Is it possible that there was no empty tomb?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s reply to the Corinthians on the resurrection would have been much stronger if he could have appealed to witnesses to the empty tomb, as he had appealed to witnesses for postmortem appearances. Indeed, modern apologists often ask skeptics to explain the empty tomb, because they think it contributes to the case for the resurrection. Instead, Paul’s quoted formula relies on an appeal to scripture as the basis for knowing that Jesus has been raised, the same appeal to scripture used to justify the idea that Jesus’s death was “for our sins”. That suggests that this formula indicates theological understanding, not personal knowledge of an empty tomb as a basis for believing that Jesus had been raised (This is the argument, as I understand it, that Bart Ehrman makes for why he now doesn’t believe in the empty tomb, from his book How Jesus Became God).

This seems to be evidence that raises the probability that Paul did not cite the empty tomb in his argument because that tradition arose, at the earliest, between the writing of his letters, and the writing of the gospels. We clearly see the theme of Jesus’s post-resurrection physicality expanding as we move from Mark (no original discussion of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances) to Matthew (the women are told that Jesus isn’t in the tomb anymore, and they touch his feet when he appears) to Luke (first claim that any of the disciples personally looked and saw the tomb was empty, Jesus makes an argument to the disciples that he isn’t a spirit, Jesus eats a piece of fish) to John (More or less the same as Luke, plus an extra appearance to allow Thomas to personally touch his wounds).

This expansion shows that there was a growing need to convince people that the resurrection was more than a ghostly vision, and claims of the empty tomb would fit in with that. That provides a motive for Jesus’s later followers to claim that there had been an empty tomb even if there hadn’t been. The “who would die for a lie” response would not seem to apply since they would not have been killed for their lie about the tomb, but what they thought was the truth of Jesus’s vindication as messiah. The lie about the tomb would have been merely a useful fiction in the service of a worthy cause.

How would you answer this argument?

There were few witnesses to the empty tomb, and even THEY initially thought, “they have taken the Lord and we don’t know where they have laid him.” [John 20:13]

The problem with the empty tomb is that, even had there been many witnesses, it’s hard to prove how it GOT empty. Even the first witnesses thought it was the work of men, and it is impossible to prove otherwise. Thus, the tomb itself is not a convincing piece of evidence.

If you show through reason why the tomb MUST be empty, it is more powerful. The resurrected Lord is better evidence of an empty tomb than the empty tomb itself.

Without the empty tomb, it becomes more difficult to answer the alternative that the disciples had some kind of visionary experience that they misinterpreted as Jesus having been raised to God’s right hand. We just can’t tell what the nature of the experience(s) might have been. The first description of them comes from Matthew, and it does not inspire confidence (Jesus appears to the women merely to repeat the message they got from the angel, then to the men, and the message he gives to the men almost certainly didn’t happen because nowhere in the Bible do we find anyone baptized using the baptismal formula put in the mouth of Jesus by Matthew).

Exactly. Paul could’ve said, “Check the empty tomb,” but an empty tomb does not prove a resurrection. It proves that the body isn’t there, but not what happened to it. Barring a personal encounter, eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord are the strongest pieces of evidence he could possibly offer.

A thought about the development of the resurrection in the Gospels–from Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and then John–as you traced it. You could alternatively argue (as I would) that the resurrection becomes more and more emphatic and explicit in the gospel accounts because the apostolic generation begins to pass, at the same time that the evangelical audience begins to substantially change, and not because physical resurrection is a later, fictive invention of second-wave Christian evangelists.

As regards the OP question.

If there were no empty tomb, there must have been a dead LORD in the tomb. And if that were the case, there would be no Gospel, much less a message that so many would later die for.

The Evangelists all mention the empty tomb. The epistolary materials do not, because they were directed to peoples outside of Israel; no one would walk hundreds of miles to see an empty tomb.

Once the living LORD had come and gone, the tomb would not in itself prove anything. But the Gospel itself is anchored to the empty tomb.


But the empty tomb does not help us answer this objection. If they could have had a (questionable) visionary experience of Our Lord, then the could have had an (equally questionable) visionary experience of an empty tomb.

I fail to see how the tomb itself, short of modern-day secure surveillance camera recordings, could offer any proof.

It would be MUCH more difficult to pull off a ruse of a resurrected (living) Jesus than to fake an empty tomb. I can think of several plausible ways to fake the empty tomb with the technology available at the time (the most plausible is to misrepresent the location of the actual tomb, as most people probably would not have known the true location). I cannot think of how to misrepresent the person of the risen Lord (using the technology of the age) unless Jesus had a twin or they could find a person with an amazing resemblance (considering that Jesus was hardly a reclusive hermit, and his face was known to many in Jerusalem).

The fact that the empty tomb (easily faked) was not relied upon should be significant.

But you have it backward, no one died because of or for an empty tomb.

The apostles did not preach about an empty tomb either.

They preached about a living Jesus whom was killed on the cross and resurrected from the dead.

This is what they died for.

St. Paul did not know nor met Jesus when HE was alive. He encoutered HIM on the road to Damascus while he was bent on persecuting the first Christians. St. Paul did not visit the “empty tomb” or at least he deemed writing about it irrelevant.
However he preached about the resurrected Jesus all over the middle east and in Rome where he eventually suffered his martirdoom.

What I’m hearing from you and most others is that I could be completely right, and it wouldn’t change anything substantive for you. If the gospels had never mentioned an empty tomb at all, nothing would be any different. Is that accurate?

The Gospels DO mention an empty tomb, and that’s nice. But the early Christians (who were, at that time, fully Jewish) only learned of the empty tomb because they went to properly prepare the body for burial, as the preparations had been postponed because of the oncoming Sabbath (which we think also corresponded to Passover). Had the timing been different by even a day, nobody would have known about the empty tomb. And it would not have mattered.

So, yes, if we never knew, it would not matter today, any more than it would have mattered 2000 years ago (we would presume an empty tomb without eyewitness testimony, just as we do for Mary’s last resting place). It’s cool to have recorded eyewitness testimony, but not essential.

I personally would not bother to answer the argument.

The veracity of the empty tomb rests upon belief that God spoke to Man, that Scripture in some way communicates that speech, and that the Scriptures faithfully transmit moral truths in the way of allegories, parables, and actual recitations of historical events.

Whether we are speaking with a supposedly Christian skeptic who insists on using inappropriate German biblical dissection methods or a non-Christian who at best considers the Bible mythical or legendary or artistic, beginning a discussion on the empty tomb is folly.

I would anticipate a few days of discussion on the nature of revelation working towards the Bible before even considering any particular Biblical passage for discussion.


In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul appeals to the WITNESSES who saw him RISEN. HE appeared to Cephas, 500 brethren MOST OF WHOM ARE STILL ALIVE, to James, ALL the apostles, then LAST to one “untimely born” Paul himself.

Why look to the empty tomb? It was not an empty tomb that motivated these people, it was the personal interaction with the risen that cemented their commitment to the resurrection. Not an empty tomb.

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