The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Non-Existent Tomb

Now if the events surrounding the discovery of the empty tomb are historically suspect, how confident of we of this central "fact" of the fundamentalists: that there was actually an empty tomb? The answer is a resounding "No." Why is this so?

The considerations above all show that the story of the empty tomb was a secondary development in the early Christian apologetics for the resurrection of Jesus. It was closely connected to the story of the burial of Jesus, which historicity is also doubtful.

The Earliest Testimonies

It should be remembered that all four gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem. Mark, the earliest gospel, could, at the earliest, be written around 70 AD or forty years after the death of Jesus. In the cases of Matthew, Luke and John, they were written at least twenty years after this, or sixty years after the events they purport to describe. The earliest written sources we have are the epistles of Paul which were all written in the sixth and early seventh decades of the first century. We find Paul's account of Jesus' resurrection in his first epistle to the Corinthians:

I Corinthians 15:3-8
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Note in the above passage that there is no mention of an empty tomb nor of its discovery by the women. If the discovery of the empty tomb was the essential proof of Jesus' resurrection, Paul's silence in I Corinthians is inexplicable. As the whole of the fifteenth chapter of this epistle to the Corinthians was a vigorous attempt by Paul to prove to some doubting Thomases there of the reality of the resurrection. For Paul himself had said in the same letter:

I Corinthians 15:14
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

The appearance of angels to the women announcing the risen Christ would have been especially convincing. Then why didn't Paul say anything about the empty tomb? [1] We are further confronted with the conspicuous absence of the mention of the empty tomb in two discourses (presumably primitive material) in the Acts of the Apostles. The two discourses given here relates directly to the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus, one is given as the sermon of Peter, the other of Paul:

Acts 2:22-24,31-32
[Peter's Sermon]
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know - this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it...[David] foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

Acts 13:28-31
[Paul's Sermon]
Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem...who are now his witnesses to the people.

Note again here there are mentions of appearances and uncorrupted flesh, but not of any empty tomb and discovery by the women. One would expect the sermons such as the above to include a sentence regarding this. Yet, like the passage from Paul's epistle, these sermons are silent regarding the empty tomb. Thus, in all three early testimonies we find no mention of the empty tomb. The balance of evidence strongly suggest that the earliest testimonies of Jesus' resurrection were based on the appearances of the risen prophet not on the empty tomb. [2]

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The Location of the Tomb was Already Unknown to the Earliest Communities

As we saw earlier, the legend of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus in his tomb was a late development in the myth. As we saw there the body was probably taken by unknow Jews hostiles to Jesus. Paul's sermon above (Acts 13:28-31) clearly showed that "they" who charged him were also "they" who buried him. [3]

It seems very likely that none of Jesus' disciples were witnesses to the events following his arrest. [a] This is firmly supported by the fact that it is in these episodes that the evangelists had to rely on Old Testament passages to reconstruct the events as they thought it might have happened during the crucifixion. Guignebert's conclusion is accurate:

The truth is that we do not know and in all probability the disciples knew no better where the body of Jesus had been laid after it was removed from the cross, probably by the executioners. It is more likely to have been cast in the pit for the executed than laid in a new tomb. [4]

This conclusion has been, albeit reluctantly, accepted by non-fundamentalist theologians. Thus Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1994) has this to say about the empty tombs and the events surrounding it:

There is a strong probability that the story of Joseph of Arimathea was developed to cover the apostles’ pain at the memory of Jesus’ having no one to claim his body and of his death as a common criminal. His body was probably dumped unceremoniously into a common grave, the location of which has never been known-then or now. This fragment in Paul’s sermon in Acts thus rings with startling accuracy...the empty tomb tradition does not appear to be part of the primitive kerygma. [5]

We know for sure that not even the earliest community knew where the tomb was. For surely if they had known where the tomb was, the early believers would have venerated the place. As Joachim Jeremais noted:

