Slideshow: What Best Explains Jesus’ Empty Tomb?

There is little to no debate among both Christian and non-Christian historians on the facts of Jesus’ empty tomb. By contrast, there is widespread debate as to what best explains those facts. empty-tomb2

The historical facts of Jesus’ death and empty tomb are these:

  1. Jesus was murdered and buried.
  2. Three days afterward, his body went missing.
  3. Accounts of Jesus’ appearance to both his disciples and unbelievers/skeptics were reported over the course of many days.
  4. These appearances transformed his followers and some previous skeptics into courageous preachers of Christianity, with Jesus’ resurrection becoming the central focus of their teaching.

Again, even atheist scholars acknowledge these points, such as the skeptic German historian Gerd Lüdemann who said, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”[1]

The question is, what best explains these facts?

When examining rival theories on ancient events, historians oftentimes use the “cumulative case method”, which involves utilizing various criteria to help arrive at a conclusion on a particular issue. These criteria generally focus on what explanation for a historical account is best at:

  • Explanatory power.
  • Explanatory scope.
  • Not being ad-hoc.
  • Plausibility.
  • Not contradicting accepted beliefs.
  • Far exceeding its rival theories in meeting those conditions.

When applied to the various hypotheses submitted to explain the empty tomb of Jesus, where does the evidence lead?

The eighth presentation of the free “Essential Apologetics” series examines the various facts of Jesus’ empty tomb along with the proposed explanations for why that tomb remains empty to this day.

You can view and download all presentations completed so far in the Essential Apologetics series here.


[1] Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Robin Schumacher

Robin has a Master's in Christian Apologetics, a Ph.D. in New Testament, and writes for a number of Christian publications and sites. You can visit his websites at: and

  • Daniel Mann

    Short but sweet! I’ve posted it in Facebook!

  • Frank

    Something to keep in mind when assessing the bible’s claim of Jesus’ resurrection is that, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, many people were supposedly raising from the dead.

    “and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Matthew 27:52-53

    There were also a lot of people raised from the dead before Jesus died, by Jesus and others. So it seems that the walking dead were quite common in those days. Does that affect the bible’s credibility with regards to Jesus’ resurrection? That’s up to the readers to decide.

    • Steven Carr

      It seems there were so many empty tombs that finding one more empty tomb wasn’t worth bothering with,

      Certainly, not a single Christian in the first century was prepared to put his name on a document claiming he had even heard of an empty tomb.

      And nobody can find any trace of anybody called ‘Joseph of Arimathea’.

      Just like nobody can find any trace of the Angel Moroni.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    ” There is little to no debate among both Christian and non-Christian
    historians on the facts of Jesus’ empty tomb….The historical facts of Jesus’ death and empty tomb are these:….Jesus was murdered and buried….Three days afterward, his body went missing.”

    Actually, there is no proof that Jesus ever existed, or that he wasn’t just a composite of prior religious tales, or even a composite of various preachers of the time. If he never existed, then the whole story of the empty tomb is silly. As to being murdered, {if he even existed}, as I recall, he was duly and legally tried, judged and executed. Where do people come up with this stuff anyway?

    • Robin Schumacher

      “Actually, there is no proof that Jesus ever existed” I’m sorry, but that’s a *very* uninformed statement that no competent historian – Christian or otherwise – agrees with. See this presentation for more info:

      • Urbane_Gorilla

        Actually, I’ve read all the articles (and even was baptized Christian)…but there is no proof that Jesus was a real person. All we have are an accumulation of stories written about him hundreds of years after he supposedly lived…That’s not proof. If you believe 300 year old tales, then why not believe in UFOs, which are more current? And if he was as important a figure as believers think he is, why did the Romans have no record of him? A society that recorded everything of import? I’m not saying he did or did not exist, just that there is no proof. And that’s why every year or so somebody ‘discovers’ the true burial site of Jesus or the nails used in the cross, or whatever. Lots of people would like it that he can be proved to have existed.

