“You heard me. It’s empty!” I suspect that was overheard a lot in Jerusalem in the days and weeks following Christ’s gruesome, controversial crucifixion spectacle. Reports that His tomb was found unoccupied had everyone scratching their noggins because such a thing was unbelievable. It was akin to Galileo’s announcement 1,600 years later that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The fact that it was true didn’t necessarily render his revelation any less incredulous. The mind-boggling news about the tomb ran contrary to everything folks thought even remotely possible. Taking everything they’d seen happen to the Nazarene (or had heard about from reliable sources) into account, the sepulcher where He was laid to rest being discovered unsealed, much less empty, didn’t compute. Of course the follow-up question was “So, where’s the body?” The response being, “Nobody knows for sure but the rumor is he’s been seen alive!” As crazy as that last part sounded, the fact the tomb was, indeed, vacant caused the notion Jesus might be back among the living to enter the realm of maybe. After all, that’s what He said would occur and if it was true then the implications were stupendous. Everyone knew only God could defeat death. It meant Christ was the ultimate game-changer, the long-awaited Messiah who’d come from heaven to redeem mankind. The prophecies were fulfilled. God had incarnated as a flesh-and-blood man. No wonder He’d managed to escape the tomb! Lee Strobel wrote, “The empty tomb, as an enduring symbol of the Resurrection, is the ultimate representation of Jesus’ claim to being God.”
The aim of this series of essays is to equip Christians with bona fide evidence necessary to intelligently defend faith in Jesus. It’s my opinion all believers should become skilled in the practice of Christian apologetics. If you’re anything like I was until a few years ago I had no clue what that word meant. J. P. Moreland supplies a good definition: “Apologetics is a New Testament ministry of helping people overcome intellectual obstacles that block them from coming to or growing in the faith by giving them reasons for why one should believe Christianity is true and by responding to objections raised against it.” If you peruse Acts chapters 17 through 20 you’ll see that Paul based his preaching on the fact (not theory) that the gospel is true and logical. Members of the body of Christ would do well to follow his example. Previously I showed beyond all doubt Christ died on the cross. That’s vital because if He wasn’t killed there could be no resurrection. The same importance applies to the tomb being empty. If His lifeless body was still inside it’d be safe to say He’s still dead and “…our faith is futile.” However, the truth is that our Savior walked out of that tomb Easter morning, leaving behind only the shroud He’d been wrapped in.
When dealing with skeptics one must be careful to take things one step at a time. They might point out that crucified criminals were usually either left hanging or unceremoniously tossed into a common grave. Thus we must establish Jesus’s body was definitely placed in a tomb. Some have a problem with the Bible accounts saying Joseph of Arimathea took possession of the corpse and had it placed in his own carved-out sepulcher, not buried in the ground. They’ll contend it highly unlikely a member of the Sanhedrin who voted to condemn Jesus would be so charitable. Nonetheless, the evidence can’t be ignored. Joseph of Arimathea and his compassionate act appear in all four Gospels and multiple, independent attestations always carry a great deal of weight in determining truth. As for Joseph’s going along with the Jewish council’s decision to have Jesus executed ASAP, Luke specifically avers he was a “…good and righteous man” who “…had not consented to their plan and action” (Mark 23:50-51). Since we’re told the Sanhedrin’s vote was unanimous the implication is that Joseph refused to participate in their unlawful kangaroo court and was a no-show. It’s also dubious to think he’s some kind of fictional character invented to fill a big gap in the storyline. Dr. William Lane Craig said, “Given the early Christian anger and bitterness toward the Jewish leaders who’d instigated the crucifixion it’s highly improbable they would’ve invented one who did the right thing by giving Jesus an honorable burial – especially while all of Jesus’ disciples deserted Him! Besides, they wouldn’t make up a specific member of a specific group, whom people could check out for themselves and ask about. So Joseph’s undoubtedly a historical figure.” Bottom line: Jesus’ lifeless body was interred inside Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.
