The Five-Fold “Empty Tomb” Argument for the Resurrection

Two days ago, I laid the foundation for the Empty Tomb argument: namely, that the New Testament consists of first-century, seemingly first-hand accounts of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament claims to be an eyewitness account, and is making some mighty bold claims about what the authors saw and heard. Yet a first-century audience (that is, an audience which would have been able to call “shenanigans” if the NT authors were just making things up) believed these accounts, copied them, and spread them both textually and orally throughout the entire Roman Empire and to faraway places like India.

That’s a pretty good indication of credibility there. This doesn’t, by the way, rely on you assuming a priori that the Bible is Scripture and therefore inspired; just that you approach it as you would any other historical text, since it’s clearly arguing for what were then recent historical events, not telling some long-ago legend. But apply this to the evidence surrounding the Death and Resurrection of Christ. I want to take just a few.
  • (a) The Sweat Turning to Blood

In the Agony in the Garden, Luke mentions (Luke 22:44) that Jesus’ Sweat fell “like drops of Blood.” That’s a medical condition called hematohidrosis, which the Indian Journal on Dermatology described as “very rare.” It occurs under extreme stress in a handful of people. Now, St. Luke was a doctor (as St. Paul mentions in Colossians 4:14), which is probably why he’s the only Gospel writer to draw attention to this fact: this is unlike what a first-century doctor would have seen in his day-to-day practice (and, as I mentioned, it’s still very rare). So it’s significant that this first-century source is describing a medical condition that was largely unknown, but which we now know to be stress-related. That is, the source is describing information that he would have been unlikely to make up, because even if Luke were somehow aware of hematohidrosis, why would he include that detail? To try and convince other first-century dermatologists? It’s a detail which seems supernatural and incredible, not a detail which seems natural and credible… yet we now know it corresponds to modern medicine. This suggests that Luke’s testimony is accurate: that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, who really did sweat blood in anticipation of His Crucifixion.

  • (b) Blood and Water Flowing from the Side of Christ

Another gory medical detail. John 19 has a gruesome account of the aftermath of the Passion of Christ (John 19:31-37):

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”

This is packed with evidence:

  1. First, the author is familiar with Jewish religious practices. He says in v. 31, “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. ” That’s a Passover reference, obviously, and as I’ve mentioned before, it explains why Jesus’ followers celebrated Passover a day before the Pharisees (they were of a Jewish school which always observed Passover a day early when it fell on the Sabbath).
  2. He also is aware that the bodies must be taken down (I think this is for reasons of ritual purity under the Levitical code, but I’m obviously less familiar than John was).
  3. The author is also all too familiar with crucifixion. He’s aware, for example, that the Romans broke the legs of their victims on the cross — the reason being that without the support of your legs, you can’t pull your body up to breath, and you slowly die of asphyxiation. This is sort of counter-intuitive, but lack of oxygen is what frequently killed the victims of crucifixion, not having nails through them.
  4. There’s a lot of Biblical fulfillment being talked about here. The Passover Lamb’s bones weren’t broken (Exodus 12:46; Num. 9:12) nor were the bones of the Messiah to be broken (Psalm 34:20). And there is a strangely God-like prophecy in Zech. 12:10, that the Chosen One will “pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication,” while they “will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” Given that the Christians believe that Christ is the only-begotten of the Father (John 3:16), this detail manages to fulfill all sorts of really intricate prophesies. If you think that this is easy, try it sometime: try and write a short fictional account of someone (anyone) living in the present who fulfills the Biblical prophesies, and make it believable. That is, nothing extraordinary is happening to Jesus here. He’s not having His legs broken, because He’s already dead.
  5. Finally, and this one blew my mind, the Blood and Water comport with medical evidence. After He died, His Body stopped metabolizing the water, so an upward piercing from a spear could have easily torn the lining of the stomach, causing the Blood and Water to pour out. John explicitly mentions this detail, but it’s not one a fictional writer is likely to have thought of (unless he’d cut open dead bodies, which Jews were forbidden to do).

So far, we have reliable evidence that there was a Jesus who knew (and seemingly dreaded) going to the Cross, but went anyways, and was killed. Both Luke and John mention pretty specific medical details unlikely to be concocted. All I’m trying to prove here is just that Jesus really lived and really died on the Cross. I think that these verses do it, but if you’re skeptical, there are dozens more, at least, which support this point, as well as extra-Biblical sources acknowledging that there was a Jesus who died on the Cross.

  • (c) The Tomb Was Guarded

Matthew 27:62-66 notes an important detail:

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

This account is giving names and dates: the people are Pilate, the chief priests (who were identifiable at the time), and the Pharisees; and the day is the one after Preparation Day (that is, Passover). So Matthew is publicly accusing both the religious and political authorities of having posted a guard outside of the Tomb of Jesus. Are we to believe that he was lying, slandering them while they’re still alive? But we know from another detail that there’s not even a controversy about whether the Tomb was guarded or not… just how the guards managed to screw up so badly. Matthew 28:11-15 has the other half of the story:

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.

Again, remember when Matthew is writing: he even gives a nod to it, when he talks about how rumors are still circulating “to this very day” about the guards. So we know the Tomb was guarded beyond any serious question.

  • (d) Jesus Appears in the Flesh, and Eats in Their Presence

In Luke 24:36-43, we see one of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 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.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

This is one of the most important post-Resurrection appearances, from a logical standpoint. The Twelve are assembled, they see Jesus, and they’re just seen Someone simply appear in their midst, and they’re not sure if it’s the Risen Christ, or a ghost. So they put Him to the test… or more precisely, He offers His hands and feet, and lets them touch Him. Then, He takes a piece of their fish and eats it.

To them, He was disproving that He was a ghost. To us, it also disproves the hallucination hypothesis. Hallucinations tend to be either auditory, visual, or tactile. That is, typically, a person hallucinating either sees or hears or feels something which isn’t there. There are cases of hallucinations involving more than one, although I’ve never heard of any cases where one was all three. Certainly, there’s no such thing, medically speaking, of twelve people simultaneously having a mass hallucination involving them all collectively seeing, hearing, and touching something which wasn’t there. So the hallucination hypothesis is out. But just to put another nail in its coffin, Jesus eats a fish. So even if, contrary to literally everything we know about the relevant medicine, twelve people coincidentally had the same extremely rare form of hallucination, it would still not explain where the piece of fish went. They had a piece of fish, they watched Him eat it, there no longer was a piece of fish. And remember, they had the fish with them, so it wasn’t like they hallucinated the fish, too (and frankly, if you’re going to go out on to this ridiculous of a limb, why not just assert that all reality is a massive audio-visual-tactile hallucination?).

So the Twelve are either lying or actually saw the risen Christ. They’re not just telling a pious legend, as we discussed last time, nor are they confused about what they saw. There’s just no way that they mistook something else for seeing, hearing, and feeling the Risen Christ and watching Him eat.

And finally:

  • (e) The Tomb is Empty

I actually addressed the substance of this one in the earlier post, but here’s the short version. In Acts 2, Peter gets up in Jerusalem during a religious feast, and loudly proclaims that Jesus Christ is risen, and that His Tomb is empty. It’s too early in history for Luke to be making the story of Peter’s speech up, and it’s way too early for Peter to be lying about the location of Jesus’ Body. After all, His Tomb wasn’t far away, and the men who put Him there were almost certainly within in the city (Plus, as we’ve now established, there were guards present at the Tomb, who could have also lead the curious to go see It).

Conclusion
So we know that (a) there was [or IS] really a Jesus Christ who was Crucified; (b) He really died on the Cross; (c) there were rumors of a Resurrection, and so guards were posted outside His Tomb; (d) His Disciples claim to have seen, spoke with, and touched Him in risen form shortly after His Death, and watched Him eat; and (e) His Tomb was empty.

All of this points heavily to the Resurrection. Certainly, it’s the answer that the Disciples swear up and down is true. And they’re willing to go to the death for it, which suggests at the least that they think it’s true. That is, they’re not lying. None of them recant post-Resurrection, even though all but John are martyred for it. And remember: these men were one and all pious Jews, claiming that Jesus Christ is the One True God. If He’s not, and they know He’s not, they’re about to be ripped apart by animals and go straight to Hell.

Beyond this, none of the other explanations for this evidence even come close to making sense, particularly taking the evidence as a whole. That is, even if the Twelve hallucinated Jesus in (d), how would that result in an Empty Tomb, (e)? And the famous “swoon” theory, that Jesus didn’t really die, explains (e), but doesn’t come close to make sense of (c) or (d) [since remember, He appeared, He didn’t walk in through the door], and it runs directly foul of (b) (as well as common sense).

There you go. Bone up on those passages, and the history and context of the Bible, and I think you’ll be well-equipped to argue for the Resurrection against any reasonable opponent.

11 Comments

  1. How do you deal with the humean objection? He grants the force of the argument but says it doesn’t overcome the antecedent improbability of.such an event’s occurrence. That we aren’t creative enough to.specify a better explanation doesn’t mean it isn’t the right one

  2. To deal with the Resurrection in term of antecedent improbability is patently absurd. The whole point of the Resurrection is that it’d never happened before: no man has ever (or could ever) raise himself from the dead. It’s how we can know that Jesus is God.

    I’ve heard this argument against miracles before, and all I can say is that it’s quite circular. To deny the supernatural because it’s against the laws of nature (or exceeding improbable, given the laws of nature), is to deny the supernatural because it’s supernatural.

    Of course, if we were basing the Resurrection simply off of the natural evidence (“I don’t see Jesus’ Body, therefore He must be risen!”), Hume’s argument would hold water. But we’re not. There’s testimony and supernatural encounters to boot (the post-Resurrection appearances, the appearance to St. Paul, etc.).

    At some point, we simply have to say that there are no good counter-explanations. It’s not lack of creativity that’s to blame. This is simply the most logical conclusion.

    Finally, I’d mention that discounting the existence of one-time events is trouble, even from a non-religious perspective. There are plenty of one-time events in science that are often unrepeatable: for example, the creation of the Universe. To say that since they’re unique events they didn’t happen paints us into a logical corner rather quickly.

    God bless,

    Joe

  3. Ah… Good points but what about worldview instead of.just occurrence improbability, i.e. Do you see this as a stand alone argument for theism, or do.you think.you have to overcome materialism by other arguments first? At least it seems like most materialists seem to think.it.is.a.bad stand alone.argument.

  4. HocCogitat,

    I don’t think anyone has said it as well as Msgr. Ronald Knox. In Belief of Catholics, his systematic proof for the Catholic Church, he said at the beginning of Chapter IX:

    “It belongs to the courtesies of duelling that the challenger should offer his opponent a choice of weapons. In this debate, which here reaches its critical point, it is the Catholic Church which challenges the human intellect. In courtesy, therefore, the reader must be allowed his choice of weapons, if he is prepared to abide by it.

    If you are prepared to admit the possibility of miracle, then you will naturally expect that an event so full of importance for the human race as a personal revelation from Almighty God should be accompanied by evidences of his miraculous power. It will be my object in the later part of this chapter to show that the Christian revelation fulfils the conditions so laid down. But if you are determined, from some preconceived prejudice, some strange inhibition of thought, to rule out the possibility of miracle; if you are prepared to dismiss as a fiction any story which involves a miracle, for the reason that it involves a miracle and for no other–then I will do my best to give you satisfaction on your own terms; but you must abide by your own terms. You must consider, in all honesty, whether the life of our Lord does not give you every possible assurance of his Divinity, short of a miracle. I do not say that such assurance would ever satisfy me, but it must satisfy you. It must satisfy you, because it is precisely the kind of assurance you have demanded. You must not say that no revelation would satisfy you unless the guarantee of miracle accompanied it, and then say in the same breath that you will refuse to accept any story of miracle precisely on the ground that it is miraculous. That is as if you were to invite your opponent to stab you with a pistol. If you will not have miracles, then you must be prepared to be satisfied without them.”

    That’s the best response I can imagine. If rationalists refuse to accept anything less than miraculous evidence for the Divinity of Christ, while simultaneously rejecting a priori the existence of miracles, than their belief on the subject is non-falsifiable. By their own standards, that sort of belief should be rejected.

    In Christ,

    Joe

  5. That’s a great argument against deists, who were a substantial party up until Knox’s time. But materialism doesn’t allow for any possibility of an incarnation miracle or no. It’s not as if they are just deists, who that Knox argument seems aimed at, believing in all but miracles. They have a comprehensive worldview saying everything is physical when you get down to.it. It seems to me that you have to blow up that materialist worldview before any kind of.case for Christ could proceed, right? Otherwise, they think your worldview less meshes with what we know about the world than Christ not having risen despite the evidence.

  6. And I know it is, as Knox says, a bit unfair, but the incarnation is itself a miracle. So someone who refuses to believe in miracles could never accept it.no matter what Knox’s evidence is.

    So.don’t you have to.work on that refusal to consider miracles first?

  7. To address what you say at the end, their position is non falsifiable *by arguments for a miracle* but it isn’t absolutely non falsifiable. Knox just substitutes one miracle, the incarnation, for another, the resurrection. That won’t work. To falsify their position you have to attack the position directly. Right?

  8. Love this topic.

    I am a huge Knox fan, but I thought the same thing as HocC when I read that argument in TBOC. I’m just not sure there’s any audience for that argument. Maybe I’m missing something.

    But I do think you can attack the materialist position directly and, by doing so, wear down the atheistic materialists defenses to the point that they’ll consider arguments for the resurrection. In fact, I’ve got a short essay attempting to do just that via the Argument from Reason. I was going to blog it, but I have no blog now, so I’ll just link it here later this weekend.

    Anyway, I think it is extremely important to press that argument on modern atheists. B/c HocC is right, otherwise they start with a worldview that is so averse to miracles that it makes them ignore the resurrection arguments altogether. Whether that is fair or not, I’m not sure. But tactically, at least, I’ve found that you have to attack materialism before the resurrection arguments do any damage.

  9. I wanted to point out that perhaps the condition of crying blood was not unheard of in ancient times since in book 16 of the Illiad Zeus is described as shedding tears of blood.

  10. I just read someone point out that the greek gods had ichor and not blood so the blood mentioned in the Illiad was probably symbolic of the blood that would be shed in battle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *