Easter is fast approaching, so I’m discussing whether it is really worth celebrating. If it is based on a fact of history—Jesus’ resurrection—then everyone worldwide should celebrate it, because it proved Jesus is the One True God. If it is based on a lie—there actually was no resurrection—then Christianity is simply false and Christians are fools to follow this dead “savior”! So which is it? . . .
Two weeks ago I provided evidence that the tomb was in fact empty that first Easter morning. Last week I discussed three inadequate explanations of this fact. This week I’ll discuss three other inadequate explanations—“conspiracy theories” that have been around for a long time.
Conspiracy Theory #1: The Romans Stole Jesus’ Body
The Romans feared the disciples stealing Jesus’ body out of the tomb in order to “fake” a resurrection. So they took it and hid it someplace else for safekeeping. This seems to be a defensible motive. And they certainly had access, as the rulers of the region. So is this alternative explanation plausible?
Upon further consideration, it seems inadequate. Doing so was counter-productive to maintaining their political power and control. The Romans were occupying the Jewish homeland. Their primary objective was to maintain peace and their control of the province. Yet they often found themselves in conflict with the Jews, who, being religious people, were committed to following a higher authority than the Roman state when the dictates of God and the state were in conflict. So to have yet another religious sect emerge which pledged ultimate allegiance to an almighty God who miraculously raised Jesus after they crucified him would mean yet another group of subjects with the potential to create disharmony and upheaval.
However, since this new sect based their belief in Jesus on his bodily resurrection, producing the body of Jesus could easily squelch the uprising. By doing so they would also do the Jewish leaders a favor, thus increasing their appreciation for the Roman state, and possibly leading them to be more amenable to Roman rule. Given such strong motivations to produce the body of Jesus, the best explanation for the Roman authorities not doing so is that they didn’t have it.
Conspiracy Theory #2: The Jewish Authorities Stole Jesus’ Body
This position cites the same motivation as the Roman theory: by stealing the body they can safeguard it against Jesus’ followers stealing it and faking a “resurrection.” Certainly they had equal or more motivation to thwart a false “resurrection.” This Jesus had made blasphemous claims to be God Himself. This egregious claim must not be believed by anyone, and safeguarding the body was a sure way to stop anyone from continuing to propagate this heresy with a “risen” savior. Arguably they had the means and opportunity as well. As Matthew 29:11-13 records, the Jewish leadership had some clout with the Roman authorities, and so presumably they could persuade the Romans to give them access.
However, this explanation fails for similar reasons to the Roman theory. Doing so was contrary to the Jew’s social and religious priorities. Jesus was preached as the “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), an abomination to the Jewish authorities. In fact, they had condemned Jesus to death for such blasphemous claims. Thus they had extremely strong religious motivations to falsify the disciples preaching and thereby quickly end such blasphemy against their God. They could do this easily by producing Jesus’ body, if they had it.
In addition, they had sociological motivations to end this preaching. If the Christian message was believed, they would no longer be viewed as the spokesmen for God. Instead, those believing would look to the apostles as their spiritual leaders. So if for some reason they had stolen the body, they would have been quick to produce it and parade it through the streets of Jerusalem as tangible, empirical, and irrefutable evidence that Jesus had not raised from the dead, and thus was not the Lord and the Christ. But they did not do so. The best explanation of this is that they did not have the body of Jesus either.
Conspiracy Theory #3: The Disciples Stole Jesus’ Body
This final conspiracy theory is the earliest, and the strongest. In fact, this is the explanation the Jewish leaders offer in Matthew 28:11-15. Certainly the disciples had the motive. A “resurrected” Jesus would vindicate him, making him God rather than an executed Roman prisoner. This would in turn vindicate them as his followers, and position them as leaders of this new religious movement.
So maybe Peter, the strong-willed leader of the bunch, had a change of heart, called a meeting, explained to the others that he wasn’t ready to give up on following Jesus, but he needed a resurrection. This would be tricky, but it was worth the risk. So they developed a plan and pulled it off to perfection, leading everyone to believe there was truly a resurrection and Jesus was the Messiah and Savior of all!
This sounds like a reasonable explanation until all the facts are examined (“Any story sounds true until someone tells the other side and sets the record straight.” Proverbs 18:17) There are at least four reasons why this explanation is inadequate:
1. This is morally improbable. The disciples were devout Jews for whom lying was anathema. They were also committed to the teachings of Jesus himself, which included honesty. To steal the body and then base the rest of their lives and teachings on what they knew to be a lie is hard to imagine.
2. This is religiously Improbable. As devout Jews they were committed to God’s unequivocal commandment that “You shall have no other gods before me . . . You shall not worship them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:3, 5) Without a true resurrection Jesus was a false prophet, and they would be eternally condemned for following him. In fact, their condemnation would be greater for propagating this lie to others, leading to countless others being led astray as well. So to steal the body and risk their and so many other’s eternal judgment by God is unfathomable.
3. This is psychologically improbable. The disciples do not fit the profile of conspirators. They were not clever plotters, but had unimaginative minds. They were fearful men and ran away at the first hint of danger. This is not the mindset from which conspiracies are born, especially such a grand and intricate conspiracy.
4. This is physically improbable. It was simply impossible for the disciples to get to the body of Jesus in the tomb. The Romans placed guards around the tomb to guard it against this very possibility. There were at least four Roman soldiers highly trained in hand-to-hand combat (similar to our Navy Seals). The soldiers’ lives depended on them safeguarding the contents of the tomb. But even if these fishermen, tradesmen and an accountant succeeded in this, they then had to move the one-ton bolder sealing the tomb. They would then have to hide the body without anyone seeing them do so. And even if they succeeded in all of this, they would all have to maintain consistent stories for the rest of their lives. This may be plausible if the conspiracy “paid off.” But it didn’t. They did not become rich and famous for being Jesus’ followers. Instead, over the next 30-plus years they were persecuted for their message of Jesus’ resurrection. Finally all but one was executed in horrific ways for this message. It is very unreasonable to believe that not one recanted at the last minute, before being sawn in two, boiled in oil or crucified upside down, to save his neck. Yes, people die for lies. But no one dies for something they know to be a lie. The fact that not one of them, at any point, confessed to save his neck is further evidence that they had not stolen the body of Jesus.
The only remaining explanation of the empty tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning is the physical resurrection of Jesus. It explains all the facts. It doesn’t have the problems the other explanations have. For all who are open-minded and willing follow facts where they lead, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is also the only reasonable explanation of the empty tomb!
As they say on TV, but wait, there’s more! Next week I’ll finish this series by raising one more objection and offering four additional pieces of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Chapter 8 of Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig.