Monday, April 27, 2020

Christians Living in an Age of Mockery

As a result of my interest in apologetics, I enjoy watching YouTube debates between Christians and skeptics and videos made in response to issues raised by each side. Sometimes, I will venture into the comments section and even offer my own response when I feel it is appropriate. While a generalization will not accurately represent every individual, it has been my observation that skeptics and atheists are much more prone to use mockery and ridicule as a rhetorical tactic. They will often dismiss thoughtful Christian responses with retorts that mock Christians for believing in a "magical sky wizard" or "following a book written by Bronze Age goat herders." This approach can be seen in the writings and debates of atheistic spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and the videos of many skeptical YouTube creators. If you are interested in taking a deeper look at this issue, I recommend this video by pastor and apologist Mike Winger that examines the scoffing and mockery that is commonly found in atheists' responses to Christianity. While certainly Christians sometimes fall into the same patterns, I believe that the use of mockery as a rhetorical tactic is a divisive way of the world and one that Christians should not mimic.

Over the past six weeks, as I have been confined to our apartment in Spain during the COVID-19 lockdown, I have been more active on social media in an attempt to stay connected with friends and family around the world. I realize that communication on social media is not known for being thoughtful, patient, and empathetic, but it has been discouraging to see some Christians posting mocking and scoffing memes and responses to express their views on important issues related to COVID-19 and other Christians giving "thumbs up" or laughing emoticons in agreement. I have observed this on both sides of controversies, whether it be from people protesting the government response or from people criticizing the protesters, just as an example. To be clear, this exhortation is written to Christians on all sides of any issue.

I need to clarify a couple of points before diving into the heart of this post.  First, I am not speaking out against Christians using humor in general. Even Jesus used irony and sarcasm in the gospels. Also, I am not discouraging Christians from debating issues in the public square and strongly voicing their opinion when necessary. There are going to be a lot of important conversations over the next couple of years and Christians should clearly articulate their position. It is not unloving to disagree with someone, however, there is an unloving manner in which to disagree. What I want to specifically discourage is the use of mockery and scoffing to promote one's position or to attack another's perspective on any issue.

Like many contemporary issues, the Bible does not provide a proof text on how Christians should conduct themselves on social media. However, it provides general principles about how Christians should conduct themselves in a fallen world and several specific principles about how Christians should use their speech. These will provide valuable insight about how we should engage in debate and disagreement in a variety of contexts.

I would like to start by highlighting three principles that should influence not only what we post on social media, but how we live our entire lives. The Westminster Catechism provides a succinct summary of the purpose of the Christian life: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. One aspect of glorifying God is living in such a way that we shine as witnesses of God's character, causing others to praise God for our good works and to hopefully be attracted to follow him. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8), shine among (the world) like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:15), and do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31, Colossians 3:17). Our ultimate purpose is not to win debates on social media, even over important issues, but to "make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19).

As we strive towards this goal, we are to live in the world, but not be of the world (John 17:14-16). So, yes, Christians should be actively engaged in the weighty matters that are unfolding around the world, but we should not wage our battles in the same way as the rest of society. Paul urges the church in Rome to "not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:2-3). We cannot use the pervasive toxic environment on the internet and social media to excuse our use of mockery to attack others. If we find our conduct mirroring the pattern of the general culture, we have to ask ourselves whether we are really walking according to God's will.

Finally, Christians are called not just to love their neighbors, already an impossible task without God's grace, but also to love our enemies. Let us allow Jesus' words to speak for themselves and challenge our hearts.

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:27-36).

