Inquiring minds should want to know. Recently one of my fellow attorney co-workers mentioned how she had grown up Catholic and later walked away from faith when she got older. She did not believe in miracles or the resurrection of Jesus. If given the opportunity to answer the question, “How do you know Jesus rose from the dead?” I would initially concentrate on just one of several historical facts, the empty tomb.[i] The truth of Christianity hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the Christian faith is futile.[ii]
One of the most important pieces of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is his empty tomb. Historian and New Testament scholar Gary Habermas claims that approximately “75% of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as a historic fact.”[iii] The discovery of the empty tomb has multiple attestations from “very early independent sources,” such as the four Gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians.[iv] According to Christian apologist William Lane Craig, “Historians think they have hit historical paydirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event. But in the case of the empty tomb we have a surfeit of independent sources, no less than six, some of which are among the earliest materials to be found in the New Testament.”[v]
One of the numerous reasons the biblical account of the empty tomb is considered credible, is because it reports that women were the ones who first found Jesus tomb empty. This was actually an embarrassing fact since women were not seen as credible witnesses in Jewish society, because they were “second-class citizens.”[vi] If the empty tomb story was fabricated, the story would have had been more believable to say men arrived first on the scene to discover the empty tomb. To state an embarrassing truth makes it more credible.
Although most scholars agree on the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty, a variety of explanations for the reason the tomb was empty have been offered. The Bible’s explanation for the empty tomb is that God raised Jesus from the dead.[vii] However, scholars rejecting the supernatural Resurrection Theory have posited various natural explanations for the empty tomb, such as: the Conspiracy Theory, Apparent Death Theory, Wrong Tomb Theory, and Displaced Body Theory.[viii] Due to limited time, I will briefly discuss each of these theories in order to show which one is the best or most probable explanation of the empty tomb.
The Conspiracy Theory explanation for the empty tomb goes like this: “the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about his postmortem appearances, thus faking his resurrection.”[ix]
There are many problems with this theory but we will just mention three: there is no evidence for this theory; it would be bizarre to make up that women arrived at the empty tomb first (as explained earlier); it fails to explain the conviction that the disciples believed in the resurrection and they staked their very lives on it.[x] Although this theory was popular by Deists in the eighteenth century, today it has been “completely given up by modern scholarship.”[xi]
The Apparent Death Theory was promulgated by Heinrich Paulus and Friedrich Schleirmacher around the beginning of the nineteenth century. This view held that Jesus wasn’t dead when he was taken off the cross; he “revived in the tomb and escaped to convince his disciples he had risen from the dead.”[xii] The problems with this theory are similar to the problems with the Conspiracy Theory, but additionally: Jesus’ torture and execution was probably impossible to physically endure; this theory fails to explain how the executioner made sure Jesus was dead by thrusting the spear in his side before he was removed from the cross.[xiii] Fortunately this theory has “been almost completely given up” by scholars.[xiv]
The Wrong Tomb Theory, suggested by Kirsopp Lake in 1907, held that the tomb was empty because the women went to the wrong tomb.[xv] There are significant issues with this theory, but just to name two: the location of the tomb was known to Jews and Christians in Jerusalem; this theory does nothing to explain why the disciples believed they saw the resurrected Jesus.[xvi] “Unlike the previous two theories considered, [this theory] generated virtually no following but was dead almost upon arrival.”[xvii]
The Displaced Body Theory, offered by Joseph Klausner in 1922, states that Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ dead body from the tomb to a criminal graveyard, and the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was resurrected. This theory has similar problems as the Wrong Tomb Theory. Additionally, there is no evidence that the location of Jesus’ grave or body was ever an issue.[xviii] No scholars defend this theory today.[xix]
In conclusion, the resurrection is a real event that can be historically investigated. A key piece of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is his empty tomb. Most scholars accept that the empty tomb is a historic fact. When we considered various competing theories for the reason for the empty tomb in order to determine the best explanation for it, it should be clear that the evidence shows the Resurrection Theory is more plausible than the other competing naturalist explanations. Therefore, the best explanation for the empty tomb, and the one that I believe, is that God raised Jesus from the dead.
[i] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Trust and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 360-361.
[ii] 1 Cor. 15:17 NIV.
[iii] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 70.
[iv] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 364-366.
[v] Ibid., 366.
[vi] Ibid., 367.
[vii] 1 Cor. 15:15 NIV.
[viii] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 371-377.
[ix] Ibid., 371.
[x] Ibid., 371-372
[xi] Ibid., 371.
[xii] Ibid., 373.
[xiii] Ibid., 374.
[xiv] Ibid., 373.
[xv] Ibid., 374.
[xvi] Ibid., 374-375.
[xvii] Ibid., 374.
[xviii] Ibid., 376.
[xix] Ibid., 376.