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Why the Resurrection Was Not a Conspiracy

When confronted with the early Christians’ testimony about the Resurrection of Jesus, it is natural to question whether it’s credible. A healthy skepticism demands we test the claims of such an event.

One way to do so is by offering alternative explanations, and one such explanation is the conspiracy theory. This theory purports to explain Christ’s empty tomb and postmortem appearances by claiming the early Christians stole the body and made up the Resurrection story.

I don’t fault anyone for raising the question, because it’s natural to ask, “Did the early Christians make this stuff up?"

I contend they did not, and there are two good reasons to think so.

The apostolic dilemma

First, the early Christians had nothing to gain and everything to lose in lying about Jesus’ Resurrection. As I learned from my mentor and friend Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, this kind of jeopardy makes for the most credible witness, and St. Paul understood this. Paul uses this fact to argue for the credibility of the early Christian testimony and presents his argument in the form of a two-horned dilemma in 1 Corinthians 15:

[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised (1 Cor. 15:14-15).

St. Paul presents the second horn in verse 19 and then expounds on it in verses 30-32:

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied . . . Why am I in peril every hour? I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

Notice in the first horn St. Paul argues that if he and the witnesses believed in God, then they would be bearing false witness in their proclamation of Jesus’ Resurrection—“we are even found to be misrepresenting God." What would the early Christians have to gain from a lie while still believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Damnation! Is it reasonable to think the early Christians believed their eternal salvation was worth risking for such a lie?

In the second horn St. Paul seems to consider what they might gain from the lie if they were unbelievers and didn’t believe in God or the Resurrection. Notice in verse 19 he writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ" and then in verse 32 “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus." Paul’s argument is thatnothing except persecution and death is to be gained from such a lie. For Paul, if this is the reward, then we might as well “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

There may be alternative explanations for the falsity of the Resurrection testimonies that are worthy of consideration, but for St. Paul the conspiracy theory is not one of them.

The testimony of women

The second reason to think the early Christians were not making up the Resurrection story: they included women as the first witnesses.

One of the many criteria historians use to test historicity is the criterion of embarrassment. This refers to any action or saying the early Christians would have found embarrassing and apologetically unappealing. No Gospel writer would want to include such information, because it would undermine the Gospel’s purpose. Having women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection fits the bill for such a criterion.

In first-century Judaism, the testimony of women was inadmissible in a court of law: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15).

If a woman’s testimony was not considered credible in a court of law, it would seem that the apostles would not use the testimony of women to convince their hearers about the truth of the empty tomb and the appearances of the resurrected Christ. It is more reasonable to conclude, if the Gospel writers were fabricating this story, that they would have chosen men to be the first witnesses—perhaps Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

The atheist activist and historian Richard Carrier, in chapter 11 of his book Not the Impossible Faith, objects to this appeal to women. He argues that because the Gospels are history and not court documents, it is improper for the Christian apologist to go from “courtroom decorum to everyday credibility."

Furthermore, he contends, while the testimony of women was not accepted in a court of law, it was admissible as a source for historical claims. Carrier appeals to Josephus’s account of the massacres at Gamala and Masada, both of which have two women as their sources.

In response to Carrier’s first objection, I think it is legitimate for the Christian apologist to use the inadmissibility of women’s testimony in the court of law, because the Gospel writers were making an apologetic case to convince their hearers of the truth of the Resurrection. They were not merely recounting a historical event but presenting a convergence of evidence for the truth of Jesus’ rising—empty tomb, multiple post-mortem appearances, conversions, etc.

Moreover, notice the reason Josephus gives for not admitting the testimony of women: “on account of the levity and boldness of their sex." The word levity means to treat a serious matter with humor or in a manner lacking due respect. While this view of women might not lead to an utter dismissal of a woman’s testimony, it would surely make such a testimony less desirable if one is fabricating a story, especially when it is just as easy to use men as the first witnesses.

Neither does Carrier’s appeal to Josephus using women as sources for his account of the massacres at Masada and Gamala undermine the Christian apologist’s argument.

In reference to the slaughter at Gamala, Josephus states that the two women who served as his sources were the only ones who escaped (The Wars of the Jews, 4.82). While not explicit when recounting the massacre at Masada, Josephus seems to imply the two women who were his sources for that event were sole survivors as well (The Wars of the Jews 7.399).

