Jesus told His disciples repeatedly before He was arrested, tried, tortured and crucified that those things would happen. He also told them He would be resurrected on the third day after His death.
They didn’t understand any of it before it all came down but within a few days of His death and burial, they were telling the world they had seen and talked to Him, that He was alive, that He had been resurrected.
Here we are 2,000 years later and a bunch of theories have been proposed to explain away the disciples’ claim that Jesus was resurrected. One of those theories is that Jesus didn’t come back to life, and the reason the tomb was empty was because somebody stole His body.
There are three basic groups of “suspects” who might have had motives to snatch Jesus’ dead body from the tomb, His friends, His enemies and grave robbers. Let’s take the latter group first.
What About Grave Robbers?
Grave robbing in the Middle East has been around for a long time. The tombs of the Pharaohs of Egypt, for example, were typically filled with valuable items the deceased leader was thought to need in his journey in the next world. Those graves were attractive targets for grave robbers, who over the centuries stripped many of them.
But there is zero reason to think grave robbers would have viewed Jesus’ burial chamber in the same way as they would have that of a Pharaoh. For one thing, Jesus was known to be an itinerant teacher with a small band of followers. He had no known palace, ruled over no geographical territory and collected no taxes from anybody. There simply was no reason to think Jesus had any riches with which to be buried.
“Whether they found riches or not, why would they have then taken the rotting corpse of Jesus out of the tomb?”
There are, however, two possible reasons somebody might have thought there could be treasures in Jesus’ tomb. First, Pilate, the Roman governor who gave the order to crucify Jesus, also ordered that a sign be placed His head on the cross. The sign said “King of the Jews.”
Jerusalem was full of people from far away visiting for the Passover Festival, so it’s possible thieves were around who weren’t familiar with the facts surrounding this “King of the Jews” and simply assumed He must have been a rich guy.
So let’s stipulate they did somehow manage to get into the burial chamber. Given the truth about Jesus’ poverty, they were sorely disappointed to find nothing of value, except perhaps His burial clothes.
But here’s the key point: Whether they found riches or not, why would they have then taken the rotting corpse of Jesus out of the tomb? There is no logical reason they would have done so. They were there for the riches, not the rotting body.
Video By A Smart Guy (With Six More Reasons)
The second reason somebody might have thought there could be riches in Jesus tomb is that it was not His tomb to begin with, but was owned by Joseph of Arimathea. A rich man in his own right, Joseph went to Pilate and asked to be allowed to bury Jesus’ body in a grave he owned.
Is it possible Joseph thought this tomb might be a safe place to hide some of his valuables? He undoubtedly knew of the guards Pilate ordered to be placed at the tomb, so perhaps Joseph thought the tomb would be secure, even if only temporarily.
Let’s assume that’s what happened and that’s what attracted grave robbers to the tomb. Let’s further assume they made off with Joseph’s temporarily stored treasures. That still doesn’t explain why the thieves would also carry away the dead body.
Bottom Line #1 — Chances are extremely remote, at best, that grave robbers took away Jesus’ body.
What About Jesus’ Enemies?
It’s clear from the New Testament that both the Romans and the Jewish leaders were aware of Jesus’ prediction of His resurrection. That’s one reason Pilate granted the Jewish leaders’ request that a guard be stationed at the tomb. They feared the disciples would somehow sneak away with the body and then tell everybody Jesus had been resurrected.
But, as we will see shortly, there is little likelihood of the disciples having succeeded in stealing Jesus’ body, so it’s logical to think Jesus’s enemies still had custody of His remains a few weeks later on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples put Jerusalem into an uproar with their claim He was alive.
“Pilate would likely have had no qualms whatsoever about having his soldiers reopen the tomb and remove Jesus body to be put on public display and thus expose the disciples’ resurrection claim.
So all the authorities would have had to do to discredit the disciples’s claim of a resurrection was to roll Jesus’ rotting corpse down Jerusalem’s Main Street in full public view. That would have stopped the Christian movement dead in its tracks.
Here’s something else to think about: It was not uncommon for crucifixion victims to be left on their cross, subject to vultures and other wild animals. Remember, the place of crucifixion was outside Jerusalem’s city walls in an area used as a garbage dump.
But that didn’t happen to Jesus’ body, thanks to Joseph of Arimathea. Pilate would likely have had no qualms whatsoever about having his soldiers reopen the tomb and remove Jesus body to be put on public display and thus expose the disciples’ resurrection claim.
Bottom Line #2 — It’s a near certainty that Jesus’ enemies didn’t have His dead body
What About the Disciples?
So this brings us to the disciples, the group most often accused of somehow stealing their dead leader’s body and then proclaiming a lie, that Jesus had come back to life, just as He said He would three days after His death.
There are two facts that are beyond dispute here: The disciples were a bunch of cowards and there was an armed guard defending the tomb. Cowards don’t suddenly find courage and overcome armed guards.
How do we know the disciples were cowards? The New Testament tells us that in multiple ways. There’s Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed. Given Peter’s aggressive personality, the fact he felt compelled to disassociate himself from Jesus after the arrest should tell us there is no surprise in the cowardice of the rest of the disciples who hid from the authorities, fearing no doubt that they would be next in line for execution.
“People give their lives for causes they believe to be true and legitimate, but not when they know the cause is false.”
But for the purposes of discussion here, let’s assume the disciples did somehow gather their courage, hide Jesus’ body, then proclaim His resurrection, knowing all the while they were spreading a lie.
Here’s why that explanation makes no sense: People don’t die for something they know to be a lie. People give their lives for causes they believe to be true and legitimate, but not when they know the cause is false.
Most, if not all, of the disciples died horrendous deaths. Peter was crucified upside down. James was beheaded. Not one of the original disciples recanted. Had there been a conspiracy among them to conceal the truth that Jesus really wasn’t alive, that all that stuff they’d been claiming about Him being resurrected was a lie, one of them at least would have confessed in order to save his own skin.
Bottom Line #3 — Nobody dies for what they know to be a lie
So where does that leave us? The most logical conclusion, based upon the preceding analysis, is the empty tomb can’t be explained by theft. Jesus told His disciples He would be resurrected and He was.
And what does that mean for you, my friend on the Hill? If Jesus is alive, we have to take seriously His claim to be God incarnate. That’s not something you can just walk away from and ignore.
You’ve got to deal with it. That’s where I come in because I was once where you are now. Let’s talk. There’s so much more evidence from history, archeology and logic.
For example, if you think the disciples could have stolen Jesus body, you have to explain how they defeated one of the most feared military guard units of the Roman Army, the Kustodian.
Want to go deeper? Here’s a great place to start: More Than A Carpenter, by Josh and Sean McDowell. Quick, easy to read, absolutely based on the latest research and facts. There’s a reason 15 million copies have been sold.
But you can get a copy for free. Just let me know you want it, give me your snail-mail address and I will send you a copy at no cost.