It is believed by many historians that, on the very first Easter, a group of female disciples discovered that the tomb of Jesus was empty. Some atheists believe that this event, in conjunction with later visionary experiences and prior prophecies from Jesus himself, eventually led to the belief in Jesus' corporeal resurrection from the dead. However, there is a large and respectable minority of scholars holding the view that the empty tomb story is fictional- and that the Resurrection appearances alone caused the belief of the early disciples.
Just how large and respectable is this minority, you ask? Well, according to a study carried out by Gary Habermas, as many as a quarter of scholars think that the story of the empty tomb is fictional. Yeah- an entire quarter. That means that, unless a quarter of professional Jesus scholars are desperate non-believers- at least some Christians must hold this view. This consideration gives us at least some prima facie evidence that the arguments against the empty tomb must have at least some force. But what if most scholars are, in fact, non-believers? After all- Mike Licona says just that in his interview here. Well- wouldn't that be even better for Atheism's case?
Anyways, before I write any posts that actually examine the arguments, I just want to be upfront about my opinion on the empty tomb. For decades, Apologists have used this as an argument for the Resurrection. But to me this tactic seems like sleight of hand. For even if the body went missing- why must we infer a Resurrection? We have the traditional hypothesises, like the reburial theory or the stolen body theory. On top of this, we have other, less conventional explanations we can appeal to. For example, an earthquake could have caused the ground under Jesus' corpse to open up and swallow it! Atheists do not require one specific theory to serve as their official explanation- any number of possible scenarios will suffice. After all- the Bible only records theological interpretations of these events- not the underlying events themselves. Those are lost in history forever.
So that's about it. If you want to learn more about the empty tomb's historicity at a popular level, I would recommend James McGrath's Burial of Jesus: History and Faith and Kris Komarnitsky's Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box. At a more scholarly level, I would recommend the books of Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, Maurice Casey and Dale Allison. And of course, if you haven't read it yet, also get a copy of Dale Allison's 2008 Philosophia Christi essay, which responds to arguments from William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas.