Does the Evidence For the Resurrection Offer Proof that Jesus Rose From the Dead?-Part 4

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
The final argument presented by the authors is, “Why is the empty tomb compelling evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection?”

Why is the empty tomb compelling evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection?

Everyone there saw Jesus die. Everyone there knew where He was buried. Many wit­nesses saw His body placed in the tomb and later the great rock rolled across the entrance and the Roman seal and Roman guard placed on duty to secure it.

But what is most amazing of all is this—no one at all, at any time, at any place, has ever doubted that the tomb was found empty. Every critic, every critical theory accepts the fact of the empty tomb.

Dr. Wilbur Smith comments,

No man has written, pro or con, on the subject of Christ’s resurrection, without finding himself compelled to face this problem of Joseph’s empty tomb. That the tomb was empty on Sunday morning is recognized by everyone, no matter how radical a critic he may be, however antisupernatural in all his personal convictions, he never dares to say that the body was still resting in the tomb, however he might attempt to explain the fact that the tomb must have been empty.[1]

In addition, the Jewish authorities apparently never questioned the report of the guards that the tomb was empty (Matthew 28:11-15). They knew that the guards would never have come back with such a story unless they were reporting an indisputable fact. However, because of the seriousness of the situation, it is likely that the authorities would also have gone to the tomb to personally examine it. Once they saw that the tomb was empty, they knew they had problems.

We must remember that to the Jews Jesus was a false Messiah, a blasphemous imposter. They exerted great effort to be rid of Christ once and for all (Matthew 26:65, 66; John 7:19, 30; 8:40, 59; 11:53, 57).

We must further observe that Jesus had thousands of followers; that He performed stupendous miracles unlike any other prophet in all Jewish history (e.g., John 9:32). We must note that Jesus was placed on trial before both the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57-66) and the Roman government, including before Pilate, the governor of Judea (Matthew 27:1, 2, 12-14[2]).

This new Messianic movement was perceived as a direct threat to current Jewish inter­ests and power. The Pharisees and chief priests themselves admitted that Christ’s following was so great “the world has gone after Him” (John 12:19). They therefore plotted to kill Him because, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48).

In light of all this, what do you think these men would have done once the apostles proclaimed that the grave was empty and that Christ was resurrected? There is little doubt that the most exhaustive search would have been made to recover the body. But they could never find it. And we know it could not have been stolen because of the Roman guard. The body of Jesus was certainly in the tomb when the guard was placed, for again, they would have made certain of it. What then happened to the body?

When even your enemies at both the immediate time of the event and for two thousands years afterward are forced to acknowledge that the tomb was empty, the case for the Resurrection becomes more than credible. Again, no one anywhere at any time ever doubted the empty tomb:

A. M. Ramsey writes: “I believe in the Resurrection, partly because a series of facts are unaccountable without it.” The empty tomb was “too notorious to be denied.” Paul Althaus states that the resurrection “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned.”
Paul L. Maier concludes: “If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered in literary sources, epigraphy, or archaeology that would disprove this statement.”
How can we explain the empty tomb?[3]

Had any doubts existed concerning the empty tomb, reports would certainly have been widely circulated. But there were none. Noted Islamic scholar Dr. J. N. D. Anderson ob­serves:

It is also noteworthy in this context that all the references to the empty tomb come in the gospels, which were written for Christians who wanted to know the facts. In the public preaching to those who were not yet convinced, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, there was an insistent emphasis on the resurrection, but not a single reference to the tomb. For this I can see only one explanation. There was no point in speaking of the empty tomb, for everyone—friend and foe alike—knew that it was empty. The only points worth arguing about were why it was empty, and what its emptiness proved.[4]

There was widespread preaching concerning an event so radical that it changed the world. It would at once have been so easy to discredit such preaching merely by producing the body. This indicates that although the enemies of Christianity would have done their best to counter the claims of Christ’s Resurrection, they had no ground to do so. They could not produce the body, even though they had both the motive and means. In brief:

If Jesus had not arisen, there would have been evidence that he had not. His enemies would have sought and found this evidence, but the apostles went up and down the very city where he had been crucified and proclaimed right to the faces of his slayers that he had been raised, and no one could produce evidence to the contrary. The very best they could do was to say the guards went to sleep and the disciples stole the body while the guards slept.[5]

Further evidence that the empty tomb signifies Jesus’ Resurrection is supplied by the position of the grave clothes of Jesus. Their incredible position is the reason why, when John first looked into the empty tomb, “He saw and believed” (John 20:8). What was it about the grave clothes that could possibly make a skeptic, one who did not understand that Jesus would rise from the dead, conclude that Jesus had risen? It could only be the fact that the grave clothes were in the shape of a cocoon—just as if the body had disap­peared from within them, leaving only an empty hull. Michael Green, who read classics at Oxford and theology at Cambridge, discusses John’s account:

