December 10, 2017
Critics of Christianity would have you believe it was all a hoax. Conspiracy theories have abounded for 2000 years as to what really happened on that first Easter Sunday. In fact, the first spin on the story began that very day – we call it the “stolen body theory.”
Only Matthew records it. Apparently, after the tomb was found empty, the soldiers who had been assigned to guard the tomb, made their way to the chief priests to report what had happened. The chief priests then called an emergency session of the Sanhedrin. They bribed the soldiers to say the disciples had stolen the body while the soldiers were sleeping. This story circulated for a long time – to this very day, Matthew says, meaning, when he wrote his gospel some thirty years after the resurrection. Justin Martyr, who lived during the middle of the second century, recorded it in his writings – it apparently was around a long time.
In addition to the stolen body, which hardly anyone accepts today, there have been many other theories through the centuries. You can actually divide them under two main categories – those which suggest Jesus really did die – the problem was a lost body; or second, Jesus didn’t really die. The Stolen Body Theory comes under, Jesus Really Did Die – just can’t find the body.
One of the most popular of the Jesus Didn’t Really Die is the swoon theory. You’ve no doubt heard it. It was first suggested by Karl Venturini around 1800. The idea is Jesus didn’t die, but rather went into a deep coma, or swoon – He fainted from the severe pain and trauma of the beatings and crucifixion and blood loss. But, while in the cool atmosphere of the tomb along with the stimulating aroma of the burial spices, Jesus revived – these were some amazing essential oils. Then in His weakened state, with no medical treatment, He was somehow able to unwrap Himself from the burial cloth and the 75 pounds of spices, roll the large stone up the channel which would normally require several men to move, and perhaps even subdue the soldiers. Then, with His flesh in ribbons, weak from loss of blood, no food or water for days, bearing all the marks of beatings, the crown of thorns, the spear in His side, nails in His hands and feet, He went to the disciples, who were so impressed with His appearance they began to preach His glorious victory over death. Sign me up.
One of the biggest problems with the swoon theories is it didn’t come until 1800 years after Jesus died. You see, everyone then knew He was dead – the soldiers, those who buried Him, the women. You can’t come along 1800 years later and say, “Aha, I know, He wasn’t really dead.” You’re too late.
There have been so many swoon theories, it’s hard to keep up with them. In 1929, D. H. Lawrence suggested after Jesus miraculously survived the crucifixion, He ended up in Egypt where He fell in love and married the priestess Isis. In 1972, Donovan Joyce published The Jesus Scroll, in which he explained a doctor was planted in the tomb before the so-called burial – so He did receive medical treatment. This doctor was assisted by Jesus’ uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. I guess that would be His uncle on Jesus’ mother’s side – if it was on His father’s side, then there would have been Joseph, and his other brother, Joseph. Anyway, in this scroll, Jesus was married to, you guessed it, Mary Magdalene, became a revolutionary zealot who warred with the Romans, and retired as a monk in Qumran.
Another recent swoon theory came in a work The Passover Plot written by Hugh Schonfield, published in 1965. It was a runaway bestseller in which Schonfield contends Jesus deliberately plotted His own crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Quoting from the book, “Jesus contrived to be arrested the night before the Passover, fully aware that he would be nailed to the cross the following day, but taken down before the onset of the Sabbath in accordance with Jewish law. He would survive the agony of but three hours on the cross.” Thus, rather than suffering fatal abuse, Jesus just swooned.
The story actually gets better. Joseph of Arimathea – he’s in a lot of these conspiracy theories – he and an unidentified young man were both in on the whole deal. They made sure Jesus got this drugged drink on the cross that would render Him unconscious and make Him appear dead. He was really dead, He was just mostly dead. He was then removed from the cross in His deathlike trance, taken to a cool tomb which served as a hospital room where He was nursed back to health and resuscitated, not resurrected.
That was to be the plan, Schonfield says, but there was a problem. After Jesus drank the drug, the soldiers messed it all up when they pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear. So, despite the best efforts of Joseph and this young man, Jesus died in the tomb. So now, they were in a quandary. Not to worry – these quick-thinking deceivers came up with a new plan. After disposing of Jesus’ body, the unidentified Jew appeared to the disciples, claiming to be the resurrected Christ. You say, but, how could he convince them – hadn’t they been with Jesus for three years? Good question – Schonfield has an answer. Notice, even in the gospels record, there were times after the resurrection His own disciples didn’t recognize Him. It took some convincing, and grand delusion. This unidentified man was apparently a really good actor.
In addition to the stolen body theory and the swoon theory, there have been others: the no-burial theory, which says Jesus was never really buried in a tomb, but rather thrown into a common grave for criminals, and subsequently eaten by wild animals. This, by the way, is held by the Jesus Seminar.
Then there’s the twin theory – kind of interesting. During a debate in 1995 with Christian apologist William Lane Craig, philosopher Robert Cavin suggested Jesus actually had a twin brother named Hurome. The twins were separated at birth, and Hurome didn’t see Jesus until he was in Jerusalem for the Passover. There, like a mirror, he saw his twin brother Jesus hanging on the cross. He then concocted a messianic mission for himself and carried it out by stealing the body and pretending to be the resurrected Jesus. Where does Cavin get his stuff? I have no idea – it’s easier to believe the Bible.
There’s also a Muslim theory. A sect within Islam says Jesus was never crucified, let alone resurrected. Rather, Allah made one of Jesus’ disciples, probably Judas, look like Jesus, who was then crucified. Jesus made His escape to India, where He was buried in Kashmir. But, good news, one day, Jesus will come back to earth, kill the Antichrist, kill all the pigs, break the cross, destroy the synagogues and churches, establish the religion of Islam among His followers – just kidding about Christianity – live for forty years, and then be buried in Medina beside the prophet Muhammad.
That’s not all – there’s the wrong tomb theory, the mass hallucination theory – kind of interesting – 500 people had the same hallucination at the same time – the delusion theory, on and on they go. It would take days to deal with them, but I want you to notice something in common with almost every explanation: almost everyone accepts Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried, and later, mysteriously, the tomb was empty. More than that, many acknowledge either Jesus, or someone who looked very much like Jesus appeared to His closest friends and family. In fact, either Jesus or this incredible imposter appeared to so many people after the empty tomb, they were able to perpetrate the myth of resurrection.
Which means, in the words of Josh McDowell, “the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most fantastic fact of history.” I would say as followers of Jesus who believe the testimony of Scripture, the evidence is irrefutable. A close examination of the gospel accounts of the resurrection can leave only one reasonable, logical conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried, and raised again the third day. Frankly, it takes more faith to be believe the fabrications trying to disprove the resurrection than to just accept the Bible. So let’s look at the story found in our text this morning in our almost finished study of the book of Mark. Mark 16:1-8.
Mark’s account is rather quick and terse – we’ll talk about that next week when we finish the book. Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked closely at the death and burial of Jesus. Last week, we saw the burial was important – it proved definitively Jesus was really dead. Now, let’s see what happened on that first Easter Sunday morning. Our outline will go like this:
- The Women’s Witness (1-4)
- The Proclamation of Resurrection (5-7)
- The Women’s Response (8), which I’ll tell you is a bit confusing.
It was very early on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath was over – which means it was Sunday morning. The Sabbath would have ended about 6:00 on Saturday evening, the shops would have reopened. Likely, the women bought and prepared the spices Saturday night. Jesus had been in the tomb for three days now, by Jewish reckoning – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We see the women again – Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Joses, and Salome, make their way to the tomb. Mark says they came to anoint the body of Jesus.
Please notice, they came to the tomb right after sun up – that’s interesting – that means it was no longer dark, meaning, they had the right tomb. Now, if you carefully read the resurrection accounts in all four gospels, you will find four slightly different stories. Many try to capitalize on that as if there are errors in the Bible. For example, were there one or two angels, was he or they inside the tomb or outside sitting on the stone, where were the soldiers, were there grave clothes or not, to whom specifically and when did Jesus appear to the women, and did the women go back and tell the disciples or not? I would suggest these are not discrepancies – simply different perspectives of the same story which can be easily reconciled.
We’re looking at Mark, so we’ll consider his story, although I’ll mention the other accounts. For example, Matthew says there was an earthquake, apparently right before the women arrived. Further, Matthew says an angel descended from heaven and rolled away the stone and sat on it. Please understand, the angel rolled the stone away not to let Jesus out, but to let others look in to see Jesus was gone – the tomb was empty.
Now remember, soldiers had been posted at the tomb. Which suggests the soldiers, not the disciples, not even the women, soldiers were actually the first to see evidence of the reality of the resurrection. They felt the earthquake, saw the angel, the stone rolled away, the empty tomb. This was irrefutable evidence of something supernatural. We’ll see what they did with it shortly.
