This possibility has been raised by critics ever since Jesus rose from the dead. But it has never taken root except in some Jewish circles because the New Testament account does not support a faked resurrection theory. Nevertheless, in order for the disciples to have faked the resurrection of Jesus, several conditions must have been met. Let's take a look at them and analyze them.
- The disciples would need to concoct an elaborate plan.
- You can't just walk to a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers and ask for Jesus' body. So, in order to fake Jesus' resurrection, the disciples would have to obtain and dispose of the body of Jesus without any hostile witnesses seeing them do this. This would mean that the guards in front of Jesus' tomb would need to be bribed (discussed later). It would further mean that several people would have to be involved in carrying the body of Jesus to an area where it could receive proper disposal. A single person would not be able to carry another human body a long distance. Therefore, these several people would have to agree to steal the body of Jesus and risk arrest by the guards and the Jewish leaders.
- Furthermore, this plan would also have to include other people outside the circle of the disciples since such an "impossible" occurrence as a resurrection would be more convincing if others who were not biased followers of Jesus said that they saw Jesus after the crucifixion. This means that the disciples would have to convince a lot of people to go against the Jewish religious leaders, thereby risking their own economic and social security as well as risk bringing conflict into the region since the Jews who sent Jesus to the cross could easily persecute these new apparent converts. Additionally, this would bring further attention of the Romans to the issue, thereby escalating tension which was not something the Jewish people wanted.
- One more thing, it would be very obvious to the disciples that to continue claiming Jesus rose from the dead would bring the harsh attention of the religious leaders upon them. Remember, the Jewish leaders knew who Jesus' disciples were. Therefore, attention could be focused on them in the form of persecution. Unlike others, the disciples would be easy targets. Since the Jewish leaders had just sentenced Jesus to die a horrible death on the cross, what would stop them from continuing with the disciples who would then start proclaiming Jesus had risen from the dead? The disciples had to know what they were getting into. They were risking their families and their own lives.
- In all, concocting an elaborate plan to deceive many people has too many difficult variables in it to overcome. It would simply make more sense to assert that the reason the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus is that they actually saw the resurrected Jesus.
- A sufficient motive would have to be offered to account for the disciples' intended deception. Remember, we have many people in the Bible who said that Jesus rose from the dead. Did these people all agree to lie? If so, why would they do that? What would motivate various people, who have differences of opinions, differences in needs and desires, to agree together to testify to something false? Could it be that they were dissatisfied with the Roman Empire ruling over the Jewish nation? But what would they accomplish by proclaiming Jesus' resurrection? Did they think that the Roman Empire would suddenly leave Israel because of that? Not a chance.
- Or perhaps the people were tired of the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders, and it motivated them to claim Jesus rose from the dead in order to undermine their authority. But if this is the case, then we have an inconsistency between motive and behavior because people who would be upset with someone else's hypocrisy are not likely to proclaim such an incredible lie as a resurrection, thereby being even bigger hypocrites than the leaders. Does this make sense? Also, since Jesus taught love, truth, and self-sacrifice, such deceptive actions would be in direct contradiction with the teachings of the One they were following.
- At best all anyone can do is guess about what the disciples may have been thinking or what might have motivated them to devise an elaborate deception. Guessing is all that can be done. But we would need to ask if any proposed motives of the disciples could be harmonized with the facts of their preaching and teaching about truth, long-suffering, patience, kindness, and love. No one can read their hearts or their minds and insert into a scenario 2,000-years old the motivations of people long gone. It is simply best to let the facts speak for themselves. They lived, suffered, proclaimed, and died for the truth of the resurrection.
- The guards at the tomb would need to be bribed.
- The problem of bribing works both ways. The disciples could have bribed the guards not to say anything about them taking the body of Jesus. But, the Jews could also have bribed the guards into saying that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. In fact, the only bribing we see in the Gospel accounts of the guards is done by the Jewish leaders. Matt. 28:11-15 says, "Now while they were on their way, behold, 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 counseled 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 this day."
- The bribe would be very necessary since the guards were at risk of their lives if they had failed at their duty. It was the custom of the Roman military that if a prisoner escaped, then the guard(s) in charge of guarding the prisoner would take the prisoner's place. This is a very strong motivation to make sure that they carried out their duty--bribe or not. In Acts 16:25-30, when Paul was in prison, there was an earthquake that opened the cell doors, which would have allowed the prisoners to escape. When the jailor saw this, he intended to kill himself. Undoubtedly, this is because he knew he would have to take their place should they escape. But Paul called out and said in verse 28,"Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!" This shows that the guard did not want to take the place of the prisoners. In fact, in Acts 12:18-19, we read of how Herod ordered guards to be executed who had allowed Peter to escape.
