It was after the resurrection that the eleven disciples were transformed into the powerful company that turned the world upside down. And examining the resurrection of Christ has turned hardened atheists into men of God. It is because of the resurrection that Christians have hope of redemption and resurrection. How important to the Christian faith (and to the gospel) is this unique historical event.
Yet, as one might suppose, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not an unchallenged historical fact. Many unbelievers have diligently applied themselves in the hope of finding a secular solution to this greatest mystery of all time. However, despite the best efforts of lawyers and laymen alike, all theories which deny the bodily resurrection of Christ are found to be unsound. Several of these theories will be presented in the following paragraphs.
DID A DISCIPLE STEAL THE BODY?
The first theory to serve as a substitute for the belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was the story invented by the Jewish authorities only hours after the actual event. This theory is, of course, that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and thus managed to create a forged resurrection to substantiate their Lord’s prior claims.
At first glance, this theory has a certain plausibility. After all, the disciples would have the motive to perform such an act. Seemingly, they would want to see the tomb empty and Jesus’ claims vindicated. If they could successfully steal the body, the world might be persuaded that Jesus actually was the Messiah and that they, as the original followers, were right after all. On the basis of this theory, Jesus was a fraud and His disciples thieves and cunning liars.
To examine the validity of this theory, we must work through what we do know of the resurrection. Joseph of Arimathea took custody of the body shortly after the crucifixion. He and Nicodemus performed the burial preparations (Jn. 19:38-39). Apparently, the disciples learned of the location of Jesus’ body through the women who were watching this take place. Although Joseph was a disciple of the Lord’s, we have no other mention of this man anywhere which might suggest a prior connection between the eleven and this silent disciple.
The Jewish authorities had received permission to have the tomb guarded lest the disciples took the opportunity to steal the body. If the disciples had been planning to rob the tomb, this action by the Jews and Romans would have surely laid such plans to rest. Even so, if the disciples had been foolish enough to attempt this ridiculous feat, it would be inconceivable that they could do it without notice or personal harm. If anyone had been wounded, either the guards’ story that they were asleep while the disciples stole the body or the disciples’ story that Jesus had been resurrected would have seemed utter insanity.
Following the logic of this theory, what should be amazing is not that the guards blamed the disciples for the empty tomb, but that they were largely believed by the popular mind. Not one of the eleven disciples was killed in the supposed attempt; all of these men died at a later date.
The first claim made by the soldiers was that the disciples performed their thievery while the four-man guard were asleep. This theory can hardly be seriously considered, given one obvious fact: If the guards had been sleeping at the time of the abduction, they would not know who performed the theft.
Besides, the guards certainly would not want their superiors to know that they were sleeping while on duty. This would mean certain death for men who were asleep during what would later be known as the single most important watch in history (Mt. 28:12-14; Acts 12:19).
DID JESUS NEVER REALLY DIE?
The second most prominent theory regarding the resurrection of Christ is known as the Swoon Theory. This supposes that Jesus in fact never died, that He only temporarily swooned and was revived while lying in the tomb. It is proposed that soon after He came back to consciousness, He went to His disciples. His followers were astonished to see their Lord and began to proclaim that Jesus was the only Saviour of the world.
As with the first theory, while this idea provides a possible explanation for some of the events recorded, it is so inadequate in other essential areas as to effectively discredit itself.
It is rather naive to think that Jesus could have survived the crucifixion in the first place. It is true that some victims of this most cruel form of Roman capital punishment were still alive after three days of pain. However, Jesus was also flogged, abused by an angry mob, and run though the heart with a spear–all in addition to the typical crucifixion.
The theory proposes that Jesus was revived on account of the cool air in the tomb. However, these cool, possibly damp conditions provide a very poor atmosphere for resuscitation. Ideally warm, dry surroundings would provide the best chances for a nearly dead man to revive. In all likelihood, the chilled stone of a first century sepulcher would have only aided the extinguishing of any life left in this horribly tortured man.
Even so, if Jesus could have survived until the third day with no medical treatment (four days without food or water) while breathing under one hundred pounds of funeral wrapping and spices, it is highly unlikely that an almost dead man could escape His burial clothes (Jn. 19:39b). After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He ordered that those present free the newly resuscitated man. It is almost sure that Jesus had a more extravagant burial and therefore would have had a more difficult time escaping His own burial wrappings.
Then the stone must be rolled away, a stone which three working women knew they could not dislodge from the outside! In His severely weakened condition, He would have to roll it away from the inside.
The soldiers were waiting outside to guard against any intruder. It is absolutely absurd to think that Jesus, granted His condition, could have fought off the quaterion of soldiers barehanded. Even if Jesus had only swooned, what good would it do Him? If He didn’t suffocate after three days of agony on cold stone under an enormous weight of costly burial wrappings, He couldn’t possibly have rolled the stone door away or escaped the guards.
DID EVERYONE GO TO THE WRONG TOMB?
The third theory, and the last to be considered here, is known as the Wrong Tomb Theory. It has been proposed that out of the hundreds of tombs dotting the hillsides, the faithful women, weeping and overcome with grief, lost their way and went to the wrong tomb. Jesus is thought to have lain dead for the past two thousand years in an inconspicuous tomb, still unidentified and probably at this point unidentifiable. Although this theory may sound plausible to the modern mind, it was never even considered by the ancients.
Not only would the women have to been misled by going to the wrong location, the disciples must have gone to the wrong tomb as well. And the soldiers, were they at the wrong tomb for guard duty as well? And any curious Jews? Even if everyone else could have been confused over the true location of the tomb in which Jesus was buried, there is one individual who could not have possibly been mistaken. Joseph of Arimathea would not have been bewildered over the identification of his own private tomb. And, had there been any such difficulty, the authorities could have questioned Joseph or his neighbors regarding his property.
However, this theory is shown to be in further error when we consider the likelihood that the Roman authorities had placed the seal of their sovereign on a tomb that did not contain their charge.
Finally, had everything been a scandal, even just one denial from any of the disciples would have been sufficient to destroy the entire network of lies. All eleven men died very undesirable deaths, the least of which was a life sentence on a solitary island which served more or less as a prison. Under torture, had just one of these men released the truth, the church would have immediately collapsed. History is filled with death-bed confessions that clear up incredible mysteries, but there is no such answer to the resurrection of Christ.
After examining the various evidence, we can draw only one conclusion. Jesus actually came back from the dead by resurrection. At first it may seem too incredible to be true. But, it is the perfect conclusion to a sinless life filled with amazing demonstrations of divine power and the highest moral teaching. It may seem fantastic to believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected, but it is even more fantastic to believe that His disciples stole His body, or that He only fainted, or that everyone went to the wrong tomb. This most remarkable event in history provides unbelievers a proof of the gospel and gives Christians the joy to celebrate His victory over death and His power to live life as He intended. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57).