The Empty Tomb of Jesus by Lee Strobel
Lee Strobel was the former legal editor of The Chicago Tribune and he used his journalistic skill to investigate the evidence for Jesus. He said that he “had been living a profane, drunken, self-absorbed and immoral lifestyle” until “his heart had shrunk to the point where it was rock hard toward anyone else.” After a personal investigation that spanned more than 600 days and interviewing of numerous experts, his verdict in the case for Jesus was overwhelming and clear. He then decided to take the experiential step to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. He turned to John 1:12 (NIV), “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” And his mathematical formula for entering into an ongoing personal relationship with Jesus Christ by becoming adopted into God’s family is:
believe + receive = become
He is currently a teaching pastor at Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forrest, California.
The passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “The case for Christ,” which was published in 1998.
The empty tomb, as an enduring symbol of the Resurrection, is the ultimate representation of Jesus’ claim to being God. The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that the Resurrection is the very linchpin of the Christian faith: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”
Theologian Gerald O’Collins put it this way: “In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It is not Christianity at all.”1
The Resurrection is the supreme vindication of Jesus’ divine identity and his inspired teaching. It’s the proof of his triumph over sin and death. It’s the foreshadowing of the resurrection of his followers. It’s the basis of Christian hope. It’s the miracle of all miracles.
If it’s true. Skeptics claim that what happened to Jesus’ body is still a mystery akin to Helen Brach’s disappearance—there’s not enough evidence, they say, to reach a firm conclusion.
But others assert that the case is effectively closed, because there is conclusive proof that the tomb was vacant on that first Easter Morning. And if you want someone to compellingly present that case, your best bet is to visit with William Lane Craig, widely considered to be among the world’s foremost experts on the Resurrection.
THE ELEVENTH INTERVIEW: WILLIAM LANE CRAIG, PH.D., D.TH.
I had an unusual perspective the first time I saw Bill Craig in action: I was seated behind him as he defended Christianity before a crowd of nearly eight thousand people, with countless others listening on more than one hundred radio stations across the country.
As moderator of a debate between Craig and an atheist selected by the national spokesman for American Atheists, Inc., I marveled as Craig politely but powerfully built the case for Christianity while simultaneously dismantling the arguments for atheism. From where I was sitting, I could watch the faces of people as they discovered—many for the first time—that Christianity can stand up to rational analysis and rugged scrutiny.
In the end it was no contest. Among those who had entered the auditorium that evening as avowed atheists, agnostics, or skeptics, an overwhelming 82 percent walked out concluding that the case for Christianity had been the most compelling. Forty-seven people entered as nonbelievers and exited as Christians—Craig’s arguments for the faith were that persuasive, especially compared with the paucity of evidence for atheism. Incidentally, nobody became an atheist.2
So when I flew down to Atlanta to interview him for this book, I was anxious to see how he’d respond to the challenges concerning the empty tomb of Jesus.
He hadn’t changed since I had seen him a few years earlier. With his close-cropped black beard, angular features, and riveting gaze, Craig still looks the role of a serious scholar. He speaks in cogent sentences, never losing his train of thought, always working through an answer methodically, point by point, fact by fact.
Yet he isn’t a dry theologian. Craig has a refreshing enthusiasm for his work. His pale blue eyes dance as he weaves elaborate propositions and theories; he punctuates his sentences with hand gestures that beckon for understanding and agreement; his voice modulates from near giddiness over some arcane theological point that he finds fascinating to hushed sincerity as he ponders why some scholars resist the evidence that he finds so compelling.
In short, his mind is fully engaged, but so is his heart.
When he talks about skeptics he has debated, it isn’t with a smug or adversarial tone. He goes out of his way to mention their endearing qualities when he can—this one was a wonderful speaker, that one was charming over dinner.
In the subtleties of our conversation, I sensed that he isn’t out to pummel opponents with his arguments; he’s sincerely seeking to win over people who he believes matter to God. He seems genuinely perplexed why some people cannot, or will not, recognize the reality of the empty tomb.
DEFENDING THE EMPTY TOMB
Wearing blue jeans, white socks, and a dark-blue sweater with red turtleneck collar, Craig lounged on a floral couch in his living room. On the wall behind him was a large framed scene of Munich.