So it’s obvious Josephus is going to use the testimony of women for these events, since no one else survived.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Carrier’s appeal to Josephus’s reliance on these women does not undermine the Christian argument. The Gospel writers had options when deciding whom to place as witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection, but Josephus did not have options when considering on whose testimony to base his account of the massacres.

The unreliability of the testimony of women in first-century Judaism still stands as a legitimate case of the criterion of embarrassment and thus can be used by Christian apologists when making the case for the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection.

There are many more reasons one can give to show the conspiracy theory is unreasonable. But I think the two presented above are sufficient—namely, people don’t die for what they know to be a lie; and liars don’t use unreliable testimonies to convince audiences of their fabricated stories.

In this Easter season, the Christian can rest assured that faith in the resurrected Jesus is at least not based on a lie.

By Karlo Broussard



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    The most likely scenario is one that plays out frequently in real life. Many people who recently lost loved ones, report visions of the recently departed. The brain, under emotional duress, provides illusions of the deceased that can seem very real to those who experience them. The most likely scenario is that someone close to Jesus had a vision of him after he was crucified (and probably thrown into Gehenna, the Jerusalem town dump after his body was ravaged by rodents and birds of prey, as was the practice at that time), and this person reported his or her vision to a family member or friend, who repeated it to the neighbor, who told the butcher, who told his cousin, who told the sailmaker, who told…. and 20 years later we get Paul writing, not about physical appearances, but visions. Paul never really mentions a physically resurrected Jesus. By the time the first gospels were being written decades later, the visions had turned into physical appearances.
    Something similar happened in a similar period of time back in 1947. A farmer found the remnants of a weather balloon and within 30 years it had become a crashed UFO with aliens being held in a secret government facility. There are no first-hand accounts of anything in the bible, and no originals of the texts. We don’t know what happened because there is no evidence and no first hand accounts.

  2. Alan Cadman Reply

    Then how would you explain the many INTERACTIONS, not merely sightings, people had with the resurrected jesus at least one of whom was actively working against his teachings. Claiming mass hallucinations is one thing, but having a credible instance where every single person was hallucinating the EXACT SAME THING is impossible.

    Anecdotally, if a room of 20 people consumed an equal amount of LSD each you would have 20 people hallucinating different things. That’s because no two people’s brains, including identical twins, processes information the same way.

    I hope this helped.
    God bless.

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      What objective, empirical evidence do you have that Jesus came back to life and interacted with people? None of those people he supposedly interacted with – the 500 for example, wrote a word about it – or at least none that survived. We don’t have a single original piece of the bible. There’s no chain of evidence even for hearsay testimony. What in the bible are you talking about when you say “every single person was hallucinating the EXACT SAME THING.” What people? What event did a bunch of people share in common, and what did they write about it?
      Here’s what I think happened: Jesus was the product of a failed prophecy in Jeremiah that Daniel tried to correct by attempting to interpret ‘years’ from Jeremiah, but that prophecy also failed. The next way to interpret the set of numbers – converting weeks into years, if I recall correctly, resulted in producing a Messiah around 30CE. This is why there were so many self-proclaimed Messiah’s at the time, (Jesus was not the only one) and so much apocalyptic energy and excitement in the air. Many people thought the end was near, and some of these people were nuts enough to think that their deaths would bring it on, and the Romans were happy to oblige. Jesus may have been one of them, or he may have been a conglomeration of more than one such individuals who thought their death would bring on the Messiah to usher in the end of the world, (which included destruction of all their enemies) and finally, bliss. Both Paul and Jesus expected that the end was imminent, and here we are 2000 years later, still waiting..
      You can show a YouTube video of images that look like ghosts and thousands or tens of thousands of supposedly rational people will swear that they see a ghost where none exists. Of course you can have more than 20 people hallucinating the same thing. Our brains are similar insofar as they try to ‘fill in the blanks’ for us, often resulting in incorrect observations, and as can be seen from the YouTube videos, given our shared experiences, many of our brains will “fill in” the unknown in very much the same way. There’s a show called “Brain Games” that discusses how the brain works and it’s rather fascinating to learn that our brains are not very trustworthy! In this Jesus story, we’re talking about uneducated, Aramaic speaking Jews passing along stories of visions one or more people may or may not have experienced, and based on their conviction that the time for the Messiah was nigh. Those stories, aside from Paul’s brief mention in the 50’s aren’t written about (in Greek – a completely different language), until 3 or 4 decades after Jesus died. There isn’t a shred of objective evidence to support the story. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. You can pretend to know what happened – they call that faith; but it’s just pretending.

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