Christianity is the world’s largest religion. It has around 2.2 billion followers, a distinguished history of at least two-thousand years, and has arguably had a greater influence on our world today than any other religion, theory, or movement.
Yet, this powerhouse is based on one innocuous fact: the empty tomb of a crucified criminal in Roman Palestine.
The startlingly claim of Christians is that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, rose again to new life. If this happened, if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then everything Christianity claims is true. If He didn’t, then Christians are the biggest idiots and we should all hang our heads in shame for perpetuating such lies.
It’s a stark choice.
But everyone has a stark choice when it comes to the empty tomb of this crucified Jew.
If the Christian account isn’t right, then what exactly did all those years ago just outside of Jerusalem? Why did a bunch of dispersed disciples suddenly start preaching that Jesus was resurrected? Why weren’t the authorities able to simply stamp out the nonsense by producing a body? And why did this new faith, called ‘The Way’ in it’s earliest years, spread across the world with such power?
The most plausible explanation for the facts of the Easter Story is that Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead.
The Facts of the Resurrection
These are the facts we know.
- Death of Jesus: Jesus was publicly executed in a cruel, bloody and unmistakable way. The Roman soldiers knew how to execute criminals and crucifixion was their most feared method.
- Known Tomb: Jesus was buried and many knew the location of the tomb, including the Roman authorities who placed soldiers outside the tomb.
- Empty Tomb: On the first day of the week after the death of Jesus, His tomb was empty and the body was gone.
- Disciples’ Response: The disciples, who up to that moment had been terrified and even abandoned Jesus, began preaching that He had risen bodily from the dead. They preached this to thousands in Jerusalem where the action had just taken place.
- Authorities’ Response: Despite it being in their best interests, neither the Jews nor the Romans produced the body of Jesus. In fact, they accused the disciples of stealing the body.
- Changed Lives: All the Apostles were tortured and persecuted for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. They never recanted and 11 of the 12 plus many more died for their faith. At the very least, we must conclude that Jesus’ disciples believed He truly rose from the dead.
- Resurrection Appearances: Many different witnesses, in and around Jerusalem, testified to seeing the risen Jesus, even crowds of 500 people at a time.
- Historical Spread: Christianity spread rapidly throughout the known world — wholly dependent on the belief that Jesus was the Christ who (really!) rose from the dead.
The Alternative Explanations for the Resurrection
So what’s a thoughtful person to do with these facts? Obviously, we should prefer a non-supernatural explanation. Frankly, these happen more often and it would be stupid to assume every confusing event was somehow a miracle.
At the same time, we shouldn’t absolutely rule a supernatural explanation if that’s where the evidence seems to point. It would be equally stupid to assume miracles can’t happen simply because they are confusing.
Lots of different theories have been proposed to explain the empty tomb and give an alternative account to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Roughly, we can group these explanations into five theories. So let’s take a look at them.
The Swoon Theory
The Swoon Theory says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, He just “swooned” and “revived” in the tomb. This theory denies Fact #1 and #2. If there’s one historically verified truth about Christianity it’s that Jesus was crucified, died on the Cross, and was then buried. Roman soldiers knew how to crucify people and they knew how to make sure someone was dead.
More to the point, how does someone who simply “fainted” from the most brutal method of execution known to history recover sufficiently that others genuinely believe He conquered death and has risen in glory?
For more on this theory: 9 Reasons Why Jesus Did Not Jesus Faint on the Cross by Peter Kreeft [Strange Notions]
The Hallucination Theory
The Hallucination Theory says that the disciples hallucinated Jesus’ resurrection. They just really wanted it to be true so they all saw that it was true. It denies Fact #3, #6 and #7. If it was just a hallucination, why didn’t the Jewish or Roman authorities just point to the tomb where Jesus’ body still was? It should have been easy enough.
One Orthodox Jewish historian of Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv, wrote,
If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception – without a fundamental faith experience – then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself. In a purely logical analysis, the resurrection of Jesus is ‘the lesser of two evils’ for all those who seek a rational explanation of the worldwide consequences of that Easter faith.
— Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: a Jewish Perspective, pp. 125-126.
The “Spiritual Resurrection” Theory
The “Spiritual Resurrection” Theory says that it was just a “spiritual resurrection”, a symbol of new life and new faith in… what exactly? It denies Fact #3, #4, #6, #7, #8. The disciples professed a bodily resurrection — not a spiritual one. In the first Easter sermon, St Peter emphasized,
Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. (Acts 2:29-33)
Again, why wouldn’t the authorities just point to the body of Jesus if it was just a “spiritual” resurrection?
The Theft Theory
The Theft Theory says that the disciples stole the body. This is actually the second oldest explanation. (The oldest is that Jesus rose from the dead.) The chief priests actually bribed the soldiers,
Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble. So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:13)
At the very least, this shows that the dominant explanation of what happen that Easter accepted both the death of Jesus and that His tomb was empty.
But would the disciples actually steal the body? The problem is that this theory denies Fact #4, #6, #7. It doesn’t explain why the disciples would knowingly concoct a hoax that ultimately got them nothing but scorn, persecution, and death. Nor does it explain the resurrection appearances to many others.
One of the leading New Testament scholars who is also an agnostic commented on this theory,
I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists (of witnesses) were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.
— Ed Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 280.
The Wrong Tomb Theory
The Wrong Tomb Theory says that the disciples just got the tomb mixed up. This is probably the weakest explanation. This denies Fact #5 and #7.
If it was just the wrong tomb, why didn’t anyone point the disciples to the actual tomb? The chief priests? The Roman soldiers? Basically anyone else? Remember, the women saw where Jesus was laid and when they went to his empty tomb on Sunday, they found the burial cloths. No, they got the right tomb and everyone knew it — if they didn’t, why did the officials bribe the soldiers stationed outside the tomb to say the disciples stole the body?
The Only Probable Explanation
None of these theories account for the data.
The very fact that there are different explanations that contradict each other proves that.
One says the tomb was definitely empty; it was just Jesus didn’t die. Another says that Jesus obviously died but the tomb wasn’t empty — they were just mixed up or someone stole the body. It seems that no one can decide where the weakest point in the evidence is.
The troubling truth is that the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
He was definitely dead on Friday and His body was definitely gone on Sunday. His disciples, who had no motive for inventing this sort of stuff (and every reason not to!), believed that He had truly risen from the dead. His enemies could not disprove this by pointing to the body of Jesus because the tomb was empty. No spiritual resurrection or myth-making scenario accounts for the disciples’ sudden transformation to preachers of a bodily resurrection in the very place where all these events unfolded.
In the end, as crazy as it seems, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the one explanation that explains all the facts.