It was there, fresh with a master of arts degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham, England that Craig studied the Resurrection for the first time, while earning another doctorate, this one in theology from the University of Munich. Later he taught at Thrifty Evangelical Divinity School and then served as a visiting scholar at the Higher Institute of Philosophy at the University of Louvain near Brussels.
His books include Reasonable Faith; No Easy Answers; Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection; The Only Wise God; The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe; and (with Quentin Smith) Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology published by Oxford University Press.
He also contributed to The Intellectuals Speak Out about God; Jesus under Fire; In Defense of Miracles; and Does God Exist? In addition, his scholarly articles have appeared in such journals as New Testament Studies; Journal for the Study of the New Testament; Gospel Perspectives; Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation; and Philosophy. He is a member of nine professional societies, including the American Academy of Religion and the American Philosophical Association.
While he is internationally known for his writings about the intersection of science, philosophy, and theology, he needed no prompting to discuss the subject that still makes his heart beat fast: the resurrection of Jesus.
WAS JESUS REALLY BURIED IN THE TOMB?
Before looking at whether the tomb of Jesus was empty, I needed to establish whether his body had been there in the first place. History tells us that as a rule, crucified criminals were left on the cross to be devoured by birds or were thrown into a common grave. This has prompted John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar to conclude that Jesus’ body probably was dug up and consumed by wild dogs.
“Based on these customary practices,” I said to Craig, “wouldn’t you admit that this is most likely what happened?”
“If all you looked at was customary practice, yes, I’d agree,” came his reply. “But that would ignore the specific evidence in this case.”
“OK, then let’s look at the specific evidence,” I said. With that I pointed out an immediate problem: the gospels say Jesus’ corpse was turned over to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very council—the Sanhedrin—that voted to condemn Jesus. “That’s rather implausible, isn’t it?” I demanded in a tone more pointed than I had intended.
Craig shifted on the couch as if he were getting ready to pounce on my question. “No, not when you look at all the evidence for the burial,” he said. “So let me go through it. For one thing, the burial is mentioned by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3—7, where he passes on a very early creed of the church.”
I acknowledged this with a nod, since Dr. Craig Blomberg had already described this creed in some detail during our earlier interview. Craig agreed with Blomberg that the creed undoubtedly goes back to within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion, having been given to Paul, after his conversion, in Damascus or in his subsequent visit to Jerusalem when he met with the apostles James and Peter.
Since Craig was going to be referring to the creed, I opened the Bible in my lap and quickly reviewed the passage: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . . .” The creed then goes on to list several appearances of the resurrected Jesus.
“This creed is incredibly early and therefore trustworthy material,” Craig said. “Essentially, it’s a four-line formula. The first line refers to the Crucifixion, the second to the burial, the third to the Resurrection, and the fourth to Jesus’ appearances. As you can, see, the second line affirms that Jesus was buried.”
That was too vague for me. “Wait a minute,” I interjected. “He may have been buried, but was it in a tomb? And was it through Joseph of Arimathea, this mysterious character who comes out of nowhere to claim the body?”
Craig remained patient. “This creed is actually a summary that corresponds line by line with what the gospels teach,” he explained. “When we turn to the gospels, we find multiple, independent attestation of this burial story, and Joseph of Arimathea is specifically named in all four accounts. On top of that, the burial story in Mark is so extremely early that it’s simply not possible for it to have been subject to legendary corruption.”
“How can you tell it’s early?” I asked.
“Two reasons,” he said. “First, Mark is generally considered to be the earliest gospel. Second, his gospel basically consists of short anecdotes about Jesus, more like pearls on a string than a smooth, continuous narrative.
“But when you get to the last week of Jesus’ life—the so-called passion story—then you do have a continuous narrative of events in sequence. This passion story was apparently taken by Mark from an even earlier source—and this source included the story of Jesus being buried in the tomb.”
IS JOSEPH Of ARIMATHEA HISTORICAL?
While those were good arguments, I spotted a problem with Mark’s account of what happened. “Mark says that the entire Sanhedrin voted to condemn Jesus,” I said. “If that’s true, this means Joseph of Arimathea cast his ballot to kill Jesus. Isn’t it highly unlikely that he would have then come to give Jesus an honorable burial?”
Apparently, my observation put me in good company. “Luke may have felt this same discomfort,” Craig said, “which would explain why he added one important detail—Joseph of Arimathea wasn’t present when the official vote was taken. So that would explain things. But the significant point about Joseph of Arimathea is that he would not be the sort of person who would have been invented by Christian legend or Christian authors.”
I needed more than merely a conclusion on that matter; I wanted some solid reasoning. “Why not?” I asked.
“Given the early Christian anger and bitterness toward the Jewish leaders who had instigated the crucifixion of Jesus,” he said, “it’s highly improbable that they would have invented one who did the right thing by giving Jesus an honorable burial—especially while all of Jesus’ disciples deserted him! Besides, they wouldn’t make up a specific member of a specific group, whom people could check out for themselves and ask about this. So Joseph is undoubtedly a historical figure.”
Before I could ask a follow-up question, Craig continued. “I’ll add that if this burial by Joseph were a legend that developed later, you’d expect to find other competing burial traditions about what happened to Jesus’ body. However, you don’t find these at all.
“As a result, the majority of New Testament scholars today agree that the burial account of Jesus is fundamentally reliable. John A. T. Robinson, the late Cambridge University New Testament scholar, said the honorable burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best attested facts that we have about the historical Jesus.”
Craig’s explanations satisfied me that Jesus’ body was indeed placed in Joseph’s tomb. But the creed left an ambiguity: perhaps, even after the Resurrection, his body remained entombed.
“While the creed says Jesus was crucified, buried, and then resurrected, it doesn’t specifically say the tomb was empty,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t this leave room for the possibility that the Resurrection was only spiritual in nature and that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb?”
“The creed definitely implies the empty tomb,” Craig countered. “You see, the Jews had a physical concept of resurrection. For them, the primary object of the resurrection was the bones of the deceased—not even the flesh, which was thought to be perishable. After the flesh rotted away, the Jews would gather the bones of their deceased and put them in boxes to be preserved until the resurrection at the end of the world, when God would raise the righteous dead of Israel and they would come together in the final kingdom of God.
“In light of this, it would have been simply a contradiction of terms for an early Jew to say that someone was raised from the dead but his body still was left in the tomb. So when this early Christian creed says Jesus was buried and then raised on the third day, it’s saying implicitly but quite clearly: an empty tomb was left behind.”
HOW SECURE WAS THE TOMB?
Having heard convincing evidence that Jesus had been in the tomb, it seemed important to know how secure his grave was from outside influences. The tighter the security, the less likely the body could have been tampered with. “How protected was Jesus’ tomb?” I asked.
Craig proceeded to describe how this kind of tomb looked, as best as archaeologists have been able to determine from excavations of first-century sites.
“There was a slanted groove that led down to a low entrance, and a large disk-shaped stone was rolled down this groove and lodged into place across the door,” he said, using his hands to illustrate what he was saying. “A smaller stone was then used to secure the disk. Although it would be easy to roll this big disk down the groove, it would take several men to roll the stone back up in order to reopen the tomb. In that sense it was quite secure.”
However was Jesus’ tomb also guarded? I knew that some skeptics have attempted to cast doubt on the popular belief that Jesus’ tomb was carefully watched around the clock by highly disciplined Roman soldiers, who faced death themselves if they failed in their duty.
“Are you convinced there were Roman guards?” I asked.
“Only Matthew reports that guards were placed around the tomb,” he replied. “But in any event, I don’t think the guard story is an important facet of the evidence for the Resurrection. For one thing, it’s too disputed by contemporary scholarship. I find it’s prudent to base my arguments on evidence that’s most widely accepted by the majority of scholars, so the guard story is better left aside.”
I was surprised by his approach. “Doesn’t that weaken your case?” I asked.
Craig shook his head. “Frankly, the guard story may have been important in the eighteenth century, when critics were suggesting that the disciples stole Jesus’ body, but nobody espouses that theory today,” he responded.
“When you, read the New Testament,” he continued, “there’s no doubt that the disciples sincerely believed the truth of the Resurrection, which they proclaimed to their deaths. The idea that the empty tomb is the result of some hoax, conspiracy, or theft is simply dismissed today. So the guard story has become sort of incidental.”
