If we can show that the empty tomb did in fact exist and that there is no good naturalistic explanation for Jesus' missing body, then we have strong evidence for a supernatural explanation. This not only argues for God's existence but also legitimizes the truth of Christianity.
Was the Tomb Empty?There exist many objections to Jesus' tomb being empty at all. Most notably, the Jesus Seminar's John Dominic Crossan puts forth the belief that Jesus was never buried in a rock tomb but his body was placed in a common grave and probably eaten by dogs.1 However, Crossan fabricates this explanation because there is absolutely no evidence on which to base his specific account. Although, as Crossan himself admits, burial for crucified criminals was rare it did occur and we have both written and physical evidence to support it. 2
Tomb commonly assumed empty by both Christians and Jews.So was there a tomb that Jesus was buried in? Crossan and others argue that the whole tomb event had to be added later because the most primitive reports of the resurrection never cited it. However, this is an argument from silence. Even though Peter doesn't specifically mention the empty tomb in his speech in Acts 2, that doesn't mean it didn't exist. It is quite likely that an empty tomb didn't need to be stated because it was "front page news" if you will.
J.P. Moreland says, "In the early speeches of Acts, no mention is made of the empty tomb... Why is the empty tomb not mentioned in those speeches? The best answer seems to be that the fact of the empty tomb was common ground between believers and unbelievers."3
Likewise Paul's recount of the resurrection belief in 1 Corinthians does not prove that there was no empty tomb, but just that the writer felt no pressing need to mention it. The tomb was assumed to be empty - a fact we can derive from our next point.
The stolen body story corroborates Jesus' tomb being empty.
Another explanation given is the women in Mark's account simply went to a random tomb or found the wrong tomb. However, the early accusations by the Jews of Jesus' disciples stealing His body demonstrate that this cannot be the case.
Dr. William Lane Craig writes,
In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.4
As we mentioned in a previous article, because the Jews were opposed to the idea of Jesus being raised, this lends credence to Jesus' tomb specifically being empty. It makes no sense for the Jews to lie about Jesus' body being stolen when producing the body or showing the tomb would be their strongest argument against the resurrection. The same is true for the women being mistaken. We must conclude that the tomb of Jesus was truly empty and it was available for all to examine.
How Do You Explain it?So, if the tomb of Jesus really was empty, how is it explained? Did the disciples steal Jesus' body? Given Matthew's account of the tomb being sealed and a guard placed there, it wouldn't seem likely. There's also the problem of the disciples having to roll back that huge stone in order to accomplish their goal , and they would have had to do so without being detected. However it seems to be the best naturalistic explanation, so many doubters claim it must be so.
But Dr. Craig notes the biggest obstacle to believing this scenario. "Perhaps the most serious objection to [the idea of someone stealing Jesus' body] is that it seeks to explain only half of the evidence (namely, the empty tomb) and completely ignores the other half (that is, the appearances). A second hypothesis to explain must be added. But if explanatory scope is the criterion for preferring one hypothesis to another, then the resurrection... is to be preferred."5
In looking at the evidence: the historicity of the resurrection accounts, the trustworthiness of the reports from the disciples, the fact that eyewitnesses saw the resurrected Christ, their changed lives and the fact of the empty tomb, one can see that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Since He claimed He would do as much beforehand, it also shows that His claims of deity are true and that the Christian God exists.
2. Crossan, John Dominic PhD. "Was Jesus Buried?" http://www.beliefnet.com/story/31/story_3101_1.html
3. Moreland, J.P. PhD. Scaling the Secular City.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1987 pg 162.
4. Craig, William Lane; PhD.. "Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ." June 16, 1998. http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth22.html.
5. Craig, William Lane PhD. In Defense of Miracles. Ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 1997 pg. 260. Image courtesy Frank Swift and licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).