Photograph of Vultures and Hyenas (by Joachim Huber / CC-BY-SA-2.0 more)

Christian apologists confidently maintain that because there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>), it is rational to believe God could have supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead (more>>).

In support of the proposition God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists point to the historically documented evidence that within days of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty.

Some skeptics attempt to explain away the evidence of the empty tomb by proposing Jesus’ body was never buried in a tomb but, instead, was devoured by scavengers. As set forth in this article, Christian apologists maintain the theory that Jesus’ body was never buried is an inadequate explanation for the empty tomb.

Summary of the Historical Evidence of Jesus’ Grave Being Found Empty

The historical record establishes Jesus’ tomb was found empty just days after his crucifixion and burial. The empty tomb was attested to by several witnesses, was publicly addressed in speeches given in Jerusalem where the events took place, was inferentially admitted by both Roman and Jewish leaders and was believed by at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul).

For a complete discussion of the historical evidence that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, go here.

Was Jesus’ Tomb Found Empty Because Jesus’ Body was Never Buried?

Some skeptics propose the tomb Jesus was supposedly buried in was found empty because Jesus’ body was never placed in the tomb. Skeptics relying on this theory to explain the empty tomb maintain it was not unusual for crucified bodies to be left on crosses to be devoured by vultures and birds or for the bodies to be thrown into common graves where the bodies could have been dug up and eaten by dogs.  This theory attempts to explain why Jesus’ tomb was found empty and why Jesus’ body could not be produced to discredit the claim of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Reasons Christian Apologists Maintain the Theory Jesus’ Supposed Tomb was Found Empty Because His Body was Never Buried in the Tomb is Inadequate

Christian apologists raise the following points in rebuttal to the claim that Jesus’ body wasn’t found in the tomb because his body was never placed in the tomb:

Rebuttal Point No. 1: The Explanation Jesus was Never Buried Disregards Jewish Law

Jesus was a Jew and his friends, family and disciples were Jews.  Even those who opposed him (the chief priests and Pharisees) were Jews. According to Jewish law, executed men were to be buried by sundown the same day they died (Deut. 21:22-23). If Jesus’ body was never buried, all of Jesus’ Jewish friends and family as well as all the Jewish leaders, would have had to violate well-established Jewish law. This seems extremely unlikely given the fact that Jews in Jesus’ day, especially the Jewish leaders, went to such great lengths to make sure they didn’t even come close to violating the law. For example, as referenced by Jesus in Matthew 23:24, the Pharisees went to the extreme of straining their drinks to make sure they didn’t inadvertently swallow anything Levitically unclean, even something as small as a gnat. [See, Wycliffe Bible Commentary] There is simply no evidence the Jews in attendance at Jesus’ crucifixion (family, friend or foe), would have blatantly disregarded Levitical law by not ensuring Jesus’ body was properly buried before sundown. Indeed, John 19:31 reports the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to break the legs of the men being crucified that day because the Sabbath was approaching. John 19:41-42 reports Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus in a nearby tomb because it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath. These verses clearly demonstrate concern that Levitical law be followed with respect to Jesus and the two men who were crucified with him that day.

Rebuttal Point No. 2: The Explanation Jesus was Never Buried Ignores Data in the Historical Record

The explanation that the reason the tomb Jesus was supposedly buried in was found empty was because Jesus was never buried ignores important details recorded in the historical record including the following:

  1. Instead of Jesus’ body being left on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea obtained Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body down from the cross (see Matt. 27:58, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:52);
  2. Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body in burial linens and laid the body in his tomb because his tomb was close by and sundown was approaching (Matt. 27:59; John 19:41-42);
  3. All four gospel writers record Jesus’ body was put in the tomb (Matt.27:57-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:40-42);
  4. All four gospels writers report Jesus’ burial was witnessed by some of his followers (Matt. 27:55-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 24:50-56; John 38:42).