“Peter went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself… and he (i.e., the other disciple) saw and believed” (John 20:6-8).
Why should this have made such an impression upon the two disciples? Because the wrappings seemed to them like a chrysalis case when the pupa has emerged. The grave clothes had encircled Jesus, and were interlaced with a great weight of embalming spices. The head covering was a small distance away, retaining its original shape surrounding the head of Jesus. But his body was simply gone!
No wonder they were convinced and awed. No grave robber would have been able to enact so remarkable a thing. Nor would it have entered his head. He would simply have taken the body, grave clothes and all. Had Jesus merely been resuscitated, he would presumably either have used the clothes or laid them aside.
But as it was, all the signs pointed to Jesus’ having risen to a new order of life, a new sphere of existence. He left the grave clothes behind as the butterfly emerging to a new dimension of life leaves the cocoon behind it. That sight convinced Peter and John.[6]

There is one more proof of the empty tomb. It is human nature to venerate unparalleled religious leaders. Throughout the history of mankind, religious pilgrimages are often made to special shrines honoring a dead prophet, especially his birth or burial place. Muslims have their yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. Every year Hindus and Buddhists visit the graves of their noted gurus. Indeed, even the graves of Jewish holy men were carefully noted and honored. But such has never occurred for Jesus in all the history of Christianity. As Frank Morison notes:

Finally, and this to my mind carried conclusive weight, we cannot find in the contemporary records any trace of a tomb or shrine becoming the Center of veneration or worship on the ground that it contained the relics of Jesus. This is inconceivable if it was ever seriously stated at the time that Jesus was really buried elsewhere than in the vacant tomb. Rumor would have asserted a hundred suppositious places where the remains really lay, and pilgrimages innumerable would have been made to them.[7]

When Christians go to see Christ’s tomb in Israel, everyone knows they go to see an empty tomb.

In his text, The Son Rises, William Lane Craig summarizes the evidence for the empty tomb as follows: 1) the historical reliability of the burial account; 2) the independent testi­mony of the Apostle Paul[8]; 3) the impossibility of proclaiming the Resurrection in Jerusalem unless the tomb were empty; 4) the earliest Jewish propaganda against Christians pre­sumes the empty tomb (i.e., the stolen body theory) plus six other reasons. He then shows how all naturalistic theories of the last 2,000 years have failed to explain the empty tomb and concludes:

As D. H. Van Daalen has pointed out, it is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions (like the assumption that miracles are impossible)….
In summary, we have seen that ten lines of historical evidence combine to place the weight of the evidence solidly in favor of the historical fact that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on the Sunday after His crucifixion and burial. We have further seen that no natural hypothesis can furnish a plausible explanation of that fact. This alone would justify our accepting the resurrection as the simplest, most probable explanation of the fact of the empty tomb.[9]

This is why Norval Geldenhuys, former Elsie Ballot Scholar of Princeton Theological Seminary and Cambridge University, concludes:

The empty sepulchre is also a powerful indication of the fact of the resurrection. For from this it follows that, if Jesus had not arisen, His body must have been removed either by His enemies or by members of His circle of disciples, and both are impossible, for (apart from the fact that guards had been placed before the sepulchre and that it had been sealed), if any of His enemies had removed His body, they would, when the disciples announced that Jesus had risen, surely have produced it again, or would at any rate have declared that they had removed it, so that in this manner they might deal the death-blow to the belief in the resurrection.
Now it is an historical fact that nothing was done and that no such statement was made. This clinches the fact that Jesus’ body was not taken away by His enemies. And it is just as certain that His disciples would not have done it. For one thing, it is utterly unlikely that they would have got away with this fraud.
And for another, it is impossible that they would have sacrificed their possessions and their blood in the service of Christ if their announcement of His resurrection had been based upon deceit. How could the ineradicable joy, certainty and power have come into their lives after His crucifixion if their whole faith were a gigantic lie?
Everything points to the fact that there is only one explanation for the empty sepulchre: Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God was true, and no bonds of death and darkness could keep Him confined to the grave. He did arise, and He lives.[10]

In conclusion, no one can logically hold the slightest doubt that the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty in spite of everyone knowing its exact location, in spite of the Roman guard and seal, in spite of the best attempts of Jesus’ enemies to locate the body.

The fact that virtually every theory ever proposed to explain the empty tomb, other than the Resurrection of Christ, is more difficult to believe than the Resurrection of Christ itself indicates that the only possible reason the tomb was empty is what Christians everywhere have maintained for 2,000 years—Christ literally rose physically from the dead.


  1. Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore Stand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1972), pp. 373-374.
  2. See also Clifford Wilson, The Trials of Jesus Christ (Melbourne, Australia: Pacific College of Graduate Studies, 1986).
  3. Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale/Living Books, 1983), pp. 91-92.
  4. J. N. D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale Press, 1970), p. 96.
  5. R. A. Torrey, “The Certainty and Importance of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead” in Charles L. Feinberg (ed.), The Fundamentals (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1964), p. 274.
  6. Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), p. 98.
  7. Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1969), p. 94.
  8. William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), pp. 69-70.
  9. Ibid., pp. 84-85,88.
  10. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 629.

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