Five Minimal Facts Part V: The Empty Tomb

Written by Victor Stanley Jr.

The Christian faith receives a great deal of criticism from the secular world on its claims of Jesus being God, and the savior of the world. While many agree that he was a ‘good’ teacher who died for his beliefs, they deny that he resurrected and is indeed the one true God. Dr. Gary Habermas, who is a leading theologian, apologist, and philosopher specializing in the historical Jesus, offers what he calls the “Minimal Facts approach to a critical study of the resurrection of Jesus.”[1]

These five minimal facts are used to establish the resurrection of Jesus as historical fact, and are as follows: Jesus died by crucifixion; Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed; The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed; and the tomb was empty. I will briefly explore each of these five points.[i]

The final fact, and the most difficult to establish, is the empty tomb. Dr. Habermas himself says that he has “…never counted the empty tomb as a Minimal Fact; it is very obvious that it does not enjoy the near-unanimity of scholarship.”[2] We have established that the disciples, Paul, and James all believed that the tomb was empty. Scripture states that the guards, the Sanhedrin, and Mary Magdalene all believed the tomb to be empty.[3]

One of the main counters to the tomb being empty is simply that the disciples stole the body, although scripture says that this was a rumor started by the Jewish leaders.[4] To that criticism I restate my previous point that even if they did steal the body, it seems unlikely that they would endure such persecution, and eventual death, for a lie. The evidence for the empty tomb relies mostly on the testimony of the guards and Mary Magdalene. However, the fact that the disciples and others believed Jesus was resurrected, coupled with the guards admitting that the tomb was empty, and the conspiracy by the Jewish leaders to explain it away suggests that, at the least, the tomb was empty.

[1] Gary Habermas, “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity,” Southeastern Theological Review 3, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 15, Accessed November 19, 2014, http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/str03-1-02

[2] Gary Habermas, “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity,” Southeastern Theological Review 3, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 25-26, Accessed November 19, 2014, http://www.galaxie.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/str03-1-02

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Matthew 28:11-15; Matthew 28:1-10.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Matthew 28:11-15.

[i] Disclaimer: While this is not by any means an exhaustive or even mildly in depth look into the argument from historical facts for the resurrection of Jesus, it does provide a brief overview. This overview of Dr. Habermas’ five minimal facts provides a starting point for anyone interested in seriously pursuing the research to grapple with and truly understand these facts and the evidence they provide for the veracity of the resurrection.

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5 thoughts on “Five Minimal Facts Part V: The Empty Tomb

  1. Jesus’ Tomb was not Guarded or Sealed the entire First Night!

    Holy Grave Robbers!

    I had never heard of this until today: How many Christians are aware that Jesus’ grave was unguarded AND unsecured the entire first night after his crucifixion??? Isn’t that a huge hole in the Christian explanation for the empty tomb?? Notice in this quote from Matthew chapter 27 below that the Pharisees do not ask Pilate for guards to guard the tomb until the next day after Jesus’ crucifixion, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb’s door, he had not SEALED it shut!

    Anyone could have stolen the body during those 12 hours!

    The empty tomb “evidence” for the supernatural reanimation/resurrection of Jesus by Yahweh has a HUGE hole in it!

    “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

    The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[a] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”[b] 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”

    —Matthew 27

    So when did the guards show up to the tomb? Early the next morning or late in the afternoon? If late in the afternoon, the tomb of Jesus had been unguarded and unsealed for almost TWENTY FOUR hours!

    The empty tomb is NOT good evidence for the resurrection claim. The most plausible explanation, based on the Bible itself, is that someone stole or moved the body!

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  2. Hi Gary,
    I think you may be misunderstanding the argument. The take away from Paul’s words in 1 Cor is not “people in 2015 can go interview these 500” It is that people of the time could go and interview these people. In saying this in the first place Paul is repeating a creed that was circulating in the church at the time. It summed up what they understood and was verifiable.
    The problem with your lady of fatima example is that Paul is not referring to one event where people claim to have seen jesus, but several events on several different days where people claimed that they not just saw but interacted with Jesus. This is much different than several people thinking the same thing about a single event.

    At the same time you said
    “…unless you yourself have interviewed the witnesses, it is impossible to simply accept second, third, fourth hand information as fact. Sincere belief does not prove that it happened.”

    That claim goes against what we expereince in the real world. For instance, we’re having this conversation about people who lived 2,000 years ago. If your claim holds then the whole conversation is pointless as would be any conversation about history since we have not and cannot interview eyewitnesses of the events.the same would be true of claims made by someone who believes say that the claims of Stephen Hawking are true without ever having had a conversation with Stephen Hawking. The point is that we don’t and couldn’t sustain any level of knowledge if we only accepted things that we discover on our own. The question is what beliefs can we hold and still say that we are reasonable? Upon examining all of the evidence Christians have found that it is quite rational to accept the claims of the resurrection and the 5 minimal facts are just a few reasons why that is true.

    You also said
    The story of the Resurrection comes from four anonymous first century works of literature, written decades after the alleged event, in foreign lands, in a foreign language, for purposes we do not know. And, two, maybe, three, of these anonymous authors heavily plagiarized the work of the first (Mark). Since when do eyewitnesses, especially if writing under divine inspiration, need to copy, almost word for word, the writings of another author about an event they supposedly saw with their own two eyes?? There is absolutely no way that Christians can assert that these books were written by eyewitnesses.

