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As explained by Pastor Andy Stanley, there are many religions and belief systems which embrace a book, a prophet or a set of teachings but the Christian faith uniquely hinges on one historical event — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection verified everything Jesus said and everything he claimed to be. [Andy Stanley, One Simple Truth, “The Resurrection: it’s Essential”, aired on GMC on 4/8/12 (www.northpoint.org)] Without question, Jesus’ resurrection lies at the very heart of the gospel message. As forthrightly stated by the apostle Paul, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, the faith of Christians is in vain and Christians are to be pitied because they are fools (1 Cor. 15:13-19) (more>>).

As phenomenal as the claim of Jesus’ resurrection is, it is not something Christians are required to accept by blind faith, i.e., faith without a reasonable basis. Rather, as confidently maintained by Christian apologists, there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and if God exists then it is reasonable to believe God could supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead.  Christian apologists further maintain the historical evidence reasonably demonstrates God did raise Jesus from the dead (more>>). As discussed in this article, one of the lines of evidence Christian apologists rely on to demonstrate a reasonable basis for belief in Jesus’ resurrection, is the historical evidence that Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

Article Index

Historical evidence of Jesus’ tomb being found empty (here>>)

Explanations skeptics offer to explain away the evidence of the empty tomb (here>>)

  • The tomb was empty because Jesus never died aka the swoon theory (skip to >>)
  • The tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole his body (skip to >>)
  • The tomb was empty because someone other than the disciples stole Jesus’ body (skip to >>)
  • The tomb was empty because Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body (skip to >>)
  • The tomb was empty because Roman or Jewish authorities moved Jesus’ body (skip to >>)
  • The tomb was empty because Jesus was never buried in a tomb (skip to >>)
  • The tomb wasn’t empty – the witnesses went to the wrong tomb (skip to >>)
  • The tomb wasn’t empty — nobody ever went to the tomb to look for Jesus’ body (skip to >>)

Conclusion (here)

 

Historical Evidence of Jesus’ Tomb Being Found Empty

The fact that Jesus’ tomb was found empty was attested to by several witnesses (see, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:11-18, Matt. 28:11-15). Additionally, the speeches given by eyewitnesses to the events given about 7 weeks after the crucifixion (see Acts 1 – 12) as well as the creed of the early church (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8) both presuppose that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. [See, J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, pg. 160 (1987); see also, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pgs. 39-40, 51-52 (1998)]  Moreover, there is no hint in the historical record of a dispute over whether Jesus’ tomb was really empty. Indeed, instead of claiming Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, the Jewish leaders tried to explain why the tomb was empty and bribed the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen Jesus’ body in the middle of the night (see, Matt. 28:11-15). As recorded in Acts 2:29, while preaching in Jerusalem (the same city where the tomb was located), the apostle Peter highlighted the fact King David had died, was buried and his body was still in his tomb, whereas Jesus had been raised up. The fact that Peter made this statement in the very city where Jesus had recently been crucified and buried strongly indicates there was no dispute over the tomb being found empty. [See, J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, pgs. 162-163 (1987)]

The following additional historical facts and the inferences reasonably drawn from those facts further support the claim Jesus’ tomb was found empty:

  • If the tomb wasn’t empty, the Jewish leaders, including Paul fna Saul, would have verified this fact by opening the tomb and exposing Jesus’ dead body. Instead of taking such a simple measure to prove beyond doubt the disciples were fraudulently teaching Jesus had risen from the dead, the Jewish leaders spent a great deal of time and money hunting Christians down, imprisoning them, torturing them and killing them to keep them from spreading the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 137 (1958)]
  • The site of Jesus’ tomb was known to both Jews and early Christians. If the tomb wasn’t empty, it would have been impossible for a religious movement foundationally based on the belief Jesus had been resurrected from the dead to have arisen in Jerusalem, the very same city where Jesus had been publicly executed and buried. [See, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pgs. 52-53 (1998)]
  • In Jesus’ day, it was Jewish custom to visit a loved one’s tomb about a year after burial to collect the bones and place the bones in an ossuary. If Jesus’ body was in the tomb, his body would have been discovered during this process and any deception about the tomb being empty would have been exposed as a fraud [See, J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, pg. 166 (1987)] The exposure of such a fraud would have squelched the sudden rise of Christianity which was foundationally based on the belief Jesus had been raised from the dead.
  • In Acts 5:34-42, Gamaliel, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, suggested the Christian movement may have been of God. But, if the tomb wasn’t empty, what would have led Gamaliel to suggest such a possibility right after he voted with the Sanhedrin that Jesus was deserving of death for blasphemy (Mark 14:55-64)? Something significant must have happened for Gamaliel to suggest that instead of being a blasphemer, Jesus had been from God. [See Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 232 (1993)]
  • The Jews’ initial reaction to Jesus’ tomb being found empty was to claim the disciples had stolen the body. “[T]hey started with the assumption that the tomb was vacant! Why? Because they knew it was!” [Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter ,”Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pg. 54 (1998)]  According to historical records reported by Justin Martyr, Jerusalem authorities sent representatives throughout the Mediterranean to explain Jesus’ followers had stolen Jesus’ body. However, if the tomb was not empty, there wouldn’t have been a reason for them to go to such lengths to try to explain why it was empty. Instead, they would have just reported Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 232 (1993)]
  • Historical evidence demonstrates the Gospel of Mark was written before 37 A.D., which would be about four years or less after Jesus’ crucifixion and scholars further note the language, grammar and style used by Mark in his account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (including the empty tomb) indicates Mark received the narrative from an earlier source. As noted by Oxford historian A.N. Sherwin-White, it is unprecedented anywhere in history for a legend to have arisen that fast so as to distort the account in the gospels of the resurrection. [See, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pg. 53 (1998)]

The above facts, individually and collectively, provide substantial evidence that Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty.


Examination of the Alternative Explanations Offered
by Skeptics to Explain the Evidence of the Empty Tomb

In response to the assertion of Christian apologists that Jesus’ resurrection best explains the empty tomb, skeptics offer the following alternative explanations:

  1. The tomb was empty because Jesus never died aka the swoon theory (skip to >>)
  2. The tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole his body (skip to >>)
  3. The tomb was empty because someone other than the disciples stole Jesus’ body (skip to >>)
  4. The tomb was empty because Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body (skip to >>)
  5. The tomb was empty because Roman or Jewish authorities moved Jesus’ body (skip to >>)
  6. The tomb was empty because Jesus was never buried in a tomb (skip to >>)
  7. The tomb wasn’t empty – the witnesses went to the wrong tomb (skip to >>)
  8. The tomb wasn’t empty — nobody ever went to the tomb to look for Jesus’ body (skip to >>)

As summarized in this article and detailed in the linked articles identified below, Christian apologists maintain none of the alternative explanations of the empty tomb adequately explain the totality of the historical record and none of the alternative explanations are rationally compelling. Since there are good reasons to believe God exists (here>>) and, therefore, could have supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, and since Jesus’ resurrection is the one explanation which explains all the historical evidence (more>>), Christian apologists maintain a Christian’s belief that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead is a rational belief.

Alternative Explanation No. 1:  Jesus’ Tomb Was Found Empty Because Jesus Never Died aka the Swoon Theory

According to the swoon theory proposed by some skeptics, the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was because Jesus only appeared to be dead on the cross and after he was put in the tomb, Jesus revived and got out of the tomb alive.  In support of this proposition, skeptics point to the fact Jesus was offered some liquid on the cross (which they contend Jesus took and either accidentally or intentionally acted as an anesthetic making Jesus appear to be dead (see, Matt. 27:33-34, Mark 15:23, John 19:29-30).  Swoon theorists also point out Pilate seemed surprised Jesus had died after only being on the cross six hours (see, Mark 15:42-45).

Christian apologists refute the swoon theory on the following grounds:

