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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus

Don Stewart :: Was the Tomb of Jesus Really Empty?

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Was the Tomb of Jesus Really Empty?

Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus – Question 7

It has often been argued that the writers of the New Testament do not really say the tomb of Jesus was empty; only that He had risen. This has led some to speculate that they considered His resurrection to be something other than a bodily resurrection. Perhaps, He appeared in a vision to them, or that He was merely raised in their hearts.

Does the New Testament claim Jesus’ tomb was really empty on that first Easter? What is the evidence?

Accusation: Paul Does Not Mention the Empty Tomb

In the earliest statement about Jesus’ resurrection, the Apostle Paul does not say the tomb was empty. He wrote,

I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins as the Scriptures say. He was buried and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4 CEV)

While He says Christ was buried and then raised back to life, he does not say the tomb was empty. This has caused some to think that there was no proclamation of the empty tomb.

Response to the Idea the Tomb Was Occupied

There are a number of things that we can say in response to the idea that there was no proclamation of the empty tomb among the first Christians.

1. All Four Gospels Say the Tomb Was Empty

All four gospels say the tomb was empty. Each of the four writers, independently, records the fact that the tomb was empty. Therefore, we have multiple testimonies that Jesus was not in the tomb on Sunday though He had been placed there on Good Friday. Many facts that are recorded in history are from only one source. Here we have four separate sources saying the tomb was unoccupied.

While the phrase “the tomb was empty” is not found in every description of Jesus’ resurrection, it is always inferred. The fact that Paul said Jesus was buried, and then raised from the dead three days later, assumes the tomb was empty. He did not have to state the obvious.

2. The Resurrection Could Not Have Been Proclaimed in Jerusalem If Jesus Was Still in the Tomb

It is impossible to think that the resurrection could have been proclaimed in the city of Jerusalem for one minute had the body of Jesus remained in the tomb. On the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ death, Peter was publicly proclaiming that Jesus had risen. Had this not been the case, it would have been a simple matter to roll aside the stone and produce the body of Jesus. Christianity would have never gotten started!

3. In Disputing the Resurrection the Jews Assumed the Tomb Was Empty

The Jewish religious leaders add further testimony to the emptiness of the tomb. The tomb of Joseph was still intact but the body of Jesus was gone. The religious leaders unanimously testified that the disciples of Jesus stole His body. This was their official explanation as to why the tomb was found empty. Matthew writes about this:

While the women were on their way, some soldiers who had been guarding the tomb went into the city. They told the chief priests everything that had happened. So the chief priests met with the leaders and decided to bribe the soldiers with a lot of money. They said to the soldiers, “Tell everyone that Jesus’ disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were asleep. If the governor hears about this, we will talk to him. You won’t have anything to worry about.” The soldiers took the money and did what they were told. The people of Judea still tell each other this story. (Matthew 28:11-15 CEV)

This last sentence tells us that the Jews were seeking to explain the empty tomb by claiming Jesus’ body was stolen by His disciples.

4. The Story Was Still Circulating

This continued after the times of the apostles. In the second century, the Christian writer Justin Martyr in his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, said that this was the same story circulating among the Jews at his time. Another Christian named Tertullian, writing about A.D. 200, claimed the same thing was happening in his day. Therefore, to account for the empty tomb, we have the testimony of hostile witnesses that Jesus’ disciples took His body.

5. There Was No Alternative Site Given

There is something else. Nowhere do we find any of the enemies of Jesus claiming that they know the whereabouts of His body; His body was gone. No witness came forth to give an alternative site for Jesus’ burial. Unbelievers merely said the body was stolen by His disciples with its location unknown.

6. To the Jews, Resurrection from the Dead Meant an Empty Tomb

There is further matter that needs to be considered. Resurrection, to the Jewish people, meant that the body would no longer be in the grave. There is no such thing as a “spiritual” resurrection. When they spoke of someone being raised from the dead, the assumption was that their body was no longer in a grave.

We learn this lesson from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, they had to first remove the stone and then open the burial cave. For Lazarus to be considered brought back to life, his body had to be absent from the tomb. The same is true in the case of Jesus. Jesus would have never been considered raised from the dead, in any sense, if His body had remained in the tomb.

Conclusion: The Empty Tomb Is an Historical Fact Agreed by Both Friend and Foe

The cumulative evidence is that some thirty-six hours after Jesus was dead and buried, His tomb was found empty. No ancient source denies this. Friends and foes both testified that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb on Easter Sunday. Where they differed was explaining why it was no longer there. The Jewish leaders said the disciples stole His body while Jesus’ disciples said that it was due to the resurrection of Jesus.

In sum, it is clear that the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty on that first Easter. While that does not necessarily mean that Jesus rose from the dead the fact that His tomb was empty is consistent with the united testimony of the New Testament: Jesus Christ conquered death.

Summary – Question 7
Was the Tomb of Jesus Really Empty?

There are some who argue that the tomb of Jesus was not really empty on Easter Sunday morning. However, the empty tomb is an established historical fact. While not every account of Jesus’ resurrection states the words, “the tomb was empty” it is always inferred, or assumed. Indeed, each of the four gospels testifies to the empty tomb.

In addition, the sermons in the Book of Acts assume the tomb was empty. Furthermore, this was not even disputed by the Jewish religious leaders. In fact, they spread the story that Jesus’ disciples stole His body in order to falsely proclaim a resurrection from the dead. Of course, this assumed that the tomb was empty. This story continued for several centuries.

Also, to the Jews, a claim of a resurrection assumed an empty tomb since they knew nothing of a “spiritual resurrection.” It is clear the body of Jesus was missing from the place it had been buried. This is consistent with what the New Testament says literally occurred; Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Was the Story of Jesus' Resurrection Borrowed from Other Ancient Accounts of a Dying and Rising God? ← Prior Section
Was the Body of Jesus Stolen? Next Section →
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