Everything we believe hinges on whether Jesus raised from the dead. But that requires an empty tomb that first Easter morning. Though you wouldn’t know it from the TV news shows and magazine cover stories about Jesus that “resurrect” each year about this time, the good news is that there is more evidence for the resurrection as a historical event than most all other events of ancient history, and many events of modern history as well! This week I discuss the first objection and five responses . . .
Having responses to these objections is good news for us when we have those moments of doubt, providing solid evidence to ground our faith. It is also good news for the true seeker who is wondering if Jesus was really who he claimed to be. And it is good news for us when the seeker asks us why we believe, so we can “… give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (I Peter 3:15)
As the Gospel is preached throughout Acts the empty tomb is cited as the central piece of evidence: Acts 2:22-36, Acts 3:12-26, Acts 4:2, Acts 4:10, Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39-40, Acts 13:29-41, Acts 17:3, 30-31, Acts 23:6, Acts 24:21, Acts 25:19 and Acts 26:8, 23.
But how do we know this is true? Many argue this is not a fact of history, but a legend made up by the early believers. It is argued the early believers kept adding more and more myths about the Jesus they knew, until finally they turned him into a god who left behind an empty tomb that first Easter morning. In response to this objection there are five reasons to believe the tomb of Jesus really was empty, not just a “fact” made up by his followers.
1. Historical Documents Cite an Empty Tomb
The four gospel accounts bear the marks of historically accurate documents. For instance, they record Jesus being buried in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a very prominent citizen of Jerusalem. Therefore what was said about him, including that Jesus was buried in the tomb he owned, would be easily verified or falsified. This is a sign of a historically accurate document—citing specific people, places and times. Fabricated stories are vague and the people and places unverifiable.
Secondly, women are recorded as the first to discover the tomb empty. Unfortunately, women did not have much credibility in that society (and even less so Mary Magdalene, who had been demon-possessed). Women were discounted as habitual liars. So if the account of the empty tomb was being fabricated there is no reason to select women to be the first witnesses to the central event of the story. Doing so would immediately cause the first readers to doubt the tomb was empty.
It would have been much better to say one of the disciples discovered the empty tomb. It would have made the story more credible to the first hearers. It would also increase the stature of the disciple(s) who first found the tomb empty. Yet this is not what they record. The only explanation for the Gospel accounts citing women as the first eyewitnesses is simply they are accurate historical documents “telling it like it is.”
2. The Empty Tomb Cited Immediately and Nearby
There are a number of references to the empty tomb that are recorded very close to the time and place of the event in question. This is important because there would be people around who could verify or falsify the claim. If someone wanted to make up a “fact” of an empty tomb as evidence of Jesus’ deity, he should wait until eyewitnesses were all dead, and/or tell others this “fact” in a land far, far away.
Telling the story much later and/or far away would make it much harder to verify or falsify the claim. However, the empty tomb is being cited as a fact in Jerusalem, the very city the tomb is in (Acts 2-5). It is also being claimed within six weeks of the crucifixion. Anyone motivated to stop this preaching could easily have taken a short walk to prove the tomb was not empty. Both the Roman and Jewish leadership would have been very motivated to do so and produce Jesus' body. But no one did. The best explanation of this is the tomb was in fact empty.
There are additional accounts of the empty tomb within at least 10 years of the event (still within the lifetime of those who could disprove the story if it were not true). For instance, I Corinthians 15:3-5 is a pre-existing document Paul incorporates into his letter. It uses words, phraseology, and names not used after the early 40s A.D. So this written account of the empty tomb was circulating very shorty after the fact.
Mark 15:42-16:8 is another very early account of the empty tomb that Mark includes in his account. There are numerous indications that it was written in the mid 30s, within a few years of the event. The language it is written in (Aramaic, not Greek), the writing style, and citations all help pinpoint its date of writing. This is then another written account circulating very shortly after the fact. The best explanation for these early accounts being circulated and not rebutted is that the tomb was in fact empty, as they reported.
3. Multiple, Independent References Increase Probability
We should not view the references to the empty tomb contained in the books of the New Testament as one source. The New Testament is a compilation of many individual books. Therefore these are multiple, independent references to the empty tomb. Each by itself is solid historical evidence. Yet each additional independent source increases the probability of the empty tomb being a fact.
4. Tomb Not a “Destination” Indicates It Was Empty
Jesus’ tomb was not a site of veneration and worship for the early believers, which is best explained by it being empty. At that time there were at least fifty well-known tombs containing the remains of prophets or other holy persons. A very common practice was to go to these tombs to venerate the holy man and worship God there. This is still practiced in Middle-Eastern culture. For instance, many travel to Mohammed’s tomb in Medina to this day.
So we should expect the same at the tomb of Jesus. Yet there is no evidence this occurred at his tomb. The best explanation for the early believers not returning to the tomb is that, unlike the tombs of other holy men, Jesus’ tomb was empty, and thus there was no reason to return to it in order to venerate Jesus and worship God.
5. No Contrary Historical Accounts
Lastly, in no ancient source do we find the empty tomb denied. Yet Christianity blossomed immediately after the crucifixion, beginning in Jerusalem. If the tomb had not been empty it is reasonable that at least one person antagonistic to this new message would have “set the record straight.” Such silence, even from those hostile to the Christian faith, further confirms the factuality of the empty tomb.
Conclusion: The Tomb Was Empty
There is much evidence in favor of the empty tomb, and none against it. In fact, there are few if any other events in ancient history with so much support. To argue there is not enough evidence to prove the tomb was empty is to imply there is not enough evidence to prove the vast majority of ancient history. It is to say we can’t know anything about ancient Rome, Roman culture, Roman citizens such as Julius Caesar, Greece, Grecian culture, Grecian citizens such as Aristotle, and so on. Few are willing to deny so much. Therefore the fact of the empty tomb must not be denied either.
The tomb being empty, the second question must now be answered: What is the best explanation of this fact? I’ll begin that discussion next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Chapter 8 of Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig.