By: Justin Wishart
As we approach Easter, many people will attend church to celebrate the central event in Christianity; Jesus’ Resurrection. Pulpits across the world will recount the story; Jesus was executed by crucifixion and buried in Jerusalem. As Passover ended, women went back to the tomb with spices to treat Jesus’ body as was customary for Jews during this time. When they arrived they were stunned to see that the tomb no longer contained the body of Jesus. Yet, many people doubt this story, and many people in the pews will be silently asking themselves; “Did this actually happen?”
The biblical explanation was that Jesus was supernaturally raised from the dead. But, many find this explanation far-fetched. Many sceptical lay people, and scholars, will look at the empty tomb story and think that this account is simply that, a story. Many people might be surprised, however, that there are some good evidential reasons to believe that Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty. Let us look at some of the reasons why.
1. This might be a strange point to make for our modern ears, but the empty tomb was said to be discovered by women. Why would this be important? The reason for this is because first century Jewish culture was dominated by men. Women were not trusted as witnesses. Their testimony was not even considered reliable in court.[i] Because there was no trust in the witness of women, it would have been highly embarrassing for these men to claim that it was women who were first to discover the empty tomb. If the authors of the Gospels wanted to make up this story, they wouldn’t have undercut its credibility by making women the first witnesses.
According to what has been called the “Criterion of Embarrassment,” this shows that the authors of the Gospel account were interested in telling the truth. The writers were more interested in recording truth then writing things that would make their fabrication more palatable and influential. Since there is this honest admission directly linked to the discovery of the empty tomb, it seems unlikely all four authors would be honest about the embarrassing points while lying about the central event in Christianity.
2. This message originated within Jerusalem, which is the same location where the events happened. Jesus was executed in Jerusalem and buried in Jerusalem. If it was the case that Jesus’ tomb was not empty, this would be an extremely easy thing to prove. One would simply have to open the tomb and show everyone that the tomb still had Jesus’ body. Instead, in Acts, Peter boldly preaches to a large crowd, saying:
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses… Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:29-36 ESV)
If Christianity’s opponents wanted to disprove Peter’s claims, wouldn’t it have been very easy for them to simply open the tomb? David’s tomb was known as was Jesus’ tomb. But Peter specifically contrasts the two, a filled tomb and an empty tomb. He couldn’t have gotten away with that unless the tomb was empty. These events didn’t occur in a vacuum and someone would have challenged him if they knew the tomb had a body. Rather, the crowd’s overwhelming response of belief, shows that they knew the tomb was empty.
3. The original Jewish response presupposes that the tomb was empty. The priests told the Roman soldiers to explain away why the tomb was empty, not to disprove that the tomb was empty. They said, ”Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” (Matthew 28:13 ESV) It would be strange to come up with this story if the tomb was not empty. At this point a sceptic could say that Matthew simply added this point to make the empty tomb more believable. However, to buttress this point, there has been no evidence found that anyone demonstrated that the tomb actually had Jesus’ body: not any writings in literature that is contemporary to the events, nor in later works such as the Jewish Talmud. One would have expected to see a refutation of the empty tomb, particularly in Jewish writing, but all explanations try to explain why the tomb was empty, not whether the tomb was empty.[ii] To deny this account without any evidence seems to highlight one’s pre-existing biases against Christianity, not a conclusion that is historically discovered.
4. If we merely look at the four Gospels as historical documents, then we obviously have four independent historical documents of an empty tomb. Many points of what is taken to be historical facts in the study of history are often solely base on one historical source. Does it not make sense that since we have four original sources for a single event, that we can have more trust that this event happened? We also have other historical sources which assume an empty tomb. For example, Paul wrote an extremely early Christian creed which starts out as follows:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV)
We have another early Christian creed which also implies an empty tomb:
“And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people… And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another psalm, “’You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.” (Acts 13:29-37 ESV)
These represent the earliest known creeds in Christianity, and to go back to Point 2: that they were taught in Jerusalem. These claims could have been easily falsified by a Jewish and Roman crowd that was hostile to this very message if they could point to Jesus’ body. But We have no record of this even being attempted.
