There are a surprising number of facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection that are accepted by both Christian and non-Christian scholars such as the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion and the fact that Jesus’ disciples claimed to have seen him alive again and were willing to die for this claim. Another element of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that his tomb was found empty. There is strong evidence to suggest that Jesus’ tomb was in fact empty, so much so that, according to scholar Gary Habermas the majority of New Testament scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, accept it as fact.
Why should we believe that Jesus’ tomb was empty?
Jesus was a well-known public figure who suffered a gruesome and very public execution in Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers had powerful enemies in Jerusalem both with the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans. And yet, fifty days after his crucifixion, Jesus disciples began publicly proclaiming his resurrection in Jerusalem. Given their hatred of Jesus and his followers, this would have been an opportune time for the Jewish religious leaders to easily discredit the disciples by producing Jesus’ dead body.
This would have been easy enough. The location and owner of the tomb were known to the religious authorities; indeed, Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus was laid, was a Pharisee himself who followed Jesus and a member of the Jewish religious leadership. Jesus’ enemies knew where he was buried, had every motivation to produce Jesus’ body to stop his disciples and yet they do not, most likely because they cannot…the tomb was empty.
Further evidence of an empty tomb comes, remarkably, from those opposed to Christianity. Early church apologists and theologians Justin Martyr and Tertullian wrote against those who accused Christians of stealing Jesus’ body. Matthew 28:12-13 states that the chief priests cooked up the story that the disciples had come by night and taken Jesus’ body. So, in the early days of Christianity there was never any doubt that Jesus’ tomb was empty, the argument was over why it was empty; was it the resurrection or had Jesus’ followers stolen the body?
It should be mentioned that the tomb was guarded and the disciples had absolutely no motivation to steal the body. The disciples did not have a full understanding of what was going to happen until after the resurrection. Indeed, the very concept of a Messiah that would die was not easily understood as we can see in John 12. Furthermore, the disciples were persecuted and many even killed for proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. It seems absurd to think that they would steal his body, concoct a lie about him rising from the dead, and then be willing to suffer and die for this lie. What would they gain from this? Nothing. No, even if they could have taken Jesus’ body despite the guards, the disciples had no motivation to do so. It is absurd to claim that they did.
Finally, an interesting twist on the evidence for the empty tomb is that the first witnesses of the empty tomb were women. This is an interesting twist because in both Jewish and Roman cultures of the time, women were looked down on and their testimony seen as not credible. If the disciples had made up the story about the resurrection, why would they put forth as the primary witnesses a group of women whose testimony would immediately be seen as questionable? It would be much more likely to have a prominent man like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus function as a witness. But no, the first and primary witnesses of the empty tomb are a group of devoted women followers of Jesus. This detail actually supports the truthfulness of the biblical account.
Of course, as Habermas and Licona point out in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb by itself is not evidence enough for Jesus’ resurrection. But the empty tomb does not stand alone, it is part of a body of facts. Jesus was crucified. His disciples claimed to have seen him alive again after his crucifixion. The disciples were willing to suffer and die for this claim. Jesus’ tomb was empty. Paul, a persecutor of the church was changed after he claimed to have had an encounter with the risen Jesus and became a strong proponent of Christianity. James, Jesus’ half-brother who doubted Jesus messianic role during his lifetime, became a leader of the church after a what was claimed as an encounter with the risen Jesus.
These are facts that nearly every New Testament scholar, both Christian and non-Christian, accept. If these are the facts, what is the best explanation that fits all the facts. The best and only explanation that can account for all these facts is that Jesus was crucified and after three days rose from the dead and that he appeared to witnesses who were willing to attest to what they saw and heard, even under pain of death.
Jesus is alive!
There are some great resources to learn more about the facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, The Case for Easter, The Historical Jesus, The Case for Christ, and Evidence that Demands a Verdict are all great books that can help both Christian and skeptic alike gain a better understanding of the evidence for the resurrection.