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Episode 43 - Explaining the Missing Body of Jesus

There is a group of secular arguments against the resurrection that all try to claim that Jesus' body went missing. They state it was either stolen or lost somehow. These kind of theories are an attempt to explain the empty tomb. In this episode we go into the common problems that all these theories share.

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Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast, I’m Jon Topping. For a long while now we’ve been going through how non-Christians explain all the historical data surrounding Jesus. There are certain historical facts that aren’t up for debate in academic historical circles, and the goal here is to make sense of all this data, figure out what explanations are feasible, and to point out any problems with the different theories that arise. I’ve been arguing that the only explanation that makes sense of the data is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. The goal of the non-Christian is to show that the data can all be explained in a secular and non-supernatural way. The evidence itself is quite well attested, and not really debated in academic historical circles, so the skeptic needs to give an explanation that handles all the data in a reasonable way. For today’s episode of the podcast we’re going to look at a group of arguments that skeptics use, all of which surround trying to explain why Jesus’ tomb was found empty. These explanations admit that Jesus’ body was missing, and then attempt to give an explanation why there was an empty tomb. We’ll evaluate arguments like, maybe the women went to the wrong tomb, or perhaps the Romans moved the body, or the Jewish leaders moved it, or the main argument, which is that the disciples stole the body, or maybe it was some other unspecified random person that moved Jesus’ body.

The reason secularists use these sorts of arguments is because many people recognize that the empty tomb isn’t the type of evidence that can be ignored. The empty tomb isn’t actually one of the “minimal facts”, in the sense that every historian agrees with it, but it is agreed upon by something like 70% of historians that write on these matters. Not only that, there are very good reasons to think the tomb was in fact empty. We went through this point in detail in episodes 28 and 29 of this podcast, so check those out if you want more confirmation of this fact. To give a few brief points, no one during the first century doubted the empty tomb, because it was obvious that it was in fact empty. The critics of Christianity never denied the empty tomb, because they knew they couldn’t. The easiest way to squash the whole Christian movement would be to present the body of Jesus, but they couldn’t. In fact, the enemies of Christianity even admitted the tomb was empty, which becomes a case of enemy attestation, which gives us very good reason to think it was in fact empty. Next, the crucifixion of Jesus was a very public event, and the tomb He was buried in belong to a well-known person, so the whole scenario was very easy to verify or refute. It would have been impossible for Christianity to get started if the tomb wasn’t empty, and people could easily just go check the tomb for themselves. With these points in mind, some secular people will grant that the tomb was empty, which then requires a secular explanation, which is where these missing body sorts of arguments come in. To begin our evaluation, we’re first going to look at the problems that are common to all of these arguments. Since these arguments are so similar, we’ll find that quite a few of the problems keep coming up, so let’s dive into those first.

The Empty Tomb Wouldn’t Be Enough

One very interesting problem is that the empty tomb, in itself, was not convincing to people. In Luke 24 we read that the women who originally discovered the empty tomb were perplexed. They didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that Jesus had been resurrected. The women were then greeted by angels who told them of the resurrection. Then, when some of the women told the disciples about the empty tomb, the angels, and the resurrection, the disciples still didn’t believe, and instead thought the women were making up stories. The only person that seems to have believed purely by the empty tomb alone was John, which we read about in John’s gospel, chapter 20. Everyone else apparently needed some kind of supernatural element, like meeting angels, and most of them required meeting the risen Christ Himself before they would believe. The missing body alone doesn’t infer there’s been a resurrection, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t immediately jump to that conclusion. I mean, if we think about this rationally, if you went to a funeral that was supposed to be open casket, and the funeral director apologetically tells you the morgue never delivered the body, and they’re not sure where it is, would your first immediate reaction be, “they must have risen from the dead!” Obviously not. It’s the same with Jesus’ followers. The empty tomb alone wasn’t enough for them to think Jesus had risen, so even if we grant one of the missing body arguments, we still haven’t made sense of the situation by explaining why people started believing in Jesus’ resurrection. This alone shows us the missing body arguments aren’t good enough.

A second and related issue is that a physical resurrection during this lifetime wasn’t something the first century Jews were expecting. The Jewish theology of a physical resurrection did exist, but for them, resurrections weren’t going to occur until the “last day”, which is like the “end times”. We also see a good example of this in John 11:24, when Jesus says He’s going to raise Lazarus, and Mary doubts, and expresses that her understanding of the resurrection is that it comes on the last day. The point here is that Jews would not have immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesus had been physically resurrected, because they didn’t expect resurrections to occur yet. So, even if we grant one of the missing body arguments as a way to explain the empty tomb, it still wouldn’t make sense for them to assume Jesus had resurrected. In other words, even if the skeptic’s answer is correct, it still doesn’t explain the necessary data. There needs to be some reason why the belief in the resurrection started, and just an empty tomb wouldn’t do it, because Jewish theology would have prevented them from thinking of that possibility.

The Appearances

There are still other reasons why the empty tomb can’t be explained by any of the missing body theories. One major issue is that there were many accounts of Jesus personally appearing to people. In Matthew 28 we see the women meeting Jesus on the road, then Jesus appearing to the disciples. In Luke 24 we see Jesus appearing to two of His followers while they walked, then Jesus appearing to all the disciples. In John 20 Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples, then also to Thomas. In Acts 1 we read about Jesus appearing to His followers for 40 days after the resurrection (which would be quite hard to claim, if there weren’t witnesses). We also see in Acts 2, 5, and 10 where Peter is preaching about the resurrection, and makes the public claim that he and the other disciples are eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ. We then also see Paul making the same claim in Acts 13, where he says that for many days after the resurrection Jesus appeared to people, and that those people are now witnesses of the resurrection. It’s actually very interesting to me just how much focus the biblical authors give to the idea of eyewitnesses of the resurrection.

We also read in 1 Corinthians 15, which we’ve discussed different times in this podcast, where Paul gives what is almost certainly a sort of creed of the Early Church, and it mentions that Jesus appeared to Peter, then the other disciples, then to Jesus’ brother James, and that there were over 500 additional people who were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. It is also important to note that this concept of being an eyewitness of Christ’s resurrection was very important to the disciples. In fact, when choosing a new person to fill Judas’ seat in Acts 1:22, they explicitly stated that the new person needed to be a personal eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus. I know I just threw a lot of references at you, but my point is this; there were many different people claiming to have personally seen Jesus risen from the dead, and seven different books that made this claim, by four different authors. In other words, being a literal eyewitness to the appearances of Jesus after His resurrection was a very important thing to the people in the Early Church. They highly valued this evidence, and even required it in their highest ranks. In order for a secular theory to be successful, it has to account for these claims of seeing Jesus firsthand by so many people.

Now I can appreciate the fact that a secular person isn’t going to just accept what the Bible says here. Just because we have four different writers claiming many people saw the risen Christ doesn’t make it true. However, the point here isn’t just to take their word for it. The point is that people were, at the very least, claiming to have seen the risen Christ. This, coupled with the strong belief of these same people, even to the point of martyrdom, starts to become a difficult thing to make sense of. These personal appearances do not get explained by the missing body theories, so these secular arguments end up not explaining all the data. Again, even if you don’t believe in the personal appearances mentioned, your theory needs to explain why so many people were claiming to have seen Jesus alive after His death. The missing body theories do not explain this, so they aren’t handling all the points that need to be accounted for.

Strong Beliefs

Yet another reason to think the missing body arguments don’t work is the passion of the disciples. Now it’s important to note here what I am not saying. I am not saying that, since the disciples believed so strongly in the resurrection, that we ought to believe too. Obviously, this would be problematic. Lots of people strongly believe things that are crazy, and their passion doesn’t give us reason to believe what they do. The reason I bring up the strong beliefs of the disciples is because their passion works as an additional piece of evidence that requires explanation. Whatever theory we come up with needs to explain all the data, and part of the data is the fact that the disciples very strongly believed, even to the point of death, that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, and that they had seen the risen Christ. This point works quite closely with our previous point about the appearances of Jesus. My purpose here is that the disciples didn’t simply believe; they were eyewitnesses, so they knew whether what they were claiming was true or false. If it was false, then their passion makes no sense. Whatever theory the skeptic comes up with needs to account for the fact that the disciples believed so strongly in the resurrection that they were willing to die for it. The missing body arguments explain the empty tomb, but this in itself does not account for the passion of the disciples, so the missing body arguments aren’t good enough. We went through the follower’s strong belief in episode 25, if you wanted more on that topic.

Another point to consider here is that the disciples were scared during the crucifixion of Jesus. All of them ran away and hid, with John being the only disciple we see at the foot of the cross. We even read that Peter was willing to deny he ever knew Jesus, which shows just how terrified he was. We then read that the disciples all hid in a house together, likely trying to avoid the authorities. This was a perfectly natural response on their part. Their leader and friend had died, which, from their point of view, had defeated the whole movement they had spent the past few years of their lives for. They no longer had purpose, or a leader to guide them, and they were scared they were next on the Jewish leaders’ hitlist. This was actually a common response from people whose savior had died. There were other people during this time who claimed to be the messiah, or some other great leader, and after they were killed, the movement dispersed, and all the followers stopped being problematic. We see two examples of this in Acts 5, where the Jewish religious leaders were angry about the preaching of the disciples. Gamaliel was one of the distinguished religious leaders, and he brings up these other failed messiah figures, Theudas, and Judas the Galilean. Gamaliel’s point was that these two men had a great following, but once they were killed, all their followers fell away, and the movement became nothing. So, if these followers of Jesus are teaching something false, then don’t worry, Jesus is dead, and the movement will become nothing. However, if what Jesus’ disciples are teaching is in fact from God, then the religious leaders shouldn’t stand in their way. We also read about these two false messiahs in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews.

My point in bringing this up is that, if a messiah figure was killed, the normal response was to abandon the cause. We see this in a few different examples, including the fact that Jesus’ disciples responded this way. However, after some time the disciples of Jesus somehow find a new enthusiasm, and are no longer scared. In fact they’re so bold in their proclamation that they end up being tortured and killed for it, and they don’t seem afraid or even bothered by this. Why did they suddenly become so empowered, fearless, and committed? Especially given the fact that their leader had just died? Their newfound enthusiasm and fearlessness can only imply that something dramatic happened to encourage them. Something like the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Conversions of James and Paul

In addition to the original disciples’ strong belief in the resurrection, we have a similar situation with James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul, who had been persecuting the Early Church. We went into a lot more detail regarding both of these situations in episodes 26 and 27 of this podcast, so check those out if you want more. In both of these cases we have an example of someone who was a strong skeptic against the claims of Christianity, and yet, they converted and became two of the most passionate Christians of that time.

For James, most of us can relate to how impossible it would be to believe your own sibling is the resurrected Son of God. In John 7:5 it says explicitly that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him, which makes perfect sense. However, we later see that Jesus’ brother James becomes a leader in the Early Church, was the bishop of Jerusalem, and died for his Christianity, all because Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. In terms of James’ martyrdom, we read about it in a few places. Firstly we see Josephus commenting on it in Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1, which was written about 93ad. We also read about it from Eusebius in his Church History. Eusebius was writing this in the early 300s ad, but he also quotes from two different earlier authors whose works have since been lost, both of which were writing in the second century, only about a hundred years after the New Testament was written. He gives a brief account from Clement of Alexandria in 2.23.3, and then also a much longer account from Hegesippus just after his quote from Clement. Putting the data together, it seems that James was very well known for being a holy man, spending a great deal of time in prayer, and that people in general, especially the Christians, held him in very high regard. Because of this, the Scribes and Pharisees wanted to destroy the testimony of James, so they demanded that James renounce his faith in Christ in front of all the people. We then read that, “contrary to the opinion of all, with a clear voice, and with greater boldness than they had anticipated, he spoke out before the whole multitude and confessed that our Saviour and Lord Jesus is the Son of God.” It then says that his enemies couldn’t stand this, because he was known as such a holy man, and had such a good reputation, so they were going to kill him in hopes that it would, at the very least, cause everyone to be scared to follow James’ example. We then read a very interesting account of how he was actually killed. They dragged him to the top of the temple, and threatening him gave him another chance to renounce his faith. It then reads that “he answered with a loud voice, 'Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’” So they thew him off the building. However, the fall didn’t kill him, so they came down and started to stone him. While in the middle of being stoned, we read that “he turned and knelt down and said, 'I entreat you, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'”, quoting the words of Jesus while He was being crucified, from Luke 23:34. Some of the priests who were there then cried out, saying to the people, “Stop. What are you doing? The just one prays for you.” Finally, one of the aggressors grabbed a club and beat James over the head, finally killing him. He was then buried where he fell, by the temple, and apparently at the time of Eusebius’ writing there was still a monument to James at that exact location.

With this story in mind, remember that James was Jesus’ brother, which would obviously make James one of the last people who would ever believe the resurrection. We also read explicitly that Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe while He was alive. It would take something dramatic to make James into the passionate Christian we just read about, willing to die for his faith in Christ, and even preaching to and praying for the ones that were killing him. The missing body hypotheses, like that everyone went to the wrong tomb, or that someone stole the body, just don’t make sense of this data. The empty tomb alone doesn’t make sense of this passionate zeal with see in James. The only explanation that can account for this dramatic conversion and martyrdom of James is that Jesus really did appear to James after His resurrection.

When considering Paul, he was a religious leader for Judaism, and spent his time hunting down Christians to have them persecuted and killed. Again, in order for Paul to convert, he would require incredibly compelling reasons or experiences. That’s exactly what we find in Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, and his subsequent visions, where Jesus Himself appeared to Paul. After having a vision of the risen Christ, Paul completely upends his entire life, doing a complete 180 in terms of what he stood for, and began boldly proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus everywhere he could. Paul was imprisoned different times, beaten many times, he was tortured with lashes five different times, beaten with rods, and even stoned until they thought he was dead, which we read about in Paul’s writing of 2 Corinthians 11. We also read in the book of Acts the story of Paul being imprisoned and dragged before leaders to keep giving his case. Eventually he gets all the way to Rome, where he is finally beheaded for proclaiming that Jesus rose from the dead. We have quite a few historical references to this, most dating before the year 200ad, and the earliest being from 1 Clement 5, which was written in 96ad. As with James, Paul had strong motivations to be anti-Christian, but then became a passionate leader in the Early Church, to the point he was willing to suffer and die for the faith.