The historical details provided by the gospel writers lend strong support for the belief Jesus’ body was removed from the cross and placed in the tomb. [See, Boa & Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, pgs. 233-234 (2002)] Conversely, there is no historical evidence that Jesus’ body was left hanging on the cross or was thrown into a common grave.

Rebuttal Point No. 3: No Competing Accounts Exist in the Historical Record with Respect to Jesus Being Buried

If Joseph’s burial of Jesus was part of a later developed legend, one would expect to find competing burial accounts about Jesus’ burial but none exist in the historical record.  [See, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pgs. 38-39 (1998); see also, J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, pg. 165 (1987)].  Rather, all four gospel writers record Jesus’ body was buried in the tomb (Matt.27:57-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:40-42);

Rebuttal Point No. 4: If Jesus Wasn’t Buried in the Tomb, Witnesses Would Have Been Produced to Explain What Happened to the Body

Within seven weeks of the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem (the very city where Jesus was crucified and buried) boldly proclaiming Jesus had risen from the dead (see Acts 2). If Jesus’ body was never buried but was left to be devoured by scavengers, their claims would never have been believed. Jewish and/or Roman authorities would have certainly produced whatever was left of Jesus’ dead body or produced eyewitnesses to what happened to Jesus’ body to discredit the claims of the disciples and squelch the rise of Christianity, which was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs. 112-113 (1958)] The reaction of Jewish leaders to conspire with the Roman soldiers to say the tomb was empty because disciples stole Jesus’ body indicates they thought the body had been buried in the tomb. The Jewish leaders expected the body to be in the guarded tomb and felt compelled to come up with an explanation as to why the tomb was now empty.

Rebuttal Point No. 5:  Jewish Leaders Believed Jesus’ Body Had Been Buried in the Tomb

As stated in Matthew 27:59-66, after Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate and reminded him Jesus (who they referred to as the “deceiver” or “imposter”) had said, “After three days I am to rise again.” The Jewish leaders then 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.’”

As documented in the above passage, the Jewish leaders who were in attendance at Jesus’ crucifixion (see, Matt. 27:39-42; Mark 15:27-31John 19:17-31) certainly believed Jesus’ body had been buried in the tomb or they wouldn’t have requested Pilate to have the tomb guarded.  Moreover, because the Jewish leaders had a stated motive to ensure Jesus’ body was secured so Jesus’ disciples could not claim Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, they had a motive not to leave Jesus’ body left hanging on the cross or thrown in a common grave where the disciples would have easy access to the body.

Rebuttal Point No. 6:  Pilate Believed Jesus’ Body Had Been Buried in the Tomb

As stated in Matthew 27:59-66, after Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate and reminded him that Jesus (who they referred to as the “deceiver” or “imposter”) had said, “After three days I am to rise again.” (See, Matt 12:39-49; John 2:19). The Jewish leaders then 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.’” Pilate responded, “You have a guard, make it as secure as you know how.”

Although scholars disagree as to whether Pilate’s statement, “You have a guard” was an order dispatching a Roman guard to secure the tomb or Pilate was telling the Jewish leaders to use their own guard (the temple guard) to secure the tomb, it is clear Pilate believed Jesus’ body had been or was going to be buried in a tomb.

Rebuttal Point No. 7: If Jesus Wasn’t Buried in the Tomb, Jewish Leaders Wouldn’t Have Accused Jesus’ Disciples of Stealing the Body Out of the Tomb

Matthew 28:11-15 states after Jesus rose from the dead, “some of the guards came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and counseled together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’….[A]nd this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.” If

If Jesus’ body was not going to be buried in a tomb but left to be devoured by scavengers, the Jewish leaders would have spread that news instead of spreading the made-up story that Jesus’ disciples had stolen Jesus’ body out of the tomb.  [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 644 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 8: The Theory Jesus Wasn’t Buried in the Tomb Fails to Explain Why Jesus’ Grave Clothes Were Found in the Empty Tomb

In John 20:3-7, John reports when he got to the tomb, he looked in the tomb and “saw the linen wrappings lying there.” Shortly thereafter, Peter aka Cephas arrived, went inside the tomb and saw “the linen wrappings lying there and the face-cloth, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.”   Those who propose Jesus’ body was never buried in the tomb must provide a reasonable explanation for Jesus’ burial clothes being found in the tomb.  [Note:  Jesus’ burial clothes would have been easily identified as his because they would have been saturated with blood and would have been covered with the burial spices applied by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (see, John 19:39)].

