It’s been a long road, this “proving” the divinity of Christ business.1 And after 8,000+ words, all we’ve got is a man who claimed to be God and did some pretty crazy stuff to back it up, a man who was tortured and died and whose body is suddenly missing. For some, the empty tomb might be enough. But I have to keep pushing: where’s the body? It stands to reason that someone stole it, so let’s consider the possibilities.
In Jesus’ world, there were three groups of people: the Romans, the Jews who opposed Jesus, and the Jews who were friendly to him (the disciples). Of these three groups, nobody had more power than the Romans. If they were looking to steal Jesus’ body, they certainly had the means.
But did they have the motive? Was there any reason for them to steal Jesus’ body? I’ve heard it suggested that they were just trying to stir up trouble between the Jews and the Christians to weaken their opposition to Roman rule. It’s an interesting thought but it fails to take into account the modus operandi of first century Romans: peace at any cost. These were the originators of the pay, pray, and obey model, with the emphasis on paying and obeying. Pax Romana wasn’t just a happy consequence of Roman conquest, it was the point. The Roman empire gave people enough freedom and sovereignty in their territories to keep them mollified so they didn’t revolt. These soldiers whose livelihood—and likely their lives—depended on keeping the peace would have no reason to steal Jesus’ body. It would only have led to unrest, the last thing they wanted.
It’s possible, of course, that the Jews stole it. They certainly had the means, given that they were the ones who got Jesus killed in the first place.2 They had power and they had money and they had the guards in their pocket. But again, they had no motive. Remember that they posted a guard to make sure that nobody stole the body and claimed that he rose.3 While the apostles were wondering what Jesus meant by “dying and rising again,”4 the Jews knew exactly what he was going for and they knew that stealing the body would only increase the fervor of his followers.
Besides, if they had stolen the body, don’t you think they would have produced it when people started claiming that he rose? I don’t know about you, but if I had the ability to put those suddenly-confident fishermen in their places, I would have done it right quick. “Oh, you think he rose from the dead? Yeah, well I’ve got your Messiah right here.” Nip that little sect in the bud and get pack to my prayers. No, there’s no way the Jews took it.
Ah, now here’s a likely group. I mean, think about it. After Jesus’ performance on Good Friday, his followers look like a bunch of fools. They gave up everything to follow this wandering preacher for three years and then when the time comes for him to declare himself and rise up against Rome he says nothing? He clamps his mouth shut and doesn’t even try to defend himself? If I were one of the Apostles, I’d sure as heck want to make it look like he rose. They’re the only ones around with motive: the body disappears and they go from morons to heroes in a matter of days.5
But obviously they’re not going to be the culprits or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They had the motive but they didn’t have the means. These are the same guys who ran away from the soldiers not three days earlier. Mark was so terrified that when someone grabbed his tunic he ripped it off and ran away naked.6 There is literally nothing in the world I’m so afraid of that it would compel me to rip off my clothes to get away. Peter, of course, ran from a little girl. These guys weren’t exactly Braveheart material. And we’re supposed to believe that they suddenly had a change of heart (and intestinal fortitude), left the Upper Room where they were cowering, snuck through Jerusalem, took out the guards ninja-style without them noticing, rolled away the stone, unwrapped the body, and then died to tell the story?
Let’s unpack this. There’s obviously the fear factor, which in and of itself is pretty convincing. Then there’s the guards. If you’re a guard and you fall asleep on the job, do you concoct some crazy story about being blinded by the light7 or do you go with the more obvious explanation that a horde of tough, angry fishermen knocked you out? In the second case you might get in trouble, but in the first case you get fired and probably told to pee in a cup. It’s not a logical go-to excuse if they just fell asleep.
And the fact that they don’t blame the apostles also tells us that they weren’t attacked. Accusing the obvious suspects is far less ridiculous than “we all just passed out cause we saw this crazy angel thing.” The Jews know something funny happened—that’s why they just shut them up with some hush money instead of punishing them in any way.8
And then there are the burial clothes rolled up in the tomb.9 If you just knocked out some Roman guards to steal a dead body, do you bother peeling off the blood-soaked burial clothes in the tomb, or do you throw the corpse over your shoulder and book it? I don’t know about you but every time I go grave-robbing I like to unwrap the corpse so I can get all nice and goopy while I’m carrying the rotting flesh around—oh wait, that’s revolting. Nor can I imagine that the Apostles were forward-thinking young philosophers who were covering their tracks by doing the unthinkable in the moment—not these guys, not dealing with this kind of fear, not in this culture.
Finally, there’s the clincher: they died to tell the story. If they stole the body, they knew the Resurrection was a lie—why would they die for it? 10 out of the 11 Apostles who survive the Resurrection were martyred, and John’s survival wasn’t for lack of trying; they poisoned him, they boiled him, he just wouldn’t die.10 Even those early Christians who apostatized11 never claimed the Resurrection was a hoax. What convinced me of the truth of Christianity was that these men who walked with Jesus, heard him preach, watched him die, and then touched his risen body died to tell that story. I just couldn’t find any better explanation than the Resurrection.
There are those who call themselves Christian who claim that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. Magical ninja dogs, I suppose, who knocked the guards out without them noticing, rolled away a stone it would have taken more than three grown women to move, unwrapped the body, and dragged it away (including all the bones) without leaving a mess or a trail? Give me a break.
Others—many of whom also claim to be Christian—assert that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, he just passed out. Passed out so thoroughly that the Romans, the Jews, and his mother thought he was dead. Passed out to the point that being stabbed through the pericardial sac elicited no response. Maybe I’m unclear on the definition here, but if you pass out without a pulse or respirations for an extended time, isn’t that death?
Even if he had just passed out, he would have had to come to 40 hours after being in critical condition, peel off the burial clothes clotted into his battered skin, roll away a stone so heavy that three women couldn’t move it without help,12 beat up the guards without their noticing, walk 7 miles away to Emmaus, appear entirely undamaged with the exception of the 5 major wounds, teleport back to Jerusalem, and walk through a locked door. This would be almost a greater miracle than the Resurrection—if it’s not a miracle, it’s just ridiculous. And if we’re acknowledging that Jesus performed miracles, it seems more reasonable to accept the miracle that he foretold and not one devised by 19th-century German theologians.
The Best Explanation
The evidence indicates that Jesus died and (unless you count the few crazies who thought he was a hologram) nobody really claims he didn’t until Mohammed. When the body goes missing, there’s no earthly explanation for it. Fortunately, we’re not looking for an earthly explanation. The only thing that makes sense is the thing that was so surreal the disciples couldn’t understand it when he explained it in small words: he rose from the dead.
And in case an absent body isn’t enough evidence for you (and it shouldn’t be), there are the witnesses. Tons of them. Mary Magdalene,13 other women,14 Cleopas and his companion15, the twelve (eleven) with and without Thomas,16 Peter and six others,17 and to the apostles at the ascension18 At least those specific times, probably more. Then there are Paul’s references to Jesus appearing to Peter and to James and to 500 people at once.19 These weren’t hallucinations—500 people don’t have the same hallucination, nor do eleven guys dream the same dream three different times. And Jesus makes very sure to show them that he wasn’t a ghost—eating with them20 and asking them to touch him.21 They touched his wounds, saw his scars. There was no body double, no swooning, no collective memory modification.
Then, of course, there’s the transformation of the apostles and the spread of Christianity throughout the known world not by violence but by preaching—impossible without the Holy Spirit. Forget the empty tomb, the only possible explanation for Pentecost or the Edict of Milan or 266 popes in a row or anything good to have come out of the Church of Jesus Christ is the Resurrection.
So there you have it.
The Gospels are fairly reliable accounts—at least for the general themes and major events of the life of Christ. They tell us that Jesus claimed to be God. If he claimed to be God, he couldn’t possibly be just a good man, just a great teacher; he was either God himself, a crazy man, or a vicious liar. The miracles he worked show us that he’s more than a lunatic or a liar, as does the most cursory reading of the Gospels. But it comes down to this: Jesus died. He was buried. On the third day, the body was missing. The only possible explanation is the Resurrection. If Jesus claimed to be God and he rose from the dead, he’s God. Full stop.
And now here we are at the end of an excessively long series. But you wanted to know why I believe that Jesus is God. Someone did, I’m sure. And this is it—the intellectual part, anyway. The emotional part–the part that keeps me here when everything in and around me is shaking–you read in everything I post and watch in my face when I receive communion. I believe that Jesus is God because of everything I’ve said in this series; I believe in Jesus because I know him. I meet him in the Eucharist and in his Word and in his Church and in the poor and in you, dear brothers and sisters. Thank you for your kindness and prayers and comments and shares and all that you do for the body of Christ. You are a great blessing to me.
- See parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.1.
- As a reminder, we’re not blaming all Jews for the crucifixion. It’s everybody’s fault, Jews no more than anyone else.
- Mt 27:64
- Mk 9:32
- Of course, the Gospels they write and disseminate don’t do much to encourage their status as heroes, but we’ve already discussed that.
- Mk 14:51-52—the world’s first instance of breakaway pants.
- That’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.
- Mt 28:11-15
- Jn 20:6-7
- I don’t know about you, but if I’m trying to kill someone who just won’t die, I might consider buying some of what he’s selling, but maybe that’s just me….
- Renounced the faith.
- Mk 16:3
- Jn 20:10-18
- Mt 28:8-10. By the way, women in the ancient world weren’t considered reliable enough to be able to testify as witnesses. If you were making up the Resurrection, why would you invent a story in which the most immediate witnesses are practically non-entities, they’re so unreliable?
- Lk 24:13-32
- Jn 20:19-23, Jn 20:26-30
- Jn 21:1-14
- Mt 28:16-20 etc.
- 1 Cor 15:3-8
- Lk 24, Jn 21
- Lk 24, Jn 20