Christianity, a Clear Case of History

Evidence From the Burial Tomb: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1)

Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples, He is risen
from the dead.

Sometime before A.d. 60-62, the traditional date for the writing of Mark, the first gospel, many took it upon themselves to write narratives of the life of Christ, which we can intimate from Luke's opening remarks, contained some greater or lesser degree of reliability (Luke 1:1-4). Luke, having researched the matter from the apostles themselves, was stirred to write his own account of the historical Christ with such space-time precision that he fully guaranteed to his Roman correspondent, Theophilus, that what he had only heard about Christ to that time was nevertheless true and verifiable. The apostles Matthew and John also contributed their eyewitness accounts and soon these four gospels were accepted by the church as accurate representations of the life of Christ Jesus.

The Evidence Is Factual, Not Fictional

In these four historical narratives, we find the evidence for the resurrection which centers upon the burial tomb. The fact that thousands, who had participated in the events described in these books, were still alive and had become believers and had received the gospels is excellent testimony to their factuality. They have been verified by the same testing methods used to verify the classical histories. Our appeal to them for the real facts in the case is at least as reliable as an appeal to any Greek, Roman, or Jewish writing from that same period. It is not reason's function to determine whether the claim is believable or not before the evidence has come in. When the evidence is trustworthy, it is not difficult to reach a believing conclusion even though it embraces a line of reasoning which extends to the supernatural. No truly objective statement of finality can be honestly pronounced on the reality of the resurrection until the evidence which has been made available to us has been considered. Remember that both archaeology and first century contemporary documents have reflected on the statements in the gospels and have corroborated their historical accuracy so that when we turn to them for the resurrection evidence, we are turning to facts, not to fiction.

John's Evidence

I have chosen to follow the line of reasoning in John 20:1-8 because his evidence makes no appeal to any miraculous event which might be construed as an assumption that the supernatural had happened before it was proven. Even critics and unbelieving historians have admitted this evidence as factual. While we will coordinate the evidence with information from the other gospels, we will base the investigation on John's account.

Now on the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the tomb, and seeth the stone taken away from the tomb. She runneth therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him. Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. And they ran both together: and the other disciple outran Peter, and came first to the tomb; and stooping and looking in, he seeth the linen cloths lying; yet entered he not in. Simon Peter therefore also cometh, following him, and entered into the tomb; and he beholdeth the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then entered in therefore the other disciple also, who came first to the tomb, and he saw, and believed.

An Objective Testimony

John was totally objective in reproducing the resurrection evidence. He presented his material without any comment as to the implications which might arise from it. He only says that the disciple who came first to the tomb saw and believed-a statement of fact. But his own belief that Jesus was raised was stated at precisely that point in order to draw our attention to the reason for that belief which he had reached on the basis of the facts. He wanted us to know what it was that he saw and, therefore, why he believed. John's effort was designed to prod our powers of reason to draw a conclusion from the evidence.

Four Facts

The facts as we have them are four in number: (1) the stone had been rolled back and the tomb was standing open, (2) the body of Jesus was gone, (3) the grave cloths in which Jesus was buried were still lying in the tomb, and (4) it was Sunday, the first day of the week-a significant fact we will look at. This sequence will provide the line of study by which we will consider the evidence, combining the first two facts (the tomb was both empty and open) into a single unit in order to avoid repetition.


Who Got the Body?

On the third day, Christ's crucified body was gone. The tomb was empty. Removal of Christ's body was necessarily either a human act or an act of God. Either Christ was raised as is claimed, or his body was removed by some sort of human ingenuity. If we can satisfy a line of inquiry which can eliminate the human element as the cause for emptying the tomb, we are left with the conclusion that the supernatural element was present in the removal, and the resurrection will be sustained.

The question to be answered is: Who would, or even could, have taken away the dead body of Jesus? Was it his disciples or his enemies who had him crucified? Either it was one of these, or he was raised from the dead. There is no evidence for another explanation.

Was It the Disciples?

This is precisely the question which the evidence answers. While it has actually been suggested that the disciples themselves, at some undisclosed time, somehow stole past the guards to spirit away the body of Christ, Matthew tells us that sufficient steps were taken to prevent that very thing from happening. He informs us that the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate telling him of Christ's prophecy to rise on the third day after the crucifixion. Their concern was to keep the body in the tomb until the third day against any attempt to steal the body and make it appear as if he had been raised. Pilate was sufficiently impressed with their concern that he gave them a Roman guard and permission to seal the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). A Roman guard posted at the tomb would discourage any attempt to rob it of its contents.(40)

40. Jewish guards would not have placed Caesar's seal upon the tomb. Nor would it have been necessary for the Sanhedrin to have bribed their own soldiers to lie about the incident. In addition, only a Roman guard would have feared that the matter would come to Pilate's ears. Dereliction of duty by Jewish guards would have been of no consequence to Pilate. The large sum of money, therefore, was given to Roman guards with an assurance from the Sanhedrin that if the matter came before the governor they would rid the soldiers of any reason to worry (Matthew 28:11-15).

It soon became common knowledge that the Jews had bribed the Roman guard to lie about the matter, saying that the disciples had stolen the body while they slept (Matthew 28:11-15). Such an explanation, however, is inadequate, since sleeping men do not know what is happening around them.

Could anyone have seriously accepted this explanation? It's doubtful. Who could believe that the guards were all sleeping at once, or that at least one of them would not have been awakened by several men rolling back the stone, seeing that "it was exceeding great" (Mark 16:4)? Who could believe that not one of the guards was awakened during the time it took to roll back the stone, unwrap the corpse, and then rewrap the burial cloths to make it appear that they had not been tampered with? Who could believe it? It would be easier to believe the resurrection. Any suggestion that the disciples removed the body of Christ is mere speculation without evidence and contrary to existing evidence.

Was It the Jews?

Another speculative theory suggests that the Jews themselves took the body of Christ out of the tomb and put it in another place to keep the disciples from reverencing the tomb. But that action would have been completely contrary to their own statement of purpose to keep the body of Christ in the tomb until the third day after the crucifixion. It would have been a definite advantage to the Jewish position to keep the body entombed until the third day for several reasons. First, Jesus' claim to rise on the third day after his death was common knowledge by the time of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:63), and so it occurred to the Jews that if the disciples stole the body, it would appear as if Jesus had made good his claim. In view of this, their intent was to secure the body under the protection of the Roman guard until the third day. At that time, they could have gone to the tomb and, in the presence of all the disciples, rolled back the stone to expose the corpse and demonstrate conclusively that Jesus had failed to rise from the dead. With that action, Christianity would have been stopped dead, then and there. It's not reasonable to accuse the Jews of emptying the tomb; that puts them at cross-purposes with their stated intentions and their efforts to carry them out.

Another point is that in seven short weeks, Jerusalem was seething with the story of the resurrection. The chief priests were upset because their own Messiah's blood was being brought upon them by the apostles, and they were prepared to go to any lengths to stop it. Well then, if the body had been moved by their order, when the apostles started preaching the resurrection, why didn't they issue an official denial? Why didn't they say, "That's nonsense. The body was moved at our own order"? If that would not have convinced them, then why didn't they call as witnesses those who had carried the body away? If that would not do, then why didn't they tell the people where they had laid the body? That would have exposed the preaching of the apostles as a great lie. Why didn't they do it? Because they had nothing to do with relocating the body, and they could not produce it.

One more valid point about the Jews taking away the body is that all the references to the empty tomb are in the gospels; none come in Acts during the apostles' ministry. Why? Because everyone knew that the tomb was empty and the only question worth discussing was why it was empty and what that proved.

On the outside chance that someone would suggest that a grave robber took away the body, it must be remembered that the same guards would have posed as much a problem for robbers as for anyone else. Besides, graves were robbed for their valuables, not for dead bodies. In this particular case, the only thing of value were the spices which were left behind when Jesus vacated the premises (John 19:39-40).

When the facts are considered, the speculative "possibilities" must be assigned to their place as myths.

Who opened and emptied the tomb of Christ? On the basis of the evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the disciples could not have done it and that the Jews certainly would not have done it. It is a logical implication from the facts given to us in the gospels that Jesus was raised from the dead. That is as reasonable and intelligent a conclusion as intelligent reasoning can draw from the facts.


One of the most interesting aspects of the evidence for the resurrection is the grave cloths in which Jesus was prepared for burial. This is interesting not only because of their contribution to the evidence but because they are seldom mentioned by unbelievers who readily admit the historical factuality of the empty tomb.

Their Position

John tells us that the grave cloths were left lying in the place where Jesus had been laid to rest. This indicates that Jesus passed through them without disturbing their position. They were lying in the same folded position which formed the outline of the body of Jesus when he had been "Found" in them for burial (Mark 15:46). The burial garments were not disheveled; the tomb was not a strewn mess. Carefully observe what John says and what he does not say. He did not say merely that he and Peter saw the linen cloths. He said they both saw them "lying." Of course, they wouldn't have seen them standing. It would have been enough merely to say, "they entered into the tomb and beholdeth the linen cloths." Why, then, did he say they saw them "lying," unless he was indicating their peculiar position? It seems John is stressing the impact that the position of the grave cloths had on both Peter and John, and he wants to make that impression on his readers. Both Matthew and Mark relate that the women who went early to the tomb were invited to observe the place where the Lord had lain (Matt.28:6; Mark 16:6). If Jesus was not there, and he wasn't, what would they observe if not the grave cloths. The picture which initially met the eyes of the witnesses was telling. The grave cloths were found lying just as they had been originally folded around the body of Christ. Whether they were lying flat or the sticky spices, acting as a bonding agent, held them in a slightly collapsed cocoon shape, the grave cloths were nevertheless still there in their folds and pressing the mind for answers.

Jewish Burial Customs

The manner in which the Jews dressed their dead for burial is described in the resurrection of Lazarus. After Jesus had commanded the resurrection of Lazarus, John testified, "He that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes; and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go" (John 11:44). Though Lazarus was alive again, he was still bound hand and foot with grave clothing and needed some assistance to get out of them. The point is that Jesus was prepared for burial in this same way. He was bound up in a grave cloth with aromatic spices poured into the folds and a face napkin wrapped around his head (John 19:39-40). When Jesus was placed in the tomb, he had been wrapped from head to toe. Now, if Jesus were not raised from the dead, who was it that silently rolled back the stone without the guards knowing it, unwrapped the body of Jesus, then rewrapped the grave cloths with such skill that eyewitnesses could not catch the deception, and finally carried away the body-all without being detected? If you can believe that, you can believe the resurrection.

The Swoon Theory?

The so-called swoon theory contends that Jesus did not actually die, but that he only swooned on the cross and in the cool of the tomb revived. But that is contrary to the fact that all the gospels testify to the death of Jesus while yet on the cross (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30,33). Mark even records Pilate's surprise that Jesus was already dead after only a few hours on the cross, but was satisfied when he learned from the centurion in charge of the execution that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44-45). The swoon theory also fails to answer some pretty tough questions. How did Jesus manage to release himself from the grave cloths? That would be a tough challenge for any man, but more especially for one who had been battered and severely torn by scourging and crucifixion and deeply wounded by the soldier's spear, thrust upwards into his side, making a wound large enough to spill out his lifeblood onto the ground (John 19:34). And how, after all that, could he have rolled back the stone door from the inside of the tomb seeing that "it was exceeding great" (Mark 16:4)? Finally, in such an emaciated condition, what stretch of the imagination could envision that Jesus would have been able, if only a mere man, to have presented himself to the disciples on that very day as the picture of perfect health and divine power sufficient to inspire in them a confidence that he had triumphed over the power of death?

The problems created by substituting the speculations of prejudice for the facts of history are more difficult to believe than the resurrection.


On the third day after the crucifixion-the first day of the week-Jesus' tomb was found empty (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-7; John 20:1-7). This singular, historic fact offers at least five points of evidence for the resurrection.

Jesus Prophesied He Would Rise on the Third Day After Crucifixion

Christ specified that his would be a death by crucifixion (Matthew 20:19; John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33). The absence of his body from the tomb on the third day following that event becomes extremely significant for this reason: while Jesus stedfastly maintained that he would die by crucifixion, the Jews failed in repeated attempts to kill him by some other means. (see Luke 4:28-30; John 5:18; 7:1, 25; 8:59; 10:31; 11:8). Thus, the fact of the empty tomb on the third day lends a great deal of credibility to the resurrection since both the kind of death and the very day of the resurrection were foretold throughout his entire ministry and since both events were fulfilled in spite of the Jews employing physical opposition to prevent their fulfillment. The question is, how could Jesus bring it off unless he was something more than a man?

The Prophecy Was Foretold Early in His Ministry

The idea that Jesus predicted his crucifixion only after he began to detect the direction that the stream of events were carrying him is contradicted in that he foretold it from the outset of his ministry. After the first temple cleansing, Jesus pointed to his resurrection (John 2:13-22). When challenged by the Pharisees to show them a sign of his deity, he appealed to Jonah's experience in the fish for three days and three nights as a sign prophetic of his own experience to be accomplished in his death, burial, and resurrection (Matthew 12:38-40). Here is a prophecy characteristic of the biblical kind, the fulfillment of which was so far removed from the time of the prophecy that it was humanly impossible to foretell.

The Prophecy Became Common Knowledge

The prophecy of death by crucifixion and of a resurrection on the third day spread beyond the circle of Jesus' disciples. The Jewish rulers knew of it and considered that the knowledge of the prophecy was so widespread among the common people as a sign of his messiahship that they took official steps to prevent his body from being taken from the tomb before the third day (Matthew 27:62-66). It is rather clear that the Jews did not expect a resurrection to take place and their intentions were to present the lifeless body of Jesus on the third day as an absolute refutation of his messianic claims. Yet the body was not there on the third day!

An Empty Tomb on the Third Day

The tomb was both open and empty on the third day. Jesus' body was nowhere to be found. Had either the Roman or Jewish rulers removed the body at any time prior to the third day, it would have been no problem for either of them to have presented the corpse and to have stopped the new movement cold. Why didn't they do it? Simply because they had no knowledge of where the body was. All they knew for sure was that they had failed to keep the crucified Jesus in the tomb.

Christianity and the First Day of the Week

From the day of Pentecost following the crucifixion, the first day of the week has been special to Christians. The transfer of emphasis from the Sabbath day to the first day of the week is a very impressive testimony to the significance of this particular day, and more especially when we remember that devout Sabbath-keeping Jews who became Christians never questioned the correctness of this emphasis.

Nowhere in Scripture is it called a special day or even a holy day. But that it contained for the church a special significance is made clear in the Scriptures. On the first day of the week, the church was established (Acts 2:1-47). Paul shows us that the first day of the week had already become special to the church by the time he directed the Corinthians to begin regular collections on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). And also, the church observed the Lord's supper on that day (Acts 20:7).

The question here is: What significant event happened to produce such an emphasis if not the resurrection of Jesus Christ?


If Jesus was raised from the dead, his claims are true and he is the Lord. If not, the historical Jesus who claimed to be God with the gift of eternal life was in reality a liar, a cheat, and a blasphemer.

But how can we know? We can know by the evidence. The facts are that there was a historical Jesus who was crucified on a Roman cross, who was buried, and whose tomb was found empty on the third day, even as he had foretold. If Jesus were not raised by the power of God, then what possible alternative can be suggested in answer to the facts as we have them? What reasonable alternative is there to the resurrection?

You do not have to throw away your mind to believe in Christ Jesus as Lord. It is a reasonable matter based on the evidence from historical documents. The function of reason is to sit in judgment on the evidence and to draw a conclusion which correctly answers to it. Reason demands an answer to the historical fact of Christ's empty tomb. What does the evidence say?

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