Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead, even
the apostle Paul admitted that the Christian faith
is worthless. Since they are not really forgiven
by God, millions of Christians have been living
under a delusion for almost 2000 years and should
be pitied more than all people.
On the other hand, if Jesus did rise
from the dead, it substantiates his claims to
being God. We can know for sure that there is
life after death. We can be confident that God
has visited this planet and proven His love for
us and that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth
and the life, the bridge between us and our Creator.
The case for the historicity of the resurrection
rests upon the evidence for three independently
established facts. If it can be shown that the
tomb of Jesus was found empty, that he did physically
and bodily appear to many people after his death
and that the origin of the Christian faith is
inexplicable apart from his resurrection, then,
if there is no plausible natural explanation that
fits the data, one can rationally conclude that
Jesus rose from the dead.1
One cannot rule out the resurrection because of
a prior assumption that miracles are impossible.
When a skeptic proposes that the resurrection
accounts are legendary because they describe
something miraculous, the naturalistic presupposition
has become a part of the argumentation for the
hypothesis, and the argument is circular.2
He has assumed the very conclusion he is trying
to make, that a miracle like a resurrection is
impossible. In point of fact, as long as it is
even possible that God exists, miracles are possible.
As philosopher W.L. Craig remarks, "That
miracles are possible is... neutral ground between
the opposing claims that miracles are necessary
and miracles are impossible.3
What one should do then is try to honestly answer
the question, "What does the evidence suggest
is the most plausible explanation for the data?"
Clearly something happened in first century
Palestine that has had a remarkable impact on
the world. The issue is what is the best explanation
for what happened. Which explanation or hypothesis
is best supported by the evidence and best explains
the data? It is easy to just criticize an existing
hypothesis, like the resurrection, but what is
needed is an alternative hypothesis that accounts
for all the data with equal force. It
is a comparison of hypotheses that must be done.
Now, even though we are going to be discussing
the historical grounds for believing in the resurrection,
grounds that I think are very good, I would not
want to imply that there are not other grounds
for believing in the resurrection, like one's
personal experience of the risen Christ.
There are at least six lines of evidence that
support the tomb being empty on that first Easter
First, the origin of the Christian movement in
Jerusalem would have been impossible without the
empty tomb. If the tomb still contained
the body, no one would have believed the disciples'
story of the resurrection. But thousands did believe.
The founding of Christianity in the same city
where Jesus was publicly killed and buried demands
that the tomb was empty.
the written account describing the burial is widely
recognized as being historically credible.
The inclusion of Joseph of Arimethea as the one
who buried Jesus in his own tomb is one of the
many reasons most scholars accept the accuracy
of the burial story. It is highly unlikely that
fictitious stories about a member of the Sanhedrin,
the Jewish ruling class, could have been pulled
The absence of competing burial stories further
enhances the credibility of the biblical account
of the burial. If the gospel tradition were legendary,
one would expect to find conflicting traditions,
especially in Jewish literature, but there are
none. Moreover, the burial and empty tomb story
are a continuous narrative linked grammatically
and linguistically. If the burial account is reliable,
then the empty tomb account is likely also reliable.
Now if the burial account were accurate, then
the grave site (Joseph's Garden tomb) would have
been well known. And if the grave site was well
known, no one would have believed that Jesus had
risen, not the disciples, nor any of the thousands
of others, unless the tomb was in fact empty.
And you can be sure that if the body had still
been in the tomb, the Jewish authorities would
have exhumed it and exposed the whole charade.
But in fact, even though they had every reason
to want to refute Christianity, they could never
produce the body of Jesus - inside or outside
Third, the earliest anti-Christian propaganda
confirms the tomb was empty. The Jewish
religious leaders claimed the disciples stole
the body. The fact that they never denied that
Jesus' tomb was empty, but only tried to explain
it away is persuasive evidence that the tomb was
in fact empty. Historically, this is evidence
of the highest quality because it comes from the
opponents of Christianity.
Fourth, the fact that Jesus' tomb was never venerated
as a shrine in the first century indicates that
it was empty. It was customary was to
set up a shrine where a holy man's bones lay.
There were at least 50 such sites in Palestine
at that time. The absence of such a shrine for
Jesus suggests the bones weren't there.
Fifth, the testimony of the Apostle Paul implies
the tomb was empty. Writing in about
AD 55, Paul quotes an old Christian saying that
Jesus died, was buried and rose on the third day.
The idea that a person could be raised from the
dead while the body remained in the grave would
have been nonsense to Paul's Jewish mind. The
Jewish concept of resurrection was extremely physical.
Paul is clearly assuming and implying an empty
tomb here. As Craig point out, "Were this
not so, then Pauline theology would have taken
an entirely different route, trying to explain
how resurrection could be possible, though the
body remained in the grave."4
Moreover, this saying concerning the death, burial
and resurrection of Jesus is too early to be legendary.
Paul would have learned it in his first two years
as a convert, or at least no later than AD 36
when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem.
Thus, this formula is no later than five or six
years after the resurrection, not enough time
for legend to dominate over the facts.
Sixth, the burial and empty tomb accounts
in Mark are based on a very early source.
The high priest is mentioned without using his
name, which implies that Caiaphas was still high
priest when this story began circulating. If it
had been written after Caiaphas' term of office,
his name would have been used to distinguish him
from the next high priest. Since we know from
the Jewish historian Josephus, that Caiaphas was
high priest from AD 18-37, this story began circulating
no later than AD 37, within the first seven years
after the events.
These six points are among many that provide a
powerful case for the tomb being empty the Sunday
morning after Jesus' death. The move in scholarly
circles in recent years has been toward the acceptance
of the empty tomb, since it is very difficult
to refute on historical grounds.
"The historian cannot
justifiably deny the
empty tomb...the evi-
dence necessitates the
conclusion that the
tomb was indeed found
empty." - Michael Grant
Historian Michael Grant concludes, "The historian
cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb... if we
apply the same sort of criteria that we would
apply to any other ancient sources, then the evidence
is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the
conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.5
Most people who reject the empty tomb do so because
of philosophical assumptions and prejudices such
as, "miracles are impossible." But this
type of assumption may simply have to be changed
in light of historical fact.
The Conspiracy Theory
What about the claim that the disciples stole
the body? Although this theory may seem plausible
at first, biblical scholars have universally rejected
it for nearly 200 years. However, since it is
often still offered as an explanation for the
empty tomb at a popular level, a brief response
is in order.
The conspiracy theory is morally, psychologically
and physically impossible. It is hard to deny
that the disciples were at least sincerely devout
men who tried to pursue the righteousness that
Jesus taught them. The conspiracy hypothesis forces
us to regard them as cheap frauds and cunning
deceivers, quite inconsistent with the ethics
of their own writings. And what did they gain
from this deception: power, wealth, prestige?
No. Rejection, contempt, torture, and ultimately,
Remember that the disciples were defeated, despondent
and afraid after Jesus' death, hardly in the frame
of mind to plan a daring heist. In addition, it
is psychologically impossible that one of the
disciples could have convinced all the others
to follow such a scheme without someone breaking
rank or spilling the beans sometime in the next
50 years. People don't die for a lie when they
know it's a lie!
Then there is the problem of the guards at the
tomb making it physically impossible to steal
the body. It cannot be emphasized enough that
no modern biblical scholar would for a moment
entertain the conspiracy hypothesis.
The empty tomb itself did not produce a belief
in the resurrected Jesus. For most of the followers
it was Jesus physically appearing to them that
led them to conclude that Jesus had risen.