False Theories of the Resurrection. Part #4: Why the Conspiracy Theory Comes Up Short

The Conspiracy Theory holds that Jesus’ disciples stole His body and fabricated the lie of a resurrection, circulating it as truth. Conspiracy theorists hang their beliefs upon a conversation between the Jewish chief priests and the Roman guard. In the absence of a body, these officials, who both had a great deal to lose if Jesus did rise from the dead, needed to provide a plausible explanation. Matthew wrote of this conceived plan:

Now while they were on their way, behold, some of the guards 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, NKJV

The basis for this theory is the telling of a lie. To better understand how this theory attempts to explain away Jesus’ resurrection, it’s helpful to know why people lie and how it stands up against the disciples’ actions. One tends to lie for the following reasons: to avoid painful consequences or shame, to gain a favorable result, to cause others to think positively, to get out of doing something, or to protect the feelings of another. 1 The disciples had no clear motive to make up such a lie. As previously stated, a person lies for apparent self-serving reasons. It was not to the disciples’ advantage to lie.

If the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body and made up the resurrection story, the consequences they faced as a result of that lie were indeed painful and shameful. They were scorned, hated, persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and beheaded for their belief in the resurrection (Kreeft 185). Men might die for a lie they wrongly believed, but it is impossible to think that one would willingly go to his death for a lie. Further, the disciples were not even expecting a resurrection; instead, they viewed death as final. The disciples were said to still “… not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:19). Further, James, the half-brother of Jesus, had not believed in Him until after the resurrection (John 7:5). On Sunday morning, when the women went to the tomb, they expected to anoint Jesus’ body, not to see a risen Lord. They expected to find everything as it was on Friday. Mark writes,

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?

Mark 16:1-3

If the resurrection had been a lie on the disciples’ part, it is doubtful that they would have been able to get away with telling it in Jerusalem due to a large number of eyewitnesses. Speaking on the difficulty in sharing a lie so quickly after the actual events, William Lane Craig writes:

The Gospels were written in such temporal and geographical proximity to the events they record that it would have been almost impossible to fabricate events. … The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.

William Lane Craig

The character of the disciples argues against such a conspiracy on their part. Among the disciples, there was no dispute in what they believed. Jesus’ disciples were honest and ordinary peasants, not cunning and deceitful lawyers. The change in their lives was from fear to faith, despair to confidence, and cowardice to boldness. It is improbable that twelve poor, fearful, and uneducated tradespeople confronted and confused the powerful Roman world with their lie. The likelihood of these timid disciples stealing the body of Jesus out from under the noses of highly disciplined and skilled Roman soldiers while they all slept (an offense punishable by death) is challenging to accept. The effects of the disciples’ faith in the resurrection are apparent:

In the midst of the tyranny of the persecutors, an innumerable throng of people, both simple and learned, flocked to the Christian faith. In this faith there are truths proclaimed that surpass every human intellect; the pleasures of the flesh are curbed; it is taught that the things of the world should be spurned. Now, for the minds of mortal men to assent to these things is the greatest of miracles. … This wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is the clearest witness. … For it would be truly more wonderful than all signs if the world had been led by simple and humble men to believe such lofty truths, to accomplish such difficult actions, and to have such high hopes.

Peter Kreeft, Handbook of Christian Apologetics

If there had been a conspiracy and the resurrection was a lie, the Jews needed only to produce the corpse to bring closure to the matter. It would have been in their best interest to do so. They needed Jesus to be dead. Producing His corpse would put to rest the resurrection claim and any thought that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God. It would have been in the best interest of the Romans if Jesus were dead, for the reputation of the Roman Empire would have been called into question if anyone had made their way past the guards and broke the seal on the tomb. They, also, had only to produce the corpse to put the conspiracy to rest. Geisler succinctly states the likelihood of such a conspiracy:

This hypothesis, if true, would make out the disciples to be most pious frauds that ever lived. We would have to believe, contrary to psychological fact, that they died for what they knew to be false, and that they were transformed from cowards to courageous men in a few weeks by a deceptive plot that enabled them to turn the known world upside down. It is hardly more miraculous to believe in the resurrection itself than to believe this highly unlikely hypothesis.

Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics

1 Lickerman, Alex, M.D. “Why We Lie.” Psychology Today. 8 Mar. 2010. Web. 06 Feb. 2016.

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