The resurrection story has several theories that you might hear from those who don’t embrace the Christian view. One of the more common ones is the stolen body theory. When you consider the possibilities of who would have stolen his body, it falls into three categories. The Romans, the Jewish authorities, and the disciples.
After the crucifixion, Pilate ordered that Jesus’ tomb be guarded just so someone would not steal the body and claim he came back to life. He did this because the chief priests and Pharisees were worried someone would steal his body. They had recalled that Jesus said he would rise again after three days, then shared their concern with Pilate. “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. Matthew 27:65
So the question is, what motive would the Romans have for stealing the body? Certainly, they did not want any more trouble with the Jews than they already had. Besides, after the resurrection claim, the disciples began to preach the Good News boldly and without fear. Obviously this angered many Jews. The Romans were in charge of keeping peace in Palestine and had the Romans been the ones to steal the body, they certainly could have produced it. Once that was done, the evidence of the body would have shut up the claims of the disciples.1 The problem was, the Romans could not produce a body.
What would motivate the Jewish leaders into stealing the body of Jesus? They were the ones who approached Pilate with concerns of someone stealing the body. They were the ones who ensured the tomb was secure and that a guard was posted. Matthew 27:62-66 They did not want anyone, least of all the disciples, making claims that Jesus had risen from the dead after three days.
After the resurrection, many Jews were becoming Christians, and if the chief priests and Pharisees had stolen the body, possibly so the disciples could not steal it first and claim He rose, they would have produced it to end the foolishness of this new cult. In Acts 4:1-3, Peter and John were arrested for making the claims that Jesus had been resurrected. The elders and chief priests were amazed how bold, yet uneducated Peter and John were, but were unable to persuade them to stop announcing the resurrection of Christ. Acts 4:13
If the body remained in the tomb, then the Jewish leaders would have simply had the Roman guards roll the stone and deliver the body of Jesus as decisive proof that He was still dead. If there was a body, history has not recorded any debate or dispute over identification of Jesus’ body. Quite the contrary, the debate revolved around the disappearance of the body, not the identification of it.
So for some reason, the disciples stole the body of their Lord so they could be beaten, abused, insulted, stoned, beheaded, and crucified. There have been claims that Romans blamed the disciples, but how would they know? If the guard was sleeping, how would he know who took the body? If he was not sleeping, how could the disciples have gotten past him? The penalty for either would have been death for the Roman guard.
We have accounts of Christian martyrs over the centuries who have died for their faith in Christ, but in recent years we have had evidence of others also dying for their faith. The Taliban and the suicide bombers have made headline news hundreds of times since the 911 attacks. They obviously believe and are willing to die for their belief. But there is a significant difference between dying for what you believe to be true, and dying for what you know to be true.
The disciples knew they did not steal the body and also knew no one else had a reason to. They experienced first hand evidence in seeing, talking to, and touching their resurrected Lord. Mary Magdalene saw, heard, and touched Christ. John 20:10-18. In Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23, other disciples saw, heard, and touched Christ. In John 20:24-31, eleven apostles saw, heard, and touched Christ.2 They knew their Lord and were willing to die for him, not for what they believed to be true, but what they knew to be true.
William Lane Craig wrote, “One of the most remarkable facts about the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection was that it flourished in the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified. So long as the people of Jerusalem thought that Jesus’ body was in the tomb, few would have been prepared to believe such nonsense as that Jesus had been raised from the dead.”3 The burden of proof was on the Romans and the Jewish leaders, and apparently no one could produce a body, because He had risen. Craig continued “The disciples could not have believed in Jesus’ resurrection if His corpse still lay in the tomb. It would have been wholly un-Jewish, not to say stupid, to believe that a man was raised from the dead when his body was known to be still in the grave.”4 Even if the disciples had boldly professed the resurrection out of ‘blind-faith’ once someone produced the body, this new religion would have died right then and there.
Finally, Paul Little points out in his book, Know What You Believe, that people will die for many things they believe to be true. I have already pointed out the 911 attacks and the belief of those terrorists, but flip the coin. How many people do you know that will die for something they ‘know’ is false?5
The Roman and Jews could not produce the body, but the disciples would have wanted to if their claims had been false.
Have you talked about the resurrection with your children beyond Easter eggs, ham, and family gatherings? Or the church activities that go beyond children making little paper tombs that represent the empty tomb? How much more impactful would it be if you sat down with your young children and gave them something beyond what seems to be the annual Easter bed time story, and shared with them the evidence of the resurrection?
Today’s teens and young adults have been saturated with market media since birth. They recognize, but may not be able to articulate, the world’s sales pitch to purchase everything from cereal to shoes. Religion, and even Christianity, market ideas as much as General Mills selling Lucky Charms and Adidas advertising sport shirts. If you don’t want those ideas to end up in the ‘junk mail’ folder, or being ‘unfriended’, you better give them reasons for the sale beyond what is typically offered. Jedd Medefind, president for the Christian Alliance for Orphans wrote, “We must make truth touchable. The Good News must be as tangible as the wood of a cross. Without a visible expression, words like transformation, grace, and radical discipleship will be quickly dismissed as just another hyperbolic sales pitch.”6
The apostles were not adverse to giving reasons or evidence for their faith. 1John 1:1-2 With a little guidance, our children can move beyond the Walmart end caps full of colorful eggs and white bunnies to explaining to their unchurched or unbelieving peers at school why they celebrate what we recognize as the truth of the resurrection.
1. Story, Dan. The Christian Combat Manual. Chattanooga: AMG, 2007. Print.
2. Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Wheaton: Crossway 2004, Print.
3. Craig, William L. On Guard. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2010. Print
5. Little, Paul. Know What You Believe. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2003. Print.
6. Kinnaman, David. You Lost Me – Why Young Christians are Leaving Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011. Print.
Moving beyond the paper tomb by James Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.knowingforsure.com/.