Christianity stands or falls on the event of the Resurrection!
If 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 independantly 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 natural presupposition has become a part of the argumentation for the hypothesis and the argument is circular.2 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?
The Empty Tomb
There are at least six lines of evidence that support the tomb being empty on that first Easter morning.
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.
Second, 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 off.
The absence of competing burial stories further enhances the credibility of the biblical account of the burial. If the gospel tradition is legendary, one would expect to find conflicting traditions, especially in Jewish literature. 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 is accurate, then the grave site (Joseph’s Garden tomb) would have been well known. And if the grave site was well known, the disciples wouldn’t have believed that Jesus had risen unless the tomb was empty. Nor would they have been able to convince so many others in Jerusalem to believe. 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 the tomb.
Third, the earliest anti-Christian propoganda confirms the tomb was empty. The Jewish religious leaders claimed the disciples stole the body. The fact that they never denied the 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. The custom was to set up a shrine at the site of a holy man’s bones. 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 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, ths saying concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is quoting 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 fomula is no later thanfive or six years after the resurrection, not enough time for legend to accrue.
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 ciculating. 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 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.
Most people who reject the empty tomb do so because of philosphical assumptions 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, it has been universally rejected by biblical scholars 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 sincerily 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, martyr’s deaths!
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 its 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 itslef 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 resurrection.
Copyright © Michael Horner. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
Philosopher Michael Horner promotes and defends Christianity on university and college campuses. His lectures and debates provide convincing arguments for the Christian faith. Visit Michael’s site at michaelhorner.com