Is the empty tomb a fact or a fraud?
Today, the gospel story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is under assault. Its detractors would have us believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and others only fabricated the story of the resurrection. They would have us believe Jesus is dead; that He either never rose from the tomb, or that He did not actually die at Calvary. But both are preposterous notions, to be dismissed as certainly as other far-fetched claims - that Jesus was secretly married, or that He was a homosexual, or that He had children, etc. None of those claims have any legitimacy, especially in the light of certifiable evidence to the contrary.
"Could fraudulent claims of Jesus' resurrection have survived if Jesus had not truly risen?"
If Jesus really did come back from the dead after several days, ESPECIALLY after accurately predicting His own resurrection, that would certainly be the most persuasive and noteworthy argument in favor of the New Testament claims. On the other hand, if this man, who had been brutally crucified, did not revive, then Christianity is the world's biggest hoax.
Historical realities must be taken into account.
This matter cannot be left to conjecture. There are historical facts to be considered. The political system in authority at that time (the Roman government) went to great lengths to conceal the evidences that Jesus was indeed alive. False witnesses (the Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb) were given sums of money to report that Jesus' disciples had stolen the body out of His tomb, according to Matthew 28:11-15. Their lies, however, were rendered ineffective, because we find no historical evidence that their story ever got any traction within the general public. Everybody knew that Jesus had risen.
On the subject of Jesus' resurrection, C.S. Lewis famously said, “If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the earth.” We should all agree. In fact, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, His birth would never have become the dividing point on the calendar.
The author of "Skeptics Answered," Dr. D. James Kennedy, argued that one of the most convincing evidences of Jesus' resurrection is the fact that virtually all of the New Testament Christians declared that Jesus was alive, to their own personal detriment. He proposed that anyone would have been fools for defending the resurrection story, knowing that they would be persecuted or perhaps killed for taking that position.
The entire drama begs the question, "Why would thousands, even greater multitudes of people allow themselves to be killed to defend a lie, or a faker, an imposter?" It is quite apparent that Jesus' own friends, companions, peers and contemporaries had no doubts at all that He had indeed risen from the dead.
How can we overstate the significance of a man returning from three days and nights in his grave? Never in the history of the world - before or since - has it ever happened on that order, anywhere else. It is all the more wondrous that Jesus specifically notified His followers that after three days, He would rise.
Jesus prophesied His death, burial and resurrection after three days.
"And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again," Mark 8:31.
"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth," Matthew 12:40.
"Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," John 2:19.
Jesus' prophecies were known far and wide. After His crucifixion, the Chief Priests and Pharisees went to Pilate begging security guards to be placed at the tomb. Why?
"Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again," Matthew 27:62-63.
And that is exactly what happened. Security guards could not prevent it.
This was not some freakish event, or spontaneous resuscitation. It was a divinely-orchestrated pre-ordained miracle. An even more miraculous component is the fact that prophets had been foretelling it for centuries.
Among the billions of people who have ever lived on this planet in over six thousand years of human history, not one single person in antiquity ever accomplished a similar feat. NONE of the ancients are alive today - with the exception of Jesus Christ.
Even the wealthiest and most powerful men on earth have no power to avoid death. No exceptions. None of us had power or control over our own birth. Neither do we have the power to avoid death and the grave, unless we happen to be alive when Jesus returns for His living saints.
Solomon, the wise man and preacher, wrote, “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6).
What is more final than death?
In any other context, Jesus' death would have been the end of Him. But He was God incarnate, and that made all the difference.
Jesus' disciples must have been horrified when they looked at His lifeless body hanging there on the cross on that eerily dark and mysterious afternoon.
For His disciples, the previous three years in Jesus' company had been an exhilarating experience. They watched Him perform countless miracles and healings. The blind could see, the deaf could hear, the lepers were purified, the crippled could walk. They even saw Jesus raise several from the dead.
Less than a week earlier, they had paraded alongside Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, as the people cheered and worshipped Him as their King and Messiah.