The conversions of James and Paul make absolutely no sense, and their martyrdom makes even less sense, unless what we read is true, and they actually did experience the risen Christ. Their strong beliefs show us that they really did passionately believe that they had met the risen Jesus. For our purposes in this podcast, if the body of Jesus were merely missing, then there’s no way to make sense of the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul. This is because, if the resurrection is false, and Jesus’ body is still dead, then James and Paul could not have met the risen Christ, and thus did not have any compelling reasons or experiences that could cause them to convert. For them, belief in Christ would be just as ridiculous as it had been before, and the fanatical claims of a few of Jesus’ friends wouldn’t have changed that for them. Their default response to the disciples’ claims would be that some type of fraud had gone on. It definitely wouldn’t have driven James and Paul to be so passionate about the resurrection that they would lead churches and die for their faith. This evidence is never adequately explained on any of these views. In other words, the conversions of Paul and James are evidence that disproves the theory that the body was merely missing. Even if the skeptic doesn’t believe in the real appearances of the risen Christ, the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul need to be explained somehow, and the missing body arguments do not do the job.

Gary Habermas, who I have mentioned quite a few times in the podcast, surveyed a large number of scholars on this topic, and wrote the following.

“Perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. In particular, virtually all scholars recognize Paul’s testimony that he had an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus. Equally well recognized is that James, the brother of Jesus, was an unbeliever before he thought that he, too, met the risen Jesus. Seldom is the historical authenticity of any of these testimonies or the genuine belief behind them challenged by respected critical scholars, no matter how skeptical.”

The point here is that the tomb of Jesus seems to have obviously been empty. The skeptics’ attempts to discredit the resurrection by appealing to some kind of missing body argument simply don’t do the job they intend for it to do. The evidence we’ve gone through in this episode gets largely ignored, because it counteracts the conclusions that the skeptic would like to arrive at. If we follow the evidence where it leads, the missing body theories are not satisfactory explanations.

Summary of Points

For this episode we’ve gone through the problems that are common to the missing body arguments. The different theories that surround the missing body of Jesus try to explain the empty tomb by saying things like, maybe the women went to the wrong tomb, or someone moved the body, or maybe someone stole the body. Regardless which of the theories the skeptic tries to argue, all of them fall prey to a few problems that make the missing body arguments seem unreasonable, and definitely not the best explanations for the data. Firstly, even if you grant one of the missing body arguments, all that gets you is the empty tomb. The empty tomb in itself wasn’t enough for the followers of Jesus to start believing in the resurrection, and it makes perfect sense why they would need more than that. Secondly, their Jewish theology didn’t have anything like a resurrection occurring in this life, so Jesus physically rising from the dead wouldn’t have made any sense to His followers, and definitely wouldn’t be something a first century Jew would make up. Thirdly, the missing body arguments don’t account for all the historical data. Even the most skeptical historians don’t doubt that the followers of Jesus were, at the very least, claiming to have seen the risen Jesus. Even if the skeptic doesn’t believe these appearances were legitimate, they still need to account for this in their theory. We have a few different writers, writing multiple books, with lots of people mentioned by name, and even saying there were large numbers of people who Jesus appeared to. Considering this is historical data, it needs to be explained, and the missing body arguments simply ignore it. We also have the passionate belief of the followers of Jesus, where many people were dramatically changing their beliefs, and their lives, just to suffer persecution, imprisonment, torture, and eventually death. These same people were terrified when Jesus was killed, but somehow found a new fervor and passion, and began preaching everywhere. This dramatic change and passionate belief in the resurrection needs to be explained. Again, we’re not just taking their word for it, I’m just saying we need an explanation that gives reason to their passion, because whatever reasons we give need to account for all the data. Lastly, we have the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul. Both of them were strong skeptics against Christianity, and ended giving everything up to become two of the greatest leaders in the Early Church. All of this data makes perfect sense if the resurrection was real, and all the data gets completely ignored by the missing body arguments. As I’ve said before, if we follow the evidence where it leads, and ask ourselves what the best explanation of the data is, we arrive at the fact that Jesus actually rose from the dead, which makes Christianity true.

Because of all these points, I don’t think the skeptic can rationally hold to any of the theories that try to say Jesus’ body was missing or taken. However, there’s still even more reasons to disbelieve these skeptical theories, once we start evaluating each on its own. That’s exactly what we’ll be doing next time, when we evaluate each specific missing body theory, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, with Jon Topping.


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