He Is Not Here
Marcus Borg, noted liberal scholar and a central figure in Historical Jesus research, once asked, “Did something utterly remarkable happen to the corpse of Jesus so that the tomb was empty? And how much does that matter?” He contended that the “empty tomb and whatever happened to the corpse of Jesus [is] ultimately irrelevant to the truth of Easter.” Borg maintained that the eyewitness accounts were “the product of developing tradition” and were “powerfully true metaphorical narratives.” He argued that an empty tomb simply does not matter and that “the truth of Easter... [is] not at stake in this issue.”
The foundational question for believers as they approach an issue such as this must be, “What does the Bible say?” Borg and others within the Historical Jesus movement do not lack for confidence in their own interpretations. Rather, they lack trust in Scripture’s sufficiency and call it rationality. The Christian faith ought to be a rational faith. However, one ought to be aware of one’s own limitations, hold fast to faith, and be humble as they approach the word of God.
So, what does the Bible say regarding the Resurrection? Is it central to the Christian faith? In 1 Corinthians 6:14, Paul wrote, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by His power.” The term for raised, ἐγείρειν, means “to arouse from the sleep of death; to recall the dead to life.” Therefore, according to Paul, God recalled Jesus Christ back to life, though He had died. It is a variation of the same word which is used in Romans 6:4-5, where Paul wrote, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” This “newness of life” is the blessed state of eternality. I do believe Borg made a good argument in distinguishing between resuscitation and resurrection. Jesus was not merely resuscitated, only to die again. Rather, He was resurrected. He was raised to eternal life, the firstborn of humanity into this “newness of life.” In Him, all who believe will be united in a resurrection like His.
This is an essential tenet of the Christian faith. I must wholeheartedly disagree that an empty tomb is an irrelevant concept; as would Paul. In fact, according to his own writing, Paul would place such an issue as one “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Cor 15:1-4)
The argument for a story that progressively developed over time into some metaphorical narrative, in my own estimation, is null and void when compared with the Scriptures. Not only did Paul argue for the reality of a physical resurrection of Jesus, but he also argued for its centrality to the Christian faith. Paul continued:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Cor 15:12-17)
Paul did not argue that the empty tomb was irrelevant. Rather, he argued that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and [our] faith is in vain.” He further argued that if Christ had not been raised, then we are ultimately still under the condemnation of sin. Indeed, if Christ has not been raised, we are a people to be most pitied. Yet, despite what Borg and others may claim, the Scriptures attest that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead... For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” (1 Cor 15:20-21)
Throughout history, many have put forth arguments against a physical resurrection of Jesus. For the true believer, however, we must foundationally ask, “What does the Bible say?” regarding any argument presented on such matters. If we trust the authority, sufficiency, and inerrancy of the Scriptures—or rather their Divine Author—then we must indeed contend that the Resurrection is factual and is central to the Christian faith.
Heath Walton is a pastor at Sargent Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia. God willing, he will
finish his M.Div. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in December 2018. He occasionally blogs at thehistoricalbaptist.wordpress.com