The Empty Tomb: A Rhetorical Dead End

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).


After attending an AA meeting last night, I had a moment to snoop around the Presbyterian Church in which it took place. I snuck into a dimly lit cathedral, accented with the glow of elaborate, stained glass windows, equipped with massive organ pipes and a sacred alter, upon which a golden cross and communion plates glistened in the dark. It was almost breathtaking. For all my disbelief, I had to admire the majesty of the atmosphere which now enveloped me. I even stepped up to the podium, flipped on the overhead light, and read from Romans–specifically chapter 6 in which Paul describes the theological significance of baptism. I almost fancied myself a preacher in that moment. The irony was palpable.

I couldn’t help but look out upon the empty pews and imagine them filled with believing inquisitors. What might they make of my atheism? What challenges might they pose? Almost immediately, my mind went to the empty tomb. For reasons that baffle me, this seems to be the stock argument of preference among believers in the resurrection of Christ. And that, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:17, is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Even apologist Lee Strobel expressed this on his syndicated television show, Faith Under Fire, declaring that, for Christianity, “everything hinges on the resurrection.”

So, what does an atheist such as myself make of that empty tomb? How else can it be explained except for the blunt fact of Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead? And how am I supposed to get through this blog without snickering incessantly as I demolish this argument from every angle? I’ll just pop a benzo, I suppose. No, wait, we burnt that bridge, didn’t we? Fine. I’ll settle for cheap booze. Okay, fuck it. Nicotine. There, is everybody happy? Sheesh, leave me something with which to quell my raging hilarity.

For starters, appeals to the empty tomb are an exercise in circular reasoning. It’s tantamount to suggesting that we can be certain of the adventures of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow given the evidence of the yellow brick road. Wait, what? What yellow brick road? It’s part of the fiction! We can’t assume the historicity of the narrative setting any more than we can assume the veracity of the narrative action. So, we’re already knee deep in fallacious argumentation. Ruh-roh.

But, wait, it gets worse.

The story of Joseph of Arimathea and the rich man’s tomb is likely a literary construct to begin with, drawing upon a Midrashic interpretation of Isaiah 53:9: “His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death.” Understood within its historical context, Isaiah 53 refers to the quintessential Israelite captive to Babylon and his eventual vindication at the hands of Persian intercessors–not a prophetic charade about Jesus some 500+ years later! Though the NT writers were all too happy to illicitly prooftext the OT for narrative ingredients that would flesh out their story. Shame on them.

Furthermore, Paul never mentions any “empty tomb” in his letters, which serve as the earliest testimony to Christian preaching. Quite a critical detail for one such as Paul to omit. We first encounter the story some 15-20 years later in Mark’s gospel, after which more than enough time had ensued for literary embellishment. Ouch.

But, wait, it gets even worse.

The whole notion of a “missing body” is demonstrably a fictive element employed by Mark, cut from the same cloth as contemporary apotheosis narratives in which the body of a hero or demigod goes missing, suggesting that some extraordinary miracle has taken place, i.e. the body has either been raised from the dead or raptured up to heaven to be among the gods. A few examples:

“…when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.”
(Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4:38:3-5)

“Romulus, when he vanished, left neither the least part of his body, nor any remnant of his clothes to be seen… the senators suffered them not to search, or busy themselves about the matter, but commanded them to honour and worship Romulus as one taken up to the gods.”
(Plutarch, Romulus, Book 2, 27)

“A severe battle took place not far from Lavinium and many were slain on both sides, but when night came on the armies separated; and when the body of Aeneas was nowhere to be seen, some concluded that it had been translated to the gods…”
(Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1:64:4-5; translation by Ernest Cary).

Bottom line: appeals to the empty tomb are empty of cogency. The whole thing reeks of a syncretistic fusion of Hellenistic and Midrashic fiction. And if there was one, Paul never makes mention of it, which is pretty damning. But, hey, let’s keep it circulating just for my amusement. Circular arguments work because circular arguments work because circular arguments work because circular arguments work because circular arguments work because circular arguments work…

I need a goddamn cigarette.


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