In order to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, we need to confirm that: 1) Jesus was crucified. 2) Jesus died. 3) Jesus was buried and the tomb was found empty. 4) The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus. 5) The disciples suffered for their testimony and some of them were killed. This blog series is working through each one of these historical facts and responding to common naturalistic objections.

Jesus was buried

After Jesus was killed by crucifixion he was buried. The burial story is multiply attested in early sources and four even mention the man who buried Jesus.[1] Luke 23:50-52 tells us that “a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God; this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” It is important to note that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, and there were only seventy members in the Sanhedrin. If the disciples were making up Joseph, or claiming he did something that he didn’t do, it would be very easy to falsify their story. Someone would simply have to ask the Sanhedrin for Joseph and ask him what happened. New Testament scholar, J. D. G. Dunn said, “Joseph of Arimathea is a very plausible historical character.”[2] It is very unlikely that the writers of the Gospels made this up, so we are able to reasonably conclude that Jesus was buried in a tomb after his crucifixion.

The tomb was found empty

From what we know about everyday life, once someone dies, they stay dead. Since Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried in the tomb, we would expect that body to remain there unless it was moved. Instead, we have reports of the tomb being found empty. The synoptic Gospels each mention the tomb being found empty. The gospel of John, which is independent from the synoptics, also affirms the empty tomb.

There are four important factors to consider when discussing the empty tomb. The first is that Jesus was killed and buried in Jerusalem. It was also Jerusalem where the disciples began to preach about the empty tomb and the resurrection shortly after. If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, Christianity would have never gotten off the ground. Habermas states that, “His enemies in the Jewish leadership and Roman government would only have had to exhume the corpse and publicly display it for the hoax to be shattered.”[3] It was no secret where Jesus was buried because it was Joseph, one of the Sanhedrin, who buried Jesus. They knew right where his body was and could have easily kept Christianity from getting started by producing a body.

Well, maybe the body wasn’t produced because it was unrecognizable. Would it be worthless to produce a body which couldn’t be confirmed or denied as being Jesus? Habermas responds to this by saying,

First, in the arid climate of Jerusalem, a corpse’s hair, stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after fifty days. Second, regardless of the condition of his body, the enemies of Jesus would still have found benefit in producing the corpse. Even a barely recognizable corpse could have dissuaded some believers, possibly weakening and ultimately toppling the entire movement.[4]

If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, it would have been easy to take it out and have people identify it. In fact, anything would have been better than nothing. There is no report that the enemies of Jesus ever produced a body.

Matthew tells us that even the enemies of Jesus admitted to the tomb being empty. Matt. 28:12-13 says, “And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” This lie would have been completely unnecessary if Jesus’ body remained in the tomb. It’s like a student in school lying about his dog eating his homework. If the student has the homework in class then there is no need to lie about it. The fact that the student makes up a lie means he doesn’t have it. The same is true for Jesus’ body. “There would have been no need for an attempt to account for a missing body, if the body had still been in the tomb.”[5] This is very powerful considering it is coming from the enemies of Jesus. The question also needs to be asked, how would the soldiers know it was the disciples who stole the body if they were asleep? Either they saw the disciples and therefore weren’t sleeping, or they were sleeping and would have no idea it was the disciples. Even the lie that was created to cover up the missing tomb doesn’t make sense.

The last important factor in the empty tomb is the fact that it was discovered by women. Mark 16:1 says, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” Why it is important women discovered the empty tomb? “This would be an odd invention, since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable, certainly not as credible as a man’s.”[6] Licona adds to this and says, “Why fabricate a report of Jesus’ resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses?”[7] It simply doesn’t make sense for the disciples to create a story and have the women discover the empty tomb. The most reasonable explanation is that it is included because it is what really happened.

These points make a very strong case for the empty tomb. Next week I will respond to three different naturalistic explanations. Was the body stolen? Was the body moved? Did the disciples go to the wrong tomb?

[1] Matt. 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, John 19:38, and 1 Cor. 4.

[2] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 782.

[3] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 70.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 71.

[6] Ibid. 72.

[7] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 350-351.