The Empty Tomb
April 16, 2006 | Brian Bill
Welcome to the crime lab. Last week we heard from an eyewitness named Simon who gave first-hand testimony about the details surrounding the death of Jesus. I’m the lead investigator for the CSI: Jerusalem team and together we’re going to evaluate the evidence for Easter. This case was almost given to the Without a Trace team or even the Cold Case Investigators, but I’m glad it’s been assigned to us because together we can get to the bottom of this. You look like you’ve been well-trained to handle all this evidence; some of you even dressed up today. While many people believe in Easter, there’s still a lot of confusion in our culture and so we’re going to focus on the forensic facts.
That reminds me of the grandfather who wanted to see how much his four-year-old granddaughter knew about the Easter story. He put her on his lap and asked, “Julie, why do we celebrate Easter?” Without hesitating, she said, “Jesus was crucified. After He died, His body was put into a grave. They rolled a big stone in front of the opening. A bunch of soldiers guarded the tomb. On the third day, there was a big earthquake and the stone rolled away.” Grandpa was pleased with how much his granddaughter knew about the Easter story but then she continued, “When the earthquake happened, the entire town came out by the grave…And if Jesus came out and saw His shadow, they knew there would be six more weeks of winter!” At least she had part of the story right.
Do you know that Christianity crumbles if the resurrection never happened? With the resurrection removed from Christianity there is nothing left. Is this faith really founded on irrefutable reality? Or is it just a hopeless hoax? Is it historical fact or just for those who are hysterical fanatics? Is it a fable like the groundhog, or is it grounded in fact and therefore has earth-shaking consequences? Let’s find out, shall we? We’re going to examine seven different evidence streams this morning.
1. Scriptures (Table piled high with Bibles).
We’re fortunate as we begin our investigation that we have a wide variety of textual evidence to examine. Jesus made some predictions, not only about His death, but also His resurrection: John 2:19-22: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”
And in Matthew 20:18-19, Jesus was very specific: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” Notice the attention to detail. He would be condemned to death by the chief priests but crucified by Gentiles and then he would be raised to life on the third day.
Each of the four gospels record what happened on that Sunday. I’ll just read the account from Luke because he is well-known to be a careful historian. Luke 24:1-8: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered his words.”
the resurrection explains the gospels
After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus and buried Him in a nearby tomb. This is spelled out in Matthew 27:59-60: “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.” For what it’s worth, I’ve come to the conclusion that the gospels do not explain the resurrection; the resurrection explains the gospels.
Dr. Luke also wrote the book of Acts and states in Acts 1:3: “After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” We’re going to consider whether or not these proofs are convincing. I want you to notice that he says there are “many” proofs. The word “proofs” comes from the word that means demonstrated proof or sure signs. In contrast to superstitious beliefs, these signs are verifiable. Let’s ponder some of this proof right now.
A very large stone, estimated to weigh about 2 tons, was rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb. On that Sunday morning, the first thing that people noticed was that the stone had been rolled away. Each of the four gospel writers mentions this fact. The stone was in such a position that it looked like it had been picked up and carried away. By the way, our team has concluded that the stone was not rolled away to let Jesus out; but to let people in to see the evidence. Some commentators point out that these stones were often rolled into place down an incline so that they would be virtually impossible to roll out of the way. One expert has testified that it could take up to 20 men to move this stone away from the entrance.
In John’s gospel we read that the rock had been “removed” from the entrance. The primary root of this word means to be “lifted up.” I know I’m accustomed to dealing with only natural explanations but this certainly appears to have been moved by something very powerful.
3. Seal (Long rope).
Matthew 27:66 tells us that a tamper-proof official Roman seal was stretched across the stone. This seal stood for all the power and authority of the Roman Empire. Anyone who broke this seal would incur the wrath of the Roman law and would face automatic execution by crucifixion upside down. This was not something to play around with.
After this boulder was in place, a contingent of up to 16 Roman soldiers was assigned to secure the tomb. Some pictures you may have seen show one or two men standing around in mini-skirts, holding a spear in their hands. That’s simply not the case. These men were human fighting machines. These gladiators were trained to protect the area around the tomb against an entire battalion. Four of these guards would have been posted in front of the tomb, and the remaining twelve in groups of four would have fanned out in a semi-circle.
These men paid very close attention to their responsibilities because they were well aware that the penalty for sleeping on duty was death (see Acts 12:19; 16:27). It was common practice to have their uniform removed and then their clothes were used to start a fire that would burn the soldier to death as punishment for dereliction of duty.
5. Strips of Cloth (Table with linen strips; head covering folded neatly).
Since our job is to be precise, the tomb was not really empty on Easter because the linen grave clothes were left behind. Some forensic scientists believe that when people first looked in the tomb they saw these clothes in the form of a body, like the empty chrysalis of a caterpillar’s cocoon.
John 20 describes Peter and John running to the tomb. John must have been in better shape because he arrived 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.” As I was looking into some more of the textual evidence I came across an account that stated that when Jesus was born he was wrapped in strips of cloth as well. I don’t know what to make of this but just thought I should point it out.
This could not have been a robbery. Thieves couldn’t have made it past the guards, broken the seal, rolled the stone up the hill, unwrapped the body and then folded the head piece neatly. The grave robbers would have thrown the garments in disorder or left them on and ran out. I understand that scientists have conducted DNA tests and other examinations on the shroud, or head covering, that is purported to be in Italy. In my judgment, the results of these tests on the head covering are inconclusive.
The empty tomb was publicly verifiable. With as many enemies as there were, no one has ever produced the body of Jesus. Not finding a body has been a challenge to the CSI team, but it actually is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for Easter.
6. Eyewitnesses (Table with bright light for interview with Thomas).
Those who saw the empty tomb and then saw Jesus were convinced that He was alive. They never wavered on this truth and never changed their story, even under the pain of persecution. 1 John 1:1: “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 early Christians did not believe Jesus had risen just because of the empty tomb — they believed because they saw Him with their own eyes. When they talked to others about Jesus, they did not say, “We found an empty tomb,” instead, they said, “We saw Jesus alive!” The most outstanding proof that Jesus rose from the dead is that more than 515 eyewitnesses saw him on 12 different occasions, over a period of forty days. If you look at the number of appearances, the number of witnesses, the consistency of the accounts, and the fact that these were not gullible people, their testimony is profound.
Jesus gave unquestionable proof that He was alive! After His resurrection, He made an appearance to a woman in the cemetery. Later that same day, He walked through a closed door and talked with his frightened followers who were huddled in Jerusalem. In the evening, he walked side by side with two men as they made their way down a road. He appeared to believers and doubters; to tough-minded people and tenderhearted souls.
Several people saw Him on more than one occasion, some alone, and some with large groups; sometimes at night and other times during the day. The apostle Paul, when writing a letter to a group of new Christians, laid it all out in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins 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.”
Two weeks ago, a group of us returned from a one-week work project. I had an experience the first day that I’ve not been able to put behind me. I got up early in the morning to go on a long run. I left the church and meandered through different neighborhoods and even out in the country. When I realized I had run further than my four and a half decade old body could handle, I turned around and headed back to the church. I was moving at a pretty slow clip, and gasping for air, when I rounded a corner only two blocks from the church.
Just then I noticed a gigantic Great Dane dog patrolling the street. I stopped dead in my tracks, hoping he wouldn’t see me. I started to panic because I knew of no other way to get back. I looked around and picked up a tree branch that I could use as a weapon and started walking backwards as I pulled my cell phone out. I decided to call my buddy, our team leader, and begged him to come and pick me up. I told him to not tell anyone about this because I didn’t want to be teased. While I was talking, this cantankerous canine, who now was foaming at the mouth, spotted me and began strutting toward his prey. This made me pray and I told my friend to hurry.
I knew I was in trouble when he showed up with a camera and his contagious laugh. He slowed down by the dog and took his picture. Then he got out of the van and took my picture. He was laughing so hard that he started crying. When I got in the van I said, “Not one word.” He just kept saying, “Don’t worry. I got your back.” It didn’t take long after we returned to the group for Brian to start spouting that he had rescued his pastor from a man-eating Maltese. This story grew and grew and I have the sense that I’ve not heard the last of it.
