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Like the liberal Sadducees and the “enlightened” Greeks of Jesus’ day, modern skeptics believe that it is impossible to come back from the dead. When starting with the presupposition that miracles are impossible, skeptics are limited by their worldview and are required to look for a naturalistic cause for “miracles.” Such is the case with the Resurrection of Jesus. When an empty tomb stares back at skeptics, they are forced to concoct the most unbelievable theories to explain what really happened.
The most radical theory claims that Jesus’ disciples deliberately lied about the resurrection and stole the body to save their reputation. At first glance this theory may seem plausible. But let’s stop and think about it for a moment. Where were the disciples just after Jesus’ death? They were in hiding—dejected over the loss of their master and fearful for their lives (John 20:19). If you were among the disciples who feared the authorities for following Jesus when He was alive, would deliberately lying give you the courage to face persecution and death? It’s hard to imagine these frightened and dejected men would decide to make up a story and then be willing to die for it.
It is true that many people have died for a lie. From Jim Jones to the Heaven’s Gate cult, people who are deceived by a cult leader can be quite willing to die. It would be extremely rare, however, if anyone would deliberately construct a false story and then die for it with a martyr’s zeal. It is even more difficult to believe that 11 men would go to their deaths for this lie without one of them squealing under pressure. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that these men could base the world’s highest and most ethical teaching–Christianity–on a deliberate lie.
For the sake of the skeptics’ argument, however, let’s assume they did muster up enough courage to steal the body of Jesus. If so, could they have overtaken the Roman Guard? The religious leaders feared that Jesus’ disciples would steal his body (Matt. 27:64). In Matthew 27:65, we learn that Pilate alleviated their fears and ordered a guard to secure and seal tomb. A.T. Robertson, noted Greek scholar, says this phrase is in the present imperative and can refer only to a Roman Guard and not the temple police. This Guard was known as the custodian, which represented the guard unit of the Roman Legion. This unit was probably one of the greatest offensive and defensive fighting machines ever conceived. The punishment for a soldier who failed to follow orders in this unit was to be stripped of his clothes and burned alive. It seems highly unlikely that the disciples could overpower this elite military unit even if they had the courage.
For the sake of the skeptics argument once again, however, let’s assume they did overpower the guard and steal the body. After whipping the toughest men in Rome, their next step would be to roll away a stone weighing several tons. Next, they would have to carry away the body of Jesus, hide it from the world, and secure it more closely than the Roman Guard was able to do. And they did all of this only to live out the rest of their days spreading lies about His resurrection and going to their martyr’s death. Believable? Hardly.
But wait! There’s a clever twist on this theory. Some skeptics believe the body of Jesus was stolen not by his disciples. Rather, it was stolen by the Roman and Jewish leaders, who left an empty tomb to be discovered by Mary Magdalene. If the authorities had taken the body, they could have simply produced the body and paraded it down main street on the Day of Pentecost! Christianity would have been dead in an instant. What really happened? Instead they had to bribe the soldiers to say the disciples stole the body and convince the governor to spare the lives of the soldiers (Matt. 28:11–15).
Refuting the “Wrong Tomb” Theory
Maybe in the fog of the early morning, the women went to an empty tomb. But it was the wrong tomb! Then Peter and John went to this wrong tomb, and then the other disciples, and then the Jews and the Romans, and even the angel went to the wrong tomb! Once again, this theory does not hold water. The authorities could have pointed out which tomb was the correct burial site for Jesus, and stopped all of the excitement in an instant.
Refuting the “Legend” Theory
Another theory claims that the resurrection is simply a legend that developed over time and was recorded later in the Bible as fact. There are a couple of major problems with this theory. The first is that biblical account reveals embarrassing details about the disciples. While they were hiding in fear after the crucifixion, women (one of whom was a former prostitute) discover the empty tomb! A truly legendary story would paint Jesus’ followers as heroes and certainly not give credit to women. The second problem is that proponents of this theory must still account for the fact that the disciples suffered persecution and a martyr’s death for their faith. Would they die for a myth they themselves fabricated? Not a chance.
Jesus intersected time and space when he came to this earth to die for us and rise from the grave. Doctor Luke writes in Acts 1:3 that Jesus “presented himself alive after that he had suffered, by many infallible tokens, being seen of them by the space of forty days, and speaking of those things which appertained to the kingdom of God.” Professor Thomas Arnold, who held of the chair of modern history at Oxford University, wrote: “I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.”