Do these points prove that the Resurrection actually happened? No. It would be wrong to say that. What it does do though is show the best possible historical explanation for why the early Christians and their opponents believed the tomb was empty: because it was actually empty. Scepticism of these events appears to flow from a denial of supernatural events in general, not from direct evidence. Ultimately, I place my knowledge and belief of these events on the authority of Scripture as God’s Word; however, it is nice that historical evidence also point to an empty tomb as well.
Josephus (37-100AD) in his ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ wrote: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.”
Justin Martyr (100-165AD) summarizes the Jewish response to the empty tomb in ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ (108) “…after you learned that He rose from the dead, but, as I said before you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven
Likewise, Tertullian (160-225AD) summarizes the Jewish response in ‘De Spectaculis’ (30) “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!”
This article was done in partnership with the Canadian Apologetics Coalition. Bloggers from across Canada have put together a cumulative case for the historical Resurrection of Jesus. Here are the other articles:
By Tim Barnett | Sunday, March 24th
Tim Barnett (BSc, BEd) is a high school science teacher and the founder of Clear Thinking Christianity. His passion is to train Canadian Christians–both young and old–to think clearly about their Christian convictions because Christianity is worth think about. God willing, Tim will start his MA in Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary this fall. Website: www.clearthinkingchristianity.com.
By Tawa Anderson | Monday, March 25th
Tawa Anderson was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, where he earned his BA in Political Science at the U of A (1997), and his MDiv from Edmonton Baptist Seminary (2000). He served as English pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church from 2001-2008 before returning to school to earn his PhD in Philosophy, Apologetics & Worldview from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). Tawa now serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee, Oklahoma), and returns regularly to Canada to preach, teach, and visit family and friends. Person blog: www.tawapologetics.blogspot.com.
By Paul Buller | Tuesday, March 26th
Paul enjoys discussing and teaching on philosophy of science, philosophy of ethics and theology among other related topics. He is an engineer, husband and father of two. He is the author of Arguing with Friends: Keeping Your Friends and Your Convictions.
By Kelly Madland | Wednesday, March 27th
Kelly Madland is a wife, mom, and community apologist who has hosted a local
apologetics conference called ‘Thinking Clearly About God’ in Kamloops. She has been leading a bible study on campus at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She is also a part of the Ratio Christi Canada development team, and is looking forward to completing her Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics in 2014. Personal blog: www.thinkclearly.ca.
Contending for Easter: Come, See Where He Lay [PART 5]
By Justin Wishart | Thursday, March 28th
Justin Wishart is the general editor and blogger for Faith Beyond Belief and lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is most interested in issues surrounding Christian philosophy, particularly epistemology and early Christian thought. Justin is a husband and a father. He currently works as a mechanic and enjoys many hobbies such as camping, hiking, and creating music. Website: www.faithbeyondbelief.ca.
By Stephen J. Bedard | Friday, March 29th
Stephen J. Bedard (MDiv, MTh, MA, DMin (cand.)) is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministries and an instructor at Emmanuel Bible College and Tyndale University College. Website: www.hopesreason.com.
Contending for Easter: How To Turn A Skeptic Into A Believer [PART 7]
By David Haines | Saturday, March 30th
David Haines was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. He holds a BTh from Covington Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at University Laval. Personal blog is: www.philosopherdhaines.blogspot.ca. Website: www.associationaxiome.ca.
Contending for Easter: Why Canadians Still Need Easter [PART 8]
By Jojo Ruba | Sunday, March 31st
Jojo Ruba is committed to equipping Christians to be good ambassadors for Christ. He does this as a youth pastor with Faith Builder International Church in Calgary as well as a public speaker and executive director of Faith Beyond Belief. His experiences speaking at public forums, university debates and in Christian settings have helped him understand how we can better communicate the truth of the gospel. Through Faith Beyond Belief, Jojo shares solid tools to help Christians engage their culture with compassion but without compromise. Website: www.faithbeyondbelief.ca