Now, imagine if there was one eyewitness who saw everything and testified that my version of the story was true and that my friend was just making it up. How about if there were three eyewitnesses corroborating my take of what happened? It’d be even stronger if 12 people were willing to testify that the Great Dane was ready to devour me. My case would be even stronger if 100 people saw what happened. It would be airtight, and totally convincing if over 500 people told the truth about what happened.
To put this into perspective, if we were to call each of them to the witness stand to be questioned and cross-examined for just 15 minutes each, and we went around the clock without a break, it would take from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to nearly 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, who could possibly believe Brian Tumbleson’s take on what happened?
Friends, that’s how strong the case is for the resurrection of Jesus! Over 500 different individuals were willing to offer firsthand testimony that they had seen the resurrected Christ. These eyewitnesses were still alive and could be questioned. In effect, the early church could say, “If you don’t believe us, you can ask those who saw Him with their own eyes.” 2 Peter 1:16: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
There was at least one disciple who remained unconvinced until he was given more evidence. You know him as “Doubting Thomas.”
CSI: (Placing a Styrofoam cup on the table slowly and deliberately): “Let’s go through this again. Start from the point you left off. Maybe you’ll give in and change your story.”
Thomas: “I doubt it! Look, we’ve been at this for three hours. I’m tired. I want to go home.”
CSI: “Just tell the truth and you can go anywhere you want!”
Thomas: “I told you. I was so devastated that Jesus had died that I just needed to be alone. That’s when all the rumors started flying around. The women said the body was gone and that an angel had told them that Jesus was alive. Then John and Peter saw the empty tomb. Then they told me Jesus appeared to them. Now, I’m a practical guy. I know what grief can do to a person. I wasn’t about to believe it unless I could see Him with my eyes and touch Him with my hands.”
CSI: “Aha! So you doubted?! Obviously you agree with us then that it was just a big group hallucination?”
Thomas: (Spits water out of the cup in obvious shock) “I doubt it! Listen, as I have told you before. I was in the room and then Jesus was there. I don’t know how he got in there, the doors and windows were locked. He looked at me with those piercing dark eyes and offered His wrists and side for me to touch. I just fell to my knees and said “My Lord and My God.”
CSI: “Well, it looks like we are at the same place we were before. You claim to have seen Jesus alive, but that’s impossible. There has to be another explanation. Do you think an alternative solution will be discovered?”
Thomas: “I doubt it! Why don’t you just look at the evidence? It’s all there.”
There’s one more piece of evidence that may be the strongest of all.
7. Changed Lives.
May I suggest that the only thing that could have possibly changed lives so dramatically was the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? These ordinary men were transformed from frightened wimps into courageous communicators of the gospel. Every one of them had come from doubt to determination, from confusion to conviction, from fear to faith. I had someone look into how each of them died. See if it sounds like they were just making up the Resurrection:
- Matthew was killed in Ethiopia
- Mark was dragged through the streets until he was dead
- Peter, Simeon, Andrew, and Philip were crucified
- James was beheaded
- Bartholomew was flayed alive
- Thomas was pierced with lances
- James, the less, was thrown from the temple and stoned to death
- Jude was shot to death with arrows
- Paul was boiled in hot oil and beheaded
Not only did Jesus impact lives in the first century, His resurrection power is still transforming people today. The combined testimony of changed lives attributed to the risen Christ runs into the billions, from every race and tribe and language and nationality in the world. Despite the various intellectual and social backgrounds, believers are united in their conviction that Jesus Christ is alive.
His life-changing power is just as available today as it was to that initial group of frightened followers
Jesus has changed my life because the evidence is just too powerful to be passive about. And, from talking with many of you, I know that He has changed yours as well. His life-changing power is just as available today as it was to that initial group of frightened followers.
Before I summarize, let me quickly list seven more pieces of evidence that we don’t have time to tackle.
- The resurrection was preached immediately in Jerusalem where critics and skeptics could easily examine the facts.
- The resurrection was central to the message of the early church, mentioned in almost every sermon that was preached.