  • There is no record of anyone alive during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion who alleged Jesus survived the crucifixion. Such a theory wasn’t advanced until the 19th Century. Full briefing>>
  • No combination of wine, gall and/or myrrh would have made Jesus appear dead to trained Roman executioners. Full briefing>> 
  • The process of crucifixion ensured Jesus’ death and the “blood and water” which flowed out of Jesus’ body when a Roman soldier thrust a spear into his side forensically establishes beyond reasonable doubt Jesus was dead. Full briefing>>  
  • Roman soldiers would have confirmed Jesus was dead.  Full briefing>>
  • Pilate verified Jesus was dead with the centurion soldier. Full briefing>>
  • The Jewish leaders (who were enemies of Jesus) witnessed the crucifixion and believed Jesus was dead. Full briefing>>
  • The disciples were convinced Jesus died on the cross. Full briefing>>
  • Swoon theorists ignore historical facts that weigh against the swoon theory. Full briefing>>
  • The swoon theory doesn’t explain how Jesus got out of the grave clothes in which his body had been encased. Full briefing>>
  • The swoon theory doesn’t explain how Jesus got out of the tomb guarded by soldiers and blocked by a 1 to 2 ton stone.  Full briefing>>  
  • The swoon theory requires the disciples to have incredulously mistaken a badly beaten and nearly dead man as their glorious and risen Lord and Savior.  Full briefing>>
  • The swoon theory requires Jesus to have engaged in a great deception which is irreconcilable with both his teachings and established character traits.  Full briefing>>
  • The swoon theory fails to explain the lack of historical data concerning Jesus’ life after he supposedly got out of the tomb alive.  Full briefing>>
  • No sufficient motive exists for conspiring to fake one’s death by way of crucifixion.  Full briefing>>
  • It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Jesus to fake his death by way of crucifixion.  Full briefing>>

Alternative Explanation No. 2:  The Tomb Was Empty Because Jesus’ Disciples Stole His Body

The proposition that the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was because Jesus’ disciples stole his body was the original explanation offered by the Jewish leaders. Christian apologists raise the following points in rebutting the theory:

  • Because of the inadequacies of the explanation that Jesus’ disciples stole Jesus’ body out of the tomb as set forth below, most skeptics and secular scholars have given up on the theory. (full briefing >>)
  • Even Jesus’ disciples initially doubted the testimony of the women who had gone to the tomb and come back reporting that the tomb was empty and the  disciples had no motive for stealing Jesus’ body.  It wasn’t until after the disciples personally saw Jesus alive that they came to steadfastly believe Jesus had risen from the dead and maintained that belief for the rest of their lives, in spite of great persecution and even martyrdom. (full briefing>>)
  • What is known about the moral character of the disciples doesn’t correspond with them being grave robbers or con artists; but, if the disciples stole Jesus’ body, that is what they were because they would have known the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection was a fraud.  (full briefing>>)
  • The disciples wouldn’t have endured torture, imprisonment and martyrdom for a known lie, yet, if the disciples stole Jesus’ body, they knew Jesus was not who he claimed to be and knew he had not risen from the dead.  Although some people may martyr themselves for something they think is true but is really false, people do not martyr themselves for causes they know are false.  In this case, ten of the eleven remaining disciples died as martyrs for their belief in Jesus and the eleventh disciple (John) lived in exile on the Isle of Patmos. (full briefing>>)
  • The women (who were relatives and close friends of the disciples) went to the tomb fully expecting Jesus’ body to be in the tomb.  (full briefing>>)
  • The guards stationed at the tomb would have prevented the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body.  (full briefing>>)
  • If the disciples stole Jesus’ body, they wouldn’t have left the graveclothes behind or taken the time to fold the burial head napkin. (full briefing>>)
  • If the disciples conspired to steal Jesus’ body, the conspiracy would have eventually been exposed. (full briefing>>)
  • If the disciples stole Jesus’ body, James the Just and Paul fka Saul (who were both skeptics), would have suspected the body had been stolen and would never have believed Jesus rose from the dead, much less have chosen to die as martyrs for that belief. (full briefing>>)
  • The apostle Peter specifically denied he or the other disciples had engaged in cleverly devised tales. (full briefing>>)
  • The initial reactions of the disciples when they found out the tomb was empty were inconsistent with them stealing Jesus’ body. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation the disciples stole Jesus’ body doesn’t explain the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ post crucifixion and burial appearances. (full briefing>>)

Alternative Explanation No. 3:  The Tomb Was Empty Because Someone Other than the Disciples Stole Jesus’ Body

Because of the difficulties associated with alleging Jesus’ disciples stole his body out of the tomb as set forth above (here>>), some skeptics propose someone other than the disciples could have stolen Jesus’ body. 

Christian apologists maintain the theory that someone other than the disciples stole Jesus’ body is inadequate for the following reasons:

  • There is no indication in the historical record that anyone had a motive for stealing Jesus’ body and everyone living in Jerusalem had reason to fear retribution by the Romans and/or Jewish leaders if they attempted to steal the body. Without historical evidence of a particular motive for stealing Jesus’ body, the explanation that someone other than Jesus’ disciples stole his body is pure speculation. (full briefing>>)
  • The guards stationed at the tomb would have prevented anyone from stealing Jesus’ body.  (full briefing >>)
  • No one stealing the body would have had a reason to leave the graveclothes behind or take time to fold the burial head cloth. (full briefing >>)
  • If any evidence existed that anyone had stolen Jesus’ body, James (later known as James the Just) nor Paul fka Saul (who were both skeptics) would have believed that evidence rather than converting to Christianity and believing Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation that someone other than the disciples stole Jesus’ body doesn’t explain the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ post crucifixion and burial appearances. (full briefing >>)

Alternative Explanation No. 4:  The Tomb Was Empty Because Joseph of Arimathea Moved the Body

Some skeptics propose Joseph of Arimathea only temporarily offered the use of his tomb for Jesus’ burial because the Sabbath was quickly approaching and when the Sabbath was over, Joseph had Jesus’ body moved to a permanent resting place.  This view proposes to explain why the tomb was empty as well as the surprise of Jesus’ followers when they found the tomb was empty.  (full briefing>>)

Christians refute the theory Joseph of Arimathea stole Jesus’ body on one or more of the following grounds:

  • Joseph of Arimathea had no motive to move Jesus’ body without someone knowing and he couldn’t have moved the body without Jesus’ followers, the Romans and/or Jewish leadership knowing about it.  (full briefing>>
  • Because of Sabbath laws, Joseph didn’t have a motive or time to move the body before the empty tomb was discovered by the woman early Sunday morning. (full briefing>>)
  • The historical record contains no evidence of any tomb being venerated for Jesus.  However, if Joseph (and the men who would have had to help him move Jesus’ body) knew the location of Jesus’ new burial site, followers of Jesus would have found out where the body had been moved and Jesus’ new burial site would have been venerated.  (full briefing>>)
  • The guards who were placed at the tomb to prevent Jesus’ body from being stolen, would have prevented Joseph from removing Jesus’ body from the tomb.  And, if for some reason the guards allowed Joseph to move the body, they would have reported it to the Roman and Jewish leaders who would have pointed to Jesus’ new burial site to discredit the claims of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. (full briefing>>)
  • If Joseph moved Jesus’ body, he wouldn’t have left Jesus’ graveclothes behind. (full briefing>>)
  • If Joseph moved Jesus’ body, James (later known as James the Just) and Paul fka Saul (who were both skeptics at the time) would have suspected it and would have never converted to Christianity.  Further, if they later suspected Joseph had moved the body they would have fallen away from the faith rather than enduring persecution and dying as martyrs. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation that Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body doesn’t explain the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ post crucifixion and burial appearances. (full briefing>>)

Alternative Explanation No. 5:  The Tomb Was Empty Because Roman or Jewish Authorities Moved the Body

Some skeptics attempt to explain away the empty tomb on the basis that Roman or Jewish authorities moved Jesus’ body.  According to this theory, when the disciples found the tomb empty, they simply presumed Jesus had risen from the dead. 

Christians challenge the theory that Roman or Jewish authorities moved Jesus’ body on one or more of the following grounds:

  • If Roman or Jewish leaders moved the body, they had no reason to accuse Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body, which is the very thing the Jewish leaders were trying to prevent when they requested Pilate place a guard at the tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • If Roman or Jewish leaders moved the body, they knew where the body was and would have publicized the location of the body to refute the claims of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.  Instead, they took on the arduous task of hunting Christians down, arresting them, threatening to imprison or kill them, and eventually martyring them for preaching the gospel, none of which worked to stop the sudden and expansive rise of Christianity.  (full briefing>>)
  • The Jewish leaders asked Pilate to “give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, lest the disciples come and steal him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.'”  Accordingly, rather than having a reason to move Jesus’ body (especially in secret), the Jewish leaders had stated their intention to ensure Jesus’ body was not moved during that three day period. (full briefing>>)
  • Jewish leaders would not have risked incurring the wrath of Rome by removing the Roman Seal placed on the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • Paul fka Saul was a Pharisee and a highly educated man.  If the Jewish leaders had moved the body or there were suspicions that Romans authorities had moved the body, Paul would have known since he was part of the Jewish leadership and he would have never converted to Christianity. (full briefing>>)
  • If the Romans or Jewish leaders moved Jesus’ body, they wouldn’t have left behind the graveclothes Jesus’ body was wrapped in. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation that Roman or Jewish leaders moved Jesus’ body doesn’t explain the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ post crucifixion and burial appearances. (full briefing>>)

