Was Jesus' tomb really empty?
It’s that time of year when millions of Christians celebrate someone rising from the dead.
Really? Stone-cold death to living-breathing life? It’s either the biggest lie in history or the biggest miracle.
In the UK, most people sit somewhere in the middle – happy to let other people believe it or not.
But can we sit in the middle? Can we ignore that 2000-year-old gaping tomb?
Because three days after a brutal crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty. The Roman seal was broken. Soldier’s scattered. The body gone.
How do you explain that?
The tomb was empty
Most scholars agree on the empty tomb. New Testament scholar Gary Habermas found that out of 1400 articles written by both non-believing and believing scholars, 75% argued in favour of the historicity of the empty tomb.
Imagine if someone said their friend had come back to life and there was an empty grave to prove it, you’d almost certainly go along to find out for sure within 24 hours.
Even without social media, the same was true of the first century. Theologian Paul Althaus says that the resurrection ‘could not have 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.’
So okay, the tomb was empty. But if Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected, then what happened to the body?
Jesus’ disciples stole it?
Weeks before his death, Jesus had been claiming he was going to do exactly that: rise from the dead (Matthew 16:21). Maybe his followers stole the body while the guards were sleeping in a desperate attempt to fake a resurrection and hold on to their religion.
But J.N.D Anderson, previous dean of the faculty of law and director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London, says that it would ‘run contrary to everything we know of them’. Their renowned record of ‘virtue and morality’ (38, Strobel) made them the least likely people to attempt a mass conspiracy.
Besides, the disciples were depressed and frightened: their leader had just been brutally executed and they were being hunted. They’d all abandoned Jesus before the cross because they were scared – so why would they risk their lives after he was dead?
History tells us that a leader’s passing is usually a death sentence for a budding religious group, but the disciples dramatically transformed from dejected and dispirited escapists into witnesses no one could muzzle. No fake resurrection could achieve that.
Finally, almost all of the eleven remaining disciples would later be tortured and die for this belief. So ‘it’s hard to believe that this kind of powerful self-sacrifice would be done to support a hoax’ (210, Keller).
The authorities stole it?
Okay, it’s more realistic that the authorities themselves moved the body.
But they had no motive to do so, and every motive not to.
The High Priest wanted to crush this rising religious cult that had already been so problematic. His headache would have been solved if he’d produced a body and said: ‘here he is!’
But he didn’t.
And he didn’t say that he’d been instructed to move it by the Romans or call the witnesses who had taken part in the removal either.
Jesus walked out?
Well, maybe Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Maybe he just fainted. Maybe three days in a cool tomb revived him.
But this would mean that after being hung on a cross, having nails hammered through his wrists and ankles, and almost suffocating to death, he was able to set himself free from tightly-wrapped grave clothes, roll away a stone which three women felt unable to move, terrify Roman guards who’s lives depended on their job, and walk miles on wounded feet…
Even non-believing sceptics like David Friedrich Strauss dismiss this idea.
So where was his body?
Besides the empty tomb, there are two other pieces of evidence that support this claim: the resurrection appearances and the growth of the church.
The apostle Paul claims that the risen Jesus appeared to 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:5) – people who were then still alive to be questioned. And Habermas’ study agrees that that almost all scholars believe that there were post-resurrection appearances.
And, in spite of fierce opposition, the Church flourished – thousands believed, including a large number of priests (Acts 6:7). Just look around at the world today.
Timothy Keller says that ‘it’s simply not enough to say that Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church.’ (202)
But Keller also says that even if you don’t believe the resurrection is true, you should want to.
Because Jesus’ resurrection means justice for injustice, healing for pain, love instead of hate.
But most of all, the resurrection means hope – because if the fully human Jesus was raised from death, then that means we can be too (Romans 8:11).
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.
Helpful resources if you would like to know more