In order to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, we need to confirm that: 1) Jesus was crucified. 2) Jesus died. 3) Jesus was buried and the tomb was found empty. 4) The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus. 5) The disciples suffered for their testimony and some of them were killed. This blog series is working through each one of these historical facts and responding to common naturalistic objections.

Was the body stolen?

One of the points for the fact of the empty tomb was that the enemies of Jesus said that the disciples stole the body. Is it possible that this really happened rather than being a cover-up? Richard Carrier, a world-renown atheist speaker and author, thinks the theft of the bod is a plausible hypothesis. He wrote, “So even if the empty tomb story is not a legend, it is not necessary to conclude that only a genuine resurrection would explain it. One prominent natural explanation is theft of the body.”[1] It is possible that the disciples stole the body in order to continue their movement.

However, there are a few problems with the belief that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. First, “the disciples of Jesus claimed to have seen the risen Jesus because they really believed that they had seen him.”[2] As we will see in the next two sections, the disciples truly believed that they saw the risen Jesus and they were willing to die for that belief. It doesn’t seem likely that the disciples would steal the body, lie about it, and then die for a lie. When they claimed to have seen the risen Jesus it was because they really believed it. Second, if the disciples stole Jesus’ body, how do you explain the conversion of Paul? Paul was an enemy of the church that became a believer after seeing the risen Jesus. If they disciples stole Jesus body then it seems unlikely that Paul would have converted to Christianity.

Was the body moved?

Since the disciples seemed genuine in their belief that the tomb was empty, maybe it is possible that the body was moved and the disciples were unaware. Carrier defended this idea as well as the stolen body theory. He said, “One prominent natural explanation is theft of the body. Another, which I developed in a preceding chapter, is that the body was legally moved without the knowledge of the disciples.”[3] Even Mary Magdalene thought that the body was moved. In John 20:2 we see that “she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’” This explanation fits what Mary believed and makes sense of the genuine belief of the disciples, but it too has its flaws.

There is no mention of Jesus’ body being moved in the text, only Mary’s thought that it might have happened. It is easy to come up with a theory to explain one piece of evidence, but the theory has to be based on evidence or else there is no reason to trust it. “This is the Fraud 2 option, which is flawed because it cannot account for the vast majority of the known historical facts. Virtually all critics recognize this. That is why very few scholars held it during the twentieth century.”[4] The moved body theory doesn’t explain the appearances which we will cover next, and it even admits that the tomb was empty. If it wasn’t for the appearances of Jesus, it is likely that the disciples wouldn’t have been transformed into bold proclaimers of the faith. That wasn’t done by the empty tomb.

Wrong tomb?

The last objection to the empty tomb is called the wrong tomb theory. Carrier defends this theory as well by saying, “The surviving evidence, legal and historical, suggests the body of Jesus was not formally buried Friday night when it was placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, that instead it had to have been placed Saturday night in a special public graveyard reserved for convicts. On this theory the women who visited the tomb Sunday morning mistook its vacancy.”[5] Again, like the other theories, this theory ignores contrary evidence and commits the fallacy of special pleading. First, as mentioned before, we know where Jesus was buried. There is no reason to doubt the Joseph of Arimathea burial story. Habermas states that, “No sources support the wrong tomb theory. If the women and disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, all that the Roman and Jewish authorities would have had to do would have been to go to the right tomb, exhume the body, publicly display it, and clear up the misunderstanding.”[6] This theory is complete conjecture and cannot hold up to scrutiny.

With the naturalistic explanations failing to answer the evidence it is reasonable to conclude that the tomb was empty. “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it out to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”[7] The stolen body, moved body, and wrong tomb theories fail to ground themselves in historical evidence. It is for that reason that it is more reasonable to conclude that the tomb of Jesus was discovered empty.

[1] Richard C. Carrier, “The Plausibility of Theft” in Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), 349.

[2] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 93.

[3] Lowder, The Empty Tomb, 349.

[4] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 95.

[5] Lowder, The Empty Tomb, 369.

[6] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 98.

[7] Ibid. 73.