        • Robin Schumacher

          You’ve read “all the articles”? Which articles? Further, can you point us to one scholarly, peer-reviewed paper by a credible historian that argues Jesus never existed?

        • Steve Wilkinson

          Unfortunately, that’s the same kind of proof we have of just about anything historical beyond a couple hundred years ago (and often, even within a couple hundred years ago). Sometimes archeology can give some clues, but it is usually just support in favor or against something… not the kind of ‘proof’ you seem to be wanting.

          And, the Romans do have record of him, just not at the same level of detail of the people who actually knew him.

          And, I’ll happily believe UFO accounts if there are no good alternate explanations, and the witnesses are credible. Actually, I do believe some of the documented UFO accounts… I just don’t believe the best explanation is aliens.

          • Urbane_Gorilla

            The only ‘records’ of Jesus I can find were recapsulated stories decades after his death. No descriptions, no first hand accounts, no factual data. That’s remarkable for a guy that supposedly drew thousands to hear him speak. It would be as if somebody decided to start writing about this unknown guy ‘Bob Dylan’ 50 years from now. Just saying.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              Maybe decade after the events… but no descriptions, first hand accounts or factual data? How did you figure that?

              A better analogy might be someone today interviewing survivors near ground-zero at the 9/11 event…. and then only those documents and a few others surviving a couple of thousand years from now. While every witness description might not look like a photo copy of the others, I’d guess we could put the event back together from that testimony, or at least be pretty certain it happened and close to a manner of the descriptions.

              In 2000 years, I doubt many will know who Bob Dylan is, and if a nuclear war took out all of our magnetic and optical storage, so all that were left where some copies of a biography and a few newspaper clippings about some concerts, I’d imagine historians could be reasonably sure there was such a guy… especially if Dylan fans had painstakingly made tens of thousands of copies of the biography and distributed it all over the world, often at great personal cost, to escape the authorities who had banned musical expression for a century or two.

              And then lets say the all the details from descriptions of the concert venues, to the names of concert promoters, lawyers involved, even the name distributions and popularity of fans mentioned matched up to the best archeology and historical studies of the time. And yet, there is a whole musical form in that time which pays homage to Dylan and is, in fact, one of the most popular forms of music, of which the origins seem to date back as close as anyone can tell to the exact time period when Bob was popular.

              • urbanegorilla

                Based on that, then George Washington did cut down the cherry tree and throw a silver dollar across the Potomac, right? After all, it has been repeated by many that never witnessed it…It’s even taught in schools…But neither are true. Just because people repeat a story, that was a repeat of a story, and so on, and son, doesn’t make it true. It just makes it folklore.

                And we actually have recorded footage and photographs of Dylan.

                • Steve Wilkinson

                  re: “Based on that, then George Washington…”

                  Based on what?

                  re: “it has been repeated by many that never witnessed it … Just because people repeat a story, that was a repeat of a story, and so on…”

                  Well of course we should be skeptical of stuff like that. You do realize this is a Christian apologetics web site, right???

                  re: “And we actually have recorded footage and photographs of Dylan.”

                  And we might not 2000 years from now. But, your point would be that we can’t believe anything for which we don’t have recorded footage and photos? And, given our ability to edit those, do you think in 2000 years a skeptic would be convinced by such footage?

                  • urbanegorilla

                    If you’re going to accept Jesus based on folklore, then it’s reasonable to believe Washington really did throw a coin across the 1 mile wide Potomac, when there was no silver dollar available to toss.

                    Will we have archival footage of Dylan in 2000 years? Who knows. But we certainly do now, and based on how Google and the NSA store data, probably so. It is in man’s nature to store knowledge… The library of Alexandria, the Smithsonian, etc.

                    And no, I never said lack of footage would equate to disbelief, but lack of anything aside from George Washington-like folk tales is not evidence of anything… Consider a fossil. That’s not footage, but it is evidence of life.

                    • Steve Wilkinson

                      That’s why I too am skeptical of folklore. I’m suggesting you move beyond Internet memes (and possibly fake stuff like the pop work of Ehrman), and really dig into the evidence.

