There are some facts about the death of Jesus that no one disputes.
According to the testimony of both Christian and non-Christian historical documents, it is undisputed that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived, was crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. (See the Gospels, the historian Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and the Jewish Talmud.) Three days after the death of Jesus, his tomb was empty. These are the undisputed facts. So what best explains why (or how) the body of Jesus went missing?
Let’s look at how to dismantle seven resurrection myths that fail to account for all the facts.
1. Jesus was faking it.
The “swoon” theory claims that Jesus fainted on the cross and awoke in the tomb. This is a myth, because the Romans were very good at executing people via crucifixions. Jesus had gaping wounds from the flogging and beating, dislocated shoulders, and a pierced side from the crucifixion.
Even if he survived all of that (and asphyxiation from being nailed to a cross for hours), in his very poor health condition he would have needed to roll away a heavy stone while essentially locked inside of the tomb. All of this seems more unlikely than an actual resurrection.
2. Jesus had a twin brother.
The “twin” theory” says that Jesus had an identical twin who remained hidden all of his life. I like to call this the “prestige theory,” named after the Christopher Nolan film in which Christian Bale is a magician and has a twin brother who helps him complete the impossible magic trick with the doors.
Aside from the fact that there is no documentary evidence whatsoever to support this myth, it doesn’t account for the missing body from the tomb. If he had a twin brother who died in his place, the other brother would have needed to steal the body from the tomb.
3. The body of Jesus was stolen.
The “stolen body” theory says the body of Jesus was stolen by someone. The question is, who had a motive to steal his body? The Romans and the Jews wanted Christianity to die—so it was in their interest to make sure the body remained. The disciples had no motive either, because they believed their Messiah was dead and mourned his death as if he were never coming back.
It’s highly unlikely that they would be willing to be imprisoned, tortured, beaten, and killed for preaching the resurrection of a body they had stolen. Who would suffer so much loss for a lie? More questionable is the fact that in order to steal the body, they would have to go through the Roman guard.
There is a group of people who actually claim that aliens stole the body of Jesus. First of all, prove that aliens exist. Then prove that aliens cared enough about a first-century Jew (out of all periods in history and all people who have ever lived) to steal his body. This view is more unbelievable than the resurrection of Jesus.
4. A bunch of people were hallucinating.
The “hallucination” theory claims that Jesus’ disciples and others experienced mass hallucination. The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t deal with actual hallucinations, which are restricted to individuals (not groups). Groups may experience mass hysteria or illusions, but this is very different from hallucination and is evoked by fear. In any case, people experiencing mass hysteria wouldn’t respond the way the earliest followers of Jesus did—by proclaiming the gospel and dying for their faith in the risen Christ.
A hallucination is usually experienced by an individual, due to a disorder in the nervous system or in reaction to a drug. To claim that over three thousand people shared the same exact hallucination at the same time, and recalled everything in the same way, doesn’t seem compelling. The only thing that people experience on such a mass scale is mass hysteria.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that thousands of people did hallucinate on a mass scale. What happened to the body of Jesus? If early Christians were just making up a resurrection story, all anyone opposed to the faith would have to do is to produce the body. That would have stopped the nonsense from the very beginning.
Of course, this theory doesn’t help solve the actual problem: the tomb was empty.
5. The disciples went to the wrong tomb.
The “wrong tomb” theory says that the disciples found the wrong tomb and just assumed that it was empty. This theory is so lame, because all the Romans or Jews had to do was point people to the right tomb in order to prove that Christians were lying!
All the enemies of early Christianity had to do is to produce the dead body, and that would have put an end to Christianity once and for all. Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, we’re told that the Jews claimed the disciples stole the body—but as we have already observed, that’s not plausible either.
6. The whole thing was just a legend.
The “legend” theory says that there is a difference between the Jesus who lived in history and the Jesus in whom people believe. The problem with this myth is that we have evidence that Christians in the first century believed in the same Jesus that history gives us.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, the apostle Paul tells us that he is passing down a tradition that he “received.” If Paul became a Christian between AD 31 and 35, and this tradition precedes his conversion story, then the tradition he “received” was already established tradition within five years of the empty tomb. That’s not a lot of time!
This means that the earliest Christians believed the same story that Christians believe today. The Christ of history is the Christ of faith—they’re one in the same.
7. The Qur’an says the disciples imagined Jesus rose from the dead.
The “Qur’an” theory is based upon what is recorded in the religious textbook of Islam, which claims that “they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to him…Rather, Allah raised him up toward Himself, and Allah is all-mighty, all-wise” (Sura 4:157–158).
The main concern with trusting this source as credible evidence is that it was written between AD 609 and 632, which is about six hundred years after all other sources were written that describe the events of the first century. Whenever we investigate history, it’s probably best not to start with a later source like the Qur’an if we want to understand events that took place hundreds of years before it was written.
If I wanted to learn about the Holocaust, for example—I would go to eye witnesses who experienced the Holocaust firsthand before asking any of my peers what they think. The key is to find the earliest accounts of the empty tomb—not the latest! When we look at the earliest documents, this imaginative theory just doesn’t hold up to any serious scrutiny and is not credible.
Making Sense of the Data
The only possibility that makes sense of all of the data we have on record is the fact of the resurrection. The apostle Paul admitted, “if Christ has not been raised…we are of all people most to be pitied…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:17–20). The most vulnerable point of Christianity is the resurrection account, and yet, at the same time it is a point that makes Christianity invincible.
Indeed, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). As Craig Blomberg wrote, “No religion stands or falls with a claim about the resurrection of its founder in the way Christianity does.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. [Intervarsity Press, 2007]), 77).
Jesus really rose from the dead on that Sunday morning and is the reason why the tomb was empty.
If you would like to read more about the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, here are a few more resources that will be helpful.
– Religion on Trial by Craig A. Parton
– The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright
– The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona