Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Empty Tomb's Importance

One of N.T. Wright's main arguments for the resurrection of Jesus goes as follows: In the first century, resurrection meant resurrection, as in a dead person coming back to life in an embodied state. A person dies, is buried, and gets back up alive. That's resurrection! Resurrection in the ancient world was not the immortality of the soul--the notion that the soul escapes the body after death. If the early Christians had wanted to say that Jesus' soul lived on, they would have said that his soul lived on, not that he rose from the dead. For N.T. Wright, their idea that Jesus rose entails that his tomb was empty, for resurrection means that Jesus came out of his grave. And where there's smoke, there's fire: something had to give rise to the early Christians' belief in Jesus' resurrection, and N.T. Wright contends that it was its actual occurrence. Although N.T. Wright denies that the empty tomb is the sole piece of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, Christian apologists place a lot of emphasis on it.

But there are many scholars who deny the empty tomb. They believe that a hallucination or a vision gave rise to the early Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection. Gerd Luedemann goes down this track. So do some of the scholars who comment on my blog. A hallucination or a vision is not evidence for Jesus' resurrection because they have psychological explanations, plus they are highly subjective. The reason that Christian apologists lean so heavily on the empty tomb is that they consider it to be more objective, in the sense that it's outside of the mind of the early Christians: something had to lead to that tomb being empty. Even a lot of skeptics shy away from the old explanation that Jesus went into a coma and came out of it while he was in the tomb. And Christian apologists dismiss the idea that the disciples stole Jesus' body, for why would they die for a lie? According to apologists, the only explanation for the empty tomb was Jesus' resurrection.

And how do we know that the tomb was empty? For one, the early Christians proclaimed their belief that Jesus rose from the dead, and something convinced them of that. A vision or a hallucination would tell them that Jesus was a ghost, but that does not constitute resurrection. An empty tomb, however, would lead them to phrase Jesus' survival of death in that way. And, second, Christianity thrived in the first century. Would it have done so, if its enemies could've just pointed out Jesus' tomb? "He's in there!," they could have said. "What's all this talk about his resurrection?" But they didn't say that. They couldn't say that, since the tomb was empty. The Gospel of Matthew refers to one Pharisaic explanation: Jesus' disciples stole the body while the Roman soldiers were asleep (Matthew 28:13). Even that acknowledged that the tomb was empty.

This sets the stage for a post that I will write soon. It will concern I Corinthians 15.

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