If you’re not a Christian, the story of the resurrection of Christ is perplexing. What I mean is that the resurrection represents a confusing situation. It’s an event without rival in history. I’m not saying that you don’t have what you believe to be valid reasons for rejecting it. But rather that if you do reject it you have a lot of explaining to do.
Almost a third of the world’s population base their faith on the resurrection of Christ. This doesn’t make it true, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand either. This belief has endured for two-thousand years. So a lot of people believe it and it has a rich historical pedigree. So far, so good, but It’s also a story filled with historical markers. The Bible mentions times, real geographical locations, dates, and historical people. In short, the Resurrection is very falsifiable. Yet it endures.
Related Product: The Resurrection of Jesus DVD Course by Dr. Gary Habermas
You probably see the problem for the non-christian already. If they deny the resurrection, they have to explain two things:
- How did a belief in the resurrection come about?
- Why did Christianity grow so quickly in the first and second centuries?
In the days leading up to Easter, I’m going to review the four most significant naturalistic theories on the resurrection. These are theories that argue that Christ did not really rise from the dead.
Jesus’ Body Was Stolen (Alternate Resurrection Theory #1)
This particular hypothesis has been around longer than any other. The book of Matthew speaks about this theory. Matthew says that is was created so the Jewish leaders could deny the resurrection. They bribed the guards to keep them quiet.
Matthew 28:11–15 (ESV)
11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place.
12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers
13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’
14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”
15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
It’s interesting to note that by the time Matthew was written, the “stolen body” theory had been around for almost 30 years. There are several problems with this theory. Let’s take a look at four of them.
1. The Resurrection Is Supported by More than the Empty Tomb
One thing the stolen body theory has going for it is that it does account for the empty tomb. The empty tomb is a basic fact that most scholars, liberal and conservative, accept. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona use this in their “minimal facts” approach. The minimal facts approach seeks to support the resurrection from facts agreed upon by a majority of scholars.
The stolen body theory fails today for the same reason it failed in the first century: the resurrection is supported by more than the empty tomb. Of course, the lack of a body is a necessary condition for the resurrection to be true, but the appearances and ascension of Christ are also bedrock components of the resurrection testimony.
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Stealing a body is one thing. Making it appear to be alive is a whole other kettle of fish. If the Apostles stole the body, how did they animate it to fool those who say they saw him alive? How did they make this body appear to ascend into heaven? How did they get this body to appear to Paul some years later? The stolen body theory just totally misses the mark here.
2. The Deaths of the Apostles
Tradition and history tells us that all the Apostles (except John) died a martyr’s death. The traditions for the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul are almost beyond debate.
The Apostles’ deaths make no sense if the stolen body theory is true. The Apostles were killed for being Christians. Their Christianity was based on a belief that Christ rose from the dead.
The stolen body theory would ask us to believe that these men died knowing that what they were dying for was untrue. It gets worse. They would have also died having attained no earthly rewards. Rather, they endured terrible suffering, rejection, and martyrdom for nothing. Even if one could concoct an initial motive for this kind of deception (which is far-fetched all by itself), this motive would have quickly yielded to the Apostles’ sense of self-preservation.
Similarly, one would have to explain why Jews who followed the Mosaic Law could rationalize creating such a significant lie about their Messiah and then maintain that lie for the rest of their lives.
3. The Unacceptability of Resurrection to Jews and Greeks
To say that the disciples stole Christ’s body is to say that they made up the resurrection. It’s not that they were mistaken. That would be one thing. It’s not even that they were out of their mind. They would have to have been intentionally deceptive. If you’re a first century Jew trying to get a new religion off the ground a resurrected messiah is exactly what you wouldn’t do. Let’s look at two reason why this would be the case.
First, let me back up for a moment and speak about the unacceptability of both the death and resurrection of Christ. It was culturally reprehensible at all levels to have a crucified and resurrected Messiah. The Jews certainly were not expecting their Messiah to be killed, especially in this manner. “Cursed is any man who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). Who would want a cursed man to be their Messiah?
Second, the Greeks would have nothing but disdain for the idea of a bodily resurrection. From their perspective, the material body was something to escape. The Greeks were dualists. They believed that the material world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Their goal, then, was to die and leave their physical, material, bodies behind (good riddance!). The resurrection of Christ (as some sort of solution to mankind’s problems) went against everything they believed.
The Gospel of a crucified and resurrected God (for both Jew and Greek) was about the dumbest story anyone could ever invent. Normally, when people fabricate stories, they build in some degree of marketing potential. However, this story was counterproductive on every level. It was a foolish story. However, this foolishness actually evidences its historicity. The story of the resurrection could not possibly be expected to sell… unless it was true.
4. There’s Just No Evidence for the Stolen Body Theory
Ultimately, when all is said and done, this myth suffers the same fatal flaw every other alternative suffers from: there is little or no evidence for it. The best evidence we have for the stolen body theory is that the New Testament mentions it!
Further Reading: The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus