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Alternate Theories of the Resurrection


As you can see from the plain facts as well as the circumstantial evidence, the case for the resurrection of Christ is very compelling. Nonetheless, many have difficulty believing in the power of God and go to great lengths to explain it away. Through my research I have collected at least eleven alternate stories. As it turns out, all of them can be grouped into two categories. Either the body was still in the tomb, or it was not.

In all theories where the tomb is still occupied, one must reconcile the fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 eyewitnesses over a period of forty days (1 Corinthians 15:6). All of this happened in many different environments, locations, and events. Additionally, if the tomb was occupied the Jews would have produced the body promptly in order to squelch the rampant growth of Christianity. Instead, many of them became disciples (e.g. Acts 2). Finally, if the tomb were still occupied, there would have been no need to bribe the guards (Matthew 28:12-13). The alibi that was fabricated by the Jews on behalf of the guards was only necessary if the body was missing.

Aside from these problems, there are other issues present with each surrogate endeavor to explain the resurrection. Below are several attempted explanations, along with the related inconsistencies.

The Empty Tomb - The Disciples Stole the Body

Just in case anyone thinks this is a new theory, let's notice the fact that it has been in existence since the very resurrection itself. The theory here is the one recorded by Matthew,

"Now while they were on their way, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and counseled together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, 'You are to say, 'His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.' And if this should come to the governor's ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.' And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day." (Matthew 28:11-15)

First, one might ask how the guards knew that the disciples stole the body if they were asleep. Most people sleep with their eyes closed in an unconscious state. Another difficulty associated with anyone stealing the body is the disciplined nature of the Roman guard. These guards were highly trained soldiers. It is absurd to assert that they were sleeping, and equally absurd to think that the disciples or anyone else would overpower the guards without some dead bodies being present.

Either the guards would have killed the disciples protecting the tomb or they would have died trying. Surely there would have been some sign of a conflict. According to Stephen Harris in his book Introduction to the New Testament, the idea of sleeping guards isn't a serious conclusion,

"Severe punishment, including torture and death, awaited any Roman soldier found thus derelict... soldiers guarding the gates of Pompeii preferred being buried alive during the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius rather than face the consequences of leaving their posts without permission." 1

Furthermore, how do you suppose that several (probably between four and sixteen) disciplined, conditioned, loyal guards slept while a stone weighing easily more than a ton was moved under their noses? Certainly, it would have made an earthquake-like noise. Besides the problems with the Roman guards, it is very difficult to believe that the disciples would have departed from everything they held precious, in order to carry out the illusion of a phony resurrection. They were righteous, ethical, honorable men. Why would they suddenly change and become blatant liars? What's even more difficult to understand is why they would die for that great deception.

Finally, how does one explain the post-resurrection appearances to more than 500 eyewitnesses? Too many people saw Jesus to deny that He was there. The theory of the disciples stealing the body of Christ is far too hollow to believe. According to Frank Morrison,

"So far as I know there is not a single writer whose work is of critical value today who holds that there is even a case for discussion." 2

The Empty Tomb - Other Theories

Joseph of Arimathea Stole the Body

The story here is that Joseph had control of the tomb and the placement of the body. He therefore, could have taken it during preparation, or prior to actual burial. The first difficulty is one of motive. Why would he steal the body? He had no reason. Joseph was a Pharisee and would gladly have sided with the Pharisees if he were not otherwise convicted. Instead he chose to bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb.

Second, the tomb was sealed and guarded (Matthew 27:66). The seal was a signet of Rome that was a sign of warning to anyone who might break it. The Jewish leaders certainly would not have sealed and guarded an empty tomb. If Joseph was planning on breaking the seal and overpowering the guards there is virtually no chance he would still be alive.

Finally, all of the arguments about the disciples' theft apply here. It was out of character, as Joseph was an honest and devout Jew and a disciple; diligent Roman guards heavily guarded the tomb; and there were 500 eyewitnesses.

Grave Robbers Stole the Body

Grave robbers, then and now, rob graves for the purpose of stealing the valuables buried with bodies, not the bodies themselves! In the case of the burial of Jesus, the only valuables that were buried with the body were the one hundred pounds of spices, which were poured into the folds of the burial clothes. These burial clothes were left behind, vacated in the empty tomb! Finally, the same team of guards that would have stopped anyone else would have stopped any potential grave robbers.

The Authorities Moved the Body

This theory holds that the Jewish authorities moved the body so the disciples would not steal it. The biggest problem with this theory is motive. If, in fact, the Jews took the body then they gave support to the resurrection story to the Christians. If they knew the whereabouts of the body, certainly they would have produced the corpse and put it on display when the stories of the resurrection began to circulate around Jerusalem. And then there is still the enigma of the 500 eyewitnesses. This hypothesis does not hold up under scrutiny.

The "Swoon Theory"

This is one of the most ridiculous stories of all. It says that Christ, hanging on the cross, passed out from loss of blood and exhaustion, but did not die. Then, in the cool air of the tomb, He was resuscitated and walked out. That's quite a stretch!

Let's review the facts. Christ endured six trials, flogging to near death, a crown of thorns, crucifixion, and a spear thrust into His side. Yet somehow He was able to get out of His mummy-like linen wrappings, move a stone that weighed more than a ton (even though He couldn't carry a 100 pound cross-bar up the hill of Golgotha), and overpower a dozen armed guards. Finally, He was able to convince His disciples that He was in perfect health and had risen from the dead, not that He had barely escaped death. Now that is a miracle!

The "Passover Plot"

This postulation is the work of Hugh Schoenfield. He surmises that Christ elaborately planned the entire death, burial, and resurrection, even to the point of fulfilling prophecy. With the help of Joseph of Aramathea He took a drug, which made Him appear dead. The plan went awry when the unexpected spear was thrust into His side. As the drug wore off He could only live long enough to see His disciples for a short time. The blood loss was too great and He soon died.

As you can see, this one belongs with the "Swoon Theory." No one enduring the kind of torture that Jesus endured could walk out of a grave, move a huge stone, and overpower an assemblage of armed guards, all the while making it look as though He had overcome death. If Jesus could have survived He would have appeared to the disciples, ragged and torn, as though He was about to die. But this was not the case. Remember the attitude of the disciples changed from one of reverence to one of worship - even to the point that they would die for Him. They were unquestionably convinced that He overcame death.

The Occupied Tomb - Various Theories

Jesus was not Buried in a Tomb

The premise of this theory is that His tomb was similar to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There was a shrine of sorts, but His body was probably thrown into a pit. This theory simply ignores all historic documentation and evidence. It is purely conjecture. Further, we still have the problem of the 500 eyewitnesses. Finally, as previously mentioned, if the Jews knew where the body was, there is no doubt that they would have produced it for all to see, and put an immediate end to Christianity.

The Disciples Went to the Wrong Tomb

Somehow, between Friday and Sunday, the disciples forgot the location of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Not just one forgot, but all of them forgot--hundreds, perhaps thousands forgot where He was laid to rest. Does this sound crazy? It is irrational to think that they could lose the tomb in such a short time with so many disciples. Further, there is no question that the officials knew the location. After all, they were guarding it. If so, they would have been glad to point out the occupied tomb to suppress the resurrection rumors. And don't forget... 500 eyewitnesses.

The Resurrection was Legend or Myth

This theory says that the myth of the resurrection was developed several hundred years after Christ. This might seem logical if the documentation could be dated several hundred years later, but that simply isn't the case.

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now have fragments of the Gospel of Mark dating back to 50 AD, and Luke to 57 AD. These copies postdate the actual events by less than twenty years! Additionally, eyewitnesses of the resurrection wrote the documents. There simply is not enough time for a myth to develop. It would have to be an outright fabrication, but contemporary historians and disciples would never have accepted such fables. In his book, From the Stone Age to Christianity, archaeologist and historian William Albright writes,

"Only modern scholars who lack both historical method and perspective can spin such a web of historical speculation as that with which some critics have surrounded the Gospel tradition... a period of 20 to 50 years is too slight to permit any appreciable corruption of the essential content and even the specific wording of the sayings of Jesus."

It was a Spiritual Resurrection

Is the story of Jesus' resurrection given with spiritual intent? Is the language describing His resurrection to be taken figuratively? Did His spirit rise from the grave, but not His body? This theory is a paltry substitution for would-be Christians who believe in Christ, but cannot accept His bodily resurrection. The record clearly shows Him in a fleshly body. In fact, Jesus Himself said,

"See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." (Luke 24:39)

Mary clung to his feet (John 20:17); He ate with the disciples (Luke 24:42-43); He implored Thomas to touch the scars of His crucifixion (John 20:27). There are too many records of bodily resurrection to consider it metaphorical. This theory also does not reconcile the story of the Roman guards. The body was missing. The tomb was empty. If this was a spiritual resurrection the body would have been present for all to see.


This theory is almost too crazy to mention. It holds that all of the post-resurrection sightings were hallucinations. Perhaps if a single person reported seeing Jesus this would be a plausible argument. The quandary is that 500 people would not likely hallucinate in unison. It would be one thing to say that one person had a vision or hallucination about Christ, but there were just far too many corroborating witnesses.

The Twin-brother Theory

The speculation here is that a twin or impostor was crucified, and that the real Jesus was hidden away until after the crucifixion. Again, this is pure conjecture without a shred of evidence to support it. If this were true, the body of this impostor would have been in the hands of Jewish officials. They could have produced it to confront Christ's claims that He overcame death. Instead, they offered the story that the body was stolen, confirming the empty tomb.

The Last Conclusion

Christ Rose from the Dead

There is so much evidence in favor of this conclusion that one cannot help but arrive here. Beyond reasonable doubt and by a preponderance of the evidence it is clear that Christ has risen. He lives!

Harris, Stephen. The New Testament: A Student's Introduction, second edition, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1995. p. 132.
Morrison, Frank. Who Moved the Stone, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958, p. 88.
Albright, William. From the Stone Age to Christianity, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1946. p. 297-298.

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