By Gregg Bing
(Continued from Nov-Dec 2013 issue)
What makes Christianity different from all other religions? An event in history, the most amazing event that has ever occurred—the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fathers of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David are all dead. The founder of Buddhism, the Buddha himself, is dead. The founder of Islam, Mohammed, is dead. Only the Lord Jesus Christ is alive, having risen from the dead. Christianity stands alone in having a resurrected, living Savior.
We often emphasize the crucifixion when we speak of the finished work of Christ, but it cannot be separated from His resurrection; the two must be seen together.
In the 1st century, the Sadducees, the religious party of the Jewish priests, taught that there is no resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8). The Apostle Paul responded to this false teaching in the 15th chapter of his letter to the Corinthians.
Paul begins by teaching that the resurrection of Christ is a vital part of the gospel. The good news for sinners is not just that “Christ died for our sins,” but that “He rose again the third day” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This is the gospel a person must hear and believe to be saved and have a right standing before God (1 Cor. 15:1-2).
Paul then argues that the resurrection of Christ is necessary for our salvation. If Christ is not risen, then He is dead; He has no life in Himself, and thus has no power to give life to those who believe in Him. If Christ is not risen, then any preaching of the gospel, including that of Paul, is empty or in vain; and any belief in the gospel is worthless as well (1 Cor. 15:14). If Christ is not risen, then those who believe in Him are still dead in their sins (1 Cor. 15:17). If Christ is not risen, then believers who have physically died have perished, having no hope of resurrection or eternal life (1 Cor. 15:18). The reality is that “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:19).
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. … For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22). We have the hope of eternal life for one reason—because He lives!
Many Infallible Proofs
After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus showed He was alive through “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3).
In his youth, Josh McDowell, Christian apologist and author, considered Christianity to be worthless, but when he examined the historical evidence for the Christian faith, he saw the truth and trusted Jesus Christ as his Savior. A student at the University of Uruguay once asked him, “Professor McDowell, why can’t you refute Christianity?” He responded, “For a very simple reason. I’m unable to explain away an event in history—the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (from More than a Carpenter, p. 89).
In this study, we will look at three areas of proof for the resurrection of Jesus Christ: (1) the Empty Tomb, a fact that presents a significant problem for those who reject His bodily resurrection; (2) the Eyewitness Testimony, one of the foundations of legal evidence; and (3) the Extraordinary Transformations in the lives of those who came face to face with the risen Savior.
The Empty Tomb
The Women Come to the Tomb (Mark 16:1-8)
The women that watched Jesus’ burial returned to His tomb after the Sabbath bringing spices with which to anoint His body. “Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week,” Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome “came to the tomb when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:1-2). As they approached the burial place, they wondered, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” (Mark 16:3), for they had watched Joseph and Nicodemus roll a large stone before the entrance (Matt. 27:60).
When they arrived at the tomb, “they saw that the stone had been rolled away” and “entering the tomb, they saw a young man in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:4-5). This young man was an angel of God (Matt. 28:5) who told the women, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him” (Mark 16:6).
The tomb of Jesus was empty! What possible explanation could there be for this amazing discovery?
Peter and John Visit the Tomb (John 20:1-10)
Mary Magdalene, as soon as she “saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb,” ran and told Simon Peter and John: “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:1-2). Apparently she did not enter the tomb nor did she hear the angel announce that Jesus was risen. She assumed someone had taken His body from the tomb, possibly the Roman authorities or the Jewish rulers.
Peter and John “both ran together,” but John “outran Peter and came to the tomb first” (John 20:3-4). John did not enter the tomb, but “stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there” (John 20:5). When Peter arrived, he boldly “went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7).
The custom of Jewish burial was to wrap the body very tightly with linen grave cloths, the head and body being wrapped separately. The Greek word translated “handkerchief” was used in two ways: of a towel to wipe sweat from the face, and of a napkin wrapped around the head of a corpse (John 11:44).
What stands out about this handkerchief is that it was “folded together” in a place by itself. The expression “folded together” is translated from the Greek “entulisso” which means “to coil or wrap together.” The word is found in only two other places in Scripture: Matthew 27:59 and Luke 23:53, both of which describe how Jesus’ body was tightly “wrapped” in linen cloths before His burial.
When Peter and John entered the empty tomb, they saw an amazing sight: the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body and the handkerchief that had been wrapped around His head were not lying in disarray, as we would expect if Jesus had been “loosed” from these bindings (John 11:44). Instead, the linen cloths were still wrapped together, just as when they had enclosed His body; but now the body of Jesus was gone.
The Scriptural account tells us three times that Peter and John “saw” things in the empty tomb, but three different Greek words are used. When John first looked in from outside the tomb, he “saw” or merely noticed the linen clothes lying there. When Peter came in, he “saw” and considered the meaning of the linen cloths. After John actually entered the tomb, he “saw” or perceived the significance of the linen cloths and believed. What did John believe? “That He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9). John may have been the first of Jesus’ disciples to understand and believe that Jesus was risen.
What Happened that Morning? (Matthew 28:1-8)
What really happened the morning Jesus arose? All the gospel accounts tell us what happened when the women arrived at the tomb, but only Matthew describes what happened before the women arrived. While the women were still coming to Jesus’ tomb, “there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it” (Matt. 28:2). The countenance or general appearance of this angel “was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow” (Matt. 28:3).
When the soldiers who were guarding the tomb saw these things, initially they “shook for fear of him, and became like dead men” (Matt. 28:4), then hurried back to Jerusalem to report to the Jewish rulers what they had seen.
Meanwhile, the women arrived at the tomb and the angel spoke to them, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (Matt. 28:5-6). As the women entered the tomb, they found it empty. Jesus’ body was not there, only the grave cloths remained behind.
Why did the angel roll back the stone from the tomb’s entrance? None of the gospel writers describe Jesus coming out of the tomb after the angel rolled away the stone. The stone was not rolled away to let Jesus out, but to show that He was already gone; that He had risen before the stone was moved. How was this possible?
The key to understanding what happened early that Sunday morning is what Peter and John saw when they came to the tomb: the grave cloths that wrapped Jesus’ body and the handkerchief that wrapped His head were found still “folded (wrapped) together” each in their own place.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, He did not unwrap the grave cloths, move the stone, and leave the tomb. His body was raised right through the linen grave cloths, leaving them lying in the place where He had lain, still wrapped. He left the tomb the same way, right through the tomb walls without having to move the stone. Having seen this, Peter “marveled to himself at what had happened” (Luke 24:12).
While at first this seems incredible, we must remember that the resurrection body is not like the natural body; it does not have the same limitations (1 Cor. 15:42-44). In His resurrection body, Jesus could appear and disappear instantly if He so desired. During an evening meal with the Emmaus disciples, after blessing and breaking the bread, Jesus “vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31). Later that same evening, while His apostles were assembled together behind closed doors, Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst (John 20:19). Jesus left His grave cloths and His tomb in the same way.
The empty tomb is powerful evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Through the years, skeptics have proposed many ways to explain away the empty tomb, but an honest look at these theories reveals how unreasonable and inadequate they are to explain what happened.
The Wrong Tomb Theory
This theory proposes that when the women came to anoint Jesus’ body early Sunday morning, they mistakenly went to the wrong tomb. This would supposedly explain why there was no stone blocking the entrance and why the tomb was empty. A young man, presumably the gardener, tried to redirect them to the right tomb, saying, “He is not here. See the place where they laid Him” (Mark 16:6). The women, misunderstanding what the young man said, assumed Jesus was risen from the dead and rushed back to tell His disciples.
Matthew’s gospel explains that the young man who spoke to the women was actually an angel of God (Matt. 28:5). When you compare all the gospel accounts and consider everything the angel told them, clearly the women did not misunderstand, for he also said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” (Luke 24:5-6).
The women who visited the tomb were the same women who carefully watched as Jesus’ body was prepared for burial and laid in the tomb (Luke 23:55-24:1). While they might have been sorrowful over Jesus’ death, anointing His body with spices was a way of honoring their Lord. It is doubtful they were too distraught to remember the location of His tomb.
If the women went to the wrong tomb, so did Peter and John (John 20:2-4), which is an unlikely coincidence. What Peter and John found in the tomb—the empty grave cloths still wrapped together—would not have been found in an unused tomb, but it would have in the tomb of our risen Savior!
Many others knew the location of Jesus’ tomb as well: Joseph of Arimathea, who owned the tomb; Nicodemus, who helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial; the Jewish rulers, who arranged for the guard detail; and the Roman guards stationed at the tomb.
When news spread through Jerusalem and Judea that Jesus was risen, surely the Roman authorities or the Jewish rulers would have produced Jesus’ dead body to prove that the rumors of His resurrection were false. Instead, the Roman guards, supported by the Jewish rulers, spread the story that Jesus’ disciples stole His body. By propagating this story, both the Jews and Romans confirmed that Jesus’ tomb was, indeed, empty (Matt. 28:11-15).
The Swoon Theory
This theory asserts that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but merely fainted or swooned from exhaustion and loss of blood. Later, in the cool of the tomb, He supposedly revived, escaped the tomb, and then appeared to His disciples, who assumed He had risen from the dead.
Did Jesus die on the cross? The evidence that He did is overwhelming. The Scriptures declare in many places that Christ died (Rom. 5:8, 1 Cor. 15:3-4, Heb. 2:9, 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.). Even secular historians, such as Tacitus and Josephus, treat the death of Jesus as a fact.
There were a long list of witnesses present at Jesus’ crucifixion: a crowd of Jewish people, including many of the religious leaders, the Roman soldiers who crucified Him, the Roman centurion who was in charge, and many of Jesus’ acquaintances, including the women who followed Him from Galilee (Luke 23:35-36, 47, 49). All of these would testify that Jesus died that day.
When the Roman soldiers came to break Jesus’ legs, they found He was already dead, nevertheless, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear causing blood and water to spill out (John 19:33-34). The word “side” indicates He was pierced through the ribs, likely perforating both His heart and lungs. If He was not dead already, this injury would have killed Him.
When Pilate learned that Jesus was dead, he called for the Roman centurion to verify it. The centurion, who had probably presided over many crucifixions and seen many men die, confirmed that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:43-45).
Medical experts have looked at the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ sufferings and concluded He could not have survived the physical abuse inflicted upon Him. He stood through six different trials which lasted through the night. The Roman soldiers scourged Him until the skin on His shoulders and back was shredded and covered in blood; a punishment so harsh that people often died from it (Mark 15:15). They crushed a crown of thorns down into His scalp (Mark 15:17) and beat Him in the head with a reed (Mark 15:19). He was forced to carry His own cross through the streets of Jerusalem (John 19:17) until Simon of Cyrene was chosen to relieve Him of this burden. They nailed His hands (wrists) and feet to a cross (Luke 24:39-40) where He hung in agony for six hours. Finally, a soldier pierced His side with a spear (John 19:34). How could Jesus possibly have survived such punishment?
Even if Jesus did survive the cross, consider what He would have to do to make it appear He had risen from the dead. He would have to revive from His terrible injuries, though He had no medical attention for three days. He would have to loosen the tightly wound grave cloths and then meticulously rewrap them as they had been when they enclosed His body and head. He would have to move the massive stone blocking the tomb entrance, and then either sneak past the Roman guards or overpower them.
How could Jesus possibly have done all this with hands and feet pierced by nails, bones that were out of joint, a body weak from blood loss, a severe wound in his side, and heart and lungs that had been gashed by a spear?
Moreover, if Jesus did manage to do all this, He still would have to present Himself to His disciples in a badly battered and bleeding body and, somehow, convince them He had risen triumphantly from the dead.
The swoon theory is not a reasonable explanation for the empty tomb; nothing about this theory makes any sense.
The Moved or Stolen Body Theory
There are two variations of this theory: (1) The Romans or the Jewish rulers moved Jesus’ body to a different location and when the women found the tomb empty, they wrongly assumed He had risen from the dead. (2) Jesus’ disciples stole His body from the tomb at night while the soldiers slept and then proclaimed He had risen from the dead. This second version was the explanation given by the Jewish rulers in collusion with the Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb, the story commonly reported among the Jews (Matt. 28:11-15).
What possible purpose could the Roman authorities or Jewish leaders have in moving Jesus’ body? The very reason the Jews requested Roman soldiers to guard the tomb was to ensure that Jesus’ body was not moved. Besides, if they had moved Jesus’ body to a different tomb, when His disciples began to proclaim that He was risen, either the Roman or Jewish rulers would have simply produced His dead body and ended all speculation.
Is it likely that Jesus’ disciples stole His body, as the Jews reported? The answer lies in the emotional condition of these men at that time.
After Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, what did His disciples do? They “forsook Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56). There is no record that any of them, except John, was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and after His burial they were all in hiding for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). Would these frightened men have taken courage to get past the Roman guards, break the Roman seal, move the massive stone, and steal Jesus’ body from the tomb? It is highly improbable.
If they did steal Jesus’ body, would they have unwrapped it? And, if they did bother to unwrap it, would they then have taken the time to rewrap the linen cloths and place them back in position in the tomb, as if Jesus had simply come through them?
The theory that Jesus’ body was moved or stolen makes no more sense than the other two theories. We are left with only one conclusion: the tomb of Jesus was empty because He arose from the dead.
William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California and author or editor of over thirty books, said: “The fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus’ resurrection, could come into existence and flourish in the very city where He was executed and buried seems to be compelling evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.”
Next Issue: “The Eyewitness Testimony”