                    • urbanegorilla

                      Asked to be baptized Roman Catholic at 9…Gradually became more aware as I got older. Read the Bible twice much later in life and many, many articles and books on it since. There is no evidence for Jesus’ existence. He may have lived, but that’s like saying Jeffrey once lived. Jesus was a common enough name. Attributing a religion to any one Jesus is about the same as attributing everything that ever happened to any multitude of Jeffries to any one “Jeffrey” decades later.

                    • Steve Wilkinson

                      re: “There is no evidence for Jesus’ existence.”

                    • urbanegorilla

                      Not that I’ve ever found. You have proof?

  • Vince Latorre

    Women were cited as the primary witnesses to the empty tomb. In that society, if the empty tomb was a legend, they would have changed the story or covered it up, because back then women’s testimony was not even accepted as legal in Jewish court.

  • Steven Carr

    Why was James sceptical of his brother – the one born of a virgin?

    And why did the Gospel writers believe that a woman’s testimony was credible?(Perhaps we should believe the woman who said that somebody had taken the body of Jesus)

    John 4:39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”

    How come the unknown author of John didn’t know that a woman’s testimony was not considered credible, and blundered by claiming that ‘many’ people would believe in Jesus , because a woman testified?

    • Steve Wilkinson

      re: “Why was James sceptical of his brother – the one born of a virgin?”

      I assume you’re an only child? :)

      re: women’s testimony

      I’d imagine that was a cultural generalization, not a hard and fast rule. Women’s testimony wasn’t allowed in legal matters, but I’m guessing most husbands had a certain amount of trust in what their wives said, or there would have been rapid population decline. But, note, the disciples did go check it out.

      It would be kind of like saying that back in 2014, people still believed in neo-Darwinian evolution. That would be true as a generalization, but wouldn’t preclude the existence of Stephen Meyer.

      Also, this isn’t a point of proof, but adds to the overall credibility, as if one were making up such an account, they wouldn’t likely include stuff that would make people, even of the time, skeptical.

  • Frank

    There have been a lot of debates out there about Jesus’ resurrection, and I think there are good points on both sides. But in the end this seems to me to be another god of the gaps argument. In other words, it turns into: “there is no reason we can think of, therefore god did it.” The montra of the believers on this topic seems to be: “you can’t provide a reasonable answer for why A would have said B, or why C would have done D, if not for the resurrection”. Even if you get the skeptic to agree on all the “facts” claimed by the apologists (e.g., the execution, the burial, the empty tomb), the response is going to be “I don’t know”. I don’t know how the tomb was emptied despite the guards on duty; I don’t know why his disciples thought they saw him; I don’t know why disciples were willing to die for their beliefs, etc. Then the believer comes along and says “Ah ha! You don’t know, therefore god did it.” That’s the definition of the god of the gaps argument.

    Also, I’ve noticed in discussing these topics with believers that they don’t consider magic to be an unreasonable explanation. This is where believers and skeptics have no common ground. Consider a mystery being investigated today by the FBI and they just can’t seem to solve it, the pieces don’t add up unless you insert magic into the story, they would never do so because to do so would be irrational. That’s exactly how we see the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Of all the areas of the bible, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be as good as it gets for “proof”, which I’m sure gets believers excited, but I think, at its best, it’s miles away from convincing skeptics because of the requirement to infer magic.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      No, I’ve heard Christian apologists admit that space aliens would probably also be able to meet the set of minimal facts. So, I suppose we can broaden this up a bit…. real resurrection, real magic, space aliens, etc.

      But, remember, we didn’t pull the ‘god did it’ option out of a hat. Jesus resurrection comes from a long history of prophecy of God’s actions among the Israelites. Jesus (the one resurrected) made claims to deity which this, if true, seems to confirm. And we have tons of other data which makes God a far more likely option than space aliens. So, you might disagree with our conclusions, but certainly not god of the gaps.