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Episode 44 - Theories Behind Jesus' Missing Body

The empty tomb is a difficult historical fact to make sense of. There are a few different ways to try and explain why Jesus' tomb was found empty, and in this episode we go into each theory in detail. For example, maybe the women simply went to the wrong tomb, or the Roman or Jewish authorities moved Jesus' body, or perhaps someone stole the body. In this episode we show that each of these explanations ends up having quite serious problems.

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Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions Podcast, I’m Jon Topping. On the last episode we started evaluating the arguments against the resurrection that try to handle the fact that the tomb was empty. There are a few arguments that try to deal with the missing body of Jesus, including the women going to the wrong tomb, the Romans or Jews moving the body, and the possibility that the body of Jesus was stolen. Last time we took a look at the problems that are common to all these types of arguments. We can see that the empty tomb on its own isn’t enough to account for the belief in the resurrection, so even if we grant that someone took or moved the body for some reason, it doesn’t explain why the followers of Jesus believed He rose from the dead. We also saw that a physical resurrection in the here and now wasn’t the sort of thing in the minds of the Jews, and it wouldn’t have made sense to make it up. We also evaluated the historical evidence, and pointed out that there’s quite a few things that these missing body hypotheses don’t account for. This included the appearances of Jesus, the strong belief and martyrdom of the disciples, as well as the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul. Because these theories don’t account for all the data, they just aren’t good enough.

After going into all the problems that are common to these missing body views, we can see it’s just not rational to hold any of them. However, we can go even further than that by evaluating each of the missing body arguments individually. For this episode, we’re going to take a look at the specific major arguments surrounding the body of Jesus being missing, in order to evaluate the logic behind them.

Maybe the Women Went to the Wrong Tomb?

Our first secular explanation for the missing body of Jesus is that the women went to the wrong tomb. The idea here is actually somewhat sexist, because it presumes that the women were too stupid to realize they had gotten their directions mixed up, and instead went to a tomb that hadn’t been occupied yet. Meanwhile, Jesus’ body was in another tomb. So the women got excited by some random tomb being empty, and presumed that Jesus must have been resurrected. They then ran off, told all the disciples, who then also became excited and presumed a physical resurrection. After that, the ball had gotten rolling, and more and more myths began circulating about the risen Christ.

To begin critiquing this view, there’s one big problem with it that seems insurmountable. Why didn’t the Jewish and Roman leadership merely point everyone to the correct tomb? It seems impossible that literally everyone involved could all go to the wrong tomb. To make matters worse, the tomb itself belonged to a very famous Jew, Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was on the Sanhedrin, which was the highest-ranking Jewish ruling body at that time. Every Jew knew who Joseph of Arimathea was, so the idea that everyone went to the wrong tomb, and no one at all was ever able to find the correct tomb, seems completely unbelievable. Again, the Jewish and Roman leaders would have been glad to find the correct tomb, which would have been easy, and then present the body of Jesus to everyone.

Some skeptics might then try to say that perhaps Jesus wasn’t really placed in Joseph’s tomb. Again, this could be easily verified. If Joseph hadn’t given permission to use his tomb, he would be the first one to tell everyone the story had gotten mixed up. Really, if any part of the story was incorrect, it would have been easily discovered, because of Joseph’s fame.

Also, the arguments we went through last episode all apply here as well. The women wouldn’t have assumed a resurrection by an empty tomb alone, and a physical resurrection wasn’t expected by Jews, so they wouldn’t have made it up. Also, this theory doesn’t account for all the historical evidence, like many people claiming to have seen the risen Christ, the passion of the disciples, and the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul. So the idea that the women went to the wrong tomb actually ends up explaining very little.

Lastly, there are actually no reasons at all to believe the women went to the wrong tomb. We don’t find anything, in any writings, to ever suggest this as a possibility. In other words, the theory is ad hoc, meaning that the idea might help the secular person’s point of view, but there’s no reason or evidence to believe it’s true. So all in all, the idea that the women went to the wrong tomb doesn’t make logical sense, doesn’t agree with the historical context of the Jews, doesn’t account for all the evidence we have, and it's fallacious because it’s ad hoc.

