The Empty Tomb

The Resurrection and skeptical views

The New Testament doctrine of the Resurrection, not a post-modern reconstruction of it, lies at the heart of the Christian faith:

"If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10.9).

But was this not just a "spiritual" resurrection of Jesus rather than a "physical" resurrection? Of course the Resurrection of Jesus was not a crude resuscitation of a corpse; it was a glorious transformation. In that sense his old "flesh and blood" (to use Paul's phrase) did not inherit the new order of "the Kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15.50). But what Paul implies and the New Testament elsewhere makes quite clear is that on the first Easter morning Jesus' tomb was found empty; and it was found empty because Jesus had risen. To suggest that it does not matter if the bones of Jesus are still in the soil of Palestine is clearly contrary to the plain meaning of the texts and is, therefore, dangerous heresy and needs to be opposed.

People who still want to use the language of "resurrection" while denying the empty tomb have to say that the empty tomb is a myth. That is to say, they present it as a story concocted to illustrate the meaning of the word "resurrection". But that is not what the Bible teaches. According to the text of the Bible, the empty tomb is clearly not just an illustration of the meaning of the Resurrection; it is evidence for the Resurrection. Any liberal theology denying that, is not the position of the Christian Church down the centuries. It is not the faith that countless men and women have lived and died for. They knew that had the tomb not been empty everything that they affirmed would have been falsified. If Jesus' remains had still been in the tomb, only the extremes of Gnosticism could have believed that death had lost its sting and the grave had lost its victory.

The New Testament

How, though, can we be sure that the tomb was empty? Is the evidence of the texts not rather weak? No! The main textual evidence for the empty tomb is there in the Gospel narratives - the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the argument is sometimes put forward that the Resurrection accounts are all so different and therefore cannot be reliable. What do we say to this?

It is true that the Resurrection narratives are different in the four Gospels. But the basic difference lies in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, not in the accounts of how women (and others) found the tomb of Jesus empty. It is not at all strange, in any case, that the Gospel writers have different accounts of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. Different apostles most probably reported different appearances on different occasions. On the other hand, it is quite remarkable how similar the accounts of the empty tomb are in all four Gospels. There is an amazing unanimity. The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all agree on three things:

  1. that some women, including Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week and found the stone rolled away from the tomb's entrance;
  2. that a young man (or some angelic presence) explained what had happened, saying, "He is risen, he is not here";
  3. that the women were frightened and left the tomb.

When we look at John 20.1-2, we find that the fourth Gospel also fits in with this outline. The only difference there is that the angelic interpreter has not been mentioned - but two angels are mentioned in verses 11-13, when Mary is back at the tomb. It is quite clear that the Gospel writers were drawing on different sources and different accounts of the Resurrection, but these sources all agree over the empty tomb. Mark's Gospel is generally reckoned to be written in the 60s of the first century AD. But the information he (and the others) drew on was preached, remembered and probably recorded much earlier. As late as AD 56 when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians, we are told that many of the disciples who had seen Jesus after the Resurrection "are still alive" (1 Corinthians 15.6). It is unthinkable that any eyewitnesses would have allowed an empty tomb tradition to develop so uniformly if it was fiction.

Paul, however, as someone is bound to point out, does not mention the empty tomb. True, but he implies it. In 1 Corinthians 15.3 he speaks about the basic core of the Gospel:

"that Christ died ... that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day ... and that he appeared [to various disciples]."

This early "creed" thus focused on the burial as well as the death of Christ. As Professor F.F. Bruce says:

"Burial emphasizes the reality of the Resurrection which followed, as a divine act which reversed the act of men."

It points to the empty tomb. We have to say that what was raised was what was buried - i.e. the body of Jesus. Note, also, that Paul specifies that the Resurrection happened on the "third day". What could give rise to this specific date except the discovery of the empty tomb? Had there been no empty tomb but only visionary experiences, there would be no possible reason for such an emphasis on the "third day".

More importantly, this "basic core'" or "creed" of belief made it clear that Christians believed and must still believe both "that he was raised on the third day" and "that he appeared". The appearances by themselves are not the gospel or good news. Some of the early disciples thought they were just having a psychic experience (Luke 24.37). But together with the empty tomb - a resurrection that reversed the burial - the appearances pointed to the true nature of Jesus' Resurrection: it was a "bodily" resurrection. Certainly, in 1 Corinthians 15.51, Paul presupposes "bodily change": "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed." He may not explicitly have mentioned the empty tomb - instead he took it for granted, as any Jew would have done in talk of "resurrection". Unlike the Greeks, the Jews did not see a person as a soul entrapped in a body awaiting release at death. Rather, they saw a person more as "body and soul" together. The great hope then was for a resurrection that included the body.

There are two further questions we must ask over the empty tomb. First, a very simple question: Why did the Jewish authorities never produce the remains of Christ to silence the Christian movement once and for all, if in fact Christ's body was still in the tomb or had been removed? The only explanation which has maintained its credibility over the centuries is that there was no body for them to produce, because of Jesus' bodily Resurrection.

Secondly, if the Resurrection does not encompass the transformation of the physical body, what do we say in the final analysis about this material universe? What ultimately happens to this universe of space and time? Is it all just some great mistake that God tries to forget? That was the Gnostic heresy - to say "matter is bad or mistaken".

John Polkinghorne, formerly Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, then ordained and then President of Queens' College, Cambridge, says, "No! It is not a mistake." And the key is the Empty Tomb. "The Empty Tomb," he writes, "says to me that matter has a destiny, a transformed and transmuted destiny, no doubt, but a destiny nevertheless. The material creation is not a transient, even mistaken episode". That was Paul's view also. He saw Christ's Resurrection as the "first fruits". Ultimately, he said, the creative power of God will transform the whole material universe:

"The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8.21).

[The above is an edited extract from my book Church and State in the New Millennium (London, HarperCollins, 2000 pp 201-205) – DRJH]

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