These three broad principles should be part of a foundation that impacts not only how we engage with issues on social media, but every area of our lives. However, the Bible also gives several specific principles that apply to how we use words to communicate with others. 
First, we should recognize the power that words carry and make every effort to control our tongues...or our typing. The Apostle James warns, "the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark." (James 3:5). He continues to point out the sad irony that with "the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness." (James 3:9). We must acknowledge the power of our words to destroy those whom God loves and refrain from posting or responding to messages in a cavalier fashion.
Also, we should take heed of the Bible's strong rebukes against dissension (Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:20); slander (1 Corinthians 6:10, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, 1 Peter 2:1);  discord (Galatians 5:20); and quarreling (1 Corinthians 3:3). In a letter to his protege, Timothy, Paul identifies the following characteristics of people in the last days: lovers of themselves, boastful, proud, abusive, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, treacherous, rash, and conceited (2 Timothy 3:2). Unfortunately, these are words that often describe normal behavior on social media. This does not mean that we cannot passionately advocate for our viewpoints or confront those we disagree with, but we should not exhibit any of these qualities in our discourse.
Instead, we should use our words to "build others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29). As we do this, we should bear with others and demonstrate compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:13, Galatians 5:22-23). We should "slander no one," but instead strive  "to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone." (Titus 3:2).
Finally, we should recognize how Christians are called to interact with each other with respect to disputable matters. This is not to say that there is not a "correct" response to the current COVID-19 crisis, but to acknowledge that there are going to be both Christians and non-Christians on both sides of every contentious issue that we will face in the coming years. A major issue of debate in the early church was whether Jewish Christians should continue to follow dietary restrictions and observe specific Jewish holy days. The Apostle Paul's advice was to "not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister" (Romans 14:13), but to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (Romans 14:19) and to "accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you." (Romans 15:7). I am afraid that if this issue was debated in the current social media environment, it would be accompanied by mocking memes attacking both perspectives. The presence of contentious and controversial issues is unlikely to diminish in the coming years, but Christians can choose to respond to their opponents with patience and grace.
With these principles established, let's take a look at a recent controversy related to the coronavirus. One side believed that the shutdowns mandated by various state governments were too authoritarian, feared that precedents were being set that would threaten civil liberties, and were concerned that economic damage caused by the shutdowns would outweigh the health benefits. The other side believed that strict shutdowns were necessary to protect lives, feared that people protesting the shutdowns would only help the virus to spread, and were concerned that opening economies too soon would undo any gains that had been achieved by the shutdowns. I want to reiterate that this post is not supporting either side, but instead addressing the manner in which both sides defended their position and attacked the opposition. While there were certainly many Christians who shared their position with clarity and compassion, I could cite several examples on both sides of memes and sarcastic comments meant to mock or ridicule the opposing view. That is my concern.
These types of posts, comments, and responses fall well short of the general and specific principles described above. How does a meme mocking protestors show gentleness and compassion to the person whose small business is facing financial ruin and wonders how they will be able to provide for their family? How does a sarcastic comment scoffing at those who would so easily "surrender their freedoms to the government" seek to be considerate and peaceable with those who have genuine concern, not only for their own safety, but also for the most vulnerable members of our society? How do either of these responses demonstrate a love for "enemies" that causes the church to shine as a light in a dark world and motivates people to praise and honor God?
I write these words not only to the church, but also to myself. Even if I don't post mocking messages, I do sometimes feel disdain in my hearts towards those with opposing opinions, and Jesus warns that harboring such hatred in our heart makes us subject to judgment for murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Yet, I do hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will use this post to prick the conscience of some Christians who have been either posting or approving the use of mockery on social media. If this is you, I encourage you to read through the scripture references that I included in this post and to allow God to speak to you through them.
Now, some may say, "What's the big deal? Lighten up. It's just a little humor." The book of Proverbs offers some wisdom to this type of reaction: "Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is the one who deceives their neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!'" (Proverbs 26:18-19). While mocking may be the norm in the online culture and viewed as acceptable by some Christians, I think that scripture clearly exposes it as a sinful behavior that we should reject.
Others might say that I am being too sensitive. If I am being sensitive, it is not to protect my own ego, but to protect the pure gospel witness of the church. I cannot think of a better outcome than to have the watching world wonder why Christians are so sensitive to the feelings of others, so gentle and patient towards those with opposing views, and so gracious and compassionate in their online comments and responses. What a great opportunity to share the hope that we have in Christ! Hopefully, that is something that all Christians can agree on.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Evidence for the Resurrection: Analyzing Possible Explanations

Over a series of several posts, I have laid out the evidence for four historical facts that are accepted by a consensus of scholars. They are:

1) Jesus died by crucifixion.

2) Shortly after his death, Jesus' followers had real experiences that they interpreted to be appearances of the risen Jesus.

3) As a result, their lives were transformed to the point of bring willing to die for their belief in the resurrection.

4) Jesus' brother James and the Apostle Paul, skeptics and opponents of Jesus, became followers of Jesus after post-resurrection appearances and ultimately died for their testimony of the resurrection.

I also explained evidence for a fifth historical fact that is accepted by a majority of scholars, that the tomb where Jesus was buried was later found empty. While I feel this fact would clinch the case for the resurrection, I will be making a very strong argument without it. If you are willing to grant these historical facts, please read on, but if you are skeptical of these "bedrock" facts, please review the previous posts and my post on the reliability of the New Testament before continuing.

A key distinction between Christianity and other religions is that it hinges on a specific event in history. Something happened in first century Judea that led to the previously mentioned bedrock historical facts. We are going to examine several competing hypothesis to see whether they coherently and comprehensively explain the facts of history. So, let's get started!

Hypothesis #1 - Legendary Development

This is a pretty popular theory that suggests that Jesus didn't really rise from the dead, but this story slowly developed over time. The resurrection is just a myth that, while it may be inspiring, can be discarded along with other ancient legends. Unfortunately, this contradicts evidence that the resurrection reports appeared soon after Jesus' death, far too early to allow for legendary development. The church creed that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 contains the important details of the resurrection and likely dates to within three years of the event.

Furthermore, the legendary development theory fails to account for the transformation of Jesus' brother James and the Apostle Paul. Would skeptics and opponents of Jesus be willing to completely alter their lives and ultimately die for a legend? Additional, Jesus' followers suffered and died for what they claimed to see and hear, not for cleverly developed myths (1 John 1:3, 2 Peter 1:16).

Hypothesis #2 - Deliberate Deception

The next hypothesis is the cousin of the first, but instead of developing over time, the resurrection accounts were intentionally fabricated by the disciples. Given the immensity of the eternal promises secured by the resurrection, such deception would be one of the cruelest plots ever foisted upon mankind. It would be completely out of character with the apostles' letters to the early church, which exhorted believers to "not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth." ( 1 John 3:18). It would be odd for the same disciples to die for their testimony of an event they invented. It would be even stranger for Jesus' brother and Paul to be persuaded by such a lie and even lay down their lives for it. This theory simply fails to explain the transformation of Jesus' followers and opponents that occurred after real experiences that they interpreted to be post-resurrection appearances.

The deliberate deception hypothesis could be further developed to include the conjecture that the disciples stole Jesus' body prior to proclaiming the resurrection. To steal the body, the disciples would have needed to overpower the guards posted at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-68). The passage doesn't specify whether the guard was Roman or Jewish, but in either case it seems unlikely that the same men who deserted Jesus at his arrest would attempt such a risky theft and one is still left with the problem of explaining their transformation and martyrdom.

Hypothesis #3 - Hallucinations

A popular theory is that Jesus' followers had hallucinations that they interpreted to be post-resurrection appearances. There are some serious problems with this explanation. First, Jesus is reported to have appeared to different groups on multiple occasions (Matthew 28:8-10, 16-20, Luke 24:13-53, John 20:19-31, 21:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). These reports contradict the science of hallucinations. 

First, most psychologists reject the possibility of mass hallucinations. Although Leonard Zusne suggest that mass hallucinations could occur under conditions of "expectation and excitement," the condition of the disciples was the exact opposite (Habermas). They were depressed and not expecting a crucified and resurrected Messiah. Not to mention, opponents like Paul and James would have neither excitement nor expectation.

Second, accounts of the post-resurrection appearances describe Jesus eating and asking his followers to touch him. He says, "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." (Luke 24:39). Hallucination theories fail to account for such details.

Finally, hallucinations do not generally transform lives. Studies indicate that even those who hallucinate often disavow the experiences when confronted with those who did not see the same thing (Lambert). However, the historical record shows no evidence of anyone retracting their testimony of the resurrection. Instead, it shows evidence that witnesses of the post-resurrection appearances were willing to suffer and die believing in the reality of these experiences.

Hypothesis #4 - Swoon Theory

The swoon theory posits that Jesus never died, but merely fainted and was later revived in the tomb. Not only has this theory been rejected as implausible by medical experts (Edwards), it is hard to imagine a severely wounded Jesus, in need of urgent medical attention, inspiring transformation in the lives of his followers, skeptics, and opponents.

Hypothesis #5 - Wrong Tomb or Mass Burial

Some skeptics propose that Jesus' followers may have gone to the wrong tomb and, finding it empty, erroneously assumed a resurrection. This theory ignores the unanimous gospel record that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a well known religious leader at the time. If the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, their error could have been easily corrected by skeptics and opponents of the resurrection. Furthermore, it ignores that Jesus' followers and some opponents had real experiences with the risen Christ that sparked their transformation. The historical record shows they experienced more than just going to the wrong empty tomb.

