The Empty Tomb: Reasons to Believe

By Neil Earle

To first-century Christians, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was the pivotal event in history. Artwork © Office of Reconciliation Ministries (ORM)

Jesus Christ’s resurrection galvanized the faith of early Christians. The stories of the empty tomb and the appearances of their risen Lord were the crowning proof that the person they loved and served was not just another moral teacher. He was, as he claimed to be, God in the flesh.

This conviction energized Christianity. We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard, Peter, one of Christ’s main followers, testified to the Jewish religious authorities, who could not quench the faith of those early believers.1

We who read the accounts almost 2,000 years later need to remember that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was not, as Paul, a man who persecuted Christians and later became a believer himself, boldly declared before the élite of his nation, done in a corner2. Just the opposite was true. The disciples testified in the laboratory of public scrutiny and debate. People in their audiences could refute them at every point, if they were not telling the truth.

Eyewitness History

To first-century Christians, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was the pivotal event in history. Their dramatic encounters with Jesus after his escape from the rock tomb were vivid and unforgettable: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us3.

John, a cousin of Jesus Christ, wrote as an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead4. Luke, an educated man who wrote a detailed study of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, authenticated the report that went from tiny Judaea into the world beyond: Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account…so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught5. Paul distilled the essence of the new faith he helped spread across the Roman Empire: 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 Scriptures6.

Facing the Test

The men faced the test of informed public opinion, a jury of their contemporaries. Some in their audiences already had Jesus’ blood on their hands. The execution of one or two more fishermen from Galilee or of some fanatical heretics wouldn’t make much difference.

Yet Christ’s disciples had unconquerable confidence. Their words still pulsate with moral fervour and authority. The good news of the resurrection was big news on the streets of Jerusalem. It was hard-hitting. It was effective. It changed lives.

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know, Peter trumpeted. God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ7.

This bold preaching threw the Jerusalem religious hierarchy completely on the defensive. You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood, they protested8. If the disciples had been perpetrating fraud or deceit, their testimony could have been easily overthrown. It wasn’t. The willingness to risk all for the truth of the resurrection was convincing testimony from fallible human beings – men who had earlier deserted Christ and fled9. That willingness, and the powerful miracles being done in Christ’s name, made the gospel compelling. It rocked Jerusalem.

No wonder Christ’s newly energized disciples were highly regarded by the people10. Remember something else: other popular movements had come and gone in first-century Judaea. Sensational leaders had arisen before Jesus of Nazareth, people the world at large has forgotten. One of them, Judas, was also a Galilean, who lived not far from where Jesus was reared. Around AD 6, Judas gathered a following and set himself against the Roman power. His movement failed, and he was killed. But no one in the first century claimed that this Judas of Galilee was raised from the dead or that he and his followers had many prolonged talks after a resurrection. Still less did anyone risk life and limb for the Judas movement years afterward. Yet ordinary human beings risked their all for Jesus of Nazareth.

History indeed!

The late F.F. Bruce, evangelical author, notes:

The Christian gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost good news, and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers…. This good news is intimately bound up with the historical order, for it tells how for the world’s redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ11.

The disciples were convicted by seeing, touching and exploring the wounds of Jesus Christ. They believed in the power of His resurrection. Their testimony was believable because they believed. How about us? Do we believe?

We should. The same Jesus Christ who walked the dusty paths of Galilee is alive today, alive and glorified. He intervenes for those of us who turn to him in faith and belief, just as he did for Peter, John, Luke, Paul and many more besides. The empty tomb could not hold him, and the evil powers of this world – natural and supernatural – could not stamp out the truth of his resurrection.

To experience this transforming power for ourselves, to know Christ and the power of his resurrection12 we will also have to believe in the empty tomb and in the power of the resurrection. We are not asked to make a commitment to Christ without evidence. The empty tomb stands as stark evidence that our Lord and Saviour is risen from the dead.

Peter, the preeminent preacher of the empty tomb, said it best: Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you13.

The decision is yours. Will you believe?

1 The Bible, Acts 4:20
2 Acts 26:26
3 1 John 1:1-2
4 John 20:30-31; 21:24-25
5 Luke 1:3-4
6 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
7 Acts 2:22, 36
8 Acts 5:28
9 See Matthew 26:56
10 Acts 5:13
11 The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, pages 7-8
12 Philippians 3:10
13 Acts 3:19-20