Maybe the Body was Moved?

The next explanation for the missing body of Jesus is that the Romans may have moved Jesus’ corpse. We also have a similar explanation, where some skeptics will say that maybe the Jewish leadership moved the body. Both of these explanations fall prey to the same problems, so we can handle them together. The most glaring problem with both of these ideas is similar to the biggest problem last time; why not just point to the correct tomb? The Roman authorities and Jewish leadership all wanted Jesus dead, and Christianity to fail. If any of them needed to move the body for some reason, why wouldn’t they tell everyone? This becomes especially problematic when people start spreading the idea that Jesus had risen. The Romans wouldn’t have wanted yet another messiah cult to start up, and the Jews had gone to great lengths to kill Jesus and stop His movement, so obviously they would want to correct the misunderstanding if they had simply moved the body. If they had done this, Christianity would have died before it had gotten started. If nothing else, it would be embarrassing that people were claiming they had failed to kill Jesus, and pointing to His corpse would help rectify that problem. If either the Romans or the Jews had moved Jesus’ body, they could quickly and easily refute the resurrection claims, and they had strong motivations to do so.

Another big problem with both of these theories is to ask, why would they move the body in the first place? This was a private tomb, owned by Joseph of Arimathea, so it’s not as though the government or religious officials would need it for some reason. What possible motivation could there have been for people to want to move a fresh corpse? If anything, you would think they would want to avoid it for a while. If we can’t think of any motivation for the Romans or Jews to move the body, then it’s not a position worth holding.

Another problem is that there is absolutely no historical evidence to think the Romans or the Jews did in fact move the body of Jesus. So not only is there no motivation, but there’s no historical evidence as well. We don’t have any record of anyone ever making this claim. The only reason people assert this as a possibility is because it saves the secular ideology. Because of this, this is another theory that is a clear case of ad hoc reasoning, which is fallacious.

The other reasons against these theories are the same answers we gave last time. Even if we grant that the Romans or Jews moved Jesus’ body, all we get is the empty tomb, and nearly everyone wasn’t convinced by an empty tomb by itself. Everyone except John required some sort of appearance of Jesus in order to actually believe in the resurrection. Simply an empty tomb doesn’t infer Jesus rose from the dead. Secondly, no one was expecting a resurrection. A physical resurrection in this time period didn’t make sense in Jewish theology. Thirdly, even if the Romans or Jews moved the body, that doesn’t account for so many people claiming to have personally seen the risen Jesus, nor does it explain their passionate belief, even to the point of death. And fourthly, the conversions of Paul and Jesus’ brother James still aren’t accounted for. There needs to have been some kind of dramatic reason for their conversions, and a simple case of the tomb being empty doesn’t explain it. Because of this, even if we grant that the Romans or Jews moved the body, it still doesn’t account for all the evidence.

So the Romans or Jews moving the body doesn’t make logical sense, completely lacks motivation, doesn’t explain all the data, there’s no evidence in its favor, and it’s fallacious.

Some Unknown Person Stole the Body

The earliest, and in my opinion the best argument against the resurrection is that the disciples stole the body. We’ll be going into that argument in a lot more detail in the next episode of the podcast, because I feel it warrants the extra attention. For now, though, there is a similar argument that comes up occasionally; what if some unknown person stole Jesus’ body? Both the Jewish and Roman authorities couldn’t have taken the body, because they would have pointed people in the right direction to find Jesus, because they wanted Christianity to fail. If it were the disciples, then it’s hard to make sense of why they would die for something they knew was a lie. We’ll go into more reasons about why it couldn’t be the disciples next time. Overall, no matter who we pick as our culprit for the person or group that took the body of Jesus, we end up with a badly argued situation that doesn’t make sense of all the historical data. So, what’s the skeptic’s way out? If they don’t affirm anyone specific, then they can’t fall prey to any problems! However, this is obviously quite problematic, for a few reasons.

