Jesus’ followers probably thought they had made a mistake. They hoped Jesus was the Messiah, and that he would redeem Israel. But one thing we know from the New Testament accounts was that none of his followers expected to see Jesus again. Jesus surely did make predictions about his death and resurrection; but the disciples did not understand these predictions. Jesus’ followers knew he was dead; and they thought it was over.
Some of the women who had followed Jesus went early Sunday morning to put spices on Jesus’ body. It was a funeral, not a resurrection party. Even when his closest followers began to hear reports that the tomb was empty, they expressed their doubt and disbelief. Thomas has the lasting reputation for being the doubter … but the truth is that they all doubted. When Jesus appeared to them, it took quite a bit of convincing that they weren’t just seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, “Look, it is me. Touch me. See that I have flesh and bones. Give me something to eat.”
But Jesus does not appear to us “in the flesh,” as he did then. So, what are we to make of this?
Here is the bottom line: The tomb was empty. This was a fact not in dispute, which is why some alternative theories to explain the empty tomb have been developed over the years. Perhaps you have heard some of these alternative theories:
1. The “Swoon” Theory – Those who advance this idea say that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross; he just passed out. He was (in the words of Miracle Max) “mostly dead.” But then later he was able to rest in the cool air of the tomb and he was revived and was able to recover from his injuries. Seriously? If Jesus survived crucifixion, it would indeed be a miracle. The Romans made sure that their victims actually died. Eyewitness accounts tell us that one Roman soldier even thrust a spear into Jesus side to make sure was dead.
2. The “Wrong Tomb” Theory – Some say that Jesus’ followers just forgot where he was buried, or were so overcome with grief that they weren’t thinking clearly, and so when they went to look for his body, they inadvertently went to an empty tomb instead of the one Jesus was buried in. Well, if this is what happened, when word began to circulate that Jesus rose from the dead, all a skeptic needed to do was to go to the real tomb and show everyone that Jesus was still dead and buried. Plenty of people would have had the knowledge and motivation to do just that … but no one did.
3. The “Disciples Stole the Body” Theory – This theory is recorded in Matthew 28:11-15. There were Roman guards by the tomb, and they were going to pay dearly (perhaps with their lives) if Jesus’ followers were able to sneak in while the guards slept to steal Jesus body away. Those in authority paid the guards some money so that they would tell people this is what happened; and then the authorities promised to make sure the guards didn’t get in trouble for sleeping on the job. But the testimony of these guards would not be believable. How could the guards possibly give an accurate report of what happened while they were sleeping? Furthermore, the disciples had no concept of a dying Messiah … so there was a finality to Jesus’ death. They were much more likely to assume that they had chosen the wrong man to follow. It makes no sense to say that the disciples stole Jesus’ body, just to create cover for a story that they wouldn’t have believed in the first place.
4. The “Jewish and/or Roman Authorities Moved the Body” Theory – Like #2, above, if this is what happened, these authorities had an easy way to put to rest once and for all the stories that Jesus had raised from the dead. They could just produce the body!
None of these alternative theories seem plausible.
But then we also have to consider the fact that we have “Christianity.” On the face of it, we should be amazed that any of us have ever even heard the name of this Jesus in the first place. Had he not been raised from the dead, it is highly unlikely that we would have heard of him.
These stories of Jesus being raised from the dead began and grew in a time when there were plenty of eyewitnesses around to refute the claims, if they were false. Yet that is not what happened at all – no one refuted them. The stories flourished. The tomb was empty. The disciples came to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead – despite the fact that they didn’t have any preexisting belief that this was going to happen. Hundreds of people claimed to have seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes. These were very “public” events, not easily dismissed as the wishful thinking of a small group of conspirators.
What is the best explanation for all of this? It seems to me that the best explanation is that Jesus did what he said he was going to do – He rose from the dead.