I love history. Specifically the Civil War. I remember in high school reading countless books about the Civil War for more than two years. I took tests, wrote papers, but it wasn’t until I saw the battlefield that it became real to me. We took a class trip to Washington D.C., visited Gettysburg and the surrounding areas, stood on the battlefields, and touched the bullet holes. It wasn’t until I connected the stories with it being an actual historical event that I made a deeper connection. The Civil War became an emotional thing—almost an obsession. I was fascinated by it because the stories connected with the historical data. I didn’t just know the history, I could feel it and touch it.
Easter is almost here. The celebration of the empty tomb. The cornerstone of Christian life and faith. And it hinges entirely on the greatest miracle ever recorded in human history. On the one hand, I love that fact. It’s got that over the top kind of feel to it. On the other hand, it scares the living daylights out of me. It almost seems like something that miraculous could so easily be explained away. In fact, this is the main pushback I get from anyone questioning the resurrection. I tend to think that discovering the truth of the resurrection is not unlike my connection with the history of the Civil War. The resurrection is more than just the greatest miracle the world has ever known. It is a piece of history.
Let me give you one small piece.
The Empty Tomb
It is widely understood and accepted by New Testament supporters and critics that Jesus’ burial in the tomb, belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, is one of the best-established facts about the historical Jesus. All four gospels and Paul corroborate the known tomb and that it was empty three days following the crucifixion. Further, there are no legitimate competing stories or theories that lead us to conclude otherwise, leaving little doubt that Jesus was in fact buried in a tomb that was later found to be empty. Even some of the most liberal, non-Christian scholars agree the tomb was empty.
But come on. Let’s be honest. An empty tomb doesn’t prove anything. It certainly cannot prove that Jesus resurrected. Isn’t it more plausible and logical to consider any other possible explanation to an empty tomb? Couldn’t the disciples have lied, or hallucinated? Isn’t it possible that they were so invested in this Jesus thing that they fabricated the whole thing? What about Jesus faking his death? Well, I suppose that on the surface any of these explanations sound better than some mythical story of a man rising from the dead after laying dead in a tomb for three days.
Or is it? What if despite many explanations to the contrary, the best, most plausible explanation is still that Jesus rose from the dead? So, let’s consider some of the most popular explanations for the empty tomb and see if they hold up to the historical context that we see in Scripture as well as other relevant historical information.
The Disciples Lied and Made the Whole Thing Up
There are at least two key questions we need to consider before we can make any conclusions. First, what would the disciples have to gain by lying? The disciples were Jewish and therefore, had a Jewish worldview. Within the Jewish worldview, there is no such thing as a dying and rising Messiah. In fact, the Jewish worldview taught that the Messiah would be a physical ruler, sent to overthrow foreign power to restore Israel to her former glory and world superpower status. So, the idea of a resurrected Jesus (and not to mention the theology behind it) would have been the furthest thing from their mind.
Consider the conversation Jesus has with the men on the road to Emmaus. Jesus had been dead for three days, so they were of course bummed. It seemed as though the person they thought Jesus was—as the Messiah within their worldview—had been lost on the cross. Their hopes of the restoration of a physical kingdom were buried with Jesus. But Jesus spends nearly the entire walk, explaining how the Messiah had to suffer, and that all of this was part of God’s plan—they just missed it. Even the disciples at Jesus’ ascension continued to get it wrong. They asked, “Is now the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even more than a month after the resurrection, the disciples were looking for a physical kingdom and Jesus to reign as King. So the idea of fabricating such an elaborate lie layered with multiple levels of theology, and even the need to introduce an entirely new worldview, wouldn’t have been in their purview.
Secondly, why would they risk their lives for something they knew was a lie? Peter ran from the scene and denied that he even knew Jesus several times. After Jesus had resurrected, the disciples met in a locked, private room, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. But later, Peter and John went toe-to-toe with those same Jewish authorities in Acts. So what happened? What changed? The best conceivable explanation is that these disciples experienced something transformational.
Additionally, in first-century Palestine, if one were trying to fabricate a story, in no way were women considered a credible witness to perpetuate such a lie. But the gospels tell us that the first to discover the empty tomb were women. According to the first-century historian Josephus, women were not considered reliable witnesses. A woman’s testimony was not admitted: “on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” If the gospel writers wanted to fabricate a lie and sell the resurrection as a historical fact, it would have made much more sense to omit what the women experienced.
What about hallucinations?
There is little doubt that being a central part of Jesus’ ministry for three years, witnessing the brutal execution of Jesus, and after, living in constant fear of Jewish authorities would take a significant emotional toll on a person’s psychological health. So isn’t it likely that the disciples were so emotionally and spiritually distressed that they thought they saw the risen Jesus? Isn’t it more plausible that they simply experienced a hallucination? After all, dead people generally stay dead. That might be possible, except that Jesus didn’t exclusively appear to the eleven core disciples. He appeared to women, the guys on the road to Emmaus, and to over 500 others; most of who, according to Paul, were alive and able to verify what they had witnessed. This, of course, creates a problem for any hallucination theory.
Hallucinations are created within a person’s mind. Each mind is unique. Therefore, each person’s hallucination must be unique. It would be, in every way, impossible for more than 500 people to have experienced the same hallucination. But there is one additional caveat to this. The alleged sightings of Jesus did more than just create a stir within the community of people who followed Jesus. It created a significant change in behavior.
Following Jesus was not permitted in the first-century. Jews were allowed to worship and engage in religious practice so long as they behaved themselves. Anything else was considered a threat to Rome’s pagan theology. The problem was that as people continued to talk about Jesus—even after Jewish authorities had him executed—Jews began to distance themselves from the followers of Jesus. Continuing to recognize this new movement as part of Judaism posed a threat to Jewish life and theology. Yet the earliest disciples continued to preach the name of Jesus, even when told not to. Many of them preached to the point of death. The two easiest examples are Stephen and James. Both of which were struck down for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. If these men did not believe the resurrection to be true, they would have no reason to hand their lives over willingly. In fact, if the resurrection were a lie, their natural human instinct to survive would kick in, and they would do what is necessary to preserve their lives. Given the evidence available to us, we cannot honestly dismiss eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus to no more than stress-induced visions.
We know the tomb was empty and there are plenty of other potential explanations as to what happened that attempt to write off the miraculous. But we also know that even though the resurrection narrative appears to be so far fetched that to believe it seems absurd, when we dig into every other explanation they prove themselves to be inadequate.
If you’re at all like me you would much rather have the opportunity to have been sitting beside Thomas as he touched the hands and side of the risen Jesus. We don’t have fresh grass on a historical battlefield to walk on or bullet holes we can touch. But we do have ever-mounting evidence that the tomb was empty because Jesus was not there for He has risen indeed! The salvation God promised is secure and the hope of the world delivered. For that we celebrate.
So as you prepare to celebrate Easter, keep in mind that the resurrection is so much more than the greatest miracle in the history of the world. It is a miracle supported by history. It is a historical event that not only changed the world as we know it but gave us the prototype for the world to come.