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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

The Fact of the Resurrection Part 5 - The Empty Tomb

As we end our recent study on the resurrection as a fact of history, we look at one of the most daunting problems posed to the skeptics - the empty tomb of Jesus. The absence of Jesus' dead body from its burial place gives incredible support to the disciples' claims that He had risen from the dead. It is therefore not surprising that this point is attacked continuously by doubters. Was the tomb empty? And if so, could it have become empty through some other means than Jesus' resurrection?

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.


1. See: Crossan, John Dominic PhD. Who Killed Jesus? San Francisco: Harper, 1996.
2. Crossan, John Dominic PhD. "Was Jesus Buried?"
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.
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).


  1. Thanks for posting this. I'm using you as a reference on my site:

  2. Jesus' Tomb was not Guarded or Sealed the entire First Night!

    Holy Grave Robbers!

    I had never heard of this until today: How many Christians are aware that Jesus’ grave was unguarded AND unsecured the entire first night after his crucifixion??? Isn’t that a huge hole in the Christian explanation for the empty tomb?? Notice in this quote from Matthew chapter 27 below that the Pharisees do not ask Pilate for guards to guard the tomb until the next day after Jesus’ crucifixion, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb’s door, he had not SEALED it shut!

    Anyone could have stolen the body during those 12 hours!

    The empty tomb “evidence” for the supernatural reanimation/resurrection of Jesus by Yahweh has a HUGE hole in it!

    “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

    The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[a] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”[b] 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”

    —Matthew 27

    So when did the guards show up to the tomb? Early the next morning or late in the afternoon? If late in the afternoon, the tomb of Jesus had been unguarded and unsealed for almost TWENTY FOUR hours!

    The empty tomb is NOT good evidence for the resurrection claim. The most plausible explanation, based on the Bible itself, is that someone stole or moved the body!

    1. First, I don't believe the timeline can be set so precisely that one may ascribe 12 hours between the events. Remember, the Jewish day began at sundown, which is why they were hurrying to get Jesus buried before then, since the Sabbath would begin. "The next day" is sundown forward. It could have easily been made secure while the crucifixion soldiers were still there finishing/cleaning up. No gaps are necessary.

      Even if we assume your time line is true, your claim still stretches credulity. You expect me to believe that when the professional soldiers came to seal a tomb BECAUSE there was a threat to steal the body that THEY DIDN'T LOOK INSIDE FIRST TO CHECK AND SEE IF THE BODY WAS STILL THERE?? And this during the Sabbath, where any Jew carrying a load (e.g. corpse) would be immediately noticed for breaking it? Nah, that doesn't fit.

      A soldier who was sent to guard the tomb knew that a missing body could have meant his life. It's unbelievable if such a gap exists that none of them looked inside before securing the tomb.

    2. There are a lot of assumptions in your comment, Lenny.

      Could a three day old dead, decomposing, bloated dead man have been reanimated by an ancient Hebrew god? Answer: Allowing for the supernatural, yes. Absolutely.

      But if you found a grave open in the local cemetery, your first assumption would not be that that person had been resurrected. Your first assumption would be that someone has taken the body.

      Matthew is the only author who says anything about guards, and Matthew says that the guards were not stationed at the tomb and that the tomb was not sealed until the next day.

      So what is the most LIKELY explanation for an empty tomb: someone took the body.

      An evidence based defense of the belief in the Resurrection by Christians is a desperate attempt to hold onto a cherished superstition. The evidence just isn't there, Lenny.

    3. So these apostles stole the body, and then endured torturous deaths and incredible suffering for what they knew was a lie? Don't think so.

    4. So the apostles who stole the body then endured tortuous and humiliating deaths? I don't think so.

    5. I didn't say the apostles stole his body. There are many other possible explanations for a missing grave. Here are a list of candidates:

      -the family
      -the Jews (burial in Joseph's tomb was a temporary measure for the Passover)
      -the Romans (Pilate changed his mind about allowing a traitor to have a proper burial)
      -grave robbers
      -lesser known disciples who never suffered martyrdom

      Any of these possibilities are much more probable than the reanimation of a three day brain dead body.

  3. Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions guards at the tomb. John's Gospel says nothing about guards. If John was an eyewitness, as Christians claim, isn't that a pretty important detail to leave out of your story? The missing Roman guards in the Book of John raises an important issue. Christians often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly arisen from the dead. A stolen body hypothesis is impossible.

    This argument completely collapses in John’s account, however, because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occurred! Mary clearly didn’t feel as though the scenario of Jesus’ body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew’s guards didn’t dissuade John’s Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus’ body because Roman guards do not exist in John’s story.

    To further compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts, John’s Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time, only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus’ corpse. As far as John’s Mary is concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it.

    But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying12 , one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

    (John 20:11-13)

    Although in Matthew’s account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John’s Gospel the angels do not mention that anyone rose from the dead. The angels only ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary responds by inquiring whether the angels removed Jesus’ body. Then, Mary turns and sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the “gardener” if he was the one who carried away Jesus’ body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus.

    When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” which means Teacher.

    (John 20:14-16)

    It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John become hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every Christian must answer is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we see that we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are reading two entirely different stories!


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