On the way to the tomb, Mark alone records the women ask, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Notice, all of this indicates they thought Jesus would still be there. Yes, He had said, incredulously, three times in Mark 8, 9 and 10, He would rise from the dead in three days. Still, they went to the tomb, carried the spices, wondered about the stone, because they expected Jesus’ body to be there. That’s important – they would not have had a group hallucination when they were expecting something completely different.
When they arrived, they found the stone already moved. And it was a large stone – meaning it was unlikely Jesus in His weakened state could have removed it from inside. Matthew tells us the angel moved it. Which brings us to our second point, the proclamation of the resurrection. Remember, the tomb would be like our modern mausoleums, above ground, carved out of rock. There would have been a room, with chambers or shelves cut out of the sides. So the women arrive, find the stone rolled away, and enter the tomb.
There, they found a young man sitting at the right – an amazing amount of detail – wearing a white robe. This is often the apparel of angels, and Matthew tells us indeed that’s what he was. Now, we often think of angels doing great things, which they often do, but the word angel means messenger. So for example, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and later to Joseph with the news of Mary’s pregnancy, he came with a message. So also when the angels appeared to the shepherds at the birth of Christ, they came with a message.
Here, the angel has a message as well. Incidentally, Matthew also says the angel had a rather startling appearance – like lightning, clothing as white as snow. When the guards – you know, the ones posted to prevent a deceptive resurrection – when they saw all that happened – the earthquake, the stone rolled away, and the angel, Matthew says they shook for fear and became like dead men – frozen in a catatonic state.
Then come the verses we’re all familiar with – we hear them almost every Easter, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” Jesus had been telling them for months He was going to be handed over to the Jewish leaders, be mistreated and crucified, but, He would rise again on the third day. In fact, in chapter 14, at the Last Supper, He said, “But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”
Now, don’t miss this. When Jesus said that, it was right after He said, strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter, and right before He said, Peter, you will deny three times. What’s my point? Women, go tell the disciples, and Peter, despite your failure, I will meet you in Galilee. Yes, you scattered. Yes, Peter, you denied Me. But I am one who forgives. Meet me in Galilee.
I don’t what you’ve done – how miserably you’ve failed the Lord. Maybe scattered at the first sign of opposition. Hid, denied when opposed or ridiculed for your faith. Maybe questioned or even doubted the reality of His life, death and resurrection. He still wants to meet you, and restore you – just like He did these fear-filled disciples and Peter. He doesn’t kick us to the curb when we fail Him – He graciously calls us back, restores us, because He who began the good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ’s return.
I said this last week, but I’m going to say it again – these women alone were present at the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And as such, they were given the supreme privilege of announcing the resurrection to the eleven. They were the first witnesses to proclaim the gospel.
As I said earlier, many skeptics have tried a number of different ways to dismiss the resurrection. They suggest it was all made up, it didn’t really happen. But let me remind you of something else from last week. Back then, women were near the lowest rung on the ladder. They were not considered credible witnesses – they could not testify in a court of law. Even if they saw a man committing a crime, their testimony alone was not enough to convict him. Knowing that, if you were going to make up a story about the resurrection of Jesus, you would never make this one up. You would have had Peter or James or John – better yet – all three at the tomb first. They would see the empty tomb first – speak to the angel – they would declare the truth as credible witnesses. Who would believe women? But you see, this is the way it happened, as Jesus continued, and continues, to elevate women within His kingdom.
Well, not everyone then, or now, wanted to believe the resurrection. It didn’t take long for the first spurious explanation to arise – it appears in Matthew 28:11-15. I bring it up because it’s the first example of an attempt to dismiss the resurrection. Look at it:
11 Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.
12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,
13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’
14 “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.”
15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to the day.
There you have the stolen body theory. It’s rather ridiculous for at least three reasons:
First, the guard was posted to prevent this very thing – to prevent the deception of a resurrection. Now, when they prevented the deception and the reality happened, they still wanted to deny it – and used the very story they wanted to avoid.
Second, and this is important – we’re supposed to believe the soldiers fell asleep. You need to understand: if they fell asleep, they were in serious trouble. To fall asleep during a night watch could result in the death penalty. That’s why the chief priests had to pay them lots of money, and why they promised to keep the soldiers out of trouble. The point is, the soldiers didn’t fall asleep, the consequences to do so were huge.