WERE ANY GUARDS PRESENT?
Even so, I was interested in whether there was any evidence to back up Matthew’s assertion about the guards. Although I understood Craig’s reasons for setting aside the issue, I pressed ahead by asking whether there was any good evidence that the guard story is historical.
“Yes, there is,” he said. “Think about the claims and counterclaims about the Resurrection that went back and forth between the Jews and Christians in the first century.
“The initial Christian proclamation was, ‘Jesus is risen.’ The Jews responded, ‘The disciples stole his body.’ To this Christians said, ‘Ah, but the guards at the tomb would have prevented such a theft.’ The Jews responded, ‘Oh, but the guards at the tomb fell asleep.’ To that the Christians replied, ‘No, the Jews bribed the guards to say they fell asleep.’
“Now, if there had not been any guards, the exchange would have gone like this: In response to the claim Jesus is risen, the Jews would say, ‘No, the disciples stole his body.’ Christians would reply, ‘But the guards would have prevented the theft.’ Then the Jewish response would have been, ‘What guards? You’re crazy! There were no guards!’ Yet history tells us that’s not what the Jews said.
“This suggests the guards really were historical and the Jews knew it, which is why they had to invent the absurd stony about the guards having been asleep while the disciples took the body.”
Again a nagging question prompted me to jump in. “There seems to be another problem here,” I said, pausing as I tried to formulate my objection as succinctly as I could.
“Why would the Jewish authorities have placed guards at the tomb in the first place? If they were anticipating a resurrection or the disciples faking one, this would mean they had a better understanding of Jesus’ predictions about his resurrection than the disciples did! After all, the disciples were surprised by the whole thing.”
“You’ve hit on something there,” Craig conceded. “However, maybe they placed the guards there to prevent any sort of tomb robbery or other disturbances from happening during Passover. We don’t know. That’s a good argument; I grant its full force. But I don’t think it’s insuperable.”
Yes, but it does raise some question concerning the guard story. Plus another objection came to mind. “Matthew says the Roman guards reported to the Jewish authorities,” I said. “But doesn’t that seem unlikely, since they were responsible to Pilate?”
A slight smile came to Craig’s face. “If you look carefully,” he said, “Matthew doesn’t say the guards are Romans. When the Jews go to Pilate and ask for a guard, Pilate says, ‘You have a guard.’ Now, does he mean, ‘All right, here’s a detachment of Roman soldiers’? Or does he mean, ‘You’ve got your own temple guards; use them’?
“Scholars have debated whether or not it was a Jewish guard. I was initially inclined, for the reason you mentioned, to think that the guard was Jewish. I’ve rethought that, however, because the word Matthew uses to refer to the guards is often used with respect to Roman soldiers rather than just temple officers.
“And remember, John tells us it was a Roman centurion who led Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus under the direction of Jewish leadership. So there is precedent for Roman guards reporting to Jewish religious leaders. It seems plausible that they could also be involved in the guarding of the tomb.”
Weighing the evidence, I felt persuaded that guards had been present, but I decided to drop this line of questioning, since Craig doesn’t rely on the guard stony anyway. Meanwhile I was anxious to confront Craig with what seems to be the most persuasive argument against the idea that Jesus’ tomb was vacant on Easter Morning.
WHAT ABOUT THE CONTRADICTIONS?
Through the years, critics of Christianity have attacked the empty tomb story by pointing out apparent discrepancies among the gospel accounts. For example, skeptic Charles Templeton said recently, “The four descriptions of events … differ so markedly at so many points that, with all the good will in the world, they cannot be reconciled.”3
Taken at face value, this objection seems to penetrate to the heart of the reliability of the empty tomb narratives.
Consider this summary by Dr. Michael Martin of Boston University, which I read to Craig that morning:
In Matthew, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrived toward dawn at the tomb there is a rock in front of it, there is a violent earthquake,and an angel descends and rolls back the stone. In Mark, the women arrive at the tomb at sunrise and the stone had been rolled back. In Luke, when the women arrive at early dawn they find the stone had already been rolled back.
