Our faith in the cross—and the empty tomb
Years ago the news anchor Tom Brokaw was asked, “If you could interview any figure in history, who would it be?”
Brokaw replied, “Jesus of Nazareth, for all the obvious reasons.”
Sometimes we might take for granted that Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just the most influential Jewish person who ever lived; Jesus is the most influential person who ever lived.
That Jesus was crucified also finds near-universal agreement. Agnostic Bart Ehrman calls Jesus’ crucifixion an undisputable fact, while liberal scholar Jean Dominic Crossan says, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical ever can be.”
But it’s not only modern scholars who accept that a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught in Galilee and then was condemned and crucified in a rock quarry outside the gates of Jerusalem.
Early evidence for the Roman crucifixion of Jesus is found not only in the four extraordinary documents we know as the Gospels, but in Jewish and Roman sources as well.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of a group called Christians whose founder “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”1
Notice that Tacitus mentions Pontius Pilate, one of Rome’s many governors. For centuries, there was no archaeological evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate, until 1961, when excavators at Caesarea found a piece of limestone with an inscription bearing the name of Pontius Pilate.
So the truth of the crucifixion of Jesus at order of Pontius Pilate isn’t the hard part for people. The hard part—the stumbling block—is the Resurrection: the idea that Jesus of Nazareth, who was dead on a Friday afternoon, became alive again on a Sunday morning—that to this day there’s a tomb in Jerusalem that once contained the body of Jesus . . . and then suddenly could not.
It’s the belief not only in the cross but in the empty tomb—and a risen Jesus—that sets apart Christians from everyone else.
“If Christ has not been raised,” wrote the former Pharisee Paul, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14, 19).
When we come to the resurrection of Jesus, there are two options. The first option is to view this story as sentimental propaganda written by a few lonely followers of Jesus somehow trying to keep Him alive. The second option is to take the Resurrection story literally—as an authentic account of something extraordinary that happened.
Using Women as Witnesses
If you were concocting a fake story of the resurrection of Jesus, there are two things you wouldn’t do.
First, you wouldn’t use women as witnesses. In first-century culture, a woman’s testimony was not considered reliable. To use Mary Magdalene and other women as primary witnesses, as all the Gospels do, wouldn’t have made any sense from a credibility standpoint.
The only reason anyone would use women as witnesses is . . . if they really were! Modern scholars call this the criterion of embarrassment. It actually lends tremendous credibility to the Resurrection story for the writer to tell what really happened—that women were the first witnesses and proclaimers of the gospel message—even if this were less convincing to the original audience.
Getting Your Story Straight
Second, if the Resurrection story was only propaganda, you wouldn’t have differences in your accounts. You’d get your story straight. Critics have pointed out the following variants in the four Gospel accounts:
Matthew: 1 angel; 2 women; women cling to Jesus
Mark: 1 angel; 3 women
Luke: 2 angels; 5+ women
John: 2 angels; 1 woman; Jesus tells Mary, “Don’t cling”
In Matthew and Mark, only one angel is mentioned at the tomb; in Luke and John, there are two angels. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the only woman at the tomb. In the other Gospels, there’s a group of women. What to do with all these differences?
A friend of mine, college professor Chris Blake, once had something interesting happen during one of his classes. The department secretary, Jana, walked in with some photocopies Chris had requested. As she handed the copies to Chris, they accidentally dropped to the floor.
“I’ll get them,” Chris said.
“No,” replied Jana, “I’ll get them. I do everything else around here.”
The awkward exchange between professor and secretary continued—all in front of the stunned students. Finally, the secretary stormed out of the classroom, and Chris turned toward his class.
“OK,” he said, “I want you to write down exactly what happened here: what we said, what Jana was wearing, the exact sequence of events and dialog.”
Chris had set up the whole thing ahead of time.
Incredibly, as the students wrote down what happened just seconds earlier, every account was a little different. I’ve done this same experiment in my own classes; no two accounts have ever been the same.
So the apparent differences in perspectives of the Resurrection may add credibility. After all, if someone saw only one angel, it doesn’t mean there weren’t two angels. And just because Mary was mentioned specifically, it doesn’t mean there weren’t also other women.
In fact, when put together into a single portrait, the supposed differences in the Resurrection accounts actually complement each other.
I love how Ellen White, in her classic work The Desire of Ages, reconciles the different Resurrection accounts so beautifully.
Sit back and enjoy the resurrection story again—for the first time.
Reconciling the Resurrection
(The following is from Ellen White, The Desire of Ages.)2
The women who had stood by the cross of Christ waited and watched for the hours of the Sabbath to pass. On the first day of the week, very early, they made their way to the tomb, taking with them precious spices to anoint the Saviour’s body. They did not think about His rising from the dead. The sun of their hope had set, and night had settled down on their hearts. As they walked, they recounted Christ’s works of mercy and His words of comfort. But they remembered not His words, “I will see you again.” John 16:22.
Ignorant of what was even then taking place, they drew near the garden, saying as they went, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher?” They knew that they could not remove the stone, yet they kept on their way. And lo, the heavens were suddenly alight with glory that came not from the rising sun. The earth trembled. They saw that the great stone was rolled away. The grave was empty.
