Can Doubt Prove the Empty Tomb

One evening, the fire department I was a member of at the time received a call for a house fire.  The police were reporting that people might be trapped.  Myself and another firefighter responded with the ladder truck and arrived at the fire several minutes before anyone else. 

The other firefighter I was with had just joined the department.  This was his first real fire, so I led the way as we began to search the house for potential victims.  Typically, ladder trucks don’t carry any hose or water, so we didn’t have a hoseline to protect us from the extending fire. 

The fire was in the rear of the first floor.  After a quick search of that floor, we made our way up to the bedrooms on the second floor, the most likely place people would be trapped.  It was “lights out” conditions.  I hate to be cliché, but you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.  Completely by feel, we did a thorough search of the two bedrooms and one bathroom on the second floor.  Thankfully, we found no victims upon completing our search.  Just then, other units began arriving.  I wanted to let the chief know that we had done the primary search which was negative, and that he didn’t need to commit other firefighters to this task. 

Back then, the older style masks we used muffled your voice.  When you tried to talk on the radio with a mask on, it was barely intelligible.  So, instead of waiting the minute or less it would take for us to get outside, genius that I am, I decided, in the midst of these “lights out” conditions which you couldn’t see—or breathe!—in, to take off my mask so the chief could understand what I was saying on the radio. 

As soon as I gave my report, I inhaled some of the toxic, superheated smoke.  My lungs seized up.  “No big deal”, I calmly told myself, “I’ll just place the mask back over my face.”  The only problem was that the meshing between the straps that goes over our heads had slipped down into the inside of the facepiece, preventing me from getting any air out of the mask. 

Since you couldn’t see a thing, I didn’t see that this had happened.

And since you couldn’t see a thing, I wasn’t able to find the meshing quickly enough to pull it back.

Just as all this was going on, my partner told me he couldn’t find the door, our way out.  We had taken a couple of maze-like turns and, being new, he was having trouble reorienting himself to find our way back.  We were “trapped” and I couldn’t breathe!

“Great!”, I thought to myself.  “This is how I’m going to die.  Not in some heroic rescue attempt but because I was the idiot who had to take his mask off in the middle of a fire to talk on the radio!” 

In the fire service, there are several publications that every department gets.  To help us operate more safely, these magazines often feature articles that critique fires where firefighters die so we can understand what went wrong and avoid making the same tragic mistakes. 

All I could think was how I would be featured in the next issue; how humiliating and embarrassing it would be; what an idiot I’d look like! 

Obviously, I survived that fire.  I was able to get my mask on just enough that I could take a few hits of air and find our way out.  But that fire was not one of my finer moments in the fire service!  And if I had died in that fire, this is NOT how I would want to have been remembered in perpetuity—as the idiot who took off his mask.  I wouldn’t want other firefighters thinking of me whenever they were tempted to take off their masks just to talk on the radio.

This experience gives me great empathy for Jesus’ disciples.  When they first hear from the women that Jesus’ tomb has been found empty, they don’t respond with heroic faith.  Instead, like idiots, they doubt.  They acknowledge that the women found the tomb empty, but they don’t believe Jesus is risen from the dead.  In perpetuity, this is how they’ll always be remembered.  Countless sermons have been preached exhorting Christians NOT to do what those first disciples did.  Not to doubt as they did.  Clearly, it wasn’t their finest moment!

As has been pointed out many times, this is a powerful reason not to doubt the reality of the empty tomb.  The story would never have been told this way unless this is exactly how it went down. 

And this is the problem for anyone who tries to challenge the historicity of the empty tomb.  However else they try to explain the historical circumstances, they have to explain the story itself—the story as it’s found in the Gospels—as a later legend (i.e., written several generations after, when all living memory of what they claim transpired was gone). 

But there’s no good explanation why a later legend, especially one written at a time when many of these same disciples were being venerated as martyrs who died for the faith, would cast them as such unbelieving knuckleheads.  If I had died in that fire, the only reason what I foolishly did would have been documented in fire service publications is because it’s what actually happened.  Just as none of these publications would dare unnecessarily embarrass a fallen brother, no Christian legend writer would dare portray such heroes of the faith in such an embarrassing and humiliating light, unless that’s actually what happened!

This is one good reason—among many others—why the majority of scholars don’t challenge the basic historicity of the empty tomb.

Still, this only tells us that the tomb Jesus had been buried in was empty three days later.  It doesn’t tell us whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead.  Maybe the tomb was found empty because of some honest mistake or genuine confusion about it (although, for a number of compelling reasons I can’t go into here, this is highly unlikely).

So, can the disciples’ doubt tell us anything more than this? 

Remarkably, Jesus’ disciples not only doubted when they heard that the tomb was discovered empty, they doubted when He supposedly appeared to them!  Many doubt it’s Him, or at least that it’s Him risen from the dead (and not some ghost or vision).  As Matthew records, some of the disciples doubted even as the others worshiped Him as Risen Lord! 

And this does tell us more, which I will examine in next week’s blog.

Do you find the story of the empty tomb credible?  I’d love to hear what you think!  Leave your comments or questions on the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website.  Also, please “Like” our Facebook page, subscribe to our YouTube Channel, and keep telling your friends about us.  I really appreciate all the support!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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