The world of sacred tombs was a real element of the environment in which the earliest communities lived. It is inconceivable that, living in this world, it could have allowed the tomb of Jesus to be forgotten. That is all the more the case since for it the one who had lain in the tomb was more than one of those just men, martyrs and prophet.[6]

The gospel accounts were all written after the destruction of Jerusalem when it was no longer possible to ascertain whether there was such an empty tomb or not. The actual location of the tomb, if it ever existed, is no longer known. All these considerations had forced theologians, such as C.J. Cadoux, to rationally (perhaps remorsefully) conclude:

it is impossible to be sure who, if anyone, actually saw an empty tomb [7]

Some fundamentalist apologists have tried to use this absence of evidence to further their irrationalist course. They claimed that the very fact that no empty tomb was venerated during the first century CE is proof that the tomb was empty. Such a statement is made by Robert Gundry in the book on the debate between Gerd Ludemann and William Lane Craig on the reality of the resurrection:

(The early Christians) did not venerate it precisely because it was empty. Tombs as such were not venerated. It was the tombs containing remains of the deceased that was venerated.[8]

This argument, of course, is extremely weak. As Joachim Jeremias mentioned above, the people of that time would certainly have venerated the place where Jesus rose from the dead. Even today, the two (see the section below) tombs of Jesus are visited and venerated by pilgrims to the holy land. Thus had there been an empty tomb it would most certainly have been venerated as the place where Jesus had risen.

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The Two Tombs of Jesus

At present there are two locations in Jerusalem that are being claimed by believers to be the actual burial site of Jesus.

Protestant pilgrims favour the tomb discovered at the “Gordon Calvary”-so named after the nineteenth century British general Charles Gordon who discovered the site. On the site, situated north of the sixteenth century Turkish built wall of the city, sat a small hill. The hill has two caves, which viewed from a distance, looked like a skull. However, there is not a shred of evidence in favour of this site as the actual burial site of Jesus. In fact, the tomb claimed to be the actual tomb in which Jesus was laid, have been shown conclusively by experts to be of a later origin. [8]

The other location, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was "discovered" by Bishop Marcarius of Jerusalem during the time of Constantine in AD326 as a result of "divine revelation". Of course with such an inspiration there was no reason for the discoverer to justify the choice of location. [b] In short, no weight can be given to this site allocated by tradition. It certainly was not known before the fourth century. [9]

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The Development of the Legend

With a bit of informed speculation we can even sketch out the development of the legend of the empty tomb:
  • The Jews who had a hand in the crucifixion of Jesus, took charge of disposing of his body.
  • The disciples were no longer around as they fled during his arrest. The earliest traditions seems to connect Jesus' appearances in Galilee. This means that the disciples must have fled back to their home towns upon Jesus' arrest.
  • It should also be kept in mind that Palestinian Jews, as Jesus' original followers were, had no conception of the continuance of the life of the soul without the revival of the body, which was a Greek concept. The disciples of Jesus would have regarded the appearances of Jesus as proof that the tomb was empty. [10] In other words they did not need to even see the tomb, to insist it was empty.
  • The myth developed with the story of Joseph of Arimathea being the one who buried him and with the women witnessing the empty tomb.
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a.Again Mark 14:50 (Then everyone deserted him and fled) comes to mind. There were no eyewitness because all his followers ran away after he was arrested.
b.The Empress Helena, upon being informed of the discovery, duly found at the site a chip from the original cross, the crown of thorns and the lance which pierced Jesus’ side!


1.Guignebert, Jesus: p500
Helms, Gospel Fictions: p130
2.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p166
Guignebert, Jesus: p499-500
3.Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: p23-24
4.Guignebert, Jesus: p500
5.Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality: p225
6.quoted in Ludeman, What Really Happened to Jesus: p139
7.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p166
8.Copan & Tacelli (ed): Jesus Resurrection, fact or figment: p114
8.Millard, Discoveries From the Time of Jesus: p126-127
9.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p394
Guignebert, Jesus: p493
Nineham, Saint Mark: p422
Wilson, Jesus: A Life: p221
10.Ibid: p166

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