Alternative Explanation No. 6:  The Tomb Was Empty Because Jesus’ Body was Never Buried in a Tomb

Some skeptics propose Jesus’ supposed tomb was found empty because Jesus’ body was never placed in the tomb because Jesus’ body was left hanging on the cross or thrown into a common grave where is was devoured by scavengers which is the reason the body could not be produced to discredit the claim of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. 

Christians apologists refute the theory that Jesus’ body was never buried in the tomb as follows:

  • Jewish law required the body of an executed man be buried by sundown the same day he died.  If Jesus’ body was never buried, Jesus’ family, friends, and disciples (who were all Jewish) as well as the Jewish leaders, would have had to violate this law.  This seems extremely unlikely given the fact the Jews at that time, especially the Jewish leaders, demonstrated an ongoing commitment to follow the letter of the law.  With respect to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the historical record states Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in a nearby tomb because it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath.  This demonstrates specific concern Levitical law be followed directly with respect to Jesus’ burial. (full briefing>>)
  • The proposition Jesus’ body was never buried and was devoured by animals is speculative and ignores all of the following historical data: 1) Joseph of Arimathea obtained Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body down from the cross so it could be buried; 2) Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body in burial linens and laid the body in his tomb because the Sabbath was approaching; 3) the gospel writers recorded Jesus’ body was put in the tomb and 4) the gospel accounts record eyewitnesses saw Jesus’ body being buried in the tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • The existence of competing accounts (normally associated with made-up legends) do not exist in the historical record with respect to Jesus being buried in a tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • The Jewish leaders and/or Roman authorities would have known if Jesus’ body had never been buried and would have either produced the remains of the dead body or produced eyewitnesses to attest to what had happened to the body to discredit the claims of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. (full briefing>>)
  • Jewish leaders believed Jesus had been buried in a tomb which is why they asked Pilate to have the tomb guarded. (full briefing>>)
  • Pilate believed Jesus had been buried in a tomb and ordered the tomb be guarded. (full briefing>>)
  • If Jesus wasn’t buried in a tomb, Jewish leaders wouldn’t have accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body out of the tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • The theory Jesus wasn’t buried in a tomb fails to explain why Jesus’ graveclothes were found in the empty tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • If there was any credible evidence the tomb was empty was because Jesus’ body was never buried in the tomb but was devoured by scavengers, James the Just and Paul fka Saul, as well as the other Jews who converted to Christianity, would have believed that evidence instead of believing Jesus rose from the dead.  However, not only did James and Paul express belief in the resurrection (which they never recanted), they both died as martyrs for that belief.  (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation Jesus’ body was never buried in a tomb doesn’t explain Jesus’ post-crucifixion and burial appearances. (full briefing>>)

Alternative Explanation No. 7:  The Tomb Wasn’t Empty – The Witnesses Went to the Wrong Tomb

Instead of attempting to explain why Jesus’ tomb was found empty, some skeptics propose Jesus’ tomb never was empty; rather, they propose witnesses only thought the tomb was empty because they went to the wrong tomb. When the gardener said, “He is not here, see the place that they laid him” (Matt. 28:6; Mark16:6) the gardener wasn’t showing them the inside of the empty tomb, he was pointing them to the correct  tomb. Unfortunately, the women mistook the gardener as saying Jesus wasn’t in the tomb. If the witnesses had gone to correct tomb, they would have found Jesus’ dead body. (more>>)

Christians dispute the theory the witnesses went to the wrong tomb as follows:

  • The fact Jesus’ grave clothes were found in the empty tomb verifies the witnesses went to the correct tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • If the reason the witnesses thought the tomb was empty and Jesus had been raised from the dead was because they went to the wrong tomb, the Jews and/or Romans could have very easily pointed out the right tomb to discredit that claim and squelch the threatening rise of Christianity which was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection.  (full briefing>>)
  • If the witnesses went to the wrong tomb, the gardener could have been produced as a witness to explain the women showed up at the wrong tomb and to identify the correct tomb where Jesus remained buried.  (full briefing>>)
  • If the reason the women supposedly went to the wrong tomb was because it was too dark, then why would the gardener have been there in the first place?  Also, why would Mary Magdalene automatically assume the gardener was working in the garden while it was so dark she couldn’t even see the tomb?  On the other hand, if it was light enough for the gardener to have already begun to work, why couldn’t the women see well enough to find their way to the correct tomb? (full briefing>>)
  • Even if it is assumed the women mistakenly went to the wrong tomb because it was too dark for them to see, that doesn’t explain why Peter and John supposedly went to the wrong tomb later that day.  (full briefing>>)
  • Just finding Jesus’ tomb empty wouldn’t have led the women to immediately assume Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.  This is why many proponents of the theory the women went to the wrong tomb assert the women didn’t believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead until after they learned others claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. But, there is no evidence in the historical record to substantiate the claim the women delayed reporting Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. (full briefing>>)
  • Peter and John went to the tomb and verified Jesus’ tomb was empty. (full briefing>>)
  • The women saw where Jesus had been buried so there was no reason they couldn’t find the correct tomb. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation the witnesses went to the wrong tomb doesn’t explain Jesus’ post-crucifixion and burial appearances. (full briefing>>)

Alternative Explanation No. 8:  The Tomb Wasn’t Empty – Nobody Went to the Tomb to Look for Jesus’ Body

Some skeptics propose the tomb was never found empty — the witnesses never went to the tomb to look for Jesus’ body but just assumed Jesus had risen from the dead.  According to this proposition, Jesus appeared to some of the disciples in a spiritual form but they mistakenly believed Jesus had been physically raised from the dead and never bothered to look in the tomb to see if Jesus’ physical body was still in the tomb.  Some question the account of the women going to the tomb because they maintain there was no reason for the women to go to the tomb with burial spices since the tomb had been sealed. 

Christians refute the theory the tomb wasn’t empty and that the witnesses never went to the tomb to look for Jesus’ body as follows:

  • The theory nobody checked the tomb for Jesus’ body ignores the historically documented accounts that Jesus’ tomb was found empty by Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Peter aka Cephas, John and the guards posted at the tomb . (full briefing>>)
  • Those who theorize the witnesses saw Jesus as a spirit and assumed the tomb was empty fail to recognize the Bible’s description of a spiritual body is not devoid of all physical matter, even though spiritual bodies are immortal.  (full briefing>>)
  • Spirits can’t be touched and don’t eat, yet, Jesus was touched and did eat. (full briefing>>)
  • Those who propose Jesus only appeared in a spiritual form tend to do so because they reject the supernatural nature of the resurrection.  However, the proposition Jesus appeared in a spiritual form would have also required the involvement of supernatural phenomena. (full briefing>>)
  • Conjuring  up spirits was strictly forbidden by Jewish holy Scripture and isn’t something Jesus’ Jewish followers would have engaged in. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation Jesus appeared in a spiritual form presupposes all the people who saw Jesus, including his disciples, could not distinguish between the manifestation of a spirit and a physically resurrected body that could be touched and could eat. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation Jesus appeared as a spirit makes Jesus a deceiver because Jesus specifically referred to his physical body in reference to his resurrection. (full briefing>>)
  • The Greek word (“harao“) used to describe Jesus’ appearances refers to the appearance of a physical bod. (full briefing>>)
  • If Jesus’ physical body never left the tomb, the body could have been produced by Roman and/or Jewish leaders to discredit the claim of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and, thereby, squelch the threatening rise of Christianity which was foundationally based on Jesus’ resurrection. (full briefing>>)
  • The explanation the tomb was empty was because nobody ever looked to see if Jesus’ body was in the tomb doesn’t explain why so many people reported seeing Jesus alive after his crucifixion and burial. Even James (later known as James the Just) and Paul fka Saul, who were skeptics, claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. (full briefing>>)

It should further be noted the fact the tomb was sealed doesn’t discredit the account of the women going to the tomb. Although the women knew the stone had been placed in front of the tomb opening, there is no evidence they knew a Roman seal had been placed over the stone.  Additionally, it may not have been unusual for Jews to return to a grave to put spices on a body that was buried so close to the beginning of Passover (sundown) that there wasn’t enough time to complete the burial process. (full briefing>>)

Conclusion

In support of the proposition that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is a rational belief, one of the lines of evidence Christian apologists point to is the historical evidence that Jesus’ tomb was found empty within days after his crucifixion and burial.  In response, skeptics offer various alternative explanations to account for the historical evidence of the empty tomb.  As set forth above, Christian apologists steadfastly maintain none of the proposed alternative explanations adequately explain the totality of the historical evidence and none of the theories are rationally compelling.

Since there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and God could have supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, and since none of the proffered alternative explanations sufficiently explain the historical evidence of the empty tomb, Christian apologists maintain it is reasonable to rely on the historical record of the empty tomb as evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

The principle of Occam’s razor, which states simple explanations are always preferable to more complex explanations, only states one should not multiply causes beyond necessity. Occam’s razor can only be reasonably relied on to exclude the need for a supernatural explanation if a sufficient natural explanation can be offered (more>>).

In this case, the evidence weighs against any of the alternative explanations offered to explain Jesus’ empty tomb. Consequently, Christian apologists maintain it is at least reasonable to look beyond such explanations for an explanation that adequately explains all of the historical evidence, including the explanation God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead.

In sum, Christian apologists candidly concede that if God does not exist, then Jesus was not resurrected from the dead. Nevertheless, Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and the following seven independent lines of evidence reasonably establish God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead:

  1. The resurrection best explains the historical evidence of Jesus being seen alive in a resurrected body on at least twelve (12) separate occasions by more than 500 witnesses, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul) (here>>)
  2. The resurrection best explains why the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty within days of his crucifixion and burial (here>>)
  3. The resurrection best explains why Jesus’ disciples were transformed from fearful fleers to faithful followers who endured great persecution and became martyrs for their faith (here>>)
  4. The resurrection best explains why even Jewish leaders and skeptics converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified, even though Christianity was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection
  5. The resurrection best explains why there is no evidence any site was ever venerated as Jesus’ burial site even though it was common practice to venerate the burial sites of religious and political leaders
  6. The resurrection best explains why the early Church centered its teachings and practices around a supernatural event like Jesus’ resurrection instead of something less controversial like Jesus’ moral teachings
  7. The resurrection best explains the sudden rise and expansion of Christianity so soon after Jesus death even though he had been crucified by the Romans as a political traitor and declared a religious heretic by the Jewish religious leaders

Following a two day debate over the evidence of the resurrection between Dr. Gary Habermas and well-known skeptic, Dr. Anthony Flew, a panel of five philosophers from American universities (including University of Virginia, James Madison University and the University of Pittsburgh) voted 4 in favor of the case for the resurrection, with one judge voting the debate was a draw. After listening to both sides of the debate, one of the judges stated the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was “strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead.” A philosopher attending the debate commented:

Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Dr. Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.

Because there are good reasons to believe God exists and he supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists insist it is not only unfair for skeptics to claim Christians are intellectual simpletons but it is intellectually dishonest to write off the resurrection as mere foolishness.

For information on how to know God personally, go here.

© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson

Published: May 25, 2012 / Last Updated:  Feb. 22, 2013

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QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

John F. Ankerberg and John Weldon, Ready With an Answer (Harvest House Publishers, 1997)

Douglas K. Blount, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “The Trinity: Is it Possible That God Be Both One and Three?” pg. 1459 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists: Discover Why Believing In God Makes so Much Sense (River Oak Publishing, 2002)

Chuck Colson, Loving God (Zondervan, 1997)

William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers (Crossway, 2003)

William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook; New Edition, 2010)

William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection: Our Response to the Empty Tomb (Servant, 1988)

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Crossway; 3rd Edition, 2008)

William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Crossway Books, 2001)

Norman L. Geisler, BAKER ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS (Baker Books, 1999)

Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection: Updated Edition (Wipf & Stock Publishers; Updated Edition, 2004)

Gary R. Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?” pgs. 1621-1622 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker Academic, 1987)

Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Zondervan,1958)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (Zondervan, 2004)

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Slideshow Photo: Artist unknown.

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