The next step is to emphasize measures were taken by wary authorities to secure the tomb and make sure no “funny business” would be allowed to happen. A description of a 1st century sepulcher like Joseph’s is in order. Archaeological excavations reveal they had a slanted groove leading downward to a low entrance. A large disk-shaped stone would traverse that rough path and end up firmly lodged across the entrance. A smaller rock would be set in place to further secure it. Because the massive stone weighed at least a ton rotating it downhill would be a cinch. Rolling it back up would be a different matter altogether. It’d take several strong men straining in concert to reopen the tomb even a crack. Furthermore, Matthew tells us the tomb was placed under close surveillance. Yet, since only one of the Gospels mentions the presence of guards around the tomb this part of the story has come under fire over the centuries. Thus a common-sense approach is best. Look, Jesus’ followers were exclaiming “He is risen!” The Jews said, “No way! His disciples stole the body.” The Christians responded with “But weren’t guards deployed to keep that very thing from occurring?” The Jews would reply, “Yeah, but they fell asleep. They admitted as much.” The believers would say, “Not true. We learned you bribed them to say that.” On and on. The important thing to notice in this imaginary argument is that the Jews never say there were no guards. Nowhere in the Scriptures or Jewish records do they disavow guards were present and for them to claim they collectively nodded off implies they did exist. The Jews knew this was the case so it forced them to come up with a scenario (no matter how improbable) to explain how the disciples pulled off their covert shenanigans.
Some critics insist the tomb’s sentries weren’t Roman soldiers but substandard Jewish temple guards. In other words, it was more like a bunch of minimum-wage mall cops keeping an eye on the site rather than a well-trained squad of Roman fighting men who knew they’d be hanged if caught snoozing on the job. But that’s unlikely because Pilate had been told Jesus’ followers were fanatics and, considering what had gone down recently, he surely wasn’t willing to risk more trouble erupting. Plus, the word Matthew used to refer to the guards was the one most often employed with respect to Roman soldiers, not temple officers. Keep in mind it was a Roman centurion who led a unit under his command to arrest Jesus and they took Him not to Pilate but to the Jewish honchos. Therefore it’s plausible the same unit was put in charge of protecting the tomb, as well. What’s not plausible is that the paranoid powers-that-be would have rolled the stone into place and then just hope nobody went snooping around. Get real.
Skeptics love to bring up the obvious contradictions found in the accounts surrounding how and by whom the empty tomb was discovered. In Matthew the stone was still in place when Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary showed up. Then there’s an earthquake and an angel opens the tomb. In Mark and Luke the stone was already out of the way when they got there. In Matthew the angel sits atop the stone. In Mark a young man is inside the sepulcher. In Luke two men suddenly appear beside the women. In Mark the two Marys are accompanied by Salome. In Luke there are even more women there. In Matthew the two Marys excitedly sprint off so they can inform the disciples but they encounter Jesus on the trail. In Mark they don’t run into anybody and in Luke they do report to the disciples but never mention seeing their Master. It all seems kinda fishy, right? But note these discrepancies are all secondary in nature. The core narrative is solid: After the crucifixion Jesus’ body is securely sealed inside a tomb, a small group of female followers goes there early Sunday morning, they find it empty and angels tell them Christ has risen. Variations in the secondary details don’t negate or corrupt the story’s central theme. Dr. Craig commented, “The careful historian, unlike the philosopher, doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Dr. Michael Grant wrote, “True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various gospels, but if we apply the same sort of criteria we’d apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.”
Experienced trial lawyers know if two separate witnesses get on the stand and deliver identical testimonies it’s a tell-tale sign there’s been some collusion going on between them. On the other hand it’s much more likely they’re telling the truth and nothing but if their stories concerning what they witnessed don’t match up too well. For example, there are two completely different versions in existence concerning Hannibal’s crossing the Alps to attack Rome in 218 B.C. Incompatible as the details are, there’s no question whatsoever that it did happen. The same principle applies to the empty tomb. Things like precisely what time of the morning the discovery was made, how many women were in attendance and which of the remaining eleven disciples they informed first are, in light of something as extraordinary as the miracle of the Resurrection, quite subjective. Yet one aspect of that particular weekend confounds a lot of folks, even dedicated Christians. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says, “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” But, according to the Bible, Christ was in the tomb one full day (Saturday), two nights and only part of two days (Friday and Sunday). That’s not three days and nights. So was Jesus wrong? Not at all. Understand the Jews didn’t reckon time like we do. To them any part of a day counted as a whole day. So the span stretching from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning constituted three days. It’s little tidbits of knowledge that can make a difference when trying to rationally explain to a non-believer why the Scriptures are absolutely reliable. It’s imperative we know of what we speak.
