Cross Examined: The Empty Tomb

Everyday this week I will be writing a blog post that gives a reason for why we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.  I hope this will encourage you in your faith and will give you confidence to share Jesus with those around you.  Feel free to share these posts with your friends.

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When I was younger my sister and myself liked to play together–one of the things that we did was run around our house chasing each other in the fashion of the old cowboys and Indians.  For some reason the designated Indian most of the time and it had to be some other reason then that I was four years younger and had less negotiating power.  At any rate, one day after a hard day of school, we were running around our dinning room table and I clipped my foot on a metal cabinet that stood to the right of the table.  One of it’s doors had been left open a little too wide. I was bleeding profusely, the wound was massive, and I began to cry.  To this day I still have a scar on my foot that reminds me what happened fifteen years ago on a foggy November day.

When I wear flip flops, as I do very often, people may ask me how I received the scar.  I have to give them some kind of answer.  The same is true in history–especially when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus.  There are events, motivations and ideas that any theory must explain.about what happened 2000 plus years ago.

One such event is the empty tomb.  Now if you’ll remember the stories in the gospels relate the events that occurred around what we call the “passion week” and one of those events that is related is the burial of Jesus in a tomb.

Now after Jesus had died on the cross his body was taken down by Joseph of Arimithea  for burial (John mentions that Nicodemus also helped) in Joseph’s tomb.  Mathew 27:57-61:

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.  Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

Why should we believe this?  Some skeptics suggest that Jesus’ body was not placed in any tomb, let alone Joseph of Arimithea’s tomb.  There are a number of good reasons to believe that this did happen.  I’ll list two:

1) Joseph of Arimithea was a part of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which made it improbable that the disciples would have “legendized” him into the role of burying Jesus.  It would have been anathema to say that a Jewish leader, a part of the group that condemned Christ earlier, had given up his tomb for him if it didn’t literally happen.

2) We have no good alternative account of where Jesus was buried.  While some skeptics would suggest that Jesus was not buried in Joseph’s tomb, or any tomb, there is no historical sources that suggest that.  One would have to make up their own story and juxtapose it against the one presented in tradition.  And since even a number of hyper-skeptics agree that Jesus was buried, there literally must be good evidence that he was buried.1 If one of these guys confirms it, it’s more rational to believe it then not.

So Jesus body was likely placed in Joseph of Arimithea’s tomb on either Thursday or Friday.  Here are three reasons to believe that it was empty.

1) Christianity wouldn’t have survived as it did without an empty tomb

What if I go around saying that my arm was cut off?  People will expect to see that I only have one arm.  The early Christians preached that the grave was empty.  (I’ll address the idea that Jesus was raised merely spiritually in a later post.)  Anyone who wanted to disprove Christianity could have gone and checked on the tomb.  If Jesus body were not raised then they could easily disprove Christianity.

Some skeptics would like to suggest that the Jews just didn’t have the time or desire to checkout the tomb.  This is unlikely considering that they went far enough to crucify Jesus and people were converting left and right.

A second objection is that no one would have been able to recognize Jesus body, it would have been decayed beyond recognition.   But this is also problematic, since it’s likely that he still would have shown signs of being crucified.  Archaeologists were able to confirm the gospels stories about crucifixion by uncovering a crucified corpse just a couple of years ago.  That’s literally thousands of years old, but they could still tell that he was crucified!

Finally, some skeptics say that the Jews could never have found his body, but since it’s likely that Joseph of Arimithea’s tomb was Jesus burial place, they probably could have found it.

2) The Jews also confirmed the empty tomb

The Jews also likely believed that the tomb was empty.  Mathew 28 tells us that there were guards at the tomb.   Skeptics argue that there were not any guards at the tomb, since it’s only referenced once in Mathew (it’s actually referenced in the gnostic Gospel of Peter, which is likely a second source that isn’t based on Mathew) and since it was likely created as an apologetic against the idea that Jesus body was stolen by his disciples.

But notice what this admits.  The Jews are admitting that the tomb was empty (we know this based both on Mathew and on later Christian sources which refute the Jewish apologists who say the same).  They wouldn’t have charged that the disciples stole the body if they had the body.  It would be like a murder case where the prosecution found the body of the deceased, but the prosecution refused to use the body as evidence of the murder!

3) Scholarly opinion

Contrary to the skepticism formed by our post-modern world, the evidence for the empty tomb is pretty dang good.  Dang good enough to convince a number of leading skeptics, and former Christians, that the tomb was as empty as some of the alternatives to an empty tomb.  I’m not appealing to authority, I’m merely suggesting that if a good number of scholars who know the subject area far better then myself believe something, that is evidence for the truth of something unless there is a strong reason to doubt them.

One of the interesting facts about the empty tomb and modern scholarship is that around 75% of scholars in the subject believe that the tomb was empty.  Resurrection scholar Gary Habermas, as well as some others, have read a great deal of the scholarly work on the subject (over 2,200 articles), and found that 75% of them accept at least one of the arguments put forward for an empty tomb.2  Another expert Jacob Kremer states, “By far most exegete statements about the empty tomb.s hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical.”3

As scholar D. H. Van Daalen says, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”4

Conclusion:   What does this prove?  It proves that the tomb was empty.  Nothing more nothing less.  Some skeptics suggest that, just an empty tomb, is meaningless since it could be empty for any number of reasons.  Tomorrow I will discuss different conclusions that can be drawn on the basis of the empty tomb.  Did the disciples steal the body?  Did Jesus himself get out of the tomb?  Or was he raised from the dead?

Tune back in tomorrow folks…

  1. Jeff Lowder writes, “I tentatively agree with Craig that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb–in which Jesus was presumably interred–was empty” (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html#3)
  2. http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/J_Study_Historical_Jesus_3-2_2005/J_Study_Historical_Jesus_3-2_2005.htm
  3. Jakob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien–Geschichten um Geschichte Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977, pp. 49-50.
  4. D. H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection (London: Collins, 1972), p. 41.