evidence for the supernatural physical resurrection of Christ is
compelling, and the objections can be adequately answered. Alternate
explanations to a supernatural physical resurrection have been
attempted, but a brief survey will show that they too fail.
In all naturalistic theories, in which the
assumption is that Jesus died and did not return to life, two issues
are inevitable problems: First, given the inescapable fact that
Jesus actually died on the cross, a basic problem with all
naturalistic theories is to explain what happened to the body. It is
necessary to explain why the earliest records speak of an empty tomb
or why the dead body was never found. Second, the earliest disciples
testified to seeing an empty tomb and being with Jesus in the weeks
after his death. If untrue, why did these reports so motivate them
to extraordinary actions?
The Authorities Moved the Body.
One hypothesis proposes that the Roman or Jewish
authorities took the body from the tomb to another place, leaving
the tomb empty. The disciples wrongly presumed Jesus to be raised
from the dead.
If the Romans or the Sanhedrin had the body, why
did they accuse the disciples of stealing it (Matt. 28:11-15)?
Such a charge would have been senseless. And if the opponents of
Christianity had the body, why didn’t they produce it to stop
the resurrection story? The reaction of the authorities reveals
that they did not know where the body was. They continually resisted
the apostles’ teaching, but never attempted to refute it.
This theory is contrary to the conversion of
James and especially Saul. How could such a severe critic as Saul
of Tarsus (cf. Acts 8-9) be so duped?
Certainly, this theory does not explain the
resurrection appearances. Why did Jesus keep appearing to all
these people in the same nail-scarred body in which he was placed
in the tomb? It is also contrary to the conversions of people from
the opposition to Jesus’ side. It assumes Paul was duped when he
was deep in the Jewish anti-Christian camp yet unaware the body
was available. And he was duped into believing in the
The stolen body hypothesis is a fallacious
argument from innocence. There is not a shred of evidence to
The Tomb Was Never
One theory is that in the two months after
Jesus’ death he appeared in some spiritual form to some of the
disciples, and they preached the resurrection based on this. But
no one ever checked the tomb to see if Jesus’ dead body actually
was there. Why should they, if they had already seen him alive?
If we can believe nothing else from the earliest
record in the Gospels, we can hardly avoid the point that Jesus’
tomb was a busy place on that early morning. If the issue just
never came up, it certainly burned the minds of the writers of the
Gospels. The women who came to finish burial procedures (Mark
15:1) saw the stone rolled away and the empty tomb. John reached
the gravesite and saw the burial clothes, followed by Peter who
entered the tomb and saw the grave clothes and a head cloth (a
strip wrapped around the head to keep the jaw closed) lying
separately (John 20:3-8). While Paul does not mention the empty
tomb explicitly, he implies it when speaking of Jesus’ burial as
a precondition of his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:4).
The guards were sure to have made a thorough
search of the tomb before they reported to the Jewish leaders that
his body had vanished (Matt. 28:11-15). Their lives were forfeited
if they had been derelict in their duty. These guards would not
have had to agree to the cover story that the disciples had stolen
the body if they could have offered some reasonable alternative
explanation. But the story of the guards does not explain the
resurrection appearances, the transformation of the disciples, or
the mass conversions of people only weeks later in the very city
where it had happened.
The Women Went to
the Wrong Tomb.
Some suggest that the women went to the wrong
tomb in the darkness, saw it empty and thought he had risen. This
story was then spread by them through the ranks of the disciples
and led to their belief in the resurrections of Christ. There are
serious problems with such a simplistic story. If it was so dark,
why did Mary Magdalene assume the gardener was working (John
20:15)? Why did Peter and John make the same mistake as the women
when they arrived later, in daylight (John 20:4-6)? It was light
enough to see the grave clothes and the rolled-up head cloth in a
dim, cave-like tomb (vs. 7).
If the disciples went to the wrong tomb, the
authorities had only to go to the right one and show them the
body. That would have easily disproved all claims to a
And, as with other naturalistic theories, this
offers no explanation for the reports that Jesus appeared.
Stole the Body.
The guards spread the story that the disciples
had stolen the body in the night and took it to an unknown
location. This is still a popular claim, particularly in Jewish
circles. It explains the story of an empty tomb and the inability
of anyone to disprove the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.
Grave robbery is not in keeping with what we
know of the moral character of the disciples. They were honest
men. They taught and lived according to the highest moral
principles of honesty and integrity. Peter specifically denied
that the apostles followed cleverly devised tales (2 Peter 1:16).
Furthermore, the disciples do not come off as particularly subtle
or clever. If they were trying to make Christ’s predictions come
true, up until this time they had not understood how the
prophecies fit Jesus. They had not even understood that he was
going to die, let alone that he was to be raised (John 13:36).
At the grave scene we find these conspirators
confused and bewildered, just as we would suspect if they had not
a clue what was happening. They did not know what to think when
they first saw the empty tomb (John 20:9). They scattered and hid
in fear of being caught (Mark 14:50).
Perhaps the most serious objection is that the
hoax was so totally successful. For that to happen the apostles
had to persist in this conspiracy to the death and to die for what
they knew to be false. People will sometimes die for what they
believe to be true, but they have little motivation to die for
what they know to be a lie. It seems unbelievable that no disciple
ever recanted belief in the resurrection of Christ, in spite of
suffering and persecution (cf. 2 Cor. 11:22-33; Heb. 11:32-40).
Not only did they die for this "lie," but the apostles
placed belief in the resurrection at the center of their faith
(Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:1-5, 12-19). Indeed, it was the theme of the
earliest preaching by the apostles (Acts 2:30-31; 3:15; and 4:10,
It is contrary to the conversions of James and
Paul (John 7:5; Acts 9, and 1 Cor. 15:7). These skeptics would
certainly have learned of the plot eventually, and they would
never have remained in the faith on such a basis.
Finally, if the body was stolen and still dead,
then why did it keep appearing alive, both to disciples and to
others who were not disciples? Jesus appeared bodily to Mary, to
James (Jesus’ unbelieving brother), and later to Paul, the
greatest Jewish opponent of early Christianity.
Arimathea Took the Body.
A similar notion is that Joseph of Arimathea
stole the body of Jesus. He was a secret believer in Jesus, and
Jesus was buried in Joseph’s tomb. The problems of this theory
boil down to "Why?" "When?" and
Why would he take the body? Joseph really had no
reason. It could not be to prevent the disciples from stealing it,
since he was a disciple (Luke 23:50-51). If he had not been a
follower of Christ, he could have produced the body and squelched
the whole story.
When could he (or the disciples for that matter)
have taken it? Joseph was a devout Jew who would not have broken
the Sabbath (see Luke 23:50-56). At night, the torches he carried
would have been seen. A Roman guard was posted in front of the
tomb (Matt. 27:62-66). The following morning the women came by
dawn (Luke 24:1). There was simply no opportunity.
If Joseph took it, where did he put it? The body
was never found, even though almost two months elapsed before the
disciples began preaching. This was plenty of time to expose a
fraud. There is no motive, opportunity, or method to support this
theory, and it gives no explanation of the appearances of Christ
in his resurrected body.
And again, there is no good explanation, other
than a supernatural resurrection, for eleven appearances over the
subsequent forty days to more than 500 people. They saw him,
handled him, ate with him, talked with him, and were completely
transformed overnight from scared, scattered, skeptics to the
world’s greatest missionary society. Much of it happened in the
same city in which Jesus was crucified.
(to be continued)