Other skeptics propose that Jesus was buried in a mass grave, so his body could never be located and the resurrection accounts were either deliberately fabricated or developed over time. Here we run into a recurring problem. This theory fails to explain real post-resurrection experiences that sparked transformation in both followers and opponents, ultimately leading to martyrdom.

Hypothesis #6 - Anything but a Resurrection

It has been my observation from watching debates between Christians and non-Christians (usually atheists), that the skeptic will often refuse to provide a theory to explain the historical bedrock facts that support the resurrection. Their response is essentially, "We don't need to provide an alternative explanation to reject the resurrection. We reject the resurrection because resurrections don't happen." Notice that theory is not based on an evaluation of the evidence, but on a prior commitment to naturalism. Before even starting the investigation, supernatural explanations have already been eliminated from contention. Despite claiming to be open-minded and rational, such a response betrays a mind that is only open to some possibilities.

What about the Empty Tomb?

Thus far, I have not referred to the empty tomb when explaining problems with alternative theories to the resurrection. This has been intentional to demonstrate that these theories can be convincingly refuted without granting the empty tomb. However, if the empty tomb is accepted, it is the nail in the coffin for these alternative theories, pun intended.

If the resurrection accounts were myths or fabrications, Jesus' body would have still been in the tomb, unless someone is willing to accept the highly improbable and problematic suggestions that Jesus' disciples stole the body or went to the wrong tomb. Likewise, if the post-resurrection appearances were mere hallucinations, the tomb would not have been empty. The only alternative theory that could account for the empty tomb is the swoon theory, but this fails for both medical and logical reasons. It is also important to note that the resurrection claims originated early and in Jerusalem, where the tomb was located. If the tomb was not empty, opponents of Christianity could have squashed the resurrection "myth" by simply producing Jesus' remains.

Hypothesis #7 - He is Risen. He is Risen Indeed!

There is only one theory that coherently and comprehensively explains all the historical data, the claim that Jesus has risen from the grave. It explains why Jesus' followers reported real-life resurrection experiences that transformed them from fearful deserters to bold martyrs. It explains why Jesus own brother, James, and zealous opponent, Paul, became devoted followers who were willing to lay down their lives for their testimony of the resurrection. It explains why women were uniformly reported to be the first witnesses of the resurrection, despite the skepticism this would bring to the report. It explains how the resurrection accounts originated when there was no pre-existing expectation of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. Of course, it explains why the tomb was empty.

Remember, this is only the minimal facts argument, based only on historical facts agreed to by a consensus of scholars. Further arguments could be made to support the resurrection. For example, the Old Testament contains scores of prophecies and an overall narrative that confirms Jesus' identity as Messiah.

Why Evidence for the Resurrection Matters

In the introduction to this series, I shared one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis: "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important." If Jesus has not risen from the dead, then the central claims and teachings of Christianity are false, and should have no bearing on our lives. The Apostle Paul makes the same point, writing, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Jesus has not been raised, Christianity may provide some moral platitudes and cultural traditions, but is not worth following with all our heart and soul.

However, if Christ has been raised, then the central claims of Christianity are true and the staggering promises of the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life are too important to ignore. The author of Hebrews writes, "If...every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" (Hebrews 2:2-3). If Jesus has risen, the only right response is to repent from our sins and believe and follow him.

A Word of Encouragement for Believers

Perhaps there are some believers reading this series who feel that they don't need evidence in order to believe in the resurrection or even that seeking evidence to support our beliefs demonstrates a lack of faith and spirit of unbelief. Allow me to offer a couple of reasons why knowing evidence for the resurrection is beneficial for all Christians.

Sometimes, we have questions about or may be challenged by skeptics on secondary issues. These could include questions about human origins, tough teachings in the Old Testament, or the existence of evil and suffering in the world. These are important issues to wrestle with and should be taken seriously, but our faith does not ultimately depend on our ability to answer them. In some cases we may have to live with some lingering questions and uncertainty, but that is when we can fix our eyes on Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith, with complete certainty that he has defeated death.

