Why the Empty Tomb Matters

Reverend Francis RitchieBible6 Comments

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.

  • This is one of the only times in my life when reading the comments of a thoughtful blog was as enjoyable as reading the blog itself.

    commendable, brothers & sisters!

  • Almost a mustard seed

    I’m a Christian (at least I hope I am) who struggles to believe the idea of a physical resurrection. Regardless of whether it’s more meaningful/inspiring/etc I can’t help but wonder ‘well yes but is it actually true?’.

    I wonder if you believe in a literal ascension of Christ? Do you believe that a bodily Christ literally rose up into the sky to a literal physical place called Heaven to sit on a literal throne next to God’s own throne? Do you think Christ still exists up there beyond the dome of the sky in bodily form? Even if you believe Christ rose bodily I suspect you don’t think he’s still existing bodily up in Heaven. As far as I know Christians all stopped taking the ascension as a literal story a long time ago once we realised that there was no literal realm up beyond the sky where a physical body could ascend to.

    All of us find it hard to believe implausible things, and some of us find a literal resurrection as hard to believe as a literal ascension.

    • Thanks for your comment. Hearing your sentiment I feel that a conversation around this would better be had over a coffee rather than the impersonal nature of a blog 🙂 It’s hard to do justice to such question and conversations in text form. I hear what you’re saying and I totally get it.

      On the ascension, heaven etc, I believe there’s a lot more to it than is often discussed. It relates to what we mean when we use the words ‘body’ or ‘bodily.’ Talking about an empty tomb and a tangible presence does not mean that I believe Jesus was exactly the same as what he was prior to his death.

      NT Wright’s translation of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 15 relating to the resurrection body are instrumental here (The New Testament for Everyone). So yes, I do believe in a literal ascension. The question is ‘an ascension of what?’ ie what was the nature of the risen Christ? That’s the bigger question because it’s in the answer to that question that we find the relationship between the resurrection, the ascension and the reign of Christ in ‘heaven.’

      All that said, yes, it is implausible in light of the current and dominant materialistic understanding of the world. It’s implausibility is the point. These things don’t just happen.

      If you live in New Zealand, I’d be up for a coffee sometime. The internet can be a frustrating place to discuss such things without the usual depth that face to face conversation can have – including the laughs and smiles 🙂

    • mustard

      A coffee would be much nicer I agree. I know that the impersonality of the internet makes it a haven for ‘trolls’ but it’s also a nice ‘safe space’ for sincere doubters and questioners as well.

      You say: “The question is ‘an ascension of what?’ ie what was the nature of the risen Christ?”

      Jesus said that at the resurrection people would be like angels (Mt 22:30). Now even though all through the Bible angels pop up in visible form, I think it’s pretty standard to think that angels are essentially spiritual beings. Hence the (disappointing) ‘no heavenly nookie’ teaching from Jesus.

      Maybe NT Wright is on to something with his idea that there is a state of being that is beyond both physical and spiritual but it seems to be a very vague, weasel-y idea and I’m not sure how much value it adds.

      Lastly, to your original point about viewing resurrection as being purely ‘spiritual’. I see how that can lead to escapist theology. But remember it was escapist theology that gave hope and courage to the slaves of the American south. All those ‘I will fly away to glory’ type gospel songs are part of our spiritual tradition as well.

      Anyway, I have no desire to start an unsatisfying internet debate which will invariably boil down to how particular words get defined. I’m well aware of the limits of what anyone actually knows about any of this stuff, and I realise that at some point for all of us it’s simply a matter of faith.

      Grace and peace friend. Might take you up on that coffee someday!

    • I love your questioning and it’s great to see anyone wrestling with it all. The moment we dismiss questions and doubts is the moment we lose some of the beauty in the mess of this whole thing.

      If you’re ever keen for that coffee, just get in touch 🙂

    • Oh, and I forgot to respond to your very first statement – struggling with this stuff as you are says to me that you very definitely are a Christian.