Top 10 theories for the empty tomb


Research has shown that most scholars today believe that a man named Jesus walked this earth, was crucified and died, and then his tomb was empty. Yet the most important question is: How did the tomb of Jesus become empty? 

Many different theories have been put forward to try to explain away the empty tomb of Jesus. What follows are the Top 10 theories for the empty tomb of Jesus.

 Stolen body theory

This is the earliest theory put forth by the Jewish religious leaders with the soldiers who were guarding the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66). They claimed the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb sometime in the night and afterwards began to spread the lie that Jesus had risen from the dead.

This theory admits the empty tomb. However, this theory was never accepted by the Jews and is easy to dismantle because of what we know about the disciples. First, are we supposed to believe that the disciples, mostly fishermen, were able to overpower battle-hardened Roman soldiers? Second, they were cowards because they fled for their lives when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50-52). Third, they were hiding in fear for their lives (John 20:19). Fourth, why would the disciples willingly die (which they did) for a lie that Jesus had risen from the dead?

Swoon theory

This theory gained traction with “The Passover Plot” book in 1965 and film in 1976. The concept is that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather swooned or fainted. The unconscious body of Jesus was removed from the cross and placed into the tomb.  Later, He woke up and got out of the tomb. When the disciples saw Him, they mistakenly thought he had risen from the dead.

This theory admits the empty tomb. However, consider that before crucifixion, Jesus was whipped 39 times with a cat-o-nine tails which tore open his back. Jesus was then nailed to the cross with large stakes. After death, he was placed in a tomb with no medical attention for 36 hours. If he did revive, how could he have gotten out of the tomb which was sealed by a huge rock? How could he get past the Roman soldiers? And how could he convince his friends that he had conquered death?

Hallucination theory

This theory says that the disciples were so overwhelmed with their grief at the death of Jesus, that they imagined seeing and hearing him after his death.

The scientific literature on hallucinations shows that mass hallucinations do not or cannot exist. Also, if the disciples were hallucinating and seeing a risen Christ, that would mean that the body of Jesus was still in the grave. All the Jewish religious leaders had to do to shut up the disciples would have been to put the dead, decaying body of Jesus on a cart and parade it through the streets of Jerusalem.

Mistaken identity theory

This theory says that someone else was crucified in the place of Jesus, either intentionally or unintentionally. Then everyone mistakenly thought this was Jesus on the cross.

How could Mary not recognize her son? Or how could John be confused by whom he saw on the cross?  Can we believe that the Jewish religious leaders would not have made sure that it was truly Jesus on the cross? They had dialogued and debated with Jesus face to face many times, so they knew him well.

Copy of a pagan myth theory

I have heard this theory many times from college students. This theory says the New Testament writers just copied supposed resurrection stories of mythical characters like Marduk, Adonis, and Osiris.

This theory does not explain away the empty tomb of Jesus. No Greek or Roman myth spoke of the literal incarnation of a monotheistic God into human form by way of a virgin birth, followed by His death and resurrection.

The parallel of a dying and rising god (such as Adonis in AD 150 and Attis in AD 200) does not appear until A.D. 150, more than 100 years after the origin of Christianity! So, who copied from whom?

Wrong tomb theory

This theory says that in their confusion and grief, the women on Easter morning went to the wrong tomb. Upon seeing it empty, they assumed that this means that Jesus had risen from the dead.

If there was a wrong tomb, then there had to be a right tomb. Who knew where the right tomb with the dead body of Jesus was?  To begin with, Joseph of Arimathea, the Pharisees, the Roman soldiers.

Twin theory

This theory says that Jesus had an identical twin who took Jesus’ place on the cross.

How could the one twin convince the other twin to go through with the crucifixion? When the Bible describes the family of Jesus, it never mentions a twin brother (Mt. 12:47-48; 13:55-56; Mark 3:31-34). Finally, this theory does not explain the empty tomb.

Alien theory

This theory says that Jesus was an alien who had advanced abilities and technology that he used to amaze and convince the crowds he was God. After he was placed in the tomb, he beamed himself out and appeared to the disciples afterwards.

This theory admits the empty tomb.  It is outlandish for many reasons:  the first century knew nothing about the theory of aliens. Next, the Bible teaches that Jesus was 100 percent man and 100 percent God, not an alien.

Contradictions theory

This theory says that the disciples made mistakes when describing how many angels were at the empty tomb (Matthew says there was one angel while John says there were two). Thus, we cannot trust anything else they had to say about the resurrection.

In Matthew 28:5, Matthew does not say there was only one angel; he is focusing on the angel who was speaking.  In John 20:11-12, as John stood at the rear, he observed that there were two angels.

Resurrection theory

This theory says that Jesus did what he predicted and what the Bible proclaims: He rose again from the dead!

This is called a “theory” because a theory is a statement of facts to explain a phenomenon, such as the resurrection.  The only explanation that makes sense of the empty tomb is that Jesus truly arose from the dead in full bodily form.

As we approach our celebration of Easter, we can walk in greater faith knowing that the tomb was indeed empty.  An effective tool for discussion would be to ask someone, “How do you explain the empty tomb of Jesus?”  If they share one of the above theories, you will be ready to share your response (1 Peter 3:15).


Randy Douglass is an associate professor of Christian studies at Shorter University in Rome, Ga.

Easter, Jesus, resurrection