The first problem with claiming some unknown person took the body of Jesus is that it is deliberately vague. The skeptic is leaving out details, on purpose, as a means of avoiding logical counters. This means they end up not really saying anything. It’s like if something happens and we ask what the explanation could be, and the response is, “well certainly something happened!” That’s just not helpful. Claiming that someone stole the body, but we just don’t know who, doesn’t actually give us an answer to the question. It’s far too vague to be of any use. Then, if we actually have a suspect in mind, the logical problems return. It’s vague on purpose to avoid the inevitable flaws in the theory.

A second problem is related to the problem of vagueness. Even though the skeptic has left the culprit deliberately vague, it still has to be someone who actually existed. No matter what group you try to pin it on, you arrive at problems. We’ve already shown that it couldn’t have been an enemy, and it couldn’t have been a follower, so the only answer left is that the culprit had to be someone who was uninvolved, or dispassionate. If that’s the case, then that makes the issue of motivation even more of a problem. Why would someone who didn’t care about Jesus one way or the other steal His body? I can understand grave robbing in general, because maybe they thought Jesus was buried with something valuable, but why steal the body? Someone uninvolved or uninterested would have absolutely no reason to want a corpse.

A third problem is, once again, motivation. Attacking armed Roman guards to steal the body of a defeated and dead messiah figure is a pretty strange thing to do, and requires some kind of motivation to make any sense at all. So in order to figure out the motivation, we have to start trying to puzzle out who the culprit is. The skeptic doesn’t want to do this, since it naturally leads to problems with the view, but it really is a necessary step. They shouldn’t deliberately leave the question unanswered, simply because finding answers gives them a conclusion they don’t want. So, the person stealing the body of Jesus cannot be a disciple, because the disciples died proclaiming the resurrection, and no one dies for something they know to be a lie. It couldn’t be a non-Christian Roman, because there’s literally no reason for them to do it. It also couldn’t be a non-Christian Jew, for the exact same reasons. It also couldn’t be someone who was literally a random stranger, because there’s no motivation for someone uninvolved to do something so drastic and dangerous. So again, there’s no motivation, no matter how you try to work it out.

A fourth problem is that this is, once again, an ad hoc argument. Actually, it’s even worse than ad hoc. The skeptic has invented a person to fix all their problems, with no evidence in its favor, which is the definition of ad hoc. However, it gets worse, because they haven’t been specific with their invention, so it doesn’t even give a real answer. Again, it’s like saying, “well there must be a reason”, without actually specifying what the reason is. So not only do they not have a reason to believe their answer, but they haven’t actually even given a real answer.

A fifth problem with an unknown person stealing Jesus’ body is that, once again, it doesn’t make sense of the historical data. There were hundreds of people claiming they saw the resurrected Christ, and many of them were preaching it, and being persecuted for it. The followers of Jesus didn’t have faith until after these apparent appearances of Jesus. If some unknown random person stole the body of Jesus, it would have simply been a strange mystery to everyone as to why the tomb was empty. Also, the idea of a physical resurrection in the here and now didn’t make sense to them, and they wouldn’t have immediately jumped to that conclusion just because the body was missing. Just an empty tomb definitely wouldn’t have created the zealous movement of many Christians claiming a physical resurrection. Even more so, a random person stealing the body, and the tomb being empty, still doesn’t explain why the skeptics James and Paul would both convert, and be willing to die for the claim that Jesus had risen.

As you can see, most of the problems remain, even if we allow the skeptic to deliberately leave the identity of the thief unanswered. At best, all this does is address the issue of the empty tomb, and nothing else. Because of these problems, the idea that some unknown person stole the body of Jesus just doesn’t make logical sense, it lacks motivation, it doesn’t deal with all the historical data, and it isn’t even really a real answer in the first place.

Using Multiple Theories

As we’ve seen with all these theories, they do not account for all the historical data, and end up not being good enough answers because of it. The theories are not good enough on their own, because there’s too many problems, and too many holes missing. In order to fix this, the skeptic usually starts inserting additional theories about how to make sense of all the data. The problem is, adding additional theories to fill in the gaps makes it less likely to be true, because the unreasonableness multiplies. As an example, if there’s a one in six chance to roll a four on a die, what are the odds of rolling a four, two times in a row? The odds multiply, and instead of one in six, it becomes one in 36. It’s the same thing here. After looking at all the data, it seems quite unlikely that one of these missing body theories could be true. If we add another theory to this theory, in order to fill in the holes, this new theory multiplies the unlikeliness of the previous theory, and makes the situation even worse. Yes, you’ve plugged the holes, but you’ve just created an even more unlikely theory. This is the nature of ad hoc reasoning. It’s possible your explanation could be true, but there’s no reason to believe it. If the skeptic keeps piling on arguments with no evidence in their favor, just for the sake of saving their secularism, it becomes more and more ad hoc, and thus, more and more unreasonable. This is also a good example of how conspiracy theories work. There’s a bunch of evidence that needs explaining, and the person won’t admit the obvious answer, so they concoct an improbable theory to explain away the data. As problems start to appear in their theory, they create additional improbable answers to those problems. As this continues, the theory becomes less and less likely. That’s exactly what is happening here with the arguments against the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The obvious answer, which fits all the historical data, and doesn’t commit any logical fallacies, is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

As a real example of how skeptics add other theories in the mix to fix their problems, there’s a very common argument that skeptics use to try and fill in the gaps left by the other theories. So, the skeptic might claim some theory, like that someone stole the body, and they’re left with the problem of the disciples very strongly believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. Their current theory doesn’t make sense of all the data, so in order to fill in the holes, they add in a new theory, like that the followers of Jesus were hallucinating all the appearances of Christ. This way, they can make sense of the crucifixion and empty tomb, because of one of these missing body arguments. They can then also explain the zeal of the disciples, and the conversions of James and Paul, because everyone was simply hallucinating. However, there is no evidence in favor of the missing body arguments, nor is there evidence in favor of hallucinations, so, the unreasonableness of both theories multiplies, and ends up creating an entirely ad hoc conspiracy theory. If you’re interested in learning more about the hallucination theories to explain the data, we’ll be going into that topic in future episodes.

Summary and Conclusion

As we’ve seen today, the arguments that try to explain the empty tomb don’t work. Any attempt to try and explain the missing body of Jesus just ends up creating far more problems than it solves. The women going to the wrong tomb is sexist, it doesn’t make sense that everyone else would also not be able to find the tomb, and the Jews and Romans would have gladly pointed everyone to the right tomb. The idea that the Jews or Romans might have moved Jesus’ body doesn’t work, because there’s no motivation for them to do it, and again, they wanted Christianity to fail, so they would gladly redirect everyone to the correct tomb. The argument that some random person could have stolen the body fails as well, because it couldn’t be a Jew, Roman, or a Christian, so it had to be someone uninvolved or disinterested. This then creates a massive problem for why the person would bother to steal the body, because there’s no motivation. This answer is also deliberately vague, and ends up not really giving an answer at all. And all of these theories still fall prey to the issues we dealt with last episode. For example, no one would believe from the empty tomb alone, a physical resurrection wasn’t expected by Jews, and it doesn’t explain all the historical data. At best these theories only explain the empty tomb, and don’t account for the evidence of the appearances of Jesus, the strong belief of the disciples to the point of torture and death, and the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul. Also, all of these theories are ad hoc, because there’s no logical reason to think any of them are true, and there’s no historical evidence for any of them. Lastly, if the skeptic attempts to add in additional theories to help fill in the gaps left by the missing body arguments, this actually makes the situation logically worse, not better. Overall, the missing body explanations just aren’t good enough, because they can’t handle all the historical data, and become illogical explanations once everything is considered.

All that said, we still haven’t dealt with what I believe is the strongest of these arguments, and possibly the best argument in general against the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So I hope you’ll join me next time as we evaluate the argument that the disciples stole the body of Jesus, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, with Jon Topping


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