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Was Jesus Raised from the Dead?

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The empty tomb of Jesus is a cold, hard fact that even early critics couldn’t deny.

If Jesus had merely claimed to be God’s divine Son and the world’s Savior, one might be excused for dismissing his claim. But the startling testimony of his followers—and at least one former enemy of his followers, the apostle Paul—is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. Jesus’ claims have the most substantial corroboration one could want if that’s the case. Imagine you meet a guy who claims to be God’s Son and has come from heaven, so everybody knows his Father. Naturally, you’re going to want proof. Suppose he tells you he’ll prove it by dying and rising from the dead three days later. And then he pulls it off! Wouldn’t that convince you?

Okay, you say, that would be pretty convincing. But we weren’t there. How can we know that Jesus rose from the dead? Couldn’t there be another explanation? There are two main lines of evidence: the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. We will look at the first here.

The Case for the Empty Tomb

According to the Gospels, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. The burial was done quickly to be finished before the Sabbath. The tomb was sealed with a large stone. Then, early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and some other women went to the tomb to apply more spices and fragrances to the body. They found the tomb empty and encountered an angel, who told them that Jesus had risen. The women told Jesus’ male disciples, who also went to the tomb to verify it was empty (Luke 24:12, 24; John 20:3-8). Later, Jesus appeared in bodily form to his disciples, talking and eating with them on various occasions over forty days.

The record of the four Gospels is such. The question is whether it is true. When considered together, several facts make a formidable case for the empty tomb.

Jesus Was Buried

That Jesus was given a formal burial is virtually inevitable. Paul’s statement that Christ “was buried” is part of a confession that Paul had received as part of the apostolic teaching and had passed on to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Given Paul’s visits to see Peter and the other apostles, he must have picked up this confessional statement from them no more than three years or so after Jesus’ death (Galatians 1:18-21; 2:1; compare Acts 9:30; 15:2). Even Gerd Lüdemann, a skeptical New Testament scholar who has written extensively against belief in Jesus’ resurrection, agrees; he dates this pre-Pauline confession to within two years of Jesus’ death. Of course, all four Gospels agree that Jesus was buried.

The evidence from Paul and the Gospels convinces nearly all biblical scholars that Jesus was, in fact, buried. The few who doubt this do not explain how belief in Jesus’ burial arose so quickly.

Jesus Was Buried in a Tomb

According to all four Gospels, Jesus was buried in a rock tomb. They report that Joseph of Arimathea got permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body down from the cross. He then laid the body in the grave, wrapped in a linen cloth, and rolled a stone in front of the entrance to the tomb. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that women who knew Jesus watched while his body was buried.

There are excellent reasons to view the burial of Jesus’ body in a tomb as historical fact.

  1. It is attested in all four Gospels, and there is no alternative account from the first century.
  2. The differences in wording among the four accounts show that we have two or three independent versions of the burial story. The differences between John and the other three Gospels are marked and clearly show John’s independence from them.
  3. A reasonable assessment of the evidence shows that the passion narrative, including the burial account, dates to the early 40s at the latest, or no more than about ten years after Jesus’ death (and, of course, it might be even older than that).
  4. The burial accounts are all brief, simple, and free of any apparent theologizing or miraculous elements to which skeptics might object. The lack of such features places the burden of proof on those questioning their reliability.
  5. Mark’s account, generally regarded as the earliest, does not seem to have been written to defend the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Admittedly, the other Gospels contain additional information that could legitimately be described as apologetic in significance. But even if we strip away all of those bits, the earliest core account remains.
  6. Sixth, it is unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea’s involvement was fictitious. Given that all four Gospels assign some measure of responsibility to the Sanhedrin for Jesus’ execution, it is doubtful that someone would invent the story of a Sanhedrin member taking care of Jesus’ burial. One would have expected pious fiction to have assigned this loving duty to one of the apostles, one of Jesus’ other friends, or a relative of John the Baptist—anyone but a member of the Sanhedrin! If, as seems likely, the passion and burial narrative dates to the 40s or earlier, it would also seem highly unlikely that anyone would make up a story about a member of the Sanhedrin burying Jesus’ body since too many people would have been able to dispute such a fiction.
  7. The most common objection to Jesus’ burial in a tomb is that Paul does not mention a tomb anywhere in his epistles. This objection is an argument from silence, so it is relatively weak. The Book of Acts does report Paul mentioning the tomb in one of his evangelistic speeches (Acts 13:29). Of course, Luke knows that one member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, was responsible for burying Jesus, and he distances that member from the rest of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50-51). The fact that Luke knows this detail but reports Paul as speaking more generally about the Sanhedrin condemning Jesus and burying him shows that Luke accurately reports what Paul said.

For all of the above reasons, we can confidently state that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a tomb.

The Tomb Is Empty

Having established that Jesus was buried in a tomb, it becomes difficult to deny the Gospel reports that the tomb was found empty a few days after the burial. Again, multiple pieces of evidence support this conclusion.

  1. As with the burial story, all four Gospels report that the tomb was empty.
  2. John’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb is markedly different from those of the other three Gospels. Indeed, critics often argue that the accounts cannot be accepted because they seem almost impossible to reconcile with each other in specific details. But just as discrepancies in the accounts of a traffic accident given by different eyewitnesses cannot disprove that the accident occurred but rather prove that their accounts were not rehearsed together, so also the difficulties of harmonizing the Gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb confirm the core fact to which all of those accounts testify.
  3. Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb is free of apologetic material and virtually free of miraculous or theological elements. Again, the later Gospel accounts include additional material, some of which may be considered theological or apologetic in significance (which is not to prejudge their factual nature). However, the core narrative seen in Mark has no elements to which a skeptic might plausibly appeal as the basis for deeming the story pious fiction.
  4. Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb (Matthew 28:11-15), even if viewed with some skepticism as an apologetic fiction, confirms that the tomb was empty. Matthew’s account reflects a dispute in the first century between Jews and Christians in which both sides agreed that the tomb was empty and had been guarded. The Jews claimed the guard had fallen asleep; Matthew says the chief priests bribed the guards to say this. However, note that either way, both sides agree that Jesus was buried in a tomb, which was guarded and then found empty. Indeed, the Jewish claim that Jesus’ disciples stole his body is the earliest non-Christian alternative explanation for the empty tomb on record.
  5. In Paris, there is a white marble slab from Nazareth that has a decree of Caesar dated to about AD 45-50 ordering that tombs “shall remain undisturbed in perpetuity” and decrees that anyone removing bodies from such tombs will be subject to capital punishment. Claudius, who was Caesar from AD 41 to 54, associated tomb robbery with the unrest in Rome between Jews and Christians during his reign. In ad 49, he expelled all Jews from Rome because of that unrest, which the Roman writer Suetonius did in “Chrestus,” that is, Christ. The decree on the slab may have been prompted by the gossip that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body. If this is correct, as seems likely, the rumor about the disciples stealing the body dates from at least the 40s when most of the Jewish leaders who presided over Jesus’ condemnation were still alive. This is another piece of early evidence that the tomb was empty.
  6. The Gospels agree that the first persons to discover the empty tomb were women followers of Jesus, not his male apostles. It is improbable in the extreme that male writers would invent such a story since a woman’s testimony was considered of little or no value.

The Case of the Missing Body

We’ve seen that Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb, and a few days later, the tomb was found to be empty. Jesus’ body was not there. The Gospels’ explanation is well known: God raised Jesus from the dead. Some skeptics, though, while acknowledging the empty tomb, have tried to explain it in some other way.

We have already mentioned the earliest explanation, which came from some Jewish opponents of Christianity—that the disciples stole the body. For the sake of argument, we’ll forget about the guard (though those same opponents admitted the guard was there). Even if the disciples had the opportunity to steal the body, they didn’t have a motive. The execution of Jesus on a cross would have marked him in their eyes as a false prophet or false Messiah. Why would they steal the body? No convincing answer to this question has ever been given.

Another explanation that has sometimes been advanced is that the women went to the wrong tomb. Honestly, this explanation smacks of desperation. The Gospels report that the women watched Jesus being buried (e.g., Mark 15:47), so they knew where the correct tomb was. It is absurd to think that the women would have gone to the wrong tomb and immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesus had risen. It is even more absurd to claim that none of the women, men, the Sanhedrin, or the Romans would have discovered this mistake.

The best explanation for the empty tomb is that Jesus rose from the dead. This is also supported by Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to both women and men followers over some time.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Boonyachoat


Kenneth Boa

Kenneth Boa equips people to love well (being), learn well (knowing), and live well (doing). He is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor and is the President of Reflections MinistriesThe Museum of Created Beauty, and Trinity House Publishers.

Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, Handbook to Prayer, Handbook to Leadership, Faith Has Its Reasons, Rewriting Your Broken Story, Life in the Presence of God, Leverage, and Recalibrate Your Life.

Dr. Boa holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England. 

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.
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