I’ve read where some critics opine the testimonies of the women who discovered the empty tomb can’t be trusted. That their love for and adoration of Jesus (not to mention their profound grief over His horrible death) clouded their objectivity. But that reasoning turns around when one takes into account the low status assigned to females in 1st century Jewish society. The fact that the Gospel narratives all feature women as being the ones that initially discovered the tomb was vacant actually gives the story more of a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction air of authenticity. There are rabbinical sayings from that era that state, “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than be delivered to women” and “Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.” Thus it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn a woman’s testimony, no matter the circumstances, was deemed inadmissible in a Jewish court of law. The gist is that, if the accounts regarding the empty tomb were “made up” or even “embellished” at some later date, the revisionists would’ve surely designated a man or at least a couple of the disciples like Peter or Philip as the individuals who first realized Christ had conquered the grave. What this proves is that the authors of the Gospels, regardless of the embarrassment the facts would inflict upon the disciples en masse, were determined to faithfully tell nothing but the God’s honest truth.
This, however, leads to yet another question. Why did the women go to the tomb to make sure His body got administered the proper burial rites if they knew it was sealed shut? I would venture to answer that by posing a question of my own. Have you ever suddenly lost a close loved one? Do you know what happens to your thought-processing faculties when your consciousness and senses are being totally overwhelmed by heartbreaking sorrow? It’s a discombobulating experience. I would never dare to judge someone’s actions when they’re in that state of mind and it’s certainly not fair to do that to Mary Magdalene and her companions. It’s likely they didn’t know what else to do but go to where they knew Jesus’ body was.
In summary, there are many rock-solid reasons for acknowledging Jesus’ tomb was empty on Easter morning. It was a given in the earliest of Christian traditions preserved for posterity by Paul. “For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The tomb’s site was no secret so if it wasn’t empty wouldn’t the guards have still been hanging around? Mark’s rendition of the story is so detailed it had to have been written down within a few years of the Resurrection (many scholars date it as early as 36 A.D.). Legends/myths don’t evolve that fast. And, speaking of the Gospel of Mark, the sheer simplicity of the empty tomb story gives his account remarkable credence. In contrast, many apocryphal texts penned centuries later have all sorts of fantastic and unnecessary imagery tacked on. The undisputed fact that a small cadre of women were the first to arrive on the scene also argues for the authenticity of the empty tomb revelation because the word of a female had no value whatsoever in the male-dominated, chauvinistic Jewish culture of that day. If it were fiction they’d never have included women in the tale. And last but not least, Jewish historians didn’t claim the tomb wasn’t empty. They never insisted Jesus was still inside. Rather, they kept asking the same question, “Where’s the body?” Their ridiculous proposition that the disciples silently made off with the corpse while the guards (to a man) slumbered away in dreamland didn’t fly with anyone. The 2,000 year old elephant in the room is that they began with the assumption the tomb had no one in it! Why? Because they knew it was true.
I suppose there’ll be yet another off-the-wall theory popping up from time to time in order to sell a few books to the gullible. One guy hypothesized that Mary and her crew mistakenly went to the wrong tomb. As if the Jewish high priest wouldn’t have been more than happy to direct them to the actual, still hermetically-sealed sepulcher and put an end to the “He is Risen!” hysteria that was giving him an ulcer! All that’s left for the stubborn skeptic to do is call the whole thing a myth that, because it took centuries to congeal, is difficult to refute because the exact location of the tomb has long been forgotten. Again, that’s why the science-based, proven-to-be-accurate dating of Mark’s Gospel to within a handful of years after our Lord’s ascension is so crucial. It shoots down the “legend” theory in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, secularists would rather hang on to some far-fetched explanation than accept Jesus was God. They’ll say being raised from the dead is just impossible and stroll away. But all the available evidence indicates that the impossible happened almost 20 centuries ago. And it wasn’t natural at all. It was truly supernatural in every sense of the word. God the Father brought His beloved Son back to life. Dr. Craig said, “What’s improbable is the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That, I agree, is outlandish. But the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead doesn’t contradict science or any known facts of experience. As long as the existence of God is even possible, it’s possible He acted in history by raising Jesus from the dead.” Amen.