In Matthew, an angel is sitting on the rock outside the tomb and in Mark a youth is inside the tomb. In Luke, two men are inside.
In Matthew; the women present at the tomb are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. In Mark, the women present at the tomb are the two Marys and Salome. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and the other women are present at the tomb.
In Matthew, the two Marys rush from the tomb in great fear and joy, run to tell the disciples, and meet Jesus on the way. In Mark, they run out of the tomb in fear and say nothing to anyone. In Luke, the women report the story to the disciples who do not believe them and there is no suggestion that they meet Jesus.4
“And,” I said to Craig, “Martin points out that John conflicts with much of the other three gospels. He concludes, ‘In sum, the accounts of what happened at the tomb are either inconsistent or can only be made consistent with the aid of implausible interpretations.’”5
I stopped reading and looked up from my notes. My eyes locking with Craig’s, I asked him point-blank, “In light of all this, how in the world can you possibly consider the empty tomb story to be credible?”
Immediately I noticed something about Craig’s demeanor. In casual conversation or when discussing tepid objections to the empty tomb, he’s rather mellow. But the tougher the question and the more piercing the challenge, the more animated and focused he gets. And at this point his body language told me he couldn’t wait to dive into these seemingly dangerous waters.
Clearing his throat, Craig began. ‘With all due respect,” he said, “Michael Martin is a philosopher, not a historian, and I don’t think he understands the historian’s craft. For a philosopher, if something is inconsistent, the law of contradiction says, ‘This cannot be true, throw it out!’ However, the historian looks at these narratives and says, ‘I see some inconsistencies, but I notice something about them: they’re all in the secondary details.’
“The core of the story is the same: Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus, puts it in a tomb, the tomb is visited by a small group of women followers of Jesus early on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion, and they find that the tomb is empty. They see a vision of angels saying that Jesus is risen.
“The careful historian, unlike the philosopher, doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. He says, ‘This suggests that there is a historical core to this story that is reliable and can be depended upon, however conflicting the secondary details might be.’
“So we can have great confidence in the core that’s common to the narratives and that would be agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars today, even if there are some differences concerning the names of the women, the exact time of the morning, the number of the angels, and so forth. Those kinds of secondary discrepancies wouldn’t bother a historian.”
Even the usually skeptical historian Michael Grant, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and professor at Edinburgh University, concedes in his book Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, “True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various gospels, but if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.”6
CAN DISCREPANCIES BE HARMONIZED?
Sometimes while covering criminal trials, I’ve seen two witnesses give the exact same testimony, down to the nitty-gritty details, only to find themselves ripped apart by the defense attorney for having colluded before the trial. So I remarked to Craig, “I suppose if all four gospels were identical in all their minutiae, that would have raised the suspicion of plagiarism.”
“Yes, that’s a very good point,” he said. “The differences between the empty tomb narratives suggest that we have multiple, independent attestation of the empty tomb story. Sometimes people say, ‘Matthew and Luke just plagiarized from Mark,’ but when you look at the narratives closely, you see divergences that suggest that even if Matthew and Luke did know Mark’s account, nevertheless they also had separate, independent sources for the empty tomb story.
“So with these multiple and independent accounts, no historian would disregard this evidence just because of secondary discrepancies. Let me give you a secular example.
“We have two narratives of Hannibal crossing the Alps to attack Rome, and they’re incompatible and irreconcilable. Yet no classical historian doubts the fact that Hannibal did mount such a campaign. That’s a non biblical illustration of discrepancies in secondary details failing to undermine the historical core of a historical story.”
I conceded the power of that argument. And as I reflected on Martin’s critique, it seemed to me that some of his alleged contradictions could be rather easily reconciled. I mentioned this to Craig by saying “Aren’t there ways to harmonize some of the differences among these accounts?”
“Yes, that’s right, there are,” Craig replied. “For example, the time of the visit to the tomb. One writer might describe it as still being dark, the other might be saying it was getting light, but that’s sort of like the optimist and the pessimist arguing over whether the glass was half empty or half full. It was around dawn, and they were describing the same thing with different words.
“As for the number and names of the women, none of the gospels pretend to give a complete list. They all include Mary Magdalene and other women, so there was probably a gaggle of these early disciples that included those who were named and probably a couple of others I think it would be pedantic to say that’s a contradiction.”
“What about the different accounts of what happened afterward?” I asked. “Mark said the women didn’t tell anybody, and the other gospels say they did.”
Craig explained, “When you look at Mark’s theology, he loves to emphasize awe and fright and terror and worship in the presence of the divine. So this reaction of the women—of fleeing with fear and trembling, and saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid—is all part of Mark’s literary and theological style.
“It could well be that this was a temporary silence, and then the women went back and told the others what had happened. In fact,” he concluded with a grin, “it had to be a temporary silence; otherwise Mark couldn’t be telling the story about it!”
I wanted to ask about one other commonly cited discrepancy. “Jesus said in Matthew 12:40, ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ However, the gospels report that Jesus was really in the tomb one full day, two full nights, and part of two days. Isn’t this an example of Jesus being wrong in not fulfilling his own prophecy?”
“Some well-meaning Christians have used this verse to suggest Jesus was crucified on Wednesday rather than on Friday, in order to get the full time in there!” Craig said. “But most scholars recognize that according to early Jewish time-reckoning, any part of a day counted as a full day. Jesus was in the tomb Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and on Sunday morning—under the way the Jews conceptualized time back then, this would have counted as three days.
“Again,” he concluded, “that’s just another example of how many of these discrepancies can be explained or minimized with some background knowledge or by just thinking them through with an open mind.”
CAN THE WITNESSES BE TRUSTED?
The gospels agree that the empty tomb was discovered by women who were friends and followers of Jesus. But that, in Martin’s estimation, makes their testimony suspect, since they were “probably not objective observers.”
So I put the question to Craig “Does the women’s relationship with Jesus call the reliability of their testimony into question?”
Unwittingly I had played right into Craig’s hand. “Actually, this argument backfires on people who use it,” Craig said in response. “Certainly these women were friends of Jesus. But when you understand the role of women in first-century Jewish society, what’s really extraordinary is that this empty tomb story should feature women as the discoverers of the empty tomb in the first place.
“Women were on a very low rung of the social ladder in first-century Palestine. There are old rabbinical sayings that said, ‘Let the words of the Law be burned rather than delivered to women’ and ‘Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.’ Women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of law.
“In light of this, it’s absolutely remarkable that the chief witnesses to the empty tomb are these women who were friends of Jesus. Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb—Peter or John, for example. The fact that women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the reality that—like it or not—they were the discoverers of the empty tomb! This shows that the gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened, even if it was embarrassing. This bespeaks the historicity of this tradition rather than its legendary status.”
WHY DID THE WOMEN VISIT THE TOMB?
Craig’s explanation, however, left yet another question lingering: why were the women going to anoint the body of Jesus if they already knew that his tomb was securely sealed? “Do their actions really make sense?” I asked.
Craig thought for a moment before he answered—this time not in his debater’s voice but in a more tender tone. “Lee, I strongly feel that scholars who have not known the love and devotion that these women felt for Jesus have no right to pronounce cool judgments upon the feasibility of what they wanted to do.
“For people who are grieving, who have lost someone they desperately loved and followed, to want to go to the tomb in a forlorn hope of anointing the body—I just don’t think some later critic can treat them like robots and say, ‘They shouldn’t have gone.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe they thought there would be men around who could move the stone. If there were guards, maybe they thought they would. I don’t know.
“Certainly the notion of visiting a tomb to pour oils over a body is a historical Jewish practice; the only question is the feasibility of who would move the stone for them. And I don’t think we’re in the right position to pronounce judgment on whether or not they should have simply stayed at home.”
WHY DIDN’T CHRISTIANS CITE THE EMPTY TOMB?
In preparing for my interview with Craig, I had gone to the Internet sites of several atheist organizations to see the kind of arguments they were raising against the Resurrection. For some reason few atheists deal with this topic. However, one critic raised an objection that I wanted to present to Craig.
Essentially, he said a major argument against the empty tomb is that none of the disciples or later Christian preachers bothered to point to it. He wrote, “We would expect the early Christian preachers to have said ‘You don’t believe us? Go look in the tomb yourselves! It’s at the corner of Fifth and Main, third sepulcher on the right.’”