But in a lightning-fast chain of events unfolding in less than one full day, He was captured, imprisoned, tried, convicted and brutally murdered.
The shock and awe of these terrifying events must have left their minds numb. But even more breath-taking was the actual sight of Him standing again, ALIVE IN THEIR PRESENCE, only three days later!
The things they saw and heard and reported to the rest of the world have changed all the tides of history for all of time.
Evidences Of Jesus' Resurrection
Ancient prophecies fulfilled
(Acts 2:25-35; 13:33-35, 41)
Peter - a true eyewitness - saw and spoke with Jesus for several days after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter explained all about the Old Testament prophecies that he knew applied to this miracle, when he preached to the multitudes in the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
“For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption,” (Acts 2:25-27).
Jesus was dead for three days. That was long enough to give irrefutable proof that He had really expired. The idea that He might have only been in a coma, then awakened and immediately walked the length and breadth of the land from Jerusalem to Galilee is more than preposterous.
The massive injuries that Jesus sustained - His beatings, the nails in His hands and feet, being pierced with spears, the massive blood loss, and being left for dead for hours on a cross - all of these facts completely argue against the ridiculous notion that He could have somehow resumed an active lifestyle apart from divine, miraculous intervention.
Even if Jesus had been in a coma, the massive injuries He sustained would have been followed by deadly infections, fevers and illness that would have prevented Him from walking from Jerusalem to Galilee, or teaching and ministering to the hundreds of people who saw Him alive.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies. Peter clearly explained how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of David.
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.
This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Until I make thy foes thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ,” (Acts 2:20-36)
Peter and the apostles were forceful and unapologetic. They believed that Jesus' death, burial and resurrection was a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Furthermore, they believed that Jesus Christ was the heir to David's throne as King of Israel. Peter was so convincing that the multitudes begged his further instructions.
“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls,” (Acts 2:37-39).
The fact that three thousand people joined to the early church that day clearly shows the consensus of Jerusalem less than two months after Jesus' death. They obviously believed HE WAS ALIVE! If Jesus had been dead, that entire episode on the Day of Pentecost would never have happened.
That consensus never changed. The crowds never chanted denials of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus was the talk of the town. Everybody knew that He had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. And multitudes wanted to be filled with His Spirit.
Much later, the Apostle Paul echoed Peter’s claims when he preached to the Jews in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13). Paul preached authoritatively (he was well-educated in the scriptures) concerning David’s Messianic prophecies. Paul connected Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection to those prophecies. His arguments could not be disproved. The people were so moved that the entire city (Jews and Gentiles) eventually came to hear Paul preach Jesus Christ!
God certainly knew that nothing could speak more powerfully to the multitudes than one who had risen from the dead! Perhaps that is just one of many, many reasons why Jesus died and rose again.
The things Paul preached resonated with the people, and consequently, the Word of the Lord was “published throughout all the region,” Acts 13:49. “And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost,” (v. 32).
Almighty God knows the hearts of men, and He knew that news of Christ being risen from the dead would capture their imaginations and draw them to seek after Him.
(Acts 2:32; 13:30-31)
According to the Bible, more than five hundred people actually saw Jesus alive with their own eyes, within days after His crucifixion.
Jesus' resurrection did not happen in a vacuum, neither was it a hallucination in the minds of the disciples. It was a very real, verifiable fact. Hundreds of people saw Him alive after the fact. Peter reported it. Paul reiterated the details surrounding the event in Acts 13:31, “And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people.”
Eyewitnesses of the empty tomb.
Combining all the details we have available from Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20, we know that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, Salome, other women, and Peter and John all saw that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was gone. They saw that the stone had been rolled away. They saw Jesus' grave clothes in place. Two angels stood at the entrance, and one told them to tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.
Mary Magdalene actually saw Jesus in the Garden earlier that morning, but mistook Him for the gardener. Others also saw Him and bowed down, worshipping Him.
Eyewitnesses of Jesus - alive!
