I’ve had a train of thought about the empty tomb and risen Jesus on my mind recently. I’m not sure why. Maybe it has been sparked by the ISIS desire to destroy in order to usher in some sort of bloody (in the literal and figurative sense of that word) end-times battle. I don’t know, but the thought has been giving me a renewed appreciation for the beauty of life…. not that I need it to appreciate life, but it adds some significant colour where the rubbish of our world sometimes threatens to paint it black.
The Nicene Creed, a statement that unites many who follow Jesus and is one of the foundational expressions of the story at the heart of Christianity, says this about Jesus:
‘[He] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead [or ‘into hell’]. On the third day he rose again…’
There are lots of theories around how we could understand the term ‘he rose again’ but it seems clear to me that the argument being made in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is that the tomb was empty of a physical body and that the Jesus who appeared to the disciples was an actual, tangible person.
Some argue, often using Paul’s seeming differentiation between a physical resurrection and a spiritual resurrection in chapter 15 of his letter to the church in Corinth, that what happened was not a physical resurrection of the Jesus who died on the cross, but some other sort of ‘spiritual’ reality that the disciples needed to process. How this case is made differs between various camps of thought, but what is being denied is a bodily resurrection of Jesus.
I don’t want to spend time making a watertight case to convince anyone of a physical resurrection (see NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God for a strong case), or make an apologetics case for Paul’s ‘spiritual body’ of 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 being a greater realisation and reality of what we understand commonly as both physical AND spiritual, with his understanding of ‘resurrection’ being something that is a unity of those two things that is better than the sum of the parts. Rather, I want to stress the importance of that empty tomb and a physically risen Christ as central to the Christian faith, and what message it sends us.
In the pursuit of a seemingly more ‘rational’ faith where ‘rational’ is determined by a form of secular enlightenment, a number of wonderful Christian thinkers have minimized and/or dismissed the empty tomb and the encounters with Jesus that close out the gospels. They have explained these things in other ways. In so doing they have elevated a ‘spiritual’ reality that negates a ‘physical’ understanding of what took place.
I would argue that though there are different forms of the case being made, seeking to explain away the empty tomb falls into the trap of Gnosticism and, though it may look very different, the same trap as those who think ‘salvation’ elevates the ‘spirit’ and makes the goal about going to heaven when we die, while negating our present reality.
You see, the empty tomb, as irrational as it may appear to a 21st century Western mind (and it should since the whole point is that people don’t just rise from the dead and appear mysteriously to large numbers of people after they have died… Jesus wasn’t simply resuscitated, his resurrection was unique), says some very important things that a reduction to a form of Gnostic, spiritual reality does not say. It says that all that we can touch, see, taste, hear, and smell, matters. The empty tomb says that matter matters.
All the senses were engaged in the risen Jesus’ appearance to his disciples. Thomas touched his wounds. They saw him, they ate with him, they spoke with him. Every way we engage in physical reality had a place and in the retelling of the resurrection, the redemption of matter became front and centre in the visible desire of God. In the words of the Psalmist, the empty tomb and appearances of Jesus tell us quite intimately, that God is interested in us seeing ‘the goodness of God in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27:13).
Because of this we know that the God who formed all things is deeply and intimately involved in redeeming all that he created; all that is natural and physical. Revelation 21 and 22 are not a negation of Genesis 1 and 2; they are the full realisation of what began at creation and what God saw as ‘good.’ The end is the fullest expression of God’s original intent and what started in the beginning.
When we discard the empty tomb in favour of some sort of spiritual case for this historical event that feels more subjectively rational and therefore more comfortable, we deny the message inherent in that event; that our physical reality matters. We also do the same if we’re focused on getting souls saved for some sort of ethereal heaven. When we do that, we negate the power of that empty tomb. There’s a slight irony in the ‘liberal’ denial of the resurrection making the same Gnostic mistake as the ‘fundamentalists’ (though I am cautious of such simplistic categories… so don’t read too much into them) who are most interested in what happens when we die and a form of escapism. I wouldn’t deny that either are ‘Christian,’ but I do see things differently from both. That said, I have also learned much from both. Each has enriched my own faith.
By affirming an empty tomb and a Jesus who was tangibly present in the resurrection, we affirm that how we live in the here and now matters, and that there is hope even when things feel hopeless. It says that when we witness the darkest that humanity and the world have to offer (personally I think here of trafficking and slavery, and groups like ISIS) that it’s not the end or the way that it will always be. The empty tomb says that God is active in the struggle against that which is destructive to our humanity and this physical reality, and that anything that has death at its heart will have an end. It’s the struggle we’re invited to participate in as we give glimpses of a redeemed reality. We work to echo the message of the resurrection. We live to act and speak in a way that says that creation and each other matter, and that God, shown to us in Jesus, is present with us in it all.
There is another important note to be added to this. The risen Jesus still carried his wounds. Those wounds acted as proof to his disciples that he was the man that they knew; the one who had died. His wounds were something that could be touched. Those wounds tell us that our own experience of pain in this life of tangible realities can be and should be acknowledged. We should not seek to fob off the reality of pain and the reality of the wounds we and others carry. Holding up some sort of Gnostic, ethereal reality runs the risk of minimising what we experience here and now. The empty tomb and the risen Jesus contrasts with that and says that it all can and should be recognised, but that the pain and the wounds are not the end of the story.
Traditionally this would be an Easter contemplation, but in this time of Advent we look both backwards and forwards towards salvation. As we look back to the story of the birth of Jesus we do so looking through the lens of the ascension, the resurrection, the cross, and his life, and in so doing we see the God who declared his interest in his creation. As we look forward we do so through the lens of the resurrection, the cross, his life, and his birth. Looking both ways we see the need for a saviour and we also see that saviour; the one who is intensely interested in all that we can touch, see, taste, smell, and hear.