    First to say that the gospels are anonymous is to try to hold these first century writings to 21st century standards. You don’t see the authors putting their name on the cover with a title, but that’s how we write. The early church strongly attested to the authenticity of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in regard to these sources. At the same time the claim is not that they necessarily penned the works themselves. The claim is that they were the sources. Matthew was an eyewitness of the events as was John. John Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses but were companions of Peter and Paul respectively. All that said the claim then is not that these men sat down and wrote as God dictated what to write. They did use sources to write in addition to their own knowledge because they wanted to get the story right. They didnt sit down intending to write scripture, they wanted to put to paper what had been passed around in the church for years. Is this unreasonable? Of course not. People still use sources today to write about things that they experienced first hand. Reporters often hear a press conference and write about it after having consulted others who were there for the same event. They want to get the facts straight.
    Matthew and Luke did not plagarize Mark but rather consulted his work and the work of Q and other witnesses. Other first century reporters like Josephus and Eusebius attested to this faithfulness in their writing.
    You also said wwe don’t know their purposes, but just reading through the books makes their purposes clear. Matthew was clearly writing to a Jewish audience to tell them that Jesus is the Messiah that was prophesied. Luke wrote to his friend Theophilus a gentile to tell him that Jesus is the Son of God similar to Mark. John wrote to explicitly say that Jesus is God incarnate.

    All of this is better understood when you actually learn what Christianity is claiming. You can get a better grasp on it by reading books like “The Case for the Real Jesus” by Lee Strobel or “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Both of these authors have several other books that will help you to understand the claims as well. But it’s important to get the claims correct so that you aren’t arguing against things that the Christian isn’t claiming to begin with or accidentally building up straw men.

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  3. Jesus’ resurrection after his death is the ultimate and defining proof of Jesus’ divinity. Just about everyone knows the story, which is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

    There is only one way for Jesus to prove that he rose from the dead. He had to appear to people. Therefore, several different places in the Bible describe Jesus’ appearances after his death:

    •Matthew chapter 28
    •Mark chapter 16
    •Luke chapter 24
    •John Chapter 20 and 21

    1 Corinthians 15:3-6 provides a nice summary of those passages, as written by Paul:

    For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    As you can see in this passage, Jesus appeared to hundreds of people a number of different times.

    Being like Paul: When we look at these Bible passages, there is a question that comes to mind — why did Jesus stop making these appearances? Why isn’t Jesus appearing today? It really is odd. Obviously Paul benefitted from a personal meeting with the resurrected Christ. Because of the personal visit, Paul could see for himself the truth of the resurrection, and he could ask Jesus questions. So… Why doesn’t Jesus appear to everyone and prove that he is resurrected, just like he appeared to Paul? There is nothing to stop Jesus from materializing in your kitchen tonight to have a personal chat with you. And if you think about it, Jesus really does need to appear to each of us. If Paul needed a personal visit from Jesus to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why wouldn’t you? It is an important question for the following reasons:

    •We are told by the Bible that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people.

    •We therefore know that it is OK for Jesus to appear to people — it does not take away their free will, for example.

    •We know that it would be easy for Jesus to appear to everyone all through history, since Jesus is all-powerful and timeless.

    •We know that, if Jesus did reappear to everyone, it would be incredibly helpful. We could all know, personally, that Jesus is resurrected and that Jesus is God. If Paul (and all the other people in the Bible) needed a personal visit to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why not you and me?

    Yet, we all know that Jesus has not appeared to anyone in 2,000 years.

    THINK, folks! Which is more likely: A dead man walked out of his grave 2,000 years ago, ate a broiled fish lunch with his fishing buddies and then 40 days later levitated into outer space, or, this entire story of a Resurrection is a legend: a legend based on false sightings and/or visions and hallucinations, of well-intentioned but uneducated, illiterate, hope-shattered, superstitious Galilean peasants, desperately trying to keep alive their only source of hope in their miserable, first century existence?

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    1. Gary have you read all five parts of this series??? You are asserting that over 400 people, some in large groups, all had the same hallucinations. The probability of that is slim to none.

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      1. Hi Vic,

        No, sorry, I have not read all five parts.

        However, thousands of people have “seen” supernatural events and supernatural persons. The appearance of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Fatima) to thousands in Portugal, all at the same time, is one of many examples.

        Here is the bottom line problem: Paul never says that he interviewed the “five hundred” witnesses himself. He says that he received the information, at best, second hand. Whoever gave him this information may have very sincerely believed that 500 people saw Jesus at once, but thousands of Roman Catholics, Hindus, and other religious people have “seen” things, proving that unless you yourself have interviewed the witnesses, it is impossible to simply accept second, third, fourth hand information as fact. Sincere belief does not prove that it happened.

        The story of the Resurrection comes from four anonymous first century works of literature, written decades after the alleged event, in foreign lands, in a foreign language, for purposes we do not know. And, two, maybe, three, of these anonymous authors heavily plagiarized the work of the first (Mark). Since when do eyewitnesses, especially if writing under divine inspiration, need to copy, almost word for word, the writings of another author about an event they supposedly saw with their own two eyes?? There is absolutely no way that Christians can assert that these books were written by eyewitnesses.

        The only way to believe in the Resurrection is by faith. The same type of faith that a Mormon, Muslim, and Hindu uses to believe the supernatural miracles in his religion.

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