Rebuttal Point No. 9: If There was Evidence that Jesus’ Body was Never Buried, James and Paul Would Have Never Converted to Christianity

James (later known as James the Just) was Jesus’ half-brother and a skeptic during the time of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:21:31-35; John 7:1-10). Paul fka Saul was a Pharisee who hunted down Christians to persecute and kill them. Both of these skeptics certainly heard the news spread around by the disciples that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty and he had risen from the dead. If there were good reasons to believe Jesus’ body had never been buried in the tomb and had been eaten by scavengers, James and Paul would have believed that explanation instead of believing Jesus had been raised from the dead.  However, not only did James and Paul come to believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, they never recanted that believe and died as martyrs for that belief. [See, Gary Habermas, The ApologeticsStudy Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pgs. 1621-1622 (2007); Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 10: The Explanation that Jesus’ Body was Never Buried in the Tomb Doesn’t Explain Jesus’ Post-Crucifixion Appearances

As set forth in the article entitled “The Resurrection Best Explains Jesus’ After-Death Appearances to Multiple Eye Witnesses – Introductory Summary (here), Jesus appeared to over 500 people, on twelve separate occasions, over a forty day period (except for his appearance to Paul) and to at least two skeptics, James the Justand Paul fka Saul. [For a complete index of the witnesses with referenced notations of when each witness saw Jesus and what they observed, go here.]

The explanation that the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was because his body was never buried in the tomb and had been devoured by scavengers doesn’t explain why so many people saw Jesus alive after his execution.  Even James the Just and Paul fka Saul (both of whom were skeptics at the time) claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. [See, Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pgs. 1621-1622 (2007)] Accordingly, those who attempt to explain away the empty tomb by proposing Jesus’ body was never buried must also explain the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]. Although skeptics have attempted to provide a reasonable alternative explanation for the eyewitness accounts of Jesus being seen alive, Christian apologists steadfastly maintain none of the alternative explanations are adequate much less rationally compelling (more>>).

Conclusion

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

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the rebuttal points set forth above weigh against the explanation that Jesus’ tomb was found empty because his body was never buried in the tomb and was devoured by scavengers. The other alternative explanations skeptics have offered to explain away Jesus’ empty tomb are similarly inadequate (more>>). Consequently, Christian apologists maintain it is reasonable to look beyond the alternative explanations offered by skeptics for an explanation that adequately explains all of the historical evidence, including the explanation that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead.

In sum, Christian apologists candidly concede if God does not exist, 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 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 the University of Virginia, James Madison University and the University of Pittsburgh) voted 4 to 1 in favor of the case for the resurrection, with 1 judge voting the debate was a draw. After listening to both sides of the debate, one of the judges concluded the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was “strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead.” [Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)]. Another of the judges stated:

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.

[Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)] Because there are good reasons to believe God exists and that he supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists insist it is not only unfair for skeptics to claim Christians are intellectual simpletons for believing in Jesus’ resurrection 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:  Nov. 11, 2012 /  Last Updated:  March 1, 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)

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

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 Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe“Tan Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?” pg. 1621 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics(IVP Academic; 1St Edition, 1994)

Josh McDowell (compiled by Bill Wilson), A Ready Defense The Best Of Josh Mcdowell(Thomas Nelson, 1992)

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

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

IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING

Slideshow Photo: Photograph of scavengers on the Chobe Riverfront in Botswana by Joachim Huber.  Downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is license under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (CC-BY-SA-2.0).

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