Some Christians might discourage seeking evidence, thinking with good intentions that faith is stronger when someone believes God without evidence. Also, it isn't hard to find mocking memes from skeptics that make statements such as "Faith is belief without evidence." Both positions miss the mark of the Biblical teaching on faith. The disciples appealed to their eye-witness testimony, miracles, and fulfilled Old Testament prophecy - all forms of evidence - to convince others of the resurrection. Jesus performed miracles to demonstrate his identity and even encouraged people to believe in him on account of the evidence of his works (Matthew 11:1-6, Luke 7:48-53, John 14:11). Furthermore, we are called to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." ( 1 Peter 3:15). You may not need evidence to believe in the resurrection, but you can be prepared to answer the questions of friends and family members, particularly young people who are leaving the faith in part because the church has not been able to answer their intellectual doubts.

A Word of Encouragement for Non-Believers

I have been engaged in apologetics long enough to know that not everyone is going to agree with my arguments. However, I have also learned that skeptics often reject Christianity without having investigated the evidence, with a prior commitment to a naturalistic worldview, and being swayed by mockery and rhetoric. If this is you, I would encourage you to take a fresh look at the evidence for the resurrection and the truth of Christianity. Read some books on the subject, which will go much deeper than a single blog series. Set aside any naturalistic bias, tune out the mocking voices of atheist memes, and be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

However, be forewarned that despite the focus of this series on evidence, the journey to faith in Christ is more than an intellectual exercise. It is also an examination of the heart. It is a call to abandon our pursuit of our own desires, where we sit on the throne of our hearts, to turn and follow Jesus with a desire to do his will. No, evidence alone will not be enough. We need God to give us a new heart that desires to know and follow him. I am confident that if you ask God to answer your intellectual doubts and give you a heart to follow him, he will meet you along the way. May God bless your journey!


Edwards, M.D., William, Gabel, Mdiv, Wesley, and Hosmer, M.S., Floyd. "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ". Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 1986.

Habermas, Gary. "Hallucination Theories to Explain Jesus' Resurrection." Christian Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2001.

Lambert, Shea. "Hallucinations and the Post-Death Appearances of Jesus." September 20, 2000, p. 2-9.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Evidence for the Resurrection: The Empty Tomb

Thus far, we have examined four “bedrock” historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection that are accepted by a consensus of scholars. In other words, except for who are on the fringe, the vast majority of scholars, regardless of religious affiliation, agree that these facts are substantially supported by historical records. These facts include:

In this post, we will be analyzing a fifth historical fact that, while not accepted by a consensus of scholars, is supported by a majority of scholars. New Testament scholar Gary Habermas estimates that 75% of scholars favor arguments for the empty tomb while 25% favor arguments that oppose it.1 While still a strong majority, the agreement is not near unanimous as in the first four historical facts. So why would I include it in this series? To be clear, a very strong case for the historicity of the resurrection can be made without including arguments for the empty tomb, and I will make that case in the conclusion of this series. However, I believe that if the empty tomb is included it makes it nearly impossible to deny the resurrection. Therefore, I think that it is worthwhile to explore the arguments that support the historicity of the empty tomb.

First, the empty tomb is attested to by multiple sources written close to the claimed resurrection. As I have said in previous posts, if you find yourself dismissing these sources just because they are included in the Bible, please read the previous post on the historical reliability of the New Testament documents before proceeding. The empty tomb is described in each of the four gospels (Matthew 28:1-7, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-8, and John 20:1-9). Interestingly, while Matthew and Luke sometimes directly quote Mark in some accounts, all four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are slightly different, indicating that they are coming from different eye-witness sources. According to cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace, multiple eye-witness testimonies that provide slightly different perspectives but complement each other to tell a coherent and consistent story are the type of testimonies detectives desire when trying to build a criminal case.2 That is exactly what we have in the gospels.

Furthermore, the empty tomb is alluded to in Peter’s public sermons (Acts 2:31-32, Acts 3:15), which occurred in Jerusalem, the very location of the tomb in question. Semitic elements in the language used in these sermons suggest that Luke, the author of Acts, was directly quoting material of the early church, not writing from his Greek background. This pushes the dating of the sermons closer to the actual events, thus strengthening their reliability. On top of that, we also have a report from the early church creed which states that, “[Jesus] was buried, that he was raised on the third day.” (1 Corinthians 15:4). As has been previously discussed, scholars agree that this creed originated in Jerusalem, likely within three years of the crucifixion. So, we have six different first century sources that testify to the truthfulness of the empty tomb, some of them originating in Jerusalem, a location where the claims could easily be verified or refuted. For ancient history, this is a wealth of data.

