An Empty Tomb?

It’s forty years since I left theological college to be ordained as a Church of England Priest. But I very clearly remember one essay which the college principal asked me to write in my second year. ‘If some bones were found in a rock tomb in Palestine and they were proved absolutely to be the bones of Jesus, would it make any difference to your faith?’

I struggled with that essay because it was the first time that I’d been faced with the possibility that there might not after all have been an empty tomb on the first Easter morning. I wish I’d kept a copy, but all I have to go on is my memories and the way my faith has developed over the years – and continues to develop.

I remember tackling the subject by looking at the different versions of what happened in the New Testament. The stories vary quite a lot when you read them carefully, and sometimes contradict one another. But the picture seems to be something like this:

In the early hours of the Sunday morning after the crucifixion the tomb was found to be empty and the grave-clothes were lying in a strange shape.

Jesus then appeared to his disciples on and off for about five and a half weeks – often when they were least expecting him. After that he didn’t appear to them any more. His disciples assumed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that his new, resurrection body was the same as his old flesh-and-blood body. But it wasn’t quite the same – because after his resurrection Jesus could appear and disappear, and pass through locked doors. His last appearance was, they believed, the occasion when he ascended into the clouds.

Many Christians today believe all of that. But for other people there are a number of difficulties in squaring the Bible stories with modern scientific knowledge. For instance – if it was the same human body of flesh and blood which rose from the tomb, how could it pass through locked doors? And if that same body ascended into heaven, where is that particular collection of atoms now? Is it somewhere in space?

Look at it another way. Jesus died at 3.00pm on Friday. If the tomb was found to be empty at dawn on Sunday, that’s roughly 40 hours. We know that when a human body dies, the cells, particularly the brain cells, deteriorate very quickly and after a very short period of time – let alone 40 hours – the body is useless. It just cannot be resuscitated.

Now some Christians may say: ‘God is all powerful – he can do anything – he could perform the miracle.’

But if we believe that Jesus was really a human being in every sense just as we are – not just God pretending to be human – then surely he was fully human in death as well as in life. And his physical body would deteriorate as surely as ours will when we die.

So what’s the answer? In all honesty I think we have to say that we cannot be sure. And it’s no use saying that just because it’s in the Bible it has to be true.

But I think we can turn to St Paul for some help in another part of the New Testament – his first letter to the Corinthians. This letter was, in fact, written earlier than any of the four gospels and it’s Paul’s own reflection on the resurrection. It’s in chapter 15 that Paul refers to Jesus as ‘’the first-fruits of the resurrection of the dead’. He sets the pattern – as it is for Christ, so it will be for all people. But does that mean it will be a physical, flesh and blood resurrection for us? ‘A senseless question!’ says Paul. For him the resurrection body is something completely new – not the resuscitation of a corpse.

He compares it to sowing seeds. ‘What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory. Sown in weakness, it is raised in power. Sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.’

Raised as a spiritual body. Paul is saying that what the disciples saw was not the old, physical body of Jesus but the new, resurrection body which was of a completely different nature.

This is what led me to my conclusion in that essay I had to write at college. It really wouldn’t matter if the bones of Jesus were found. The resurrection wasn’t a corpse coming back to life, but a new life, unlimited by time and space. And that’s what it will be like for us too.

I know that for atheists and others that may sound just as fantastic and unbelievable as the various accounts in the Bible. But it works for me. And I’m pretty sure it worked for the early Christians as well.

Those first disciples saw or experienced something. There’s no other way of explaining how a frightened bunch of disillusioned men and women, who’d seen their leader executed on a cross, were totally transformed in a very short space of time.

If nothing had happened that first Easter Day then the Jesus movement would just have been one more religious cult – one of many at the time – and it would have died out very quickly.

But it didn’t. The Church grew and grew – and in many parts of the world it goes on growing. The Church isn’t perfect – never will be in this life! It’s made mistakes. It’s got a lot wrong. But still there are millions upon millions of people in this world who put their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their faith is not in one historical event that happened almost 2000 years ago. Their faith is not determined by whether or not the tomb was empty, nor even by what appears in the pages of that unique collection of all-too-human documents which we call the Bible.

Authentic Christian faith in the 21st century is about experiencing a new, changed life right now. God’s gift of new life each new day. Belief in resurrection life is, quite simply, a blinding realisation that God wants us to share in the full and complete life which is his gift and his purpose for every human being.

St Paul said that if there is no resurrection then it’s all pointless. I’d go further and say that true resurrection is to be found in our own lives day by day, if only we will let God work through us, bringing new life – not only for us – but for the whole world.

1 Response to “An Empty Tomb?”


  1. 1 josie November 8, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    yyyeeessss!


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