Which leads to a third very serious problem. If they fell asleep during the night, and those pesky disciples snuck in and stole the body of Jesus – how did the soldiers know? They were sleeping. The whole story is ludicrous, but it was widely disseminated.
There something else both interesting and sad at the same time. Look at verse 11 again, “Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.” What happened? The earthquake, the angel, the empty tomb. We don’t know if they heard what the angels said to the women. We don’t know if they saw Jesus appear to the women. But they saw the miracles – they saw the same empty tomb. They knew the stolen body theory was a lie. They knew something supernatural had happened. And they didn’t care – they didn’t believe. They propagated a lie for money.
Further, when they went back and told the chief priests, the religious leaders of Israel, what had happened, did they believe? No. But, what had they said at the cross? “Let Him come down from the cross, and we will believe.” Liars. Jesus didn’t come down from the cross – but there was an even greater miracle – God raised Him from the dead. And they still refused to believe. Instead, having heard all about it, the just bribed the guards. These guys had heard about Jesus’ miracles – they had even interrogated some whose lives had been changed by Jesus. They never tried to deny His miracles. Instead, they just attributed His power to Satan. They had heard it all, seen it all. And they still didn’t believe.
What’s my point? Knowing all the right stuff will not make you believe. Knowing will not automatically make someone a follower of Jesus. Does that bother you? I’ve always thought if they just listened, if they just had the right information, if I could just say it right, in the most compelling way possible, then people will believe. Listen, you can get those great books and can get real smart and know all the facts and present them to your family and friends. You can answer every question, every objection. You can give them rock solid proof of the resurrection. And I encourage you to do that – but, that is no guarantee they will believe. We must do more. Telling them the facts alone, in the most convincing, compelling way possible, will not do it. These guys were there, and didn’t believe. They had the evidence, clear information. They had more proof than any of us. And yet they didn’t believe. You see, they had another problem – it was a spiritual problem.
Paul said in I Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” A few verses later, in 2:1-5, he said:
1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,
4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom [knowing every argument, answering every question], but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
Further, in I Corinthians 2:14, he says, “But a natural man [that is, an unsaved person] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” What does all that mean? It means a person cannot be saved by knowing the facts alone. There must be the work of the Spirit of God. Paul said it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians:
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing,
4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Ephesians 4:17-18 says, “the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart;” Not because of a lack of evidence. Not because of a lack of information. We have more information than has ever been available in the history of humanity – TV, radio, podcasts, too many books, great speakers. The problem is not a lack of information, it is a spiritual problem.
If people are going to come to faith in Jesus Christ, then it’s going to take more than the right words. It’s going to take more than a perfect, flawless, logical presentation of the gospel. It is going to take the Spirit of God to remove the blinders from their hearts to see, and believe. It is going to take the supernatural power of God – nothing less than that will work. In Acts 16:14, we read, “A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken.” Do you see? The Lord opened her heart – He did His work so that she could respond to the gospel.
Should we know the facts? You bet. Should we learn the Scripture? You bet. Should we study apologetics so that we can give a good defense of the gospel? You bet. But first and foremost, we should pray that God will do His work, by His Spirit, to redeem people. The work of evangelism, the work of the gospel must begin and end on our knees. We need the power of God in our witness. And the good news is even the most simple among us can be the most effective in the work of the kingdom – we don’t need smarter people, we need people who will pray that God will bring supernatural sight to blind eyes.
Well, very quickly, this leads to our third point and conclusion, The Women’s Response. Look at verse 8 again, “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
This is a bit challenging. The other gospel narratives clearly say the women went back and did tell the disciples. In fact, Jesus appears to them in Matthew after the angel, tells them the same thing, and they complied. So, did they or did they not tell the disciples? The easy answer is, they left the tomb terrified and didn’t tell anyone except the disciples when they got back to the upper room.
But, the question remains, why the silence? In fact, we’re going to find next week this is actually where the gospel of Mark ends – that verses 9-20 don’t belong. So why does Mark end it here, so quickly – without the resurrection appearances that the other Gospels and even Paul talks about? Again, we’ll talk about this next week, but the answer is, he was writing to the church in Rome undergoing persecution. They hadn’t seen the empty tomb, they hadn’t seen the resurrected Jesus. The question is, would they continue, despite opposition, to believe and tell others what they had reliably heard? Will you?