And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Mark 16:6
Apart from the actual appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb is probably the greatest physical evidence of the resurrection of Christ that we have. Lee Strobel, the legal editor for the Chicago Tribune, journeyed from atheist to believer after a rigorous investigation of the evidence for Christ. Here is what he said concerning the empty tomb during that journey:
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.”
This should be stunning to those who doubt the resurrection. Is there really evidence so solid that it would evoke such a statement from one of the most daunting legal minds of all time? Even the skeptical Michael Grant concluded that though there are differences in the accounts, applying the same criteria as one would to any other ancient literary source, the evidence is “firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.”
Okay, so what is that “veritable rock” of evidence? Our task for today is to review it so that we might be found “always prepared to give a defense” as Peter says. Next time we will look at two critical arguments we need in that defense, the early creed and the polemic, and then we will be ready to examine the “rationalistic theories” that have “dashed themselves in vain” against the evidence of the empty tomb.
So, here we go with that “veritable rock” of evidence:
1. The Guards. When the guards reported to the elders, it is apparent that they had made a thorough search of the tomb, otherwise, there would have been no subsequent bribing of them to spread the lie that the disciples had stolen the body while they slept.
2. The Women. We have multiple visits by the women to the tomb early that morning who found the tomb empty. Additionally, as we will discuss later, this provides strong evidence against the argument that the resurrection story is a legend. No Jewish male would create a legend in which the women are the primary witness in the story, for women didn’t have that kind of status in those days.
3. The Angels. It is hard to deny the testimony of an angel! Unless, of course, you want to deny the veracity of the record itself or one is a proponent of naturalism, where the notion of supernatural events and beings are automatically thrown out. Those are issues we have already dealt with. But, finding the historical records to be reliable, it is difficult not to take note of an angel or two making the statement that Jesus had risen and His body was no longer there. And, by the way, come and take a look.
4. Peter and John. Both Peter and John ran to the tomb after Magdalene’s report to them. They both saw the tomb was empty just as she said. Peter returned for a second visit after the other women testified to speaking with angels saying that Jesus had risen. No doubt this second visit by Peter was a more thorough and contemplative one.
5. Other disciples. We don’t have foolproof evidence of this, but it seems there is both a strong implication and a common-sense conclusion that most, if not all, of the disciples at some point visited the tomb. When Cleopas returned from seeing Jesus on the road to Emmaus, this is what was said to him:
Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” Luke 24:22-24
If some of the disciples had gone to see the tomb after the women’s report of seeing angels, then that would have to be a separate event from Peter and John running to the tomb after Magdalene’s report, for Magdalene saw no angel on her first visit to the tomb.
And it would just make sense. Can you imagine being a disciple in the Upper Room and having the women burst in talking about angels and an empty tomb, and not going? I would have been running there in a heartbeat to check it out.
6. The grave clothes. This requires some study, so let’s look at the burial again. First from John:
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.John 39:38-40
And second from Mark:
So, Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen… Mark 15:46
Several things we need to note here. The word in John for “wrapped” is a Greek word that means “to bind” together. The fresh linen was bound together with the heavy, sticky mixture of aloe/myrrh around Jesus’ body. Notice, too, that it was done according to custom. This will be important in a minute when we go back and look at the grave clothes of Lazarus.
The word for “wrapped” in Mark is a different Greek word than the one in John. The Greek word here is eneileo, which means “to whirl or wind” because it is talking not about the “binding” of the aloe/myrrh mixture as in John, but simply the “whirling or winding” of the linen around the body of Jesus.
Next, let’s look at the description of what Peter and John saw. There is a lot of speculation over just what the wording implies regarding the grave clothes:
Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; John 20:4-8
The Greek word that is translated “face cloth” here is soudarion, which was a “sweat cloth” used to wipe sweat from the face. It seems that there is something different between what was used to wrap the body and what was used to wrap the face.
Fresh linen, as everyone knows, is a little stiff and coarse. It is very possible that what we have here is an indication of a different material used to wrap the head. We see the same in Lazarus, where we get another look at the burial custom:
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. John 11:44
Again, the word “cloth” here is soudarion and it seems something different than the linen binding strips for the body. It is reasonable to think that the “sweat cloth” even common folk used to wipe their face was something softer, like cotton. But what is so very important here is that Lazarus’ face was “wrapped” with this kind of cloth.
Now, look back at John 20, where our translation says that the face cloth had been “folded up”. Unfortunately, the word “folded” here can be misleading and has caused some to interpret this as Jesus had folded it up after His resurrection, referring to a custom of one who was not yet finished with a meal and would fold up his napkin rather than toss it on the table, concluding Jesus had done this to indicate He was returning. But, although this makes a good story, it is a stretch. Jesus is not coming back to the tomb, and the word here is the Greek word entylisso, which means “wrapped”. Notice that this is the same word we find in both Matthew and Luke to describe how Joseph of Arimathea “wrapped” the body of Jesus with the linen cloth:
Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone Luke 23:53
So, Peter and John did not see the head wrapping neatly folded up somewhere, which anyone could have done, but they saw it still in its wrapped (entylisso) form… in the same form they saw the soudarion as it was wrapped around Lazarus’ head when he came out of the tomb, but now there was no head inside.
What does all of this tell us? When Peter and John beheld the body wrappings undisturbed in the tomb, they did not see what one might expect if someone had come and stolen the body. If they had stolen the body the grave clothes would either be gone with the body or the thieves would have had to cut them off, for by now the aloe/myrrh mixture would have solidified or at best been a sticky mess to undo. But this is not what they saw. The grave clothes were still there and they were still “wrapped”, possibly now collapsed, but nevertheless, wrapped. The wrapping around His head was still there as well, and appearing separate from the linen wrappings because there was no longer a body connecting the two.
It didn’t look like the aftermath of grave robbers, but rather the remnants of a resurrection!
This is why John, upon looking at all of this, “saw and believed”.
And why, for our purposes, the presence of the grave clothes in the tomb and in their original shape is a huge piece of evidence. The Jewish scholar, Simon Greenleaf, founder of the Harvard Law School, in attempting to disprove the resurrection, came to be a believer primarily because of the grave clothes.
7. A body was never produced. The authorities had to bribe the guards to spread a lie that the disciples had stolen the body. If, in fact, the tomb was not empty, they merely had to produce the body and put an end to this nonsense. But, it wasn’t nonsense. The tomb was really empty and, for them, the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found.
There are more indirect evidences, such as the appearance of Jesus (no small matter) and the radical change in His followers. But these are seven evidences that should be understood and wielded by the Christian in the defense of why we are a people of hope. Something we must not lose sight of in our current times.