- The church was birthed and grew exponentially after Easter.
- Christians started celebrating on Sundays to honor Resurrection Day.
- We have the testimony of angels who were the first to announce that Jesus was alive.
- Other people were raised out of their graves when Jesus arose, showing His power over death (Matthew 27:52-53).
- Jesus made multiple appearances during the first forty days after the Resurrection but then we don’t hear of anymore (except for Paul’s conversion) because the Bible says He ascended into Heaven (Acts 1:1-9).
Let’s put this irrefutable evidence together with what we’ve already examined.
- Strips of cloth
- Changed Lives
You may be wondering what the big deal is about Easter. From what I’ve been able to deduce as a member of the CSI team, there are at least five implications that arise out of Easter.
1. Doubt is dealt with.
Like Thomas, who wouldn’t believe unless he actually could touch the wounds of Jesus, the evidence for the Resurrection can displace doubt from your mind. I hope you come back next Sunday as we begin a brand new series that you may find quite interesting. We’re calling it, “Cracking the DaVinci Code.” Our first message is entitled, “Separating Fact from Fiction.”
2. Loneliness is lifted.
The Resurrection proves that you matter deeply to God. Jesus died for you as payment for your sins and rose again to demonstrate how important you are to Him. He can now meet your deepest need for a relationship with Him because He’s alive.
3. Weakness is wiped out.
How can I find the power to change? Why can’t I break those bad habits in my life? Friend, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to you this morning. He can transform you just like He radically changed that first group of weakened people. An encounter with the living Christ can give you strength and confidence like you’ve never had before.
4. Guilt is gutted.
How can I get rid of my guilt for all that I’ve done? The Resurrection is final proof that God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as your sin substitute. Jesus is the sin-bearing Savior of the world and the Resurrection validates this transaction.
5. Death is destroyed.
Because of what Jesus did, you can now know that there is life beyond the grave. It’s not just a theory — it’s a proven reality. Because Jesus is alive, death will never have the last word; a rising is promised for every dying, and a new beginning for every ending.
The belief in the Resurrection is not a blind leap into a dark chasm but rather a step into the light. The evidence is overwhelming. Examine it with an open mind. Remember this: It has always been God’s practice to give evidence to those who are willing to respond. Once you believe you will receive more confirmation. If you persist in your doubts with your arms crossed in defiance, you’ll have a hard time honestly examining the evidence. As Jesus said to Thomas in John 20:29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The evidence is incontrovertible and therefore it demands a verdict! And yet, some of you will still choose to not believe because it’s really a moral issue – you don’t want to surrender your will to Him. It’s tough to let the Lord lead your life. The problem ultimately is not lack of evidence but of rebellion. It’s not that people cannot believe; it’s that many will not believe. In John 5:40, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that moral commitment solves the intellectual problem: “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” In John 7:17 Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God.” That’s why some people are convinced but have never committed themselves to Christ. What about you? The biggest crime is to not believe even though the evidence is clear.
Josh McDowell writes that a student once told him that all of his questions and problems had been answered. McDowell then asked, “Are you then going to become a Christian?” The student told him that he did not want to do that. When McDowell asked why, he said, “Frankly, because it would mess up the way I’m living.”
Dr. Simon Greenleaf, the Royal Professor of Law at Harvard University, had one of the greatest legal minds ever. He concluded that according to the jurisdiction of legal evidence the resurrection of Jesus Christ was the best supported event in all of history. If fact, he was so convinced by the overwhelming evidence that he committed his life to Christ. Philip Yancey says, “In many respects I find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept. Easter makes him dangerous. Because of Easter, I have to listen to his extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from his sayings.”
Using the three letters CSI, allow me to challenge you to make a commitment to Christ this morning.
- Consider the evidence. Give attention to Easter. You will not be excused if you ignore it. You can’t play dumb with God. Don’t politely pass by the most important event in history.
- Search for the truth. Seek God with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
- Invite Jesus into your life. John 5:24: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
Revelation 1:18: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Don’t be deceived. It’s time to believe. Look at the evidence and as Luke 1:4 says, you will “know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”