“It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”
-D. H. van Daalen (‘The Real Resurrection.’)
#Disclaimer: Bear in mind that this rebuttal is of Lowder’s 1995 essay. As of now Lowder has changed his view and accepts the empty tomb as historical (see his 2005 publication The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave).
One skeptic Jeffrey Lowder claims to have trouble believing in the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb because none of the disciples or early Christian preachers pointed to it. According to Lowder: “We would expect the early Christian preachers to have said: “‘You don’t believe us? Go look in the tomb yourselves! It’s at the corner of Fifth and Main, third sepulcher on the right’” (3).
In my mind this challenge is immediately on shaky grounds because of our gospel traditions regarding the empty tomb, Paul’s implying of the empty tomb in a very early creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), and the multiply & independently attested status of the empty tomb (meaning that it was not invented by one author), that support the empty tomb’s historicity. Lowder also swims against consensus as roughly 75% of critical scholars view Jesus’ empty tomb as historical, in fact Habermas informs us that: “Of these scholars, approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb” (1). But this is hardly surprising when we find out that Lowder is an atheist writing for The Secular Web. However, why am I convinced of the empty tomb? Simply because I chose to follow the historical evidence where it led me, and the arguments (I provide 8 arguments) are particularly convincing.
Basically, Lowder’s argument is that Peter doesn’t directly mention the empty tomb in his preaching in Acts 2 so he therefore concludes that: “If even the disciples didn’t think the empty tomb tradition was any good, why should we?” (2)
I hope anyone can see the Lowder’s argument can also be reduced to an argument from silence. Just because, according to Lowder (which we will see is not the case), Peter doesn’t mention the empty tomb it doesn’t therefore follow that the tomb was not empty (of course this is ignoring our other evidence). Secondly, the words and deeds of the apostles in Acts would hardly be exhaustive. Would it be reasonable to conclude that just because, according to Lowder, Peter doesn’t mention the empty tomb in his speech in Acts, therefore he never mentioned it elsewhere to anyone that is not recorded in our New Testament?
However, it is important to consider Lowder’s argument. True enough, Peter does not use the words empty tomb in his sermon. But to jump to Lowder’s conclusion is too simple as Peter appears to imply the empty tomb in his speech. Let’s look at two verses where Peter makes reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection:
- “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2: 23–24, NASB).
- “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.” (Acts 2:29-32, NASB)
Our references to Jesus that Peter makes does not explicitly state the empty tomb, but it certainly appears reasonable to believe that he does imply it indirectly. The following quote by William Craig focuses on Paul’s implying of the empty tomb in his creedal formula (1 Cor. 15:1-11), but it is likewise applicable to Peter’s sermon in Acts: “For in saying that Jesus died — was buried — was raised — appeared, one automatically implies that the empty grave has been left behind” (2).
Furthermore, a particularly significant detail in Peter’s sermon is that of the comparison between the deaths of both David and Jesus. Robert Stein, Professor of New Testament, articulates on Peter’s second reference:
“Peter contrasts the experience of David who died, was buried, and saw corruption with Jesus who was crucified and killed (v. 23) but whose flesh, unlike David’s, saw no corruption because God raised him up. The difference between David and Jesus lies in the fact that the tomb of David was still occupied by the bones of David, for he saw corruption. The tomb of Jesus, on the other hand, was empty, for he saw no corruption. It is true that we have here Luke’s account of Peter’s pentecostal address, but it would appear that Luke has either used early tradition to formulate Peter’s sermon or at least witnesses to an early tradition in which the tomb of Jesus was acknowledged as empty. This same comparison between David and Jesus is also found on the lips of Paul in Acts 13: 29-37” (4).
Lastly, Philosopher J.P. Moreland tells us why Peter does not directly refer to the empty tomb in his speech (6):
“Why is the empty tomb not [directly] mentioned in these speeches? The best answer seems to be that the fact of the empty tomb was common ground between believers and unbelievers. Thus, there was no reason to mention it, especially since the early church did not usually use the empty tomb in itself as proof of the Christian message. The empty tomb could be interpreted in several ways; the Jews attributed it to the theft of Jesus’ body by the disciples. So the fact of the empty tomb was not central in early evangelistic preaching to Jews. Instead, the proper understanding of the empty tomb is what is central, and this is what one finds emphasized in the Acts speeches.
“In sum, the absence of explicit mention of the empty tomb in the speeches in Acts is best explained by noting that the fact of the empty tomb was not in dispute and thus it was not at issue. The main debate was over why it was empty, not whether it was empty.”
I think it would be sufficient to conclude that Peter, although to Lowder’s credit does not state the empty tomb directly, certainly implies it. As Habermas says: to say that they (Peter, disciples etc.) were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, that Jesus’ body suffered no decay and that he was raised from the dead “would be a rather strange process unless the tomb had been vacated in the process” (5).
1. Habermas, G. 2005. Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? Available.
2. Craig, W. The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available.
3. Lowder, J. The Contemporary Debate on the Resurrection. Available.
4. Stein, R. Was the Tomb Really Empty? Available.
5. Habermas, G. The Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available.
6. Moreland, J. 1987. Scaling the Secular City. p. 237/8 (scribd.com ebook format).