The resurrection of Christ involves four basic factors which the people of the world—Christian and non-Christian, Jew and Gentile—must consider. These factors are: 1. There was a person on this earth during the first century of our era named Jesus of Nazareth. 2. This person died on a cross. The Koran denies this, but without justification; Jesus said he would die, the Roman soldiers declared he was dead, the book of Acts employs eight different Greek words to embrace all the aspects of his being put to death, the theology of all the apostles rests upon the fact that Christ’s blood was shed for us, and the hosts in glory ascribe honor and praise to the enthroned Christ because he was slain (Rev. 5:9, 12; 13:8). 3. Our Lord’s body, when taken from the cross, was placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on Friday afternoon. (A few deny this, and we shall comment on that later.) 4. On Sunday the tomb was empty.
Testimony And The Tomb
The testimony to the fact of the empty tomb is irrefutable however one may account for the fact itself. All four Gospels witness to the phenomenon and employ various phrases, which are evidence of the fact that the writers did not slavishly copy from one another. Recording the visit of the women to the tomb, Matthew gives us the words of the angel, “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (28:6). The fact that he does not say the women looked into the tomb and found it empty in no way weakens the meaning of the angel’s words. Mark writes in more vivid detail. The women entering into the tomb “saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment … And he saith unto them … he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.” (16:5, 6). Luke asserts, “And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus” (24:3). Peter “seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself” (John 20:6, 7; cf. Luke 24:12). Thus we have in four different records, written within 65 years of our Lord’s death, testimonies to the empty tomb in the announcement of the angels, from the women who saw the tomb empty, and from Peter and John, the two chief apostles, who also beheld the empty grave. It should be remembered that the women did not go to the sepulchre to see an empty tomb, but to anoint the body of Jesus, and that they, along with the apostles, could not believe that a resurrection had taken place.
A fourth testimony to the empty tomb is peculiar to Matthew (28:11–15). Soldiers, appointed by the Sanhedrin to guard the tomb, returned to report that the tomb was empty. The text does not actually say that they reported the tomb empty. But the decision of the Sanhedrin to concoct a story, without foundation, in order to explain this phenomenon is sufficient evidence that the soldiers did say that the tomb was empty and that the Sanhedrin accepted their statement. It is significant that none of these Jewish authorities went out to see if the grave was empty. They knew it was unnecessary, for the soldiers were not coming with fables.
Unbelief And The Tomb
We are here faced with an historical problem: How did the tomb become empty? A strong statement by Canon Liddon some years ago well introduces our investigation of this question. He said that the empty tomb “is the central sanctuary of the Christian faith. No other spot on earth says so much to Christian faith as does the tomb of our Lord.”
Those who have attempted to repudiate the evidence for the empty tomb may be placed in one of three groups: those who insist that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was empty on Easter morning simply because the body of Jesus was never placed there; those who believe that though the body was placed there on Friday afternoon, someone removed the body; or those who are convinced that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but only swooned and came forth from the tomb by his own power.
Let us examine first the swoon theory, or the claim that Christ was in a state of swoon when placed in the tomb, and later, having recovered, he came out in his own strength. First of all, this would not be physically possible, for, even if he had recovered from such a swoon, Jesus could not by natural means have extricated himself from the graveclothes that bound him in accordance with burial customs of that day. Furthermore, no man could roll back, from the inside, the huge stone door which had been sealed to make it doubly secure. Even Strauss, who vigorously opposed the teaching of Christ’s resurrection, admits that this is inconceivable. “It is impossible that one who had just come forth from the grave half dead, who crept about weak and ill, who stood in need of medical treatment, of bandaging, strengthening and tender care, and who at last succumbed to suffering could ever have given to the disciples that impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave—that he was the prince of life” (David Strauss, The Life of Jesus for the People, Eng. trans., London, 1879, Vol. I, p. 412).
The view that the tomb was empty because the body of Jesus was not placed there was held by the French rationalist C. H. Guignebert, for many years professor of Christianity at the University of Paris. Guignebert contends that the body of Jesus, along with those of the two criminals who had been crucified with him, was thrown into a ditch. But Guignebert does not supply any evidence for his theory. We must remember that there are four accounts of the burial of Jesus, all of them written within two generations of his death, and two of the four by eyewitnesses of his crucifixion, death, and burial—namely Matthew and John. More authentic detail is available on the burial of Jesus than on the burial of any other great man of the ancient world, and there is not the slightest hint in these historical records that the body of Jesus was cast into a ditch.
Another proposal which attempts to discount the empty tomb is that adopted by Dr. Kirsopp Lake, for years a professor at Harvard University. He claims that the women who came to anoint Jesus in the early dawn of Sunday went to the wrong tomb because, it has been suggested, their eyes were blinded with tears! This theory, like that of Guignebert, has met with almost unanimous rejection, even on the part of those who deny that Christ rose from the dead. In the first place, it is hardly possible that these women, who had carefully observed the burial on Friday afternoon, should have missed the tomb on Sunday morning. Moreover, when they reported the empty tomb to Peter and John, these apostles returned and also found the tomb empty, which would imply that they likewise went to “the wrong tomb.” An angel sitting at this tomb said, “Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” How is it conceivable that the angel was so mistaken? Furthermore, so far as we know, this was a private burial ground in the garden of Joseph of Arimathaea, not a public cemetery where one tomb could have been mistaken for another. As somebody has said, this whole theory “is a rationalization which is utterly foreign to the spirit of the narrative.”
A third theory that has been offered acknowledges that the body of Jesus was placed in this tomb on Friday afternoon and that the tomb was empty on Easter morning, but the disappearance of the body is to be accounted for in its removal by some man or group of men. This explanation is supposed to be found in our own New Testament, and it represents the first attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Soldiers had been assigned to watch the tomb lest, so the Jews said, the disciples should come and steal the body. When, according to Matthew (28:11–15) these men reported the tomb empty, the Jews could do nothing else but “gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you [rid you of care]. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.” Note that the Sanhedrin did not deny that the tomb was empty. This explanation was repeated in the centuries immediately following the apostolic age (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue Against Trypho, p. 108; Tertullian, Apology, p. 212), and was put forth in the eighteenth century by Reimarus, brought out by Lessing in Concerning the Resurrection, and expounded by Holtzmann and others.
Truly, there was no reason why the disciples should take the body from the tomb (it would have been physically impossible for them to do this anyway); it is historically inconceivable that all the soldiers were asleep and so deep in slumber that they could not hear the great stone being rolled aside or the footsteps of the disciples as they carried away the body of a grown man; and it is equally inconceivable that these disciples should have suffered hardship for years (for most of them violent death) as a result of devoting the remainder of their lives to preaching a Resurrection when they knew no such event had taken place.
Closely related to this theory is the suggestion that the body was removed by the owner of the tomb, Joseph of Arimathaea. (This is the view of Klausner.) But there is no evidence that he did this; there is no reason why Joseph should have removed the body of his Lord, for this burial was the greatest honor that could have come to him; nevertheless had he desired to remove the body, there would have been no possibility of his succeeding so long as the soldiers were guarding the tomb, for they would not have permitted Joseph to take the body any more than they would have allowed the disciples to do so. Joseph is referred to as “an honourable counsellor” and “a good man and a just” (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50), and such a man, when hearing the apostles preach that Christ had risen from the dead, would have told them frankly that he had removed the body, and their preaching of the Resurrection would have ceased. The history of the early Church clearly testifies to the fact that no such report was ever circulated among the apostles.
A well-known scholar of a former generation, W. K. Lowther Clarke, in his volume, New Testament Problems, abandons hope of identifying the person or persons who removed the body of Jesus by this statement: “We are therefore thrown back on what seems the logical alternative to the tradition of the Church. The body must have been removed during the night of the first day of the week (Saturday–Sunday)—the night of the Sabbath may be excluded—by a person or persons unknown, neither friend nor enemy, actuated by motives so obscure that we cannot even hazard a guess at them. And when we have got so far, perhaps we are as near the mystery as we can ever get” (p. 107).
Apostolic Preaching And The Tomb
It has been suggested by many critics that all the statements of the evangelists regarding the empty tomb are part of the development of a late apologetic in the Christian Church drawn up to prove the Resurrection to a later generation. Of this assumption, the late Dr. W. J. Sparrow Simpson, author of two works on the subject of the Resurrection, has said:
The Synoptic tradition and the Book of Acts are opposed to that assertion. The earliest Gospel narrative not only declares that the grave was empty, but, in the form which we possess, actually terminates with that declaration. The Synoptic tradition does not record the Appearances first, and then proceed to investigations at the grave. It first records the discovery of the Empty Grave, and then approaches the Appearances. There is not the smallest question that this was deeply noted in the Evangelists’ convictions. The sermon attributed to St. Peter in the Acts, at the first Whitsuntide, endorses this conviction in a very significant way. For the central argument of that sermon, the basis of it, is that the flesh of Christ saw no corruption. This deliberate challenge was, according to the Acts, publicly made, within a few weeks of the event, and in the same city close to the spot where the Body had been buried. It is obvious, as Rawlinson says, that “the character of their preaching would have been different if they had believed the Lord’s Body to be still in the tomb, and it is hardly credible that they should have left the tomb unvisited.” … Unless the historian of the Acts has committed a gross anachronism, and has not only invented a speech which St. Peter did not deliver, but attributed to him beliefs which he did not at that time entertain, the Empty Grave must have formed an integral part of the earliest apostolic preaching. To eliminate all early reference to the Empty Tomb is to do violence to the evidence.
Looking over the theories that have been proposed by those who refuse to believe that Christ truly rose bodily from the grave on Easter morning, we might make an additional observation. Of the five basic claims set forth at different times by different writers, not one of them is generally accepted today by men who deny the Resurrection. Not one of the theories has ever won general and lasting approval. In all the volumes that have been written in attempt to break down the testimony of the historical fact of Christ’s bodily resurrection, no theory has ever been proposed around which rationalistic scholars and those embracing liberal views of the Christian faith have all agreed.
The intellectual leaders of our generation, the majority of whom are unbelievers, ought at least to examine without prejudice these narratives in which the resurrection of Christ is set forth as an historical fact as well as an object of faith. And they ought to read them with as much open-mindedness as they would read the histories of Pliny or a contemporary account of the American revolution. I believe that if I were a young man studying in an American or European university, and had no Christian faith, I would be compelled to come to terms with the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Christ. I should either have to find some theory that would satisfy me in my escape from apostolic evidence, or begin asking myself, “Who then is this?”
Wilbur M. Smith is Editor of Peloubet’s Select Notes on the International Sunday School Lessons, and serves as Professor of the English Bible at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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