This post originally appeared on Viewpoint on Easter 2005:
Jon Meacham of Newsweek, perhaps chastened by the criticism he received following his foray into Christian theology over Christmas, pens a much less offensive column about the Resurrection of Jesus in the current issue. He notes that the tomb of Christ was almost certainly empty that first Easter morning. If it were not, he observes, the opponents of Christ had only to produce the body to abort the religious turmoil that the sect of Christians was beginning to arouse. This they did not do, a startling historical fact, really, which leads us to the obvious conclusion that they couldn't do it. This leads us in turn to ask why not.
No naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb makes sense. The most common of these is that the disciples stole the corpse, but this hypothesis is plausible only if one assumes a priori that non-natural explanations are impossible. To believe that the disciples stole the body one must believe that a band of terrified fishermen overpowered an armed military guard, a crime for which they were never arrested or charged, stole the cadaver, and eventually underwent torture and martyrdom for preaching around the world what they knew to be a lie. People will die for a lie they believe to be true, but only men suffering from some form of dementia would die for a lie they knew to be a lie, and there's no reason to think these men were demented.
Surely, if the authorities believed the disciples had stolen the body they would have brought irresistibly persuasive techniques to bear to coerce them into divulging its whereabouts. Yet there's no indication whatsoever in the historical record that this was even attempted.
The skeptic says, as was noted above, that no matter how implausible a given naturalistic explanation may be it's still more believable than the claim that a man rose from the dead. This objection, however, rests on the assumption that there is no God, an assumption that is much easier to make than to defend. If, contrary to the skeptical view, it's possible that God exists then it's also possible that miracles occur, and if they are possible, we have to examine the evidence for an alleged instance of one, especially one as significant as the resurrection of Jesus, to determine whether it is, in fact, credible. The evidence for the historical, physical revivification of Christ, many scholars have concluded, is at least as powerful as that for any other event in antiquity.
Other attempts to avoid the conclusion that a miracle actually occurred are equally unimpressive. Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code adopts a version of the swoon theory, that after some thirty six hours without medical care, Jesus somehow recovered from his wounds - including the spear thrust - with sufficient vigor to roll away the heavy stone blocking the tomb. He accomplished this astonishing feat without being detected by the Roman guard, and subsequently appeared to the disciples and dozens, even hundreds, of others, looking so hale and hearty that they believed that he had conquered death and was the very Son of God.
Even if something so improbable could have happened, the disciples would have known that Jesus had not "risen from the dead" in any theologically significant sense. He would have eventually died (or, as Brown has it, absconded to France with his beloved Mary Magdalene), and his dead body would be proof that he was not the Messiah. This, then, brings us back to the question above: Why would people have been willing to be tortured and martyred for a man they would have known to have been a false messiah?
Skeptics scoff at miracles, but the most important miracle in the history of Christendom is one which defies any attempt to explain away. The most plausible explanation for the empty tomb, unless one holds an a priori commitment to naturalism, is that God actually did raise Jesus from the dead just as we are promised that we will be. Because death did not result in the annihilation of His being we can have the hope that neither will it result in ours.