The Challenge of the Empty Tomb by Pauline Clementson

 Enlightened Testimony

Consider these words written by someone who was once violently opposed to the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. As one of the most active opponents of the emerging faith, Saul the Pharisee was convinced that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead. He was utterly convinced. But later he wrote:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:14,17).

There’s no mistaking what the Apostle Paul – as he became – is saying in these verses. If Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead, then the Christian faith has no credibility, and preaching about it is a complete waste of time. The whole chapter makes interesting reading, for it is all about resurrection. There were some at Corinth who thought there was no such thing, and Paul was absolutely convinced that they were wrong.

1 Corinthians 15 is a wonderful chapter of hope for believers, but only if Jesus really did rise from the dead. For Christianity is totally dependent on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. So, how sure can we be that he really did rise from the dead?

Was Jesus Really Dead?

That’s the obvious question. Was Jesus really dead when he was taken down from the cross? The gospels record in some detail the final hours before Jesus was placed in the grave. He was arrested at night, and subsequently subjected to terrible physical suffering. Here are some of the things that happened:

  • During his first trial, Jesus’ accusers spat in his face; they punched and slapped him (Matthew 26 :67-68).
  • Several hours later, the governor Pilate had him flogged (Matthew 27:26).
  • Pilate’s soldiers then made Jesus wear a crown of twisted thorns, and repeatedly beat him over the head with a staff (Matthew 27:27-30).
  • Next, he was led out to the crucifixion site … (John 19:16-17). By this time Jesus was so weak, because of his injuries, that he was unable to carry the cross … and somebody else had to carry it for him (Matthew 27:32).
  • Then he was crucified – fixed to the cross by nails through his hands and feet, and hung there for several hours.
  • Two others crucified with him, had their legs broken, to speed up their death, but as Jesus was declared dead already, a spear was thrust into his side instead (John 19:31-37).

Killed by Experts

 The Roman soldiers were experts in crucifixion, and they would have known when a man was dead. Even supposing the ones who checked up on Jesus were mistaken, the spear thrust in his side would have been fatal. The eye-witness record says that water {or serum) and blood flowed out when it happened.

  • When Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. He sent for the centurion to confirm the death and, having been assured, gave the body to Joseph, who buried it in a rock tomb (Mark 15:42-45). Centurions did not make mistakes, especially when the governor wanted the matter checked.
  • A large stone was rolled across the entrance (Mark 15:47).
  • The Jewish authorities, remembering that Jesus had said he would rise again the third day, went and asked Pilate to make the tomb secure. They wanted to make sure the disciples couldn’t steal the body, and then pretend that he had risen. So, the tomb was sealed, and guards posted outside (Matthew 27:62-66).

The first century Jewish historian Josephus confirms the gospel accounts, by recording that Jesus was executed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. And the apostle Paul says of Jesus that: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

The fact that he died is a vital part of the true Christian faith. No death – no forgiveness!

 

Did Jesus Really Rise? 

  • Early in the morning, there was a violent earthquake, when an angel came down from heaven, rolled the stone back and sat on it. The guards were utterly terrified, as were two women disciples who had gone to the tomb (Matthew 28:1-4). “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said, Come and see the place where he lay’ “
    (Matthew 28:5,6).
  • Peter also went to the tomb and found the burial cloths, but no Jesus (John 20:6,7).

What Next?

So, the tomb was empty of Jesus’ body, but what had happened to him? The gospels not only tell us that Jesus was alive again, but also report some of his appearances to his disciples.

  • Jesus joined two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:1-35).

  • In John’s gospel, we have the moving reunion of Mary Magdalene with her Lord, when at first she mistook him for the gardener.

  • Then follows an account of Jesus going to the room where his disciples had locked themselves in because they were afraid of the Jews. “Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19,20).
  • Thomas was missing on this occasion, and John tells of Jesus’ return visit a week later, to convince … Thomas of his resurrection.

Paul gives us information not found in the gospels. After telling of Jesus’ appearance to the twelve disciples, he continues

“After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep .. and last of all he appeared to me also …”
(1 Corinthians 15:6-8).

Alternative Theories

Several alternative suggestions have been put forward by those wanting to disprove the resurrection. It’s important that we consider them, when the truth of the Christian faith is at stake.

  • Only Unconscious?

    One theory is that Jesus wasn’t really dead, but only unconscious. In the cool of the tomb he came round, rolled away the stone, and went to his disciples telling them he had risen.

    … Is it really plausible, that, after such traumatic injuries, Jesus would have been capable of rolling a heavy stone away three days later, breaking the seal, overcome or terrify the guards, and then persuade his disciples that he was risen and was alive for evermore?

  • Body Stolen?

    This theory is actually related in Matthew’s gospel. What a problem the empty tomb was to the Jewish leaders who had arranged for a guard to be posted outside it, to avoid this very possibility. When the soldiers fled from the garden, what cover story could they concoct?

    The best they could come up with was to bribe the guards to say “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep” (Matthew 28:13).They also had to pacify the guards, by promising to speak to Pilate if he should hear that guards had been asleep on duty. The whole thing was obviously a cover-up for what had really happened.

  • Wrong Tomb?

    Some have suggested that the disciples went to the wrong tomb, and that Jesus was still dead in another one. If the disciples had been confused, the authorities wouldn’t have been. They knew which tomb had been guarded, and would have been delighted to show the disciples their mistake.

  • Conspiracy?

    There are several other ideas which suggest that perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, or maybe either the Jewish or Roman authorities moved the body. Matthew tells us (27:57), that Joseph was a disciple, and he had nothing to gain from moving it, as we’ll see in a moment. The authorities would hardly have wanted to contribute to the resurrection story by hiding the body.

    Others suggest that Mary Magdalene really did meet the gardener, not her risen Lord. Even supposing she did, that meeting is only a very small part of the picture. Some say that the disciples never visited the tomb, and made the whole story up. Let’s see if this could be a possibility.

    Had the disciples known about Jesus’ body, and then made up the resurrection appearances, they would have been preaching something they knew to be a lie. But, the great change in them after the resurrection isn’t consistent with such a view. At his arrest, Jesus’ disciples fled. Peter followed at a distance, but then denied his master three times. We’ve already seen that the disciples locked themselves in for fear of the Jews. They were really afraid for their own lives. They were dispirited and thought Jesus’ death was the end of their hopes.

    But what a different story afterwards! They preached Jesus boldly, despite suffering for it. Some were martyred for their beliefs. Is it likely that they would risk their lives for a hoax? Hardly! The most reasonable explanation is that God really did raise Jesus from the dead.

Victory over Death

If Jesus had only lived for a few years after his crucifixion and had then died again, Christianity could still offer nothing for the future. It’s because he was the only sinless man and was therefore raised to live for ever, that we can have any hope . We’re all sinners and under sentence of death but, through belief in Jesus, we too can be raised to everlasting life. Here’s the apostle Paul again:

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him”
(1 Corinthians 15:21-23).

God’s Guarantee

Note that Paul says “when he comes”. At the moment, Jesus is in heaven, but he will return, to raise the dead and set up God’s kingdom. How can we be certain that this will happen? God has given His guarantee.

“He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Pauline Clementson

Quotations from the NIV