John Richardson affirms the empty tomb as both a necessary testimony and a sufficient proof
For Augustine of Hippo, one of the great difficulties in the way of belief in the Trinity was the apparent lack of any point of comparison in human experience. Thus in De Trinitate he wrote:
” … we can love our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, although we have never seen anyone so rise again; but we cannot in the same way love, through believing, the Trinity which we do not see and the like of which we have never seen. We know what death and life are, because we are alive and we have seen and experienced the death and the dying of others. To rise again, then, is simply to return to life. (VIII.v)”
Augustine came to his own conclusions about where we might find a parallel to the Trinity in everyday life, but in the process did he not “mis-speak” himself about the resurrection? No doubt in a more reflective moment he would have expressed it otherwise, