With Easter approaching next week, many will be remembering and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, there are many around the world who do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or that he was raised from the dead. Over the two thousand years since this monumental event, many have presented alternative theories to “explain away” Jesus rising from the dead. It is from these arguments against the resurrection that we hope to make a positive case for it.
Before we begin, we are making a major assumption: we are assuming that the New Testament is a reliable historical document. Space does not allow us to make that case here, but plenty has been, and continues to be, written on this topic. Over the course of two thousand years, there has not been an account of ever discovering the body of Jesus. The question of Jesus’ existence seems to have been settled, with most scholars, skeptics and believers both, knowing that Jesus of Nazareth existed in history. We can only assume that if Jesus had not risen from the dead that some sort of documentation from that time would have reflected that fact. However, the evidence existing from that time reflects that Jesus’ body was never found, despite strong opposition toward the disciples.
Theory #1 – The Conspiracy Theory
This theory is as old as a few hours after the resurrection event (Matthew 28:11-15). The theory states that Jesus’ disciples came in the middle of the night and stole his body, giving the impression that a resurrection had taken place. While the Pharisees put forth this excuse to help the guards out of a bind, this has been proposed as a serious objection to the resurrection in popular culture.
For this theory to be taken seriously, we must assume a few things. First, the disciples took the body of Jesus and were willing to die for what they knew to be a lie. It is one thing to die for something you believe to be true, but no sane person would die for a known lie with nothing to gain from it. Second, the guards posted at the tomb would have prevented the disciples from even getting close to stealing the body. Even if the guards had fallen asleep, surely the noise of moving away the stone from the entrance would have woken at least one of them. Also, if the guards were asleep, how did they know it was the disciples who stole the body?
Eusebius, writing in Demonstratio Evangelica (A.D. 314-318), commented on the ridiculous discussion that must have happened among the disciples while planning to steal Jesus’ body:
Let us band together to invent all the miracles and resurrection appearances which we never saw and let us carry the sham even to death! Why not die for nothing? Why dislike torture and whipping inflicted for no good reason? Let us go out to all nations and overthrow their institutions and denounce their gods! And even if we don’t convince anybody, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of drawing down on ourselves the punishment for our own deceit.
Theory #2 – The Resuscitation Theory
Another theory proposed is that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but passed out due to blood loss, and the cold of the tomb revived him. Let’s first remember what happened to Jesus: he was flogged by the Roman authorities; he had a crown of thorns pressed into his head; he was so weak he couldn’t even carry his own cross; he had both hands and feet pierced with nails and hung on a cross for hours; his side was pierced with a spear; he was wrapped in burial garments; had a two-ton stone rolled in front of his tomb; his tomb was guarded with a guard unit.
This theory expects us to believe the following: Jesus woke up and removed his grave clothes, rolled the two ton stone away by himself, made his way past the guards unseen, and presented himself to his disciples. All of this is to have happened while Jesus was still suffering from the beating, blood loss and crucifixion he had just received a couple of days earlier. Would this picture of Jesus be worth celebrating? Would the disciples have worshipped a creature such as this? More likely they would have pitied him and tried to address his wounds, if he even lived much longer.
In The Life of Jesus for the People, David Strauss gives this observation, saying, “Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He made upon [the disciples] 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." Jesus still beaten and bloodied would not have brought the life change we see in the disciples. Only one who had truly died and raised from the dead on his own could have elicited such a turn.
We will consider other objections in a second part.
- What are some problems with thinking the disciples conspired together to steal Jesus’ body?
- Would you give yourself to be punished for something you knew was a lie?
Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica.
David Strauss The Life of Jesus for the People, vol. 1, second edition (London: William & Norgate, 1879), p. 412.