Two of the disciples encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus that afternoon (See Mark 18:12; Luke 24:13). Their eyes were “holden” (prevented, kept) from realizing who He really was. As they talked, and then ate together, their eyes were suddenly opened, and they knew Him.
That same evening, Jesus appeared in a room where the disciples had gathered (John 20:19-25). In the face of the disciples’ grave apprehensions, Jesus invited them to inspect His wounds. “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them,” (Luke 24:39-43).
Thomas was absent at that meeting, and when the brethren told him they had seen Jesus alive, he would not believe them. “He said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe,” (John 20:25).
Eight days later, Jesus appeared again in the same room where they had seen Him before. This time, Thomas was present. “Jesus stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God," (John 20:26-28).
Then they went away into the mountains near Galilee where they were appointed to meet Him again. There the eleven saw and worshiped Him (Matthew 28:16-20). The entire twenty-first chapter of John gives the account of the disciples’ encounters with Jesus around Lake Tiberius.
Paul furnished additional record: “After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep,” (1 Corinthians 15:6). Over five-hundred eyewitnesses!
Eventually, the Apostle Paul counted himself among the eyewitnesses of Jesus, revealing that Jesus had visibly appeared to him in his conversion (v. 8).
The disciples considered their witness of the resurrection one of their primary credentials. After Judas Iscariot hung himself, they set about to elect a replacement for him. The qualifications they stipulated for Judas’ successor was that “of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection,” (Acts 1:21,22). Both candidates, Barsabas and Matthias, had seen Jesus alive after the resurrection.
"He shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me," Acts 1:3-4.
“Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead,” (Acts 10:41).
Jesus ascended into heaven, and is alive today and forevermore.
Among the many Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection, we also find a prophecy of His ascension in Proverbs 68:18, “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men.” Jesus certainly fulfilled this prophecy. Jesus “was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God,” according to Mark 16:19.
Just outside of Jerusalem, Jesus “led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy,” (Luke 24:50-52).
Paul repeatedly affirmed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory,” (1 Timothy 3:16).
Paul firmly linked Jesus’ ascension to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy by referencing Proverbs 68:18, “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men,” (Ephesians 4:8).
The resurrection was a principal doctrine in the Book of Acts.
Many of the scriptural references we have furnished so far come from the book of Acts, which was written by Luke the physician. Luke’s first references to the resurrection in chapter one establish the fact that it did occur. The disciples and apostles serve as witnesses to its historical reality. Of the twenty-three references to witnesses in Acts, eight (approximately one-third) specifically mention the resurrection. The resurrection emerges as a strong theological concept in Acts.
The resurrection is the Bible's core theological event.
Josh McDowell, renowned campus speaker, entered his own defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He said, “After more than 700 hours of studying this subject, I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is either one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted on the minds of human beings--or it is the most remarkable fact of history.”
Remove the resurrection of Jesus from the pages of history, and the world would be essentially unrecognizable. Michael Ramsey stated the matter most concisely: “No resurrection, no Christianity.”
Books have been written that attempt to assess the question, what if Jesus had never come? But speculation can never adequately reveal the eternal impact of that One Man’s resurrection from the dead. A world devoid of Christ and Christianity would surely be a frightful, dreadful place.
Resurrection from the dead is prophesied in the Old Testament.
The resurrection of all the saints of God is inextricably linked to Jesus’ resurrection from Old Testament times: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead,” (Isaiah 26:19).
The resurrection vindicated and legitimized Jesus' claims to deity.
Unless and until someone is able to prove conclusively that Jesus Christ did NOT rise from the dead, the gospel message is ironclad. Lord Lyndhurst of Cambridge University, considered one of the greatest legal minds in the history of England, said, “I know pretty well what evidence is; and, I tell you, such evidence as that for the resurrection has never broken down yet.”
G.B. Hardy offered the following observation:
“There are but two essential requirements:
First: Has anyone cheated death and proved it?
Second: Is it available to me?
Here is the complete record.
Confucius’ tomb – occupied.
Buddha’s tomb – occupied.
Mohammed’s tomb – occupied.
Jesus’ tomb – empty.
Argue as you will. There is no point in following a loser.”
The resurrection divinely validated the Church
Consider Jesus’ identity as the life-giver. John said, “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men,” (John 1:4). Jesus claimed to be the bread of life that He gave “for the life of the world,” (John 6:51). Furthermore, Jesus boldly claimed to be the resurrection and the life. He said, “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” (John 11:25). He called Himself, “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6).
All these claims would have fallen to the ground if the grave had defeated Jesus. But Jesus stole victory from the grave and removed the sting of death when He rose from the dead and showed the world He was alive forevermore.
Jesus demonstrated to Mary and Martha that He was truly “the resurrection and the life” when He called Lazarus from the dead. But He showed even greater power when He walked out of His own tomb alive forevermore.
Resurrection proved Jesus was who the disciples claimed.
Again and again, the disciples had borne witness to their families, their friends and anyone else who would hear them, that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God. While some had believed, many others had hotly refuted them. But with a risen Savior, the skeptics were forced to reconsider their objections.
Peter was greatly emboldened by his encounter with the living Jesus. He had no inhibitions as he stood before the Jerusalem crowds on the day of Pentecost. ”Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ,” (Acts 2:36). Peter not only pressed the people to embrace the fact of the resurrection, but furthermore to embrace the Lordship and Divinity of Jesus.
He was the firstborn. His was the first resurrection among many.
Jesus’ personal resurrection was not for His benefit alone. “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren,” (Romans 8:29). Jesus’ resurrection was, above all, to bring MANY SONS into glory. He was only the firstborn of those many sons.
His resurrection provides hope for all believers.
“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming,” (I Corinthians 15:19-23).
We that are Christ’s have that great hope of glory.
Born-again believers experience a personal spiritual resurrection first.
Paul testified before the Governor Felix that the reason he was willing to endure the opposition of the gospel is that he had hope of being resurrected from the dead.
We are resurrected spiritually when we are born again.
“Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection,” (Romans 6:4,5).
Once Jesus’ blood had been spilled at Calvary, He had to be revived without blood. Moses taught that the life of the flesh is in the blood. Jesus proved that He had the power to live without blood. If Jesus can be raised to life without blood, then we can all be raised from the dead by the resurrection power of the Spirit of Christ.
That is certainly one of the reasons why Paul posits that, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his,” (Romans 8:9). Jesus’ resurrected body was not animated by blood, but by Spirit. In like manner, our resurrected bodies will be animated not by blood, but by the Holy Spirit.
“If the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you,” (Romans 8:11).
Watchman Nee wrote that “Our old history ends with the cross; our new history begins with the resurrection.” The resurrection power resident in the Holy Ghost infuses us with new life. Old things pass away. All things become new.
Born-again believers will also be physically resurrected.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words,” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Oxford University history professor Thomas Arnold, author of "History of Rome," said, "I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead."
Jesus pronounced one of the most potent prophecies of all concerning His resurrection. He foretold His own resurrection with the story of the prophet Jonah. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” (Matthew 12:40). Pointedly, as Jonah returned “from the belly of hell” when the whale returned him to shore, Jesus returned from having His soul in hell, to His resurrection to eternal life.
All the resurrection doctrine enforces God’s message to His church that some day He will return to take all His saints away, both the dead and the living.
“The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words,” (1Thessalonians 4:16-18).
Jesus plainly introduced this doctrine to His disciples. In John 14, He said, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also,” (v. 1-3).
The conclusion of the matter is that the greatest reason we can identify for Jesus’ resurrection is that one day we may all expect to be raised from our own graves to live and dwell with our Lord and Savior in the glories of His presence for ever and ever.
The resurrection message, consistently and powerfully declared by the early church, is the very heartbeat that gives life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We genuinely have no choice but to believe it.