Why the Empty Tomb?

There are many mighty odd details about the Resurrection of Christ, even if one completely accepts the post-Easter stories in the Gospels at face value. In the first place, the stories contradict each other; secondly, there’s something extremely peculiar about the risen Lord starting with some rather odd superpowers; and finally, there’s a strangely dream-like quality about the later accounts that is entirely different from the atmosphere in the earlier parts of the story.

We’ll get to all that in following posts. Let’s start off with an easy puzzle, and a question no one asks: Why the empty tomb? Specifically, since other accounts show that the risen Jesus could appear and disappear in a roomful of people at will behind closed doors (Luke 24:31, 39-43) why go to the trouble of rolling away the stone or having an angel do it (Matt. 28:2)? Why not just beam out?

The Gospels don’t say. But if he had “beamed out”, and popped up in front of the disciples, they would have had even more reason to consider him a ghost. Jesus had to eat a fish (Luke 24:42) and let himself be touched (Luke 24:39, John 20:27) to prove otherwise – but more on that later.

In any event, there would have been no reason to check on the sealed tomb until a lot of disturbing reports came in, and the empty tomb then would have proved a mystery, all right. But it might not have been enough to transform Jesus’ followers from pathetic losers skulking in the shadows, laughable dupes of a disgraced false prophet, to boldly proclaiming Christ and the Gospels.

It would have been even worse if Jesus yelled, or pounded on the rock to be let out. His survival would have been no-doubt deemed near-miraculous, but not necessarily supernatural. (Survivors of crucifixion were extremely rare, but it did happen. For instance, later, during the Jewish Revolt, Josephus records that one survived out of three men crucified who were taken down at his request.) And there’s no guarantee that the Roman soldiers, perfectionists that they were, wouldn’t have tried immediately to fix what would be seen as their mistake, either, before their superiors could find out.

No, both the wrappings had to be flung off (John 20:4-8) and the stone rolled away (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2) so that all the world could see that Jesus was no longer dead. He’d gotten up, stripped off his grave-cloths, and left. The tomb, after all, was no secret: there would be no need to identify the body. So grave-robbers wouldn’t go through the trouble of unwrapping the body then and there; such an act was not only unnecessary but would risk discovery by taking precious time (especially if rigor had set in) and a glance would show any observer just whose body it was. Plus, an unwrapped corpse would be generally harder to move.

The only reason to do so would be if the disciples were hoaxing a resurrection while the guards slept – precisely as the guards were ordered to say afterwards (Matt. 28:11-15). Yet that same story maintains that the governor was informed so they did not get in trouble with him; highly unlikely that the Romans would ever allow guards sleeping on duty in an occupied territory would ever be let off without punishment. The mere appearance of doing so would be an admission of collusion.

To top it off, angels not only helpfully explained what had happened to the women (Matt. 28:5-8, Mark 16:6-7, Luke 24:4-6), but even staged a light and sound show to impress those guards, too (Matt. 28:1-4). Not that any illusion was necessary or actually involved. For the confusing events of that Sunday morning must have rapidly spread the story all across Jerusalem, throwing doubt into many. That, like the other wonders that attended the Crucifixion (darkness at noon, earthquake, veil of the Temple splitting, saints rising from their tombs, etc. Matt. 27:51-54) merely set the stage for the next act: empowering the Apostles.

Having been told by Mary Magdalen and the women this wild tale that Christ had risen, the men would be primed and on edge for their meetings with the Savior they’d abandoned in his hour of need. Those encounters would quite naturally have totally freaked them out anyway. But there were other strange things about the resurrected Jesus that fit no model of survivor, ghost, reborn god, magician, vision, or hallucination, then or now. As we will see in the next post.

Posts on Holy Week and Easter: