a. Empty Tomb
The credibility of the empty tomb is especially strong because of three basic facts:
i. The first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection where women.
Matt 28:5-10 “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. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
The role of women in the in the first century Middle East society was far from being ideal. Old rabbinical sayings like “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than delivered to women” and “Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.” Women’s testimonies were regarded as worthless and none could serve as legal witnesses in the Jewish court of law.
The amazing fact is that all four gospels report that women were in fact the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. In first century Jewish circles, more credibility would have been given to men of good reputation, like Peter and John, to be the witnesses of this. Women’s testimonies would have been cast away right off. This proves beyond a doubt the faithfulness of the gospel writers to accurately report the facts as they occurred. They didn’t even try to hide the fact that women whose testimonies were worthless at that time were the first ones to discover the empty tomb!
No wonder the disciples didn’t believe them when they reported that Jesus had risen! Mark 16:11 “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.” and Luke 24:11 “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
ii. The narratives based on the 4 gospels are somewhat different, but concur on the simple fact that Jesus had indeed risen.
Had the four gospels been identical, suspicion would have been raised of possible plagiarism. However comparing the four narratives (see Matt 28:1-11; Mark 16: 1-11; Luke 24: 1-12 and John 1-18) there are some subtle differences, even apparent contradictions, but the core message is the same:
Joseph of Arimathea takes it upon himself to take Jesus’ body, embalm it and put it in his own tomb. That first Sunday after the crucifixion, several women find the tomb empty. It is announced to them by angels that Jesus is risen.
I have taught for nearly twenty years. Whenever an accident happened at my workplace, I discovered that when interviewing witnesses to a mishap, none of the testimonies matched each other exactly. Did this mean the accident never happened? Hardly. Every one of these students saw things differently, but the core of their stories matched. Suspicion would have been raised if all stories matched perfectly!
The same is true about the four gospel narratives reporting that Jesus is risen!
iii. None of the opponents to Christianity ever doubted that the tomb was empty!
Nowhere in historical records can you find a quote of someone being able to show any evidence of Jesus’ body nor to claim that the tomb still contained Jesus’ body. Why? We found out that nor the disciples, nor the Jews, nor the Romans would have been able to steal the body of Christ. That leaves the only alternative that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead!
Also never has Jesus’ sepulchre become an object of veneration among His followers. Why not? Because of the simple fact that Jesus followers were serving someone who was alive and were ready to die because of this truth!
b. Jesus’ Grave Clothes
The apostle John was convinced beyond a doubt that Jesus was resurrected when he peered into Jesus’ tomb:
John 20:3-8 “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.”
What convinced him? The strips of linen and the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head.
The Greek in this text implies that the linen clothes were where Jesus’ body used to be and the burial cloth that was around Jesus’ head was separate from the rest. It seemed that Jesus’ body had simply withdrawn itself from its burial clothes! An impossibility, unless Jesus had indeed been risen!
The burial clothes were not strewn around the tomb, which would have been the case if thieves had tried to remove the strips of linen.
c. The Seal and the Guards
The seal on the tomb was broken. A death penalty was assured to anyone who would have broken that seal. However no one was arrested! The whole thing was shoved under the carpet as if it never happened. Why? Could it be because of fear of embarrassment?
The guards themselves faced certain death, as they could not explain the disappearance of Jesus’ body. However they were not executed. Why not? They search refuge among the Jewish chief priests who assured their protection if they accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing Jesus’ body.
Matt 28:11-15 “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
However they were not very convincing as the Christian church thrived.
Acts 9:31 “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”
Witnesses are vital when being involved in a car accident, especially when it isn’t one’s fault. The same is true when getting married. The marriage license bears the signature of two witnesses who can testify they were there when the wedding took place. Also when applying for a job, references are needed of people who have witnessed and can vouch for your excellent work abilities.
The same is true concerning Jesus’ resurrection. We have moved beyond a doubt that Jesus indeed was resurrected, however without witnesses our case could be argued. However, many people witnessed Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, confirming the certitude that Jesus had indeed been risen!
Acts 2:32 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”
Acts 3:15 “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.”
Acts 5:30-32 “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead-whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Acts 10:39-40 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.”
Acts 13:30-31 “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.”
How many witnesses does one generally need to have proof?
2 Cor 13:1 “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Jesus appeared to more than 500 people after he was resurrected! More than the two or three witnesses required as proof!
The apostle Paul testified the following: 1 Cor 15:3-8 “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
No wonder the Christian church grew under the direction of God’s Spirit!
Is there any direct mentioning of Jesus’ appearances in the New Testament?
Absolutely! He appeared to:
Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9; John 20:10-18)
Several other women (Matt 28:8-10)
Peter (Luke 24:34)
Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32)
Eleven disciples and others (Luke 24:33-49)
Ten apostles and others, while Thomas was absent (Luke 24: 36-43; John 20:19-23)
Thomas and the other apostles (John 20:26-30)
Seven apostles (John 21:1-14)
Ten disciples (Matthew 28:16-20)…
The New Testament is literally littered with references to Jesus’ appearances! These witnesses could not be easily dismissed! Moreover, most of these where men and women of integrity who believed in and preached the highest ethical teaching ever known.
ii. Is it possible that all these people could have experienced hallucinations?
a. First of all the disciples were quite sceptical about Jesus’ resurrection at first. They didn’t believe women testifying about this.
Mark 16:11 “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.”
Luke 24:11 “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
One of them even refused to believe unless he could put his fingers in Jesus’ crucifixion wounds!
John 20:24-25 “Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
However when Jesus appeared to Thomas, he was so real that this disciple became a firm believer!
John 20:27-28 “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
b. Jesus appeared to more than 500 witnesses at once! (see 1 Cor 15:3-8)
c. Jesus’ appearances didn’t occur for a brief period of time. He appeared numerous times over a long period of time (40 days), where he taught, gave counselling and even ate! People were even allowed to touch him.
d. Psychology has proven that hallucinations only happen when someone desires irrationally to see a lost loved one. However the disciples were very sceptical about Jesus’ appearance. They were far from being irrationally desiring to see Jesus! Also nowhere has there been recorded of mass hallucinations (like 500 people at once).
Gary R. Collins, PH.D. a renown psychologist who specializes in clinical psychology and who wrote 45 books on psychology related topics wrote the following about hallucinations in a letter addressed to Dr. Habermas:
“Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce an hallucination in somebody else. Since an hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.”
Collins as cited in Habermas, Gary and J.P. Moreland. Immortality: The Other Side of Death. Nashville: Nelson, 1992, p. 60.
Nowhere has there been noted of hallucinations happening to several people at different times over a long period of time! Jesus was real and showed himself without a doubt to these multitudes of witnesses.