However, we can go deeper. In all of the gospel accounts the empty tomb is discovered by women, who were not considered to be reliable witnesses in the culture of first century Judea. The Jewish historian Josephus expressed the sentiment of the day: ”But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”3 If the empty tomb was fabricated, it would be pure foolishness to construct a tale with women as the discoverers. The only rationale for including this detail is that it is part of the actual, historical truth.

Additionally, it appears that there was a rumor circulating soon after the resurrection that the disciples stole Jesus body. Unless the tomb was actually empty, there would be no place or need for such a rumor. The gospel of Matthew reports that chief priests instructed the Roman guards to explain the empty tomb by saying that the disciples stole the body and that this story was widely circulated among the Jews at the time the gospel was written (Matthew 28:11-15). Based on the criterion of embarrassment, there seems to be no logical reason to include this detail in the gospel unless the early church was actually trying to combat this rumor. 

The existence of this rumor is further supported in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a second century apologetic work in which the author has an hypothetical conversation with Tyrpho, a Jew. In the dialogue, Justin Martyr accuses the Jews of rejecting the resurrection by teaching that “[Jesus’] disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.”4 Again, why would the early church combat this rumor unless it was being used to explain the empty tomb? And why would this rumor have ever originated from opponents of Christianity, unless the tomb was actually empty? The historical existence of this rumor is a form of enemy attestation of the empty tomb, which significantly increases the likelihood that the tomb was truly empty.

One alternative theory is that perhaps Jesus’ followers mistakenly identified the wrong tomb, but this doesn’t fit the historical record. First, all four gospels describe Jesus as being buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, and John 19:38-42). The consistent description of this fact and the embarrassing admission that Jesus was buried by a member of the Sanhedrin, the very group that schemed Jesus’ crucifixion, and not one of his disciples, strengthens the reliability of this claim. So the tomb is clearly identified to belong to a well-known individual of the time who lived only miles from Jerusalem. It seems unlikely that the tomb could have been misidentified. Furthermore, the description of the tomb fits that of arcosolia or bench tombs. These types of tombs have been discovered on the outskirts of Jerusalem and based on their relatively low proportion compared to other types of tomb, seem to have been only owned by the rich and elite, such as Joseph of Arimathea. 

Sometimes skeptics of the resurrection will attempt to discount the Biblical account of the burial by Joseph of Arimathea by citing the Roman practice of leaving victims of crucifixion on the cross for days as a means of control and intimidation of the rest of the population. However, the gospels report that Joseph of Arimathea asked for permission to remove Jesus from the cross before sunset to observe Sabbath regulations. Josephus resolves this potential conflict between general Roman practices and the gospel accounts by explaining that the Romans made an exception to this rule for the Jews. In War of the Jews, Josephus describes an incident in which the Romans hired mercenaries to squash a Jewish rebellion. Although the mercenaries were aware of general Roman practices, they did not seem to be familiar with the special exceptions made for the Jews. Josephus writes, “Nay, they (the mercenaries) proceeded to that degree of impiety as to cast away their dead bodies without burial. Although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those who were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.”5 Rome realized that to maintain order in Judea, they need to make some allowances to appease the Jews, such as taking down crucified bodies before the Sabbath. The claim that the gospel accounts of the burial contradict Roman practices is proved fallacious by Josephus’ report.

The historical case for the empty tomb is very strong. We have multiple early sources that originated in the very city where the supposed empty tomb was located, making it easy to verify or refute this claim. The tomb belonged to a well-known individual, making it highly unlikely that the tomb was misidentified. The description of the tomb fits that of other tombs that belonged to wealthy individuals and have been discovered around Jerusalem. In all the gospels, the empty tomb was discovered by women, an embarrassing detail that would be highly unlikely to be included in a fabricated account of the resurrection. There is strong evidence that a rumor originated in Jerusalem and was circulated during the first century that the disciples stole the body. It is difficult to explain why opponents of the resurrection would have promoted this rumor if the tomb was not actually empty. Josephus confirms that the Romans would have allowed Joseph of Arimathea to remove Jesus from the cross prior to sunset. All of these arrows point to the conclusion that the tomb was empty. Yet, some still resist conceding this fact. Why? Could it be that accepting the empty tomb is just one short step away from accepting the resurrection?

1)      Habermas, Gary. “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 2005, p. 135 – 153. Retrieved from

2)      Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. David C. Cook, 2012.

3)      Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15. Retrieved from

4)      Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho, sec. 108. Retrieved from

5)      Josephus. War of the Jews, sec. 317.