How can we explain
the empty tomb? Can it possibly be accounted for by any natural cause?
A QUESTION OF HISTORY
After more than 700 hours of studying this subject, I have come to the
conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is either one of the
most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted on the minds of
human beings--or it is the most remarkable fact of history.
Here are some of the facts relevant to
the resurrection: Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet who claimed to be
the Christ prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures, was arrested, was judged
a political criminal, and was crucified. Three days after His death and
burial, some women who went to His tomb found the body gone. In
subsequent weeks, His disciples claimed that God had raised Him from the
dead and that He appeared to them various times before ascending into
From that foundation, Christianity
spread throughout the Roman Empire and has continued to exert great
influence down through the centuries.
The New Testament accounts of the resurrection were being circulated
within the lifetimes of men and women alive at the time of the
resurrection. Those people could certainly have confirmed or denied the
accuracy of such accounts.
The writers of the four Gospels either
had themselves been witnesses or else were relating the accounts of
eyewitnesses of the actual events. In advocating their case for the
gospel, a word that means "good news," the apostles appealed (even when
confronting their most severe opponents) to common knowledge concerning
the facts of the resurrection.
F. F. Bruce, Rylands professor of
biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, says concerning
the value of the New Testament records as primary sources: "Had there
been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the
possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served
as a further corrective."
IS THE NEW TESTAMENT RELIABLE?
Because the New Testament provides the primary historical source for
information on the resurrection, many critics during the 19th century
attacked the reliability of these biblical documents.
By the end of the 1 9th century,
however, archaeological discoveries had confirmed the accuracy of the
New Testament manuscripts. Discoveries of early papyri bridged the gap
between the time of Christ and existing manuscripts from a later date.
Those findings increased scholarly
confidence in the reliability of the Bible. William F. Albright, who in
his day was the world's foremost biblical archaeologist, said: "We can
already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for
dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full
generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more
radical New Testament critics of today."
Coinciding with the papyri
discoveries, an abundance of other manuscripts came to light (over
24,000 copies of early New Testament manuscripts are known to be in
existence today). The historian Luke wrote of "authentic evidence"
concerning the resurrection. Sir William Ramsay, who spent 15 years
attempting to undermine Luke credentials as a historian, and to refute
the reliability of the New Testament, finally concluded: "Luke is a
historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along
with the very greatest of historians. "
I claim to be an historian. My approach
to Classics is historical. And I tell you that the evidence for the
life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ is better authenticated
than most of the facts of ancient history . . .
Professor of Classics
The New Testament witnesses were fully aware of the background against
which the resurrection took place. The body of Jesus, in accordance with
Jewish burial custom, was wrapped in a linen cloth. About 100 pounds of
aromatic spices, mixed together to form a gummy substance, were applied
to the wrappings of cloth about the body. After the body was placed in a
solid rock tomb, an extremely large stone was rolled against the
entrance of the tomb. Large stones weighing approximately two tons were
normally rolled (by means of levers) against a tomb entrance.
A Roman guard of strictly disciplined
fighting men was stationed to guard the tomb. This guard affixed on the
tomb the Roman seal, which was meant to "prevent any attempt at
vandalizing the sepulcher. Anyone trying to move the stone from the
tomb's entrance would have broken the seal and thus incurred the wrath
of Roman law.
But three days later the tomb was
empty. The followers of Jesus said He had risen from the dead. They
reported that He appeared to them during a period of 40 days, showing
Himself to them by many "infallible proofs." Paul the apostle recounted
that Jesus appeared to more than 500 of His followers at one time, the
majority of whom were still alive and who could confirm what Paul
wrote. So many security precautions were taken with the trial,
crucifixion, burial, entombment, sealing, and guarding of Christ's tomb
that it becomes very difficult for critics to defend their position that
Christ did not rise from the dead. Consider these facts:
BROKEN ROMAN SEAL
As we have said, the first obvious fact was the breaking of the seal
that stood for the power and authority of the Roman Empire. The
consequences of breaking the seal were extremely severe. The FBI and CIA
of the Roman Empire were called into action to find the man or men who
were responsible. If they were apprehended, it meant automatic execution
by crucifixion upside down. People feared the breaking of the seal.
