It didn’t take long for people to recognise that if they wanted to discredit Christianity, they could undermine the entire thing by disproving the resurrection. The point was not lost on the apostle Paul either. In the most brutal terms, he makes clear what would be lost if Jesus did not rise.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
Let me break down what Paul says is at stake:
- Our preaching is vain (v14)
- Our faith is empty and futile (v14, 17)
- We lie about God and offer a false conception of him (v15)
- Our hope of future resurrection is baseless (v13, 16)
- Our sin has not been forgiven (v17)
- All who trusted in Christ and have since died are in Hell (v18)
- We are given hope (of a sort) for this life only(v19)
- We are the saddest and most pitiable of all people (v19)
These are the things that are lost if Christ did not rise from the dead. They are equally the things that we lose if we deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, even the apostles were clear on how easy it would be to discredit the entire Christian religion. This is the silver bullet that would destroy the religion overnight. Disprove the resurrection and the whole thing disintegrates.
It is a fact lost on neither the Romans nor the Jewish religious leaders. Both wanted Jesus out of the picture: the latter because he represented a threat to their position and the former to maintain peaceable relations with the Jews. The easiest way to discredit the concept of resurrection was to produce a body proving the claim to be untrue. The problem was, and remains, the lack of a body. The only natural explanation for this is that somebody stole the body.
Only three possible options exist for whom may have done so:
- The Romans
- The Jews
- The Disciples
#1 and #2 can be easily and readily dismissed. Both wanted to disprove the resurrection theory, thus to produce the body would have killed off the claim once and for all. It is highly unlikely either would have the body, seek to discredit the resurrection with all their might and yet have the most obvious means of disproving it. All that would have been required is a public showing of the body and Christianity would have been dead before it began. That they didn’t do this is strong evidence they had no body.
#3 is more credible. It is certainly possible that the disciples might have so wanted to proclaim a resurrected Jesus that they might seek to steal the body and propagate the myth. The question is: is it likely? The theory is littered with problems.
First are the practical problems. The Romans had stationed a guard outside the tomb, which had itself been sealed. Even a determined, rag-bag group of fishermen and tax collectors would have struggled to overpower trained soldiers, open the tomb and remove the body. Supposing they had managed to do this, the question remains where the body would be stashed without being found. The disciples were tracked down pretty quickly following the discovery of the empty tomb, it wouldn’t have been hard to sniff out a rotting corpse were they were hiding it.
Second are the religious problems. There must be some reason why the disciples would have concocted a story about the messiah dying and rising. As William Lane Craig notes:
the Jewish conception of resurrection differed in two important, fundamental respects from Jesus’ resurrection. In Jewish thought the resurrection always (1) occurred after the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all the people, not just an isolated individual. In contradistinction to this, Jesus’ resurrection was both within history and of one individual person. (‘Jesus’ Resurrection, Reasonable Faith, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/jesus-resurrection)
There was nothing in Jewish thought that would have expected an isolated resurrection of an individual in history. Nor can this be put down to Christian influence because the religion did not exist at this point. Further, as Craig points out, the disciples ‘were fishermen and tax collectors, not theologians’. There simply is no reason for them to come up with this idea unless it was what they actually believed had happened.
Third, there are consequential problems. The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead and the Romans wanted peaceable relations with the Jewish authorities. The disciples were threatened with death and torture if they continued to proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead. Aside from the fact they had no religious reason to concoct the story, when being threatened with death for continuing to espouse the resurrection it would have been particularly perverse to die for the claim if they knew they had, in fact, stolen the body. Whilst there is an outside possibility one of them might be prepared to die for the lie, it seems highly unlikely all of them would do so.
Fourth, there are the problems with the witness accounts. Over 500 people were claiming to have witnessed the risen Lord Jesus. If the disciples had stolen the body, the extra witnesses would must be untrue. The explanation adds a further question: why would 500 other people lie about seeing Jesus alive? Among the witnesses to the risen Jesus was Saul of Tarsus, a zealot who had made it his mission to roundup the followers of Jesus and imprison them. The claim that the disciples had the body has absolutely no power to explain the post-mortem appearances, not just to Jesus’ followers but to those who were actively seeking to destroy what would become the Christian movement.
It’s certainly true that if the resurrection can be disproved, then the Christian faith will crumble. Without the resurrection, it is meaningless and manifestly untrue. However, appeals to a stolen body have always been a fruitless endeavour. The question remain: if the body wasn’t stolen, what actually happened to it?