Christianity stands or falls on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the apostle Paul, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, said
“and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” [i]
According to the Biblical record, three days after being crucified, Jesus overcame death and was resurrected. He then appeared to many of his followers in several different settings and on several different occasions. During this period, Jesus issued the command for His followers to go and tell the world about Himself, His love for mankind and His resurrection from the dead. It was from this foundation that Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman world.
Many who oppose the Christian faith discount the resurrection. Yet the fact remains that on the third day, the tomb where Jesus lay was empty. If Jesus was not resurrected, what happened to the body?
Over the centuries, there have been numerous theories presented to try to explain the empty tomb in a way that would make a bodily resurrection unnecessary.
Maybe the Disciples Stole the Body!
Some believe that the disciples stole the body and fabricated the resurrection story in order to gain followers in their new “Christian” religion. The theory alleges that Jesus Himself had predicted His own death and resurrection. The disciples then stole the body so that they could claim that Jesus had indeed risen.
This theory really makes no sense when you consider all of the facts. Jesus’ disciples all deserted Him when He was arrested. Why? It’s because they were afraid (see Matthew 26:56). Also, the Jewish and Roman authorities took precautions to prevent the body from being stolen.
62 Now on the next day, which is the one after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver [referring to Jesus] said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ 64 “Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, lest the disciples come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” 66 And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone. [ii]
In order to prevent the body from being stolen, a Roman guard was placed at the tomb with the Roman seal. A Roman guard consisted of anywhere from 4 to 16 men. For the disciples to have stolen the body, they would’ve had to overcome at least four highly trained military men, roll away a 4000 pound stone, and carry away a dead cadaver covered with over 100 pounds of grave wrappings.
But maybe the Roman guards fell asleep!
It’s highly unlikely that the Roman soldiers would’ve fallen asleep on duty. The Roman soldiers of the day were an elite group of fighting men who were highly trained and extremely well disciplined. The punishment for falling asleep on duty was death. Considering the consequences, it’s improbable that even one soldier would fall asleep. For all of them to fall asleep on duty at the same time is next to impossible. Besides, even if the whole guard had fallen asleep, it’s not likely that they would’ve remained asleep while the disciples struggled to move a two-ton stone away from the tomb entrance.
What makes this theory even more unbelievable is that after stealing the body, the disciples then supposedly fabricated a resurrection story for the purpose of gaining followers. What would be the motive for recruiting people to something which you knew was a lie? It’s interesting to note that none of the disciples ever denied this “resurrection story” even though for most of them, it led to their own execution. Not many people will die for something they know to be untrue. A whole crowd of people dying for something that they know to be a lie is even more unbelievable.
Maybe the Jewish leaders or the Roman authorities stole the body!
Why would the Jewish and Roman authorities steal the body? What would be their motive for doing such a thing? Neither the Jewish leaders nor the Roman authorities had anything to gain by stealing the body. Remember that the Jews were afraid of what a missing body might mean to the public. The reason they wanted to get rid of Jesus in the first place was so that they could neutralize His teachings and the following that He had. They recognized that a resurrected Jesus would not neutralize Jesus’ following, but instead would energize His cause. That’s why they had a Roman guard placed at the entrance of the tomb to protect the body from being stolen.
What if the Jews and Romans moved the body to protect it from being stolen?
If the Jews or Romans had moved the body as a precautionary measure, they could’ve easily produced the body at the first moment that someone claimed that Jesus had resurrected. Yet they never did. Christianity could’ve been diffused before it ever got off the ground simply by producing the body.
One more problem with the stolen body theory is that it doesn’t explain the many eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus. Weekend at Bernie’s may have been a funny movie, but I doubt that the disciples could’ve passed a dead Jesus off as a resurrected Savior to an unsuspecting crowd.
Maybe the eyewitnesses never really did see Jesus. Maybe they were just hallucinating.
Remember that Jesus appeared to many different people on many different occasions. He even “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time” [iii]. It’s highly unlikely that 500 people would all hallucinate the same thing at the same time. Even so, the authorities still did not produce a body to refute the peoples’ claims that they had seen Jesus.
Maybe Jesus never died in the first place.
One of the more popular theories to explain the empty tomb and resurrection sightings is what’s known as the Swoon theory. This theory hypothesizes that Jesus never actually died on the cross, but only fainted (or swooned). Later, the cool air of the tomb revived Him. After regaining consciousness, Jesus appeared from the tomb and declared Himself resurrected to His followers.
The Swoon theory is an attempt to explain the empty tomb apart from supernatural intervention but ignores many of the facts surrounding the case.
The historical record clearly indicates that Jesus was dead, not just fainted. John gives this account of the crucifixion:
32 The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; 33 but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; [iv]
Crucifixion is one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised. It was a prolonged death by asphyxiation. In order to breathe, one would have to push himself up with his feet in order to give the lungs an opportunity to expand. It was not too uncommon for some crucifixions to last for hours, as the victim would continually struggle to push himself up and breathe. Occasionally, the soldiers would grow tired of waiting for the person to die and so, in order to hasten death, they would break the victim’s legs, making it impossible to push up and breathe. Once the legs were broken, death was almost immediate.
The account of Jesus shows that the two criminals who were crucified with Him both had their legs broken but Jesus’ legs weren’t broken. This is because they realized that His legs didn’t need to be broken. He was already dead.
Maybe the soldiers made a mistake!
Is it possible that the soldiers thought Jesus was dead but were mistaken? It’s not likely. Even though the soldiers didn’t break Jesus’ legs, one of them did thrust a spear into His side:
34 but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. [v]
The description of “blood and water” is incredibly important from a medical standpoint because it demonstrates that Jesus was indeed dead. In discussing this topic, Josh McDowell quotes C. Truman Davis, a medical doctor:
“…there was an escape of watery fluid from the sac surrounding the heart. We, therefore, have rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that [Christ] died, not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.” [vi]
McDowell goes on to say, “Pilate required certification of Christ’s death before the body could be turned over to Joseph of Arimathea. He consented to Christ’s being removed from the cross only after four executioners had certified His death.” [vii]
What makes the Swoon theory particularly unbelievable is how it deals with facts of the story after Jesus was buried in the tomb.
If the Swoon theory were accurate , we would need to believe that Jesus was beaten, scourged, and whipped to the point that He was hardly recognizable. He then endured a lengthy ordeal on the cross and was even pierced in the side with a soldier’s spear. Yet Jesus did not die, he merely fainted. Though not dead, Jesus was wrapped with about 100 pounds of spices and linen. Jesus was then laid in a tomb with a two-ton stone placed at the entrance while a guard was placed in front of the tomb to protect it from robbers.
Even though Jesus was critically injured and had no medical attention or food for three days, He was able to breathe through his wrappings and regain consciousness and the strength needed to shed His grave clothes and hobble over to the tomb’s entrance. He then mustered up the strength to move a two-ton stone by Himself. Upon exiting the tomb, Jesus either slipped past the guards undetected, or He was able to overcome them in a physical struggle after which He reentered Jerusalem and rejoined His followers, who mistakenly believed that He had been resurrected.
Believing the Swoon Theory takes more faith than believing in the actual resurrection!
Isn’t it irrational to believe that Jesus was resurrected?
It’s not irrational to believe that Jesus was resurrected because the evidence overwhelmingly supports that conclusion.
Simon Greanleaf, a man who is credited with helping the Harvard Law school achieve it’s stature, “concluded that the resurrection of Christ was one of the best supported events in history, according to the laws of legal evidence administered in courts of justice.” [viii]
While it’s not irrational to believe something that is supported by the facts, it is irrational to believe a theory that cannot be completely reconciled with the facts.
One professor came up with just such a theory, explaining that “Jesus must’ve had a twin brother that no one (not even Mary) knew about. After Jesus’ death, the twin appeared and claimed to be the resurrected Jesus.” * Not only does this theory violate many of the facts in the case (i.e. if there was a twin, then Jesus’ body would still be in the ground. Still, no one ever produced the body, etc.), but it is harder to believe than an actual resurrection. It’s amazing the lengths to which some people will go to explain away the resurrection.
Have you already made up your mind that Jesus Christ could not have been resurrected?
If so, how do you explain the empty tomb?
Is your explanation more believable than a resurrection itself?
[i] 1 Corinthians 15:17, The New American Standard Bible, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1977.
[ii] Matthew 27:62-66, The New American Standard Bible, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1977.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 15:6, The New American Standard Bible, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1977.
[iv] John 19:32, 33, The New American Standard Bible, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1977.
[v] John 19:34, The New American Standard Bible, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1977.
[vi] McDowell, Josh. A Ready Defense. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993, p. 224
[viii] McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1977, p. 97.
* This story was related by Dr. Paul Cox, a professor at Biola University, for a class on Christian World View, which was conducted for Campus Crusade for Christ. The class was held at Colorado State University during the summer of 1997.
Empty Tomb Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash