The Easter Conspiracy

Matthew 28:11-15

April 7, 1996 | Ray Pritchard

“The resurrection of Christ is either the greatest miracle or the greatest delusion which history records.” Philip Schaff

It’s been a good week for Jesus if you count cover stories as good news. For the first time in my memory Jesus is on the cover of the three major newsmagazines in the same week. Newsweek features an ascending Christ (as painted by Raphael) with the phrase “Rethinking the Resurrection” superimposed over his midsection. Time magazine shows a medieval head of Christ with the headline reading “The Search for Jesus.”
But it is the subtitles that tell the real story: “A New Debate About the Risen Christ” (Newsweek) and “Some scholars are debunking the gospels. Now traditionalists are fighting back. What are Christians to believe?” (Time).

Good question. What are Christians to believe? According to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, we don’t have a clue who or what to believe. The stories all basically center around the work of the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal scholars who have been sifting through the gospels since the early 1980s trying to separate fact from fiction, history from legend.

Casting Pebbles Instead of Stones

The scholars discuss the evidence and then use colored pebbles to cast their votes concerning the words and deeds of Jesus. They are trying to determine which words and deeds were truly said and done by Jesus and which ones were the creation of the early church.

The report is not encouraging. Most of the words of Jesus have been written off as the creation of the early church. Nearly all the miracles have also gone by the wayside. Last year the seminar finally got around to voting on the Resurrection. Did Jesus really rise from the dead as the gospels declare and as Christians have always believed? The vote was 24 to 1 against the Resurrection.

Well, then, what happened to the body of Jesus? One scholar suggested it simply rotted in the grave, another said that it was thrown in a ditch and eaten by dogs.

But how do you account for the resurrection narratives? And why did the early church believe them? Answers vary, but basically the scholars believe that the early church wanted to believe in the Resurrection so they essentially concocted the stories of Jesus rising from the dead. Others suggest that Jesus somehow rose in the hearts of his disciples so that it doesn’t matter if he literally rose or not.

What If Jesus Did Not Rise?

Lest that last suggestion sound foolish, let me report on the words of a theologian who was asked by the Washington Post, “What if Christ didn’t rise?” “If the bones of Jesus were found tomorrow,” she replied, “it would make no great difference to me. I would go on going to church as would the majority of Christians.”

Let me hasten to say that this sermon is not about the skeptics, but I do believe it is important to notice the vast amount of space given to their views. The people of the world have always struggled with Easter. What really happened on that first Sunday morning 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem? Did Jesus rise from the dead or didn’t he?

The First Easter Conspiracy

It may surprise you to know that there were doubters and skeptics from the very beginning. In fact, Matthew records the very first Easter conspiracy:

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day (Matthew 28:11-15).

Earlier Matthew records that it was the Jews who asked Pilate to place guards around the tomb because they remembered that Jesus had said, “After three days I will rise again.” The ironic fact is that on Saturday the only people worried about a resurrection were the people who put Jesus to death in the first place. The guards were there because the Jewish leaders feared that something strange might happen at the tomb.

Thus the first Easter conspiracy was hatched even before the resurrection and was consummated afterwards by bribing the Roman guards.

I. The Cover-Up You Won’t Believe

But that was only the first of a long line of attempts to cover up the truth about Easter. Over the centuries skeptics have concocted a number of theories to explain away the resurrection of Jesus. Here are seven of the most popular alternatives to the empty tomb.

Theory 1: Jesus didn’t die

Some skeptics have proposed that Jesus survived the crucifixion, swooned on the cross, revived in the tomb, came forth on Easter Sunday and fooled everyone into thinking he had risen from the dead.

Just to state the theory is to refute it. The whole purpose of crucifixion was brutal, agonizing death. No one could possibly survive beating, scourging, the torture of crucifixion, and being pierced by a spear. The Romans were good at killing people. It was one of their specialties. They knew the difference between a dead man and an unconscious man.

Besides, if Jesus did somehow revive after so much physical torture, how did he roll the stone away and then give the appearance of perfect physical health on Sunday morning? No, this theory makes no sense whatsoever.

Theory 2: The disciples stole the body

But why would they steal the body? All the gospel writers agree that they were not expecting a resurrection. When the women went to the tomb on Sunday, they were expecting to anoint a dead body, not meet their risen Lord.

Besides, how do you explain the amazing transformation of the disciples from insecure cowards to flaming evangelists? And why did they all go to their death proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. Men might die for a myth they wrongly believed, but it is impossible to think that they would willingly go to their death for a lie.

Theory 3: The Jews stole the body

This is a plausible theory except for one tiny fact. If the Jews stole the body, then all they had to do when the Christians said that Jesus had risen from the dead was to roll out the dead body of Jesus. End of the story. Besides, why would the Jews steal the body? They wanted to keep Jesus in the grave at all costs.

Theory 4: The Romans stole the body

This makes no sense because the Romans weren’t worried about Jesus one way or the other. They weren’t worried about a missing body (like the Jews) and they weren’t mourning a dead leader (like the disciples). As far as they were concerned, Jesus was just another dead Jew. They had no reason to tamper with the body.

Theory 5: The body just disappeared

Fine, but what does that mean? I call this the UFO theory. Bodies don’t just disappear. Something had to happen to it. A disappearing body still doesn’t explain why the early Christians unanimously believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Theory 6: Mass hallucination

Well, then, perhaps the early Christians suffered some kind of mass psychosis that caused all of them to have visions or hallucinations that they mistook for the risen Christ. This is difficult to square with the facts as we know them and with the reality of human nature. Visions tend to be intensely personal events. Two people rarely have visions that are even remotely similar, much less identical. But Jesus appeared many times to many people over a 40-day period after his resurrection. At one point, he appeared to 500 people at once (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, which lists a number of post-resurrection appearances). Its strains credulity to believe that 500 people would have the same vision at the same time.

Plus, you still have the pesky fact of the body. If his resurrection was a vision, then what happened to the body? No one has ever satisfactorily answered that question.

Theory 7: Early church made up the story

This is the current position of most liberal scholarship. It seems to be the position of most members of the Jesus Seminar. It actually combines elements of several of the previous theories. But like all the others, it stumbles over several hard facts. First, what happened to the body? If it simply rotted in the grave or was eaten by wild dogs, surely the early Christians would have known of that fact. Or the Jews would have used it to debunk Christianity. And why would the disciples suffer and die for a lie? And how do you explain the unanimous testimony that Jesus rose from the dead? It takes far more faith to believe this theory than it does to believe the straightforward testimony of the four gospels.

II. The Evidence You Need to Know

Let me share 22 reasons why I believe Jesus rose from the dead. In preparing this material, I have leaned heavily on the work of Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter), John Warwick Montgomery, Peter Kreeft, and others.

By way of disclaimer, I do not expect these 22 reasons to convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. I believe the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection to be compelling, but just as some people continue to believe in a flat earth, some deny the resurrection. Having said that, I believe there is no truthful way to read the four gospels and to fairly account for the evidence there presented without concluding that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead.

A. He predicted he would rise from the dead

Because he was the Son of God, he knew about his coming death in Jerusalem. But he also knew about his resurrection. In John 2:19-22 he said that he would be raised in three days—although the disciples did not understand it at the time. In John 10:17-18 he plainly said he had the power to lay down his own life and then to take it back up again. At the moment when Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he must go to Jerusalem, that he would be put to death, and that he would be raised to life on the third day (Matthew 16:21).

Anyone can predict his own resurrection; only the Son of God can fulfill such a prediction.

B. Jesus really died

The Romans were experts at killing. Everything they did to a victim was calculated to make him suffer unbearable pain and then to die an agonizing death. No one could have survived what Jesus suffered. He was dead when they took him down from the cross.

C. His body was embalmed and then buried

Jewish burial customs of that day involved a complex mixture of spices and resin that, when placed between the layers of the graveclothes hardened to produce an impenetrable shell. The primary purpose, of course, was to keep robbers and animals out, but in this case it has the additional purpose of keeping the dead man inside. It also prevented unpleasant odors from spreading. The total weight of the winding cloth with the spices and resins would be 75-100 pounds.

The evangelists note that Jesus’ body was taken down and hurriedly prepared for burial in the last few moments before sundown since Jewish law forbade touching a dead body on the Sabbath. He was buried in a newly-dug tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. He and Nicodemus, along with the women, prepared the dead body for burial. Afterwards Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and then placed a squad of soldiers in front of the stone as a precaution against mischief of any kind.

Although it is not often noticed, the gospel writers actually give quite a few details regarding the handling of the body and the preparation for burial. The only possible conclusion must be that Jesus was in fact actually dead on Friday evening.

D. The disciples didn’t expect a resurrection

In my mind this is one of the most telling points. Even though Jesus had repeatedly predicted his resurrection, somehow that truth simply failed to sink in. Either they didn’t understand it, or they didn’t want to think about what it implied (Jesus’ death), or they forgot it in the emotion of watching him die. All four gospels make it clear that before the crucifixion, none of the disciples understood Jesus’ references to the resurrection.

E. The women saw him first

In our modern culture we don’t appreciate the significance of the fact that the women came first to the tomb. No first-century fiction writer would have put the women at the tomb first because women weren’t considered reliable witnesses. The only reason to say that the women saw him first is because that’s what actually happened. No one would have made up such a strange detail.

F. No one believed it at first

Not only did the disciples not expect a resurrection, Luke 24 makes it clear that the men didn’t believe the first reports from the women. Discounting them as unreliable, they decided to check the tomb for themselves. Remember, the disciples went into hiding after Friday because they feared for their own safety. They last thing they expected on Sunday morning was a resurrection. In the beginning, it wasn’t just Thomas who doubted. None of them believed the early reports and all of them had to be convinced over and over again that Jesus had risen from the dead.

G. The Jews tried to cover it up

Why try to cover up the resurrection if the body is still in the grave? The cover-up and the payoff only make sense if the tomb really was empty. Otherwise, they just trot out the dead body of Jesus and the resurrection becomes just another story with a bad ending.

H. The stone was rolled away

Josh McDowell goes into this at some length. First, the stone itself was three to six feet in diameter and weighed two to five tons. It took several strong men to roll it into place. Second, the New Testament uses several prepositions that indicate that the stone was not just rolled away; someone picked it up and physically moved it. Third, the seal on the stone could only be broken by a Roman official. Anyone else caught breaking the seal would be put to death.

Who rolled the stone away? The disciples? The Roman guards would have stopped them. The Jews? Same thing. The Romans? Not likely. They had no motivation. And who would risk death to do such a thing?

Who rolled the stone away? God did, because he’s the one who raised Jesus from the dead.
I. The angels testified to the resurrection

To the Jews angels always signified a special message from God. In the Old Testament angels were sent by God to announce very important events. In this case the angels announced the most important event of all time—the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

J. The graveclothes were still in place

When John wrote his version of the Sunday morning events, he includes the fascinating note that when he and Peter entered the tomb, they found the graveclothes lying in place with the linen head cloth folded next to it. Evidently the spices and resins had hardened into the shape of Jesus’ body, leaving the appearance of a cocoon after the butterfly has escaped. How do you explain that fact? Grave robbers would have taken the body without unwrapping it or they would have unwrapped it and thrown the winding sheets to the side. No one steals a body and then rewraps the graveclothes.

I believe that when Jesus rose from the dead he literally passed right through the graveclothes leaving behind the linen wrappings just as John and Peter found them.

K. The tomb was empty

It’s interesting to note that all the contemporary witnesses agree on this fact. The disciples, the Jews, and the Romans all knew that the tomb was empty. It’s true that each group viewed that fact differently but no one disputed the basic assertion that on Easter Sunday morning Jesus was no longer in the tomb.

L. No one ever found his body

Again we come back to the fundamental issue. The Jews never produced his body. In fact, they concocted the first Easter conspiracy precisely because they didn’t know what happened to it. The Romans went along with the conspiracy because they didn’t know what happened either. If anyone—anyone at all—had produced the dead body of Jesus, the entire Christian movement would have gone the way of so many other short-lived religions across the centuries.

No one has ever found the body of Jesus and no one ever will. The skeptics simply can’t answer the question, “What happened to his body?”

M. He appeared to many people

Taking the gospels together with 1 Corinthians, you get a list like this: First to the women, then to Peter and John, then the disciples on the road to Emmaus, then to the disciples in the Upper Room, then to the disciples and Thomas one week later, then to the disciples in Galilee. And somewhere along the way he appeared to 500 people at once. There were other appearances as well that we cannot date precisely.

Taken together, the list is impressive enough that it cannot be cavalierly dismissed as wishful thinking. Writing some 30 years later, Paul commented that most of those who saw the risen Christ were still alive and ready to testify to what they had seen.

N. He showed his wounds to Doubting Thomas

When Jesus appeared to Thomas a week after the resurrection he offered the ultimate apologetic proof. Spreading forth his hands, he said, “Touch my wounds. See for yourself.” When Thomas saw the wounds, he knew at last that it must be true.

O. He ate with the disciples

Luke 24:42, 43 tells us that Jesus ate broiled fish in the presence of the disciples. A ghost doesn’t eat fish. Neither does a dead man.

Ghosts don’t eat fish.

P. He stayed with them for 40 days

Forty days is a long time. If Jesus had only appeared once or twice, we might be tempted to discount it as a hopeful vision. But Jesus “showed himself alive” according to Acts 1:1-3 by “many infallible proofs.” He stayed long enough to convince all his followers that he had indeed come back from the dead.

Q. The disciples were utterly transformed

Here is one of the most remarkable facts surrounding the resurrection. Whereas before that Sunday the disciples were unsure, timid, doubting, and in general a lackluster bunch, afterwards to a man they were utterly, radically and completely transformed. They were quite literally new men. Suddenly these timid souls became first-century Billy Grahams, totally dedicated to spreading the good news to anyone who would listen. Persecution didn’t stop them, opposition didn’t faze them, hatred didn’t intimidate them, hardship didn’t slow them down, the threat of martyrdom didn’t intimidate them.

To a man they became dynamos of Christian evangelism. In the words of the Bible, they went everywhere preaching the gospel. These were the men who turned the world upside down.

What made the difference? I submit that the only possible answer is that these men met the risen Christ and he changed their lives forever.

R. The early Christians all believed he had been raised

This is nothing more than a simple historical observation. All the early Christians—without exception—believed that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. The Jewish Christians believed, but so did the Gentiles. Wherever the gospel went, it produced converts who joined in proclaiming the risen Christ.

S. The resurrection was the centerpiece of their preaching

It’s interesting to read the accounts of the early Christian sermons from the book of Acts. They all centered on the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. We today tend to focus more on the death of Christ. But it was not so in the beginning. The first Christians understood that without the resurrection, the crucifixion had no meaning.

T. They died testifying to the reality of the resurrection

Church history tells us that of the eleven original disciples (not counting Judas) plus Paul, all died violent deaths for their faith in Jesus. The one exception was John, who spent his final years imprisoned on the island of Patmos. Beyond that, thousands of Christians died in the various Roman persecutions.

Why would men and women die for a myth or a legend? Why would the apostles die for Christ if they knew he had not risen from the dead?

U. For 2,000 years no one has produced a convincing answer to the question, “If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what happened to his body?”

This is the ultimate unanswered question. Where is the body of Jesus? No one throughout 2,000 years of history has provided a credible answer to that question. In fact, I will go so far as to state that no one ever will. I’ve been to the Holy Land and I can tell you that you can start in the north and dig to the south or start in the east and dig to the west. You’ll find bones everywhere you dig. But you won’t find the bones of Jesus because they aren’t there.

V. Today over one billion Christians unite to proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive

This morning we join with Christians around the world to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We stand in a long line of believers who proclaim with the angel, “He is not here, for he is risen, just as he said.”


III. The Question You Must Answer

At this point I want to repeat what I have said before. No one should feel forced to believe because of anything I have said. Across the centuries millions have believed and many others have doubted.

The issue this morning is quite simple. Where do you stand regarding the resurrection of Jesus? There is more than enough evidence for those who choose to believe. And there is room to doubt for those who care to do so.

At this point we need to recall the words of Jesus to Thomas … “Stop doubting and believe!” (John 20:27). At some point you have to make up your mind one way or the other.

“How can I be sure?” you ask.

Examine the evidence.

Study the eyewitness reports.

Consider the options.

Think about the possibilities.

Answer the big question: What happened to his body?

Make Up Your Mind

Do you believe it was just a myth? Do you think Jesus somehow staged his own death and then faked his resurrection? Why did the Jews concoct a plot while Jesus was still dead? Why were they so afraid? Why were the grave clothes left in such an odd position? Why did the guards suddenly and unitedly pass out? What about the appearances of Jesus after his death? Was that simply a mass hallucination? And how do you account for the radical transformation of the disciples? And the conviction of the early church that Jesus had risen from the dead? Finally, if he didn’t rise from the dead, what happened to his body?

These are the questions you need to think about. After you are through, then it’s time to make up your own mind.

When Jesus stood before Pilate he declared, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). Whose side are you on?

The Garden Tomb

One final word and I am done. Last year I visited the Holy Land for the second time. During our visit to Jerusalem, we spent some time at the Garden Tomb, the spot believed by many to be the actual burial place of Jesus. It is located next to Gordon’s Calvary, that strange rock outcropping that appears to be worn into the shape of a skull. In Jesus’ day we know it was used as a burial site. Many believe it was the spot of the crucifixion.

The Garden Tomb is located about 100 yards from Gordon’s Calvary and is in fact the spot of a beautiful garden built over an ancient Roman aqueduct. To your left as you enter is a typical first-century tomb dug into the hillside. A trench in front of the opening was apparently designed for the massive stone that once covered the entrance.

No Body There

Because the opening is very small, I had to duck to go inside. For a few seconds, you see nothing until your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then you can easily make out the two chambers. Visitors stand in the mourners chamber. A wrought-iron fence protects the chamber where the body was laid. You soon notice that the burial chamber was originally designed for two bodies. However one ledge was never finished for some reason. The other one was. It appears to be designed for a person slightly less than six feet tall.

As I looked around the burial chamber, I could see faint markings left by Christian pilgrims from earlier centuries. After a few seconds another thought enters the mind. There is no body to be found in this tomb. Whoever was buried there evidently left a long time ago. The Garden Tomb is empty!

As you exit back into the sunlight, your eyes fasten upon a wooden sign: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is risen, as he said.”

On this Easter morning I am happy to declare those ancient words once again. The empty tomb really is empty because Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead.

Let the people of God rejoice. “He is risen! He is risen indeed.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?