Jesus' disciples displayed signs of cowardice when they hid themselves.
Peter, one of these disciples, went out and denied Christ three times.
As we have already discussed, another obvious fact after the
resurrection was the empty tomb. The disciples of Christ did not go off
to Athens or Rome to preach that Christ was raised from the dead.
Rather, they went right back to the city of Jerusalem, where, if what
they were teaching was false, the falsity would be evident. The empty
tomb was "too notorious to be denied." Paul Althaus states that the
resurrection "could have not been maintained in Jerusalem for a single
day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been
established as a fact for all concerned."
and Roman sources and traditions admit an empty tomb. Those resources
range from Josephus to a compilation of fifth-century Jewish writings
called the "Toledoth Jeshu." Dr. Paul Maier calls this "positive
evidence from a hostile source, which is the strongest kind of
historical evidence. In essence, this means that if a source admits a
fact decidedly not in its favor, then that fact is genuine."
was a member of the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, put forth the
suggestion that the rise of the Christian movement was God's doing; he
could not have done that if the tomb were still occupied, or if the
Sanhedrin knew the whereabouts of Christ's body.
observes that " . . . if all the evidence is weighed carefully and
fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical
research, to conclude that the sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea, in
which Jesus was buried, was actually empty on the morning of the first
Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered in literary
sources, epigraphy, or archaeology that would disprove this statement."
LARGE STONE MOVED
On that Sunday morning the first thing that impressed the people who
approached the tomb was the unusual position of the one and a half to
two ton stone that had been lodged in front of the doorway. All the
Gospel writers mention it.
There exists no document from the ancient
world, witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical
testimonies . . . Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of
Christianity is based upon an irrational bias.
observed the stone after the resurrection describe its position as
having been rolled up a slope away not just from the entrance of the
tomb, but from the entire massive sepulcher. It was in such a position
that it looked as if it had been picked up and carried away. Now, I ask
you, if the disciples had wanted to come in, tiptoe around the sleeping
guards, and then roll the stone over and steal Jesus' body, how could
they have done that without the guards' awareness?
ROMAN GUARD GOES AWOL
The Roman guards fled. They left their place of responsibility. How can
their attrition he explained, when Roman military discipline was so
exceptional? Justin, in Digest #49, mentions all the offenses that
required the death penalty. The fear of their superiors' wrath and the
possibility of death meant that they paid close attention to the
minutest details of their jobs. One way a guard was put to death was by
being stripped of his clothes and then burned alive in a fire started
with his garments. If it was not apparent which soldier had failed in
his duty, then lots were drawn to see which one wand be punished with
death for the guard unit's failure. Certainly the entire unit would not
have fallen asleep with that kind of threat over their heads. Dr. George
Currie, a student of Roman military discipline, wrote that fear of
punishment "produced flawless attention to duty, especially in the night
FACT #5: GRAVECLOTHES TELL A TALE
In a literal sense, against all statements to the contrary, the tomb was
not totally empty--because of an amazing phenomenon. John, a disciple of
Jesus, looked over to the place where the body of Jesus had lain, and
there were the grave clothes, in the form of the body, slightly caved in
and empty--like the empty chrysalis of a caterpillar's cocoon. That's
enough to make a believer out of anybody. John never did get over it.
The first thing that stuck in the minds of the disciples was not the
empty tomb, but rather the empty grave clothes--undisturbed in form and
JESUS' APPEARANCES CONFIRMED
Christ appeared alive on several occasions after the cataclysmic events
of that first Easter. When studying an event in history, it is important
to know whether enough people who were participants or eyewitnesses to
the event were alive when the facts about the event were published. To
know this is obviously helpful in ascertaining the accuracy of the
published report. If the number of eyewitnesses is substantial, the
event can he regarded as fairly well established. For instance, if we
all witness a murder, and a later police report turns out to he a
fabrication of lies, we as eyewitnesses can refute it.