- Therefore, for the guards to risk their lives, a large bribe would be necessary. Who was more likely to have enough money to bribe the guards: the religious leaders or the disciples? Also, who had a greater motive: the disciples who wanted to have Jesus rise from the dead (risking further persecution) or the Jews who wanted to complete their attempt to be rid of Jesus?
- The body of Christ would need to be disposed of to prevent disproof of His resurrection.
- If the scenario of an elaborate plan with bribed guards and collusion on the part of many non-followers of Jesus were to be effective, the body of Jesus would need proper disposal. If the disciples could get a hold of His body and get away from the population, it would not be difficult at all to bury it someplace. It would then be necessary that the disciples promise that they would never disclose the location. This is a possibility, but it would mean that the disciples were liars and thieves. Is this basis for their faith consistent with their writings about truth, honesty, etc., combined with their dedication to their assertion of Jesus' resurrection that cost them their lives?
- Various witnesses would need to be arranged.
- As I have already stated above, many people would need to be coached into lying about seeing the risen Lord. Is this probable for so many Jews who grew up under the idea that lying was a sin? Perhaps. But, is it easy to convince people to lie about an event that they know would bring them economic, familial, social, and religious difficulties? The answer, of course, is no it is not. The Jewish people were living under Roman rule. The Romans served both as oppressors and protectors. They were oppressors, and they forced many of their own rules upon the Jewish people. On the other hand, they protected the land of Israel from hostile nations surrounding them. Friction in the region is not something people would want to have, especially if they have families with children and parents to take care of and to love. Does it really make sense that so many people would agree to such a great lie for such a great consequence?
The Apostle Paul
But what about Paul the Apostle? Did the disciples plan on converting one of their greatest enemies into a Christian? How did they get Paul to agree to the conversion and in so doing convince Paul to give up everything he had stood for and worked for his entire life in order to be ostracized, condemned, persecuted, shipwrecked, beaten, and finally martyred by both the Romans and the Jewish leadership? Does a faked resurrection account for such a bold and profound conversion of someone who had been seeking to destroy the very Christians that he later proclaimed? Remember, Paul claimed to have seen the Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9, 1 Cor. 9:1)? What would motivate him to give up everything and to proclaim Christ's resurrection? What would he have to gain? Power? Money? Fame?
If Paul wanted power, then perhaps it could be said that he achieved it since he wrote much of the New Testament and had great influence in the Christian Church. But, power is not what he demonstrated over anyone. The New Testament does not demonstrate any wielding of power. Some of Paul's writings are the greatest testimonies to truth, love, and wisdom that have ever been written. Are the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 13, Col. 3, and the entire Book of Romans, the words of one man who knew that everything he was writing and teaching was based on a lie just so he could get power? It just doesn't make sense to say so.
If it was money Paul was after, then why did he preach without charge (2 Cor. 11:7)? Why did he often go without food (2 Cor. 11:27)? Why did he have odd jobs in order to make a living (Acts 18:3)? It does not make sense to say that he was in it for the money.
If it was fame that he was after, then he certainly attained it. Paul the apostle is still a famous person throughout all of Western civilization. But we cannot know if this was a motive or not since we cannot ask him. What we can do is read what he wrote and do our best to discern his motives there. It would be up to the reader to read his epistles and see if the quest for fame is woven into his words. Personally, I see no such thing when I read his works. I see a man who preached Jesus and Him crucified and risen from the dead.
It is very unlikely that the disciples faked the resurrection of Christ. In summation, this is why:
- They would need an elaborate plan involving many unpredictable elements: guards, other witnesses, etc.
- There is a large problem in developing a motive to deceive that would be greater than the consequences of that deception. Remember, the disciples would be risking their security, safety, families, and their lives for their beliefs.
- The guards at the tomb would have to be bribed, but the only bribing we see is from the Jewish leaders (Matt. 28:11-15), who had a very strong motivation to finish what they had started with Jesus.
- Various witnesses not involved with the disciples would have to be obtained in order to validate the story. But this means that a strong incentive would have to be offered to the additional witnesses since their story would likely get them in deep trouble with the Jewish leadership.
- The apostle Paul. He is a wild card. What illegitimate thing would motivate him to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus when it didn't happen? Remember, he was a heavy persecutor of the church. Something happened to change him. According to him, it was the appearance of the risen Lord Jesus.