The women had not all come to the tomb from the same direction. Mary Magdalene was the first to reach the place; and upon seeing that the stone was removed, she hurried away to tell the disciples. Meanwhile the other women came up. A light was shining about the tomb, but the body of Jesus was not there. As they lingered about the place, suddenly they saw that they were not alone. A young man clothed in shining garments was sitting by the tomb. It was the angel who had rolled away the stone. He had taken the guise of humanity that he might not alarm these friends of Jesus. Yet about him the light of the heavenly glory was still shining, and the women were afraid. They turned to flee, but the angel’s words stayed their steps. “Fear not ye,” he said; “for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead.” Again they look into the tomb, and again they hear the wonderful news. Another angel in human form is there, and he says, “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how He spake unto you when He was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”
He is risen, He is risen! The women repeat the words again and again. No need now for the anointing spices. The Saviour is living, and not dead. They remember now that when speaking of His death He said that He would rise again. What a day is this to the world! Quickly the women departed from the sepulcher “with fear and great joy; and did run to bring His disciples word.”
Mary had not heard the good news. She went to Peter and John with the sorrowful message, “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid Him.” The disciples hurried to the tomb, and found it as Mary had said. They saw the shroud and the napkin, but they did not find their Lord. Yet even here was testimony that He had risen. The graveclothes were not thrown heedlessly aside, but carefully folded, each in a place by itself. John “saw, and believed.” He did not yet understand the scripture that Christ must rise from the dead; but he now remembered the Saviour’s words foretelling His resurrection.
It was Christ Himself who had placed those graveclothes with such care. When the mighty angel came down to the tomb, he was joined by another, who with his company had been keeping guard over the Lord’s body. As the angel from heaven rolled away the stone, the other entered the tomb, and unbound the wrappings from the body of Jesus. But it was the Saviour’s hand that folded each, and laid it in its place. In His sight who guides alike the star and the atom, there is nothing unimportant. Order and perfection are seen in all His work.
Mary had followed John and Peter to the tomb; when they returned to Jerusalem, she remained. As she looked into the empty tomb, grief filled her heart. Looking in, she saw the two angels, one at the head and the other at the foot where Jesus had lain. “Woman, why weepest thou?” they asked her. “Because they have taken away my Lord,” she answered, “and I know not where they have laid Him.”
Then she turned away, even from the angels, thinking that she must find someone who could tell her what had been done with the body of Jesus. Another voice addressed her, “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?” Through her tear-dimmed eyes, Mary saw the form of a man, and thinking that it was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if thou have borne Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away.” If this rich man’s tomb was thought too honorable a burial place for Jesus, she herself would provide a place for Him. There was a grave that Christ’s own voice had made vacant, the grave where Lazarus had lain. Might she not there find a burial place for her Lord? She felt that to care for His precious crucified body would be a great consolation to her in her grief.
But now in His own familiar voice Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Now she knew that it was not a stranger who was addressing her, and turning she saw before her the living Christ. In her joy she forgot that He had been crucified. Springing toward Him, as if to embrace His feet, she said, “Rabboni.” But Christ raised His hand, saying, Detain Me not; “for I am not yet ascended to My Father: but go to My brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and your Father; and to My God, and your God.” And Mary went her way to the disciples with the joyful message.
Jesus refused to receive the homage of His people until He had the assurance that His sacrifice was accepted by the Father. He ascended to the heavenly courts, and from God Himself heard the assurance that His atonement for the sins of men had been ample, that through His blood all might gain eternal life. The Father ratified the covenant made with Christ, that He would receive repentant and obedient men, and would love them even as He loves His Son. Christ was to complete His work, and fulfill His pledge to “make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.” Isaiah 13:12. All power in heaven and on earth was given to the Prince of Life, and He returned to His followers in a world of sin, that He might impart to them of His power and glory.
While the Saviour was in God’s presence, receiving gifts for His church, the disciples thought upon His empty tomb, and mourned and wept. The day that was a day of rejoicing to all heaven was to the disciples a day of uncertainty, confusion, and perplexity. Their unbelief in the testimony of the women gives evidence of how low their faith had sunk. The news of Christ’s resurrection was so different from what they had anticipated that they could not believe it. It was too good to be true, they thought. They had heard so much of the doctrines and the so-called scientific theories of the Sadducees that the impression made on their minds in regard to the resurrection was vague. They scarcely knew what the resurrection from the dead could mean. They were unable to take in the great subject.
“Go your way,” the angels had said to the women, “tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him, as He said unto you.” These angels had been with Christ as guardian angels throughout His life on earth. They had witnessed His trial and crucifixion. They had heard His words to His disciples. This was shown by their message to the disciples, and should have convinced them of its truth. Such words could have come only from the messengers of their risen Lord.
“Tell His disciples and Peter,” the angels said. Since the death of Christ, Peter had been bowed down with remorse. His shameful denial of the Lord, and the Saviour’s look of love and anguish, were ever before him. Of all the disciples he had suffered most bitterly. To him the assurance is given that his repentance is accepted and his sin forgiven. He is mentioned by name.
“Tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him.” All the disciples had forsaken Jesus, and the call to meet Him again includes them all. He has not cast them off. When Mary Magdalene told them she had seen the Lord, she repeated the call to the meeting in Galilee. And a third time the message was sent to them. After He had ascended to the Father, Jesus appeared to the other women, saying, “All hail. And they came and held Him by the feet, and worshiped Him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell My brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see Me.”
1 Annals, book 15, chapter 44.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), pp. 788-793.