“If Christ has not been raised,” the apostle Paul taught, “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is of momentous importance for every Christian, indeed for everyone on this planet. Because Jesus Christ conquered death, we, too, will live again — and so will our friends and relatives who have already died. That is why the most exhilarating message human ears have yet heard was the one announced to some astonished women outside a rock tomb in first-century Jerusalem: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6).
A foundational teaching
The resurrection of Christ has always been the central teaching of Christianity. “If the resurrection is not historic fact, then the power of death remains unbroken, and with it the effect of sin” (James Hastings, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, page 514).
Michael Green in Man Alive is emphatic: “Without faith in the resurrection there would be no Christianity at all.” W. Robertson Nicolls, quoting another writer, puts it plainly: “The empty tomb of Christ has been the cradle of the church” (The Church’s One Foundation, page 150).
Anchored to history
To mention Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection is to get to the root of the Christian faith, for Christianity claims a basis in historical fact. “There are ancient myths in pagan literature about dying gods who attained some form of resurrection,” writes Philip Rosenbaum, “but no other sacred writing intersects human history the way the Bible does. For it is the historical fact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that separate God’s Word from all others” (How to Enjoy the Boring Parts of the Bible, page 116).
But the New Testament accounts have come under intense scrutiny and attack. Scottish philosopher David Hume argued in the 1700s that miracles — including Christ’s resurrection — violated all known workings of natural law. In our century, theologian Rudolph Bultmann concluded, “An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.” In light of such arguments from rationalists and critics, it is no wonder that theories have been devised for the events of crucifixion week:
- The Swoon Theory: The idea that Jesus didn’t really die but faked a death on the cross, then tricked his disciples into thinking that he had conquered death, only to live out his life elsewhere.
- The Theft Theory: The idea that the disciples, other sympathizers, perhaps robbers or someone else, stole the corpse. This is the oldest and most widespread argument against Christ’s resurrection.
These are bold contentions, almost as bold as the resurrection claim itself. They are rhetorical daggers aimed at the very vitals of the Christian faith. Peter wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories…but we were eyewitnesses” (2 Peter 1:16).
Who is right?
What about the Swoon Theory? This theory suggests that Jesus Christ plotted — for whatever reasons — the biggest hoax in history. Did Jesus, by some amazingly cunning strategy, fake a death on the cross? Let’s keep in mind that the four Gospels are the primary documented evidence for Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. We have good internal evidence for believing. These writings are emphatic that Jesus Christ’s execution was a public and state-certified spectacle (Mark 15:29).
“This thing was not done in a corner,” Paul argued before King Agrippa, the most influential Jewish official of his day (Acts 26:26, New King James Version). How right he was. Jesus Christ’s mortal enemies — the leadership elite of his nation — were on the scene. They were watchfully determined to stamp out the Jesus movement (John 11:46-53). That is why they schemed behind closed doors to carry out their plot, at risk to their own standing among the people (John 7:25-52). It had to be the perfect crime.
Pontius Pilate, the chief Roman official on the scene, double-checked to verify if Christ had died (Mark 15:44-45). The testimony of John 19:23 and Mark 15:39 indicates that at least four Roman soldiers, including a centurion, carried out the execution. You can be sure that Roman occupation troops of the first century knew what death was.
Consider this: Would Christ’s foes — opponents eager to crush out the infant Christian movement — have allowed Christ, once in their clutches, to fake a death? This hardly seems logical or consistent with their motives and with the biblical narrative. John Stott demolished the Swoon Theory with common sense. He asks if we can really believe
that after the rigours and pains of trial, mockery, flogging and crucifixion he could survive…in a stone sepulcher with neither warmth nor food nor medical care? That he could then rally sufficiently to perform the superhuman feat of shifting the boulder which secured the mouth of the tomb…without disturbing the Roman guard? That he could appear to the disciples in such a way as to give them the impression that he had vanquished death? … Such credulity is more incredible than Thomas’ unbelief. (Basic Christianity, page 49)
The oldest argument advanced against Christ’s resurrection is the intriguing theory that Christ’s body was stolen. This is a significant claim. The one crowning blow to disprove Christ’s resurrection would have been a public display of his body. A display of the corpse would quickly end any “myth” that was developing about the resurrection of Jesus.
Public exhumings have happened more than once in history; why didn’t the rulers of first-century Judea do that? There was a good reason: The body could not be found. Christ had been bodily resurrected. The Gospel account makes the most sense.
The rulers of Jerusalem “gave the soldiers a large sum of money” to circulate the story that Jesus’ disciples stole his body (Matthew 28:11-15). The Theft Theory is indefensible, no matter who the robbers supposedly were. If the guards were sleeping, how did they know who had stolen the body? Second, the Jerusalem hierarchy had outsmarted themselves — they had posted a guard to prevent this very sort of thing from happening.
As Paul Little asks in Know Why You Believe: “What judge would listen to you if you said that while you were asleep, your neighbor came into your house and stole your television set? Who knows what goes on while he’s asleep? Testimony like this would be laughed out of any court.”
In his book The Resurrection and the Life, George Hanson made this point: “The simple faith of the Christian who believes in the Resurrection is nothing compared to the credulity of the skeptic who will accept the wildest and most improbable romances rather than admit the plain witness of historical certainties.”
Any explanation, to be credible, must fit all the facts. The Theft Theory doesn’t. The case against it is devastating. Even the existence of the New Testament church is evidence that something happened in Jerusalem, something no adversary could explain. There is no doubt that these defenses of the resurrection ring true. Sincere and learned scholars have labored hard to nullify the claims made against Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
A question of faith
Christianity is more than a series of clever arguments. It is more than a list of intellectual debating points that can be argued back and forth. This is why the validity of the Gospel testimony does not remain at the mercy of the latest “debunking” best-seller or archaeological find in the Middle East. In the end, Christianity rests on faith, faith based on a living and ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ, a living Savior!
Thomas wanted the strongest form of proof: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…I will not believe it” (John 20:25). Thomas saw, he tested, and then he believed (verses 26-28). Yet Jesus followed this dramatic encounter with the words: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (verse 29).
As Oliver Barclay wrote: “The historical Jesus Christ was an amazing power in the lives of men years after his death. It is not so much the fact that a miracle happened…. The chief reason that the disciples spoke so often about it was that Jesus was alive and with them again” (Reasons for Faith, page 115). This is why the disciples came storming out of Jerusalem and so influenced the world with their message (Acts 17:6). The living Christ had changed their lives. He can do the same for you.