‘Pilate between a rock, a hard place’

‘Pilate between a rock, a hard place’

James Cameron thinks he has found Jesus’ tomb. He presented his evidence in his documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which aired on the Discovery Channel on March 4. The truth is he really has no clue where Jesus was buried. Cameron is a product of the Enlightenment, which has no place for miracles in its world view. He is naturally skeptical of Gospel accounts that say Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, he is drawn to a tomb, whose inhabitants coincidentally share a few names with Jesus’ family and friends. His leap to the conclusion that he has found Jesus’ body is nonsense, made only slightly less unlikely if one rejects the possibility that dead men can live again. James Cameron does not know where Jesus was buried. However, Pontius Pilate certainly did know, and the empty tomb put him between a rock and a hard place.

The rock on one side of Pilate was Rome, a ruthless empire that ruled subject peoples with an iron fist. Instability in Roman provinces was unacceptable. Bloody crackdowns were commonplace. Administrators who ruled provinces had to keep control to keep their jobs, and possibly their lives. The Jews who wanted Jesus dead knew this and used it against Pilate (John 19:12).

The hard place on the other side of Pilate was the Jewish people who longed for independence from Rome and despised every aspect of Roman presence in their land. Judea was classified as an imperial province, which meant Rome considered the Jewish lands unstable and prone to revolt. To keep control, the emperor ruled the Jews directly through a procurator and a standing army, and for good reason. Attempts at revolt occurred even recently, which Gamaliel spoke of to the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:36-37). Pilate would have had to put down any unrest swiftly, with force if necessary. The Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices may have referred to one such crackdown (Luke 13:1).

Pilate was in a no win situation, stuck between the demands of Rome and the unrest of the Jews, with Jesus in the middle. Multitudes of Jews had gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, the annual celebration of deliverance from Egypt. No doubt Messianic passions ran high during the feast. To make matters worse, this year many Jews were claiming Jesus was their King. Pilate’s questioning of Jesus focused on whether He was a king. If Jesus posed a real threat, Pilate would deal with it. However, after interrogating Jesus, he could find nothing to charge him with. Pilate may have considered Jesus a lunatic but not a threat. So, he tried to release him, but the Sanhedrin would not hear of it. They had plotted Jesus’ death for some time and were determined to get rid of Him. They stirred up the crowds against Jesus. The more Pilate tried to release Him the more loudly they demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Even Pilate’s wife pleaded with him not to have any more to do with Jesus. When Pilate finally gave in to their demands, he washed his hands of the matter. Politics can be brutal.

After the tomb was sealed, Pilate probably breathed a sigh of relief. “Phew! We got through Passover again.” This year he had to kill a man he thought was innocent, but at least things had settled down. Imagine his alarm when rumors reached him that Jesus was alive. All that effort to calm the water, and the whole thing was about to blow up in his face. If people believed Jesus was alive, the Messianic movement would begin all over again.

I believe Pilate had only one choice, a choice he was forced to make under the circumstances. He had to produce the body of Jesus in order to stop the rumors. One of the great deafening silences of history is that Pilate did not do this. Belief in Christ’s resurrection turned Jerusalem and eventually the world upside down, but Pilate could have stopped the whole thing dead in its tracks. Yet, he did not. Why not? What happened to the body of Jesus? Where was it?

Scholars today may debate the actual location of Jesus’ tomb, but Jesus’ death was too public, too important for eyewitnesses not to know where He was buried. So, why did authorities not exhume the body and end false rumors that Jesus was alive?

The Jewish leaders anticipated the possibility that the disciples would try and steal Jesus’ body and claim that He rose from the dead. They told Pilate their concern, and He placed a Roman seal on the stone and posted a guard in front of the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66). If the Jews were concerned about a false rumor, then producing a corpse would have ended speculation. All Pilate had to do was roll away the stone, drag out the body, prove that Jesus was really dead, and send everyone home.

I think Pilate was compelled to do this, if there was a body to be found. Jesus caused him no end of problems. The Jews were looking for the Messiah to lead them in a revolt against Roman occupation, and many had hoped that Jesus was the one (Luke 24:21). I can’t prove to you that Jesus rose, but I can tell you what would have made more sense if He did not rise. It would have made far more sense for Jewish and Roman authorities to exhume the body and stop the rumors. If Jesus did not rise, it is unfathomable to me that Pilate and the Jews did not prove it by producing a body, but they did not. Why not? They could not, for there was no body to be found.

Could the body have been stolen? It makes no sense to think Jesus’ corpse was stolen. Who could have done it? The disciples could not have overpowered Pilate’s soldiers. They were too devastated by the death of their Master. Grieving women might be allowed inside the tomb to finish preparation of Christ’s body for burial. However, they would not, under the circumstances, have been allowed to take the body. The guards had their orders to guard the tomb, which included keeping track of the body. Grave robbers could not have overpowered the soldiers, and why would they try? Why pick the tomb of a condemned man, who would not have anything worth stealing on his person? Why risk dying by the blade of a Roman sword? None of these ideas makes any sense.

Yet, the body was gone! The Jews admitted this much. They had to bribe the soldiers who were present and failed to protect the tomb of Jesus. They also had to dissuade Pilate from punishing them for letting it happen (Matt. 28:11-15). It is simply implausible to think that someone got away with stealing Christ’s body, and even less likely that Pilate would have allowed it.

The inability of Pilate and the Jews to produce Christ’s body is one of the toughest questions skeptics must answer. Pilate’s failure here is startling. History echoes with the silence of what a Roman governor was forced of political necessity to attempt, but he was unable to do. What makes more sense is to believe Jesus walked out of the grave alive. The resurrection declared Him with power to be the Son of God and Lord (Romans 1:4; Philippians 2:9-11).

Here is what I believe about the empty tomb. I believe Jesus is alive! I believe the stone was rolled away, and Jesus walked out victorious. He ministered forty more days and went back to heaven, where He sits at the Father’s right hand. I believe He is coming again to judge the living and the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Gospel. Do not cling to questionable theories that let you avoid answering to God. Instead see your need for a Savior. Recognize that Jesus died for sin, He was buried, and He was raised on the third day, all according to Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Turn from sin and trust Christ for forgiveness. Confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead. Call upon the name of the Lord today, and you will be saved (Romans 10:9, 13). (Andy Chambers is vice-president for student development and associate professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis.)