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Investigating Easter: Were the Disciples Fooled By An Impostor?

Were the Disciples Fooled By An Impostor
Image Credit: Joel Pang

As an atheist, the Resurrection of Jesus seemed preposterous to me. I was willing to accept the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, but I rejected the supernatural claims of the New Testament Gospels, especially the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. When I eventually decided to investigate the Resurrection, I made a list of all the possible explanations for the claims of the disciples. Were they mistaken about the death of Jesus? Did they lie about the Resurrection? Were they hallucinating? I examined a number of explanations, including the possibility that an impostor tricked the disciples and convinced them that Jesus was still alive. If this were the case, the disciples might have unknowingly advanced a lie.

While impostor theories may account for the observations of the disciples, they require an additional set of conspirators (other than the apostles who were later fooled) to accomplish the task of stealing the body. Many of my partners spent several years investigating fraud and forgery crimes prior to joining us on the homicide team. They’ve learned something about successful con artists. The less the victim understands about the specific topic and area in which they are being “conned,” the more likely the con artist will be successful. Victims are often fooled and swindled out of their money because they have little or no expertise in the area in which the con artist is operating. The perpetrator is able to use sophisticated language and make claims that are outside of the victim’s expertise. The crook sounds legitimate, primarily because the victim doesn’t really know what truly is legitimate. When the targeted victim knows more about the subject than the person attempting the con, the odds are good that the perpetrator will fail at his attempt to fool the victim. For this reason, the proposal that a sophisticated first-century con artist fooled the disciples seems unreasonable. There are many concerns with such a theory:

  1. The impersonator would have to be familiar enough with Jesus’s mannerisms and statements to convince the disciples. The disciples knew the topic of the con better than anyone who might con them.
  2. Many of the disciples were skeptical and displayed none of the necessary naïveté that would be required for the con artist to succeed. Thomas, for example, was openly skeptical from the beginning.
  3. Who would seek to start a world religious movement if not one of the hopeful disciples? This theory requires someone to be motivated to impersonate Jesus other than the disciples themselves.
  4. This explanation also fails to account for the empty tomb or missing body of Jesus.
  5. The impersonator would need to possess miraculous powers; the disciples reported that the resurrected Jesus appeared miraculously (Luke 24:36), performed many miracles and “convincing proofs” (John 21:6, Acts 1:3), and ascended into heaven miraculously (Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9).

As I examined the non-Christian, “naturalistic” explanations for the Resurrection, I found each was critically deficient. Impostor theories, for example, are especially difficult to reconcile with the post Resurrection behavior of Jesus. If an impostor posed as Jesus following the crucifixion, he wouldn’t have been able to perform the post-resurrection miracles reported in the gospels. If an impostor posed as Jesus prior to the crucifixion, the post-resurrection miracles would present a conundrum. If, following the crucifixion, Jesus had the power to appear miraculously, perform miracles miraculously and ascend into heaven miraculously, why wouldn’t he have been able to resurrect miraculously? The impostor theory simply isn’t reasonable. The truth of the Gospel accounts and the Resurrection of Jesus is still the most reasonable inference from the evidence. This brief review of the issues related to the resurrection is excerpted from Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. For more information, please refer to Chapter Two – Learn How to Infer. A complete assessment of the evidence for the Resurrection can also be obtained as an accessible Easter “tract” called ALIVE.

The impostor theory simply isn’t reasonable. The truth of the Gospel accounts and the Resurrection of Jesus is still the most reasonable inference from the evidence. Click To Tweet

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

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Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

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