Yet, he said, Peter doesn’t mention the empty tomb in his preaching in Acts 2. Concluded this critic, “If even the disciples didn’t think the empty tomb tradition was any good, why should we?”
Craig’s eyes widened as I posed the question. “I just don’t think that’s true,” he replied, a bit of astonishment in his voice, as he picked up his Bible and turned to the second chapter of Acts, which records Peter’s sermon at Pentecost.
“The empty tomb is found in Peter’s speech,” Craig insisted. “He proclaims in verse 24 that ‘God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death.’
“Then he quotes from a Psalm about how God would not allow his Holy One to undergo decay. This had been written by David, and Peter says, ‘I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.’ But, he says, Christ ‘was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”
Craig looked up from the Bible. “This speech contrasts David’s tomb, which remained to that day, with the prophecy in which David says Christ would be raised up—his flesh wouldn’t suffer decay. It’s clearly implicit that the tomb was left empty.”
Then he turned to a later chapter in the book of Acts “In Acts 13:29-31, Paul says, ‘When they had carried out all that was written about 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 was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.’ Certainly the empty tomb is implicit there.”
He shut his Bible, then added, “I think it’s rather wooden and unreasonable to contend that these early preachers didn’t refer to the empty tomb, just because they didn’t use the two specific words empty tomb. There’s no question that they knew—and their audiences understood from their preaching—that Jesus’ tomb was vacant.”
WHAT’S THE AFFIRMATIVE EVIDENCE?
I had spent the first part of our interview peppering Craig with objections and arguments challenging the empty tomb. But I suddenly realized that I hadn’t given him the opportunity to spell out his affirmative case. While he had already alluded to several reasons why he believes Jesus’ tomb was unoccupied, I said, “Why don’t you give me your best shot? Convince me with your top four or five reasons that the empty tomb is a historical fact.”
Craig rose to the challenge. One by one he spelled out his arguments concisely and powerfully.
“First,” he said, “the empty tomb is definitely implicit in the early tradition that is passed along by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, which is a very old and reliable source of historical information about Jesus.
“Second, the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Christian and Jew alike. So if it weren’t empty, it would be impossible for a movement founded on belief in the Resurrection to have come into existence in the same city where this man had been publicly executed and buried.
“Third, we can tell from the language, grammar, and style that Mark got his empty tomb story—actually, his whole passion narrative—from an earlier source. In fact, there’s evidence it was written before A.D. 37, which is much too early for legend to have seriously corrupted it
“A. N. Sherwin-White, the respected Greco-Roman classical historian from Oxford University, said it would have been without precedent anywhere in history for legend to have grown up that fast and significantly distorted the gospels.
“Fourth, there’s the simplicity of the empty tomb story in Mark. Fictional apocryphal accounts from the second century contain all kinds of flowery narratives, in which Jesus comes out of the tomb in glory and power, with everybody seeing him, including the priests, Jewish authorities, and Roman guards. Those are the way legends read, but these don’t come until generations after the events, which is after eyewitnesses have died off. By contrast, Mark’s account of the story of the empty tomb is stark in its simplicity and unadorned by theological reflection.
“Fifth, the unanimous testimony that the empty tomb was discovered by women argues for the authenticity of the story, because this would have been embarrassing for the disciples to admit and most certainly would have been covered up if this were a legend.
“Sixth, the earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the historicity of the empty tomb. In other words, there was nobody who was claiming that the tomb still contained Jesus’ body. The question always was, ‘What happened to the body?’
“The Jews proposed the ridiculous story that the guards had fallen asleep. Obviously, they were grasping at straws. But the point is this: they started with the assumption that the tomb was vacant! Why? Because they knew it was!”
WHAT ABOUT ALTERNATIVE THEORIES?
I listened intently as Craig articulated each point, and to me the six arguments added up to an impressive case. However, I still wanted to see if there were any loopholes before concluding it was airtight.
“Kirsopp Lake suggested in 1907 that the women merely went to the wrong tomb,” I said. “He says they got lost and a caretaker at an unoccupied tomb told them, ‘You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here,’ and they ran away, afraid. Isn’t that a plausible explanation?’”
Craig sighed. “Lake didn’t generate any following with this,” he said. “The reason is that the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to the Jewish authorities. Even if the women had made this mistake, the authorities would have been only too happy to point out the tomb and correct the disciples’ error when they began to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead. I don’t know anybody who holds to Lake’s theory today.”
Frankly, other options didn’t sound very likely, either. Obviously, the disciples had no motive to steal the body and then die for a lie, and certainly the Jewish authorities wouldn’t have removed the body. I said, “We’re left with the theory that the empty tomb was a later legend and that by the time it developed, people were unable to disprove it, because the location of the tomb had been forgotten.”
“That has been the issue ever since 1835, when David Strauss claimed these stories are legendary,” Craig replied. “And that’s why in our conversation today we’ve focused so much on this legendary hypothesis by showing that the empty tomb story goes back to within a few years of the events themselves. This renders the legend theory worthless. Even if there are some legendary elements in the secondary details of the story; the historical core of the story remains securely established.”
Yes, there were answers for these alternative explanations. Upon analysis, every theory seemed to crumble under the weight of evidence and logic. But the only remaining option was to believe that the crucified Jesus returned to life—a conclusion some people find too extraordinary to swallow.
I thought for a moment about how I could phrase this in a question to Craig. Finally I said, “Even though these alternative theories admittedly have holes in them, aren’t they more plausible than the absolutely incredible idea that Jesus was God incarnate who was raised from the dead?”
“This, I think, is the issue,” he said, leaning forward. “I think people who push these alternative theories would admit, ‘Yes, our theories are implausible, but they’re not as improbable as the idea that this spectacular miracle occurred.’ However, at this point the matter is no longer a historical issue; instead it’s a philosophical question about whether miracles are possible.”
“And what,” I asked, “would you say to that?”
“I would argue that the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead is not at all improbable. In fact, based on the evidence, it’s the best explanation for what happened. What is improbable is the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That, I would agree, is outlandish. Any hypothesis would be more probable than saying the corpse of Jesus spontaneously came back to life.
“But the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead doesn’t contradict science or any known facts of experience. All it requires is the hypothesis that God exists, and I think there are good independent reasons for believing that he does.”
With that Craig added this clincher “As long as the existence of God is even possible, it’s possible that he acted in history by raising Jesus from the dead.”
CONCLUSION: THE TOMB WAS VACANT
Craig was convincing: the empty tomb—admittedly, a miracle of staggering proportions—did make sense in light of the evidence. And it was only part of the case for the Resurrection. From Craig’s Atlanta home I was getting ready to go to Virginia to interview a renowned expert on the evidence for the appearances of the resurrected Jesus, and then to California to speak with another scholar about the considerable circumstantial evidence.
As I thanked Craig and his wife, Jan, for their hospitality, I reflected to myself that up close in his blue jeans and white socks, Craig didn’t look like the kind of formidable adversary who would devastate the best Resurrection critics in the world. But I had heard the tapes of the debates for myself.
In the face of the facts, they have been impotent to put Jesus’ body back into the tomb. They flounder, they struggle, they snatch at straws, they contradict themselves, they pursue desperate and extraordinary theories to try to account for the evidence. Yet each time, in the end, the tomb remains vacant.
I was reminded of the assessment by one of the towering legal intellects of all time, the Cambridge-educated Sir Norman Anderson, who lectured at Princeton University, was offered a professorship for life at Harvard University, and served as dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of London.
His conclusion, after a lifetime of analyzing this issue from a legal perspective, was summed up in one sentence: “The empty tomb, then, forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain.”8 (275-301)
1. Gerald O’Collins, The Easter Jesus (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), 134, cited in Craig, The Son Rises, 136.
2. For a tape of the debate, see William Lane Craig and Frank Zindler, Atheism vs. Christianity: Where Does the Evidence Point? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), videocassette.
3. Templeton, Farewell to God, 120.
4. Martin, The Case against Christianity, 78-79.
5. Ibid., 81
6. Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historians Review of the Gospels (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1977), 176.
7. Kirsopp Lake, The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (London: Williams & Norgate, 1907), 247-79, cited in William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 1988), 35—36.
8. J. N. D. Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 20.