OVER 500 WITNESSES
Several very important factors arc often overlooked when considering
Christ's post-resurrection appearances to individuals. The first is the
large number of witnesses of Christ after that resurrection morning. One
of the earliest records of Christ's appearing after the resurrection is
by Paul. The apostle appealed to his audience's knowledge of the fact
that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time. Paul
reminded them that the majority of those people were still alive and
could be questioned. Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi, associate professor of
history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, emphasizes: "What gives
a special authority to the list (of witnesses) as historical evidence is
the reference to most of the five hundred brethren being still alive.
St. Paul says in effect, 'If you do not believe me, you can ask them.'
Such a statement in an admittedly genuine letter written within thirty
years of the event is almost as strong evidence as one could hope to get
for something that happened nearly two thousand years ago." Let's take
the more than 500 witnesses who saw Jesus alive after His death and
burial, and place them in a courtroom. Do you realize that if each of
those 500 people were to testify for only six minutes, including
cross-examination, you would have an amazing 50 hours of firsthand
testimony? Add to this the testimony of many other eyewitnesses and you
would well have the largest and most lopsided trial in history.
Another factor crucial to interpreting Christ's appearances is that He
also appeared to those who were hostile or unconvinced.
Over and over again, I have read or
heard people comment that Jesus was seen alive after His death and
burial only by His friends and followers. Using that argument, they
attempt to water down the overwhelming impact of the multiple eyewitness
accounts. But that line of reasoning is so pathetic it hardly deserves
comment. No author or informed individual would regard Saul of Tarsus as
being a follower of Christ. The facts show the exact opposite. Saul
despised Christ and persecuted Christ's followers. It was a
life-shattering experience when Christ appeared to him. Although he was
at the time not a disciple, he later became the apostle Paul, one of the
greatest witnesses for the truth of the resurrection.
If the New Testament were a collection of
secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as
beyond all doubt.
F. F. Bruce
The argument that Christ's appearances
were only to followers is an argument for the most part from silence,
and arguments from silence can be dangerous. It is equally possible that
all to whom Jesus appeared became followers. No one acquainted with the
facts can accurately say that Jesus appeared to just "an insignificant
Christians believe that Jesus was
bodily resurrected in time and space by the supernatural power of God.
The difficulties of belief may be great, but the problems inherent in
unbelief present even greater difficulties.
The theories advanced to explain the
resurrection by "natural causes" are weak; they actually help to build
confidence in the truth of the resurrection.\
THE WRONG TOMB?
A theory propounded by Kirsopp Lake assumes that the women who reported
that the body was missing had mistakenly gone to the wrong tomb. If so,
then the disciples who went to check up on the women's statement must
have also gone to the wrong tomb. We may be certain, however, that
Jewish authorities, who asked for a Roman guard to be stationed at the
tomb to prevent Jesus' body from being stolen, would not have been
mistaken about the location. Nor would the Roman guards, for they were
If the resurrection-claim was merely
because of a geographical mistake, the Jewish authorities would have
lost no time in producing the body from the proper tomb, thus
effectively quenching for all time any rumor resurrection.
Another attempted explanation claims that the appearances of Jesus after
the resurrection were either illusions or hallucinations. Unsupported by
the psychological principles governing the appearances of
hallucinations, this theory also does not coincide with the historical
situation. Again, where was the actual body, and why wasn't it produced?
DID JESUS SWOON?
