Every year at this time, I begin to think critically about the resurrection of Jesus. Yeah, you heard me right. I said, “_critically_”. Just because I’m a pastor, that doesn’t mean I accept everything in the Bible without thinking about it too. I’m a thinker, I majored in mathematics and philosophy at [Wheaton College], and I’m deeply concerned with how things work. Therefore, I think deeply about the resurrection of Jesus.
One of the things I do each Easter is to try to come up with the single most reasonable explanation for the resurrection story that doesn’t include an actual resurrection. In other words, each Easter, I try to disprove the resurrection to myself. If I can come up with the best counter-argument, and then show how it is insufficient, my belief in the resurrection will be confirmed again in me with enough strength to let me present an Easter message with confidence and conviction.
This year, I have been studying the Gospel of Mark, and I’ve come up with my best and most plausible counter-argument to the resurrection that I’ve ever had. (Of course, I always think that each year’s argument is better than the previous one.) Here it is…
####Joseph of Arimathea Faked the Burial
Many theories have been proposed throughout the years to account for the resurrection stories, but there is always one incontrovertible issue that they must all deal with—the tomb was empty on Sunday morning.
There are many ways that the tomb could have been empty.
* Jesus could have been truly resurrected and left the tomb in one way or another.
* Jesus could have been resuscitated somehow after having only “swooned” on the cross and was never really dead in the first place.
* Jesus’ body could have been “dissolved” in some spiritual way similar to the way Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi “die” in the _Star Wars_ movies.
* Jesus’ body could have been stolen from the tomb by someone.
However, all of them have weaknesses in the argument that others have dealt with at length. You can see the links below for some other websites that deal with these issues. (I have never seen a website that addressed the _Star Wars_ theory, but then again, I don’t think it really matters!)
Just this week, though, I thought of another possibility. What if Jesus’ dead body had never been placed in the tomb in the first place?
There are three specific times during the biblical account where there is the greatest potential for deception.
1. During Saturday night when there was a small attachment of guards on duty and no one else around. This is when the “stealing” of the body is supposed to have taken place. Last year, my theory was that one of the soldiers himself had done the “stealing” while it was his watch and the others were sleeping.
2. During Friday afternoon after Jesus was buried and before the guard arrived. There is no evidence that there was any delay between those periods of time, though there might have been. The biggest problem with this idea, though, is that there simply weren’t any of Jesus’ followers who were willing to show their faces in broad daylight on the day Jesus was crucified.
3. During the time after Jesus was taken off the cross and before the body was placed in the tomb.
My counter-argument for Easter 2005 takes place during time period #3, and it centers on the activity of Joseph of Arimathea.
All four gospels agree on a man named Joseph from Arimathea who approached Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42). Taken together, they teach us that he was a rich member of the Jewish council but had disagreed with the crucifixion of Jesus and was secretly a follower of Jesus.
All four Gospels agree that Pilate granted the request and gave Joseph leave to take the body of Jesus. After that, we are told that Joseph wrapped the body in clean linen and placed it in a new tomb. We are told that some women were there watching where the body was placed, but we are not told that they witnessed the preparation of the body.
However, this may have been an opportunity for Joseph to play a little trick. Here’s the scenario I’ve come up with. Joseph took the body off the cross and into a room to “prepare it for burial” where he actually got a co-conspirator who was still alive to consent to being wrapped in graveclothes. After placing the decoy in the new tomb, Joseph would use his considerable wealth and influence to find an alternate place to bury the real body in an inconspicuous and unmarked grave. The plan could then have been that after a couple days (according to a prediction Jesus had made), Joseph or someone else would return to open the grave, and the co-conspirator could walk out unwrapped from the linen, but dressed in white acting like an angelic messenger proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead or perhaps acting like the resurrected Jesus himself who had been “transformed” in physical appearance. After all, we are told that people who saw the resurrected Jesus didn’t recognize him at first.
####I don’t believe it.
This is the best scenario I’ve come across yet to explain the resurrection as a “hoax”; however, I’m not convinced by it for a few of reasons:
* The Gospel of John tells us that Nicodemus helped Joseph to wrap Jesus’ body together with nearly 100 pounds of spices. Therefore, at least three people were in on the conspiracy, and the likelihood of it remaining secret is reduced with each new person added. Additionally, the tight wrapping of the graveclothes with the profound amount of pungent spices was quite likely to endanger the life of the one who had consented to being wrapped up.
* We are also told that the women took a serious interest in the burial procedures for Jesus. It doesn’t seem likely that they would have allowed Jesus’ body to be out of their site for the length of time it would have taken to prepare this ruse.
* This scenario doesn’t do anything to explain the numerous accounts of personal encounters people had with the resurrected Jesus. Sure, the people didn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus at first, but all of them became convinced that it was really him, and they became convinced enough to die for their claim that they had seen a living and breathing Jesus three days or more after he had been crucified. Thomas also could claim to have touched the holes in the hands and the side of Jesus. Such things would have been difficult for an imposter to fabricate.
* Finally, it was well known that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the high council and also the one who administered the burial of Jesus. If there had been any opportunity for deception, he would have been the first person to be interrogated about it by the council. Therefore, it’s most reasonable to assume that Jesus’ body was not prepared for burial privately but that there were a number of witnesses to his preparation and burial.
None of the “hoax” descriptions of the resurrection are convincing to me. Don’t get me wrong. I find the whole resurrection account amazing and almost unbelievable, but whatever doubts I have are because of my inherent, human, North American doubt in the reality of the supernatural and not because of any historical evidence. The evidence of the Bible, the witnesses, and the history still convinces me that the resurrection is real, and if it’s real, it must make a difference in my life!
The resurrection tells me that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the divine Son of God.
The resurrection tells me that Jesus has conquered death and the sin which causes it.
The resurrection gives me the hope that one day, I too will experience resurrection.
>Acts 2:32, 36 — God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
>1 Corinthians 15:20-23 — But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
>1 Peter 1:3-4 — Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you.
####Links to other sites
Here are some quick links to interesting websites on this topic.
* A [great article] at [answers2prayer.org] from the Evangelical Christian viewpoint.
* A [detailed article] at [laborlawtalk.com] attempting to address all sides of the issue.
* A poorly documented but [interesting sermon] at [exchangedlife.com] discussing many aspects of the resurrection and raising some controversial claims about non-christian support for the resurrection.
* Some anecdotal information on the Catholic Church’s tradition of what happened to Joseph of Arimathea is [here], [here], and [here].