Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and, further, if God exists then 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’ tomb never was empty — the woman who found the “empty tomb” simply went to the wrong tomb. As set forth in this article, Christian apologists maintain the theory the women went to the wrong tomb is inadequate.
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.
Instead of attempting to explain why Jesus’ tomb was found empty, some skeptics propose Jesus’ tomb never was empty; rather, the women who went to Jesus’ tomb only thought the tomb was empty because they went to the wrong tomb. If the witnesses had gone to correct tomb, they would have found Jesus’ dead body.
Based on historical data found in the gospels, skeptics have proposed some very detailed scenarios to make the case the witnesses went to the wrong tomb. One such scenario proposes the following:
|The woman went to the tomb very early Sunday morning before it was light. Because it was still quite dark, the women mistakenly 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 directing them inside the tomb where Jesus’ body had been but was pointing them to a different tomb — the correct tomb. Unfortunately, the women mistook the gardener as saying Jesus wasn’t in the tomb. Because the women were fearful the gardener had discovered their plan to care for Jesus’ body, they ran off before the gardener could direct them to the tomb where Jesus’ body remained buried. Later, some of the disciples who had fled Jerusalem thought they saw a resurrected Jesus and when the women heard that story, they looked back on their experience with the gardener and, in retrospect, concluded the gardener had announced Jesus had risen from the dead.
Such proposed scenarios attempt to account for both the empty tomb and the reason the women thought Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Reasons Christian Apologists Maintain the Theory the Witnesses Went to the Wrong Tomb is Inadequate
The historical accounts of the women seeing where Jesus had been buried and returning to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath are found in Matthew 27:59-61, 28:1-8; Mark 15:46-47, 16:1-8, Luke 23:55-56, 24:1-10, John 20:1-18.
Christian apologists raise the following points in rebuttal to the proposition the women went to the wrong tomb:
As reported in John 20:1-9, after the woman returned from the tomb and reported Jesus’ tomb was empty, Peter aka Cephas and the disciple John ran to the tomb. John got to the tomb first and when he stooped to look into the tomb, “he saw the linen cloths lying there but he did not go in.” When Peter got to the tomb, he “went into the tomb” and “saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” (See also, Luke 24:12).
The fact that Peter and John found Jesus’ burial clothes (which would have had blood and burial spices on them) in the tomb verifies the witnesses went to the correct tomb.
If the reason the disciples thought the tomb was empty and Jesus had been raised from the dead was because they went to the wrong tomb, the Jewish and/or Roman leaders could have simply pointed out the right tomb. Instead, the Jewish leaders claimed Jesus’ disciples had come during the night and stolen they body (Matt. 28:12-15) which at least implies they agreed the tomb Jesus had been buried in was empty. [See, William Lane Craig, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” pg. 1728 (2007); Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999); Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pg. 55 (1998)] And, it doesn’t appear the authorities in Jerusalem ever thought differently since Justin Martyr later reported Jerusalem authorities had dispatched representatives throughout the Mediterranean to explain that Jesus’ followers had stolen Jesus’ body. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 232 (1993)] If authorities had ever identified a tomb where Jesus’ body remained buried, that tomb would have certainly been venerated by Jesus’ followers; but, there is no evidence anywhere in the historical record of any tomb or grave site being venerated for Jesus.
If the witnesses went to the wrong tomb, Roman and/or Jewish leaders could have produced the gardener as a witness to explain the women had shown up Sunday morning at the wrong tomb. However, there is no record of any such witness being produced for one or both of the following reasons: 1) There was no gardener because the “gardener” was Jesus as stated in John 20:15 and/or 2) nobody disputed Jesus’ tomb was really empty. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 102 (1958); see also, William Lane Craig, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” pg. 1728 (2007), Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999), Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pg. 55 (1998) and Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 232 (1993)]]
Those who propose the women went to the wrong tomb must answer the following three questions:
- If it was too dark for the women to see their way to the correct tomb, why was the gardener who worked in the garden already at work?
- Why would Mary Magdalene automatically assume she was even talking to the gardener (see, John 20:15) if it was too dark to see and too dark for him to already be at work?
- On the other hand, if it was light enough for the gardener to have already arrived at work, why couldn’t the women see well enough to find their way to the correct tomb?
Even assuming the women mistakenly went to the wrong tomb because it was too dark for them to see, that theory doesn’t explain why Peter aka Cephas and the disciple John would have gone to the wrong tomb later the same day (John 20:3-7). Although the historical record doesn’t exactly say when Peter and John arrived at the tomb, John does say they went to the tomb after Mary Magdalene had been to the tomb and had run back to tell the disciples the tomb was empty (John 20:1-2). At any rate, by the time Peter and John arrived at the tomb, it was light enough for them to see the grave clothes lying inside the tomb (John 20:7). [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]
Even assuming the women went to the wrong tomb, it seems absurd to allege the first thing they concluded when they found the empty tomb was that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This is the reason some skeptics suggest the women didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion Jesus had been raised from the dead but only came to that conclusion after others reported seeing Jesus in a resurrected body. It was only after the women learned others claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus that the women looked back at their experience in the garden and, in retrospect, believed the gardener was telling them Jesus had risen from the dead.
For this theory to be plausible, the women must not only have found the tomb empty but they had to have delayed reporting this fact to Jesus’ disciples until after they heard others saying Jesus had been resurrected. However, there is no evidence of a delay in the historical record. Proponents of the theory usually attempt to attribute a delay to the disciples having left Jerusalem because they were afraid of being arrested. However, there is no historical evidence the disciples fled the city. Even though the gospels say the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested, the gospels also state Peter aka Cephas followed Jesus at a distance and even went into the courtyard of the High Priest while Jesus was being interrogated (Matt. 26:58; Luke 22:55; John 18:15-16). John (referred to as the disciple whom Jesus loved) was present at both the council hearing (John 18:15-16) and at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:25-26).
If Peter and John were still in town when Jesus was convicted and crucified, there isn’t any reason why most, if not all, of the other disciples wouldn’t have stayed in the city, at least until Passover was over. Clearly, some of Jesus’ female disciples remained in the city because they went to the tomb early Sunday morning (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-3; Luke 23:55-24:1-9; John 20:1-2.). If the male disciples left Jerusalem for fear of being arrested, it seems likely the women would have left as well, especially since some of them were related to the men by blood — Salome was the mother of two of the disciples and her sister, Mary of Cleophas, was the mother of two other disciples. If it was safe enough for the women to remain in Jerusalem for Passover, it would have been safe enough for the men to stay. If it wasn’t safe for the men to stay, then it wasn’t safe for the women and they would have left with the men. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs. 100-101 (1958)]
The women would have been careful to watch where Jesus’ body was buried because they apparently planned to return to the tomb to apply burial spices to Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55-56). Matthew, Mark and Luke all report the women watched Jesus being buried; therefore, they would have known exactly where Jesus’ tomb was located (Matt. 27:55-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 24:50-56). [See, Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, pg. 244 (2002)]
Even assuming the women went to the wrong tomb, it is absurd to think that the first conclusion they would have come to was that Jesus had risen from the dead, unless they witnessed something that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead. [See, Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, pg. 244 (2002)]. This is the reason some skeptics suggest the women didn’t immediately jump to that conclusion but only came to that conclusion after two of Jesus’ followers reported seeing a resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.
After the women found the empty tomb, they went to the disciples and reported what they had seen (Matt. 28:5-8; Luke 24:9-10). The immediate response of the disciples wasn’t to jump to the conclusion Jesus had risen from the dead. Rather, as reported by Luke, the disciples thought the women were talking nonsense (Luke 24:11). Peter aka Cephas and the disciple John ran to the tomb. When John arrived, he looked inside the tomb and when Peter arrived he actually went inside the tomb. Peter and John verified the tomb was empty and the presence of Jesus’ burial clothes verified they were in the correct tomb (see, Mark 24:12; John 20:3-7).
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 the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was because the witnesses went to the wrong tomb doesn’t explain why so many people saw Jesus alive after he died on the cross and was buried in the tomb. 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)] If the witnesses simply went to the wrong tomb, Jesus was still dead and his body was somewhere. Accordingly, those who attempt to explain away the empty tomb by proposing the Roman or Jewish authorities moved Jesus’ body 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>>).
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 never empty — the witnesses jut went to the wrong tomb. 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:
- 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>>)
- The resurrection best explains why the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty within days of his crucifixion and burial (here>>)
- 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>>)
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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. 12, 2012 / Last Updated: March 1, 2013
QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE
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)
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)
IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING
Slideshow Photo: “Wrong Way” sign located in Arcadia National Park, Maine. Downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image was released into the public domain by the author.