Another theory, popularized by Venturini several centuries ago, is often
quoted today. This is the swoon theory, which says that Jesus didn't
die; he merely fainted from exhaustion and loss of blood. Everyone
thought Him dead, but later He resuscitated and the disciples thought it
to be a resurrection. Skeptic David Friedrich Strauss--certainly no
believer in the resurrection--gave the deathblow to any thought that
Jesus revived from a swoon: "It is impossible that a being who had
stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill,
wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and
indulgence, and who still at last yielded to His sufferings, could have
given to the disciples the impression that He was a Conqueror over death
and the grave, the Prince of Life,
For the New Testament of Acts, the confirmation
of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic
historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd. Roman
historians have long taken it for granted.
Classical Roman Historian
an impression which lay at the bottom
of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened
the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death, at the
most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no
possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated
their reverence into worship."
THE BODY STOLEN?
Then consider the theory that the body was stolen by the disciples while
the guards slept. The depression and cowardice of the disciples provide
a hard-hitting argument against their suddenly becoming so brave and
daring as to face a detachment of soldiers at the tomb and steal the
body. They were in no mood to attempt anything like that.
The theory that the Jewish or Roman
authorities moved Christ's body is no more reasonable an explanation for
the empty tomb than theft by the disciples. If the authorities had the
body in their possession or knew where it was, why, when the disciples
were preaching the resurrection in Jerusalem, didn't they explain:
"Wait! We moved the body, see, He didn't rise from the grave"?
And if such a rebuttal failed, why
didn't they explain exactly where Jesus' body lay? If this failed, why
didn't they recover the corpse, put it on a cart, and wheel it through
the center of Jerusalem? Such an action would have destroyed
Christianity--not in the cradle, but in the womb!
THE RESURRECTION IS A FACT
Professor Thomas Arnold, for 14 years a headmaster of Rugby, author of the famous, History of Rome, and appointed to the
chair of modern history at Oxford,
was well acquainted with the value of evidence in determining historical
facts. This great scholar said: "I have been used for many years to
study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the
evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact
in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence
of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great
sign which God bath given us that Christ died and rose again from the
dead." Brooke Foss Westcott, an English scholar, said: "raking all the
evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic
incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of
Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false
could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it."
REAL PROOF: THE DISCIPLES' LIVES
But the most telling testimony of all must be the lives of those early
Christians. We must ask ourselves: What caused them to go everywhere
telling the message of the risen Christ?
Had there been any visible benefits
accrued to them from their efforts--prestige, wealth, increased social
status or material benefits--we might logically attempt to account for
their actions, for their whole-hearted and total allegiance to this
As a reward for their efforts,
however, those early Christians were beaten, stoned to death, thrown to
the lions, tortured and crucified. Every conceivable method was used to
stop them from talking.
Yet, they laid down their lives as the
ultimate proof of their complete confidence in the truth of their
WHERE DO YOU STAND?
How do you evaluate this overwhelming historical evidence? What is your
decision about the fact of Christ's empty tomb? What do you think of
When I was confronted with the
overwhelming evidence for Christ's resurrection, I had to ask the
logical question: "What difference does all this evidence make to me?
What difference does it make whether or not I believe Christ rose again
and died on the cross for my sins!' The answer is put best by something
Jesus said to a man who doubted--Thomas. Jesus told him: "I am the way,
and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me"
On the basis of all the evidence for
Christ's resurrection, and considering the fact that Jesus offers
forgiveness of sin and an eternal relationship with God, who would be so
foolhardy as to reject Him? Christ is alive! He is living today.
You can trust God right now by faith
through prayer. Prayer is talking with God. God knows your heart and is
not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your
heart. If you have never trusted Christ, you can do so right now.
The prayer I prayed is: "Lord Jesus, I
need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door
of my life and trust You as my Savior. Thank You for forgiving my sins
and giving me eternal life. Make me the kind of person You want me to
be. Thank You that I can trust You."
according to a recent survey, is one of
the most popular speakers among university students today. He has spoken
on more than 650 university and college campuses to more than seven
million people in 74 countries during the last 21 years.
©1992 Josh McDowell Ministry
Leadership U. All
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Telling the Truth Project.
13 July 2002