

So, the Gospels are

“not the origin … nor the necessary foundation”

of the belief that Jesus died on the cross and arose from the dead. This is the position that Christian theologians have been forced to take, because they cannot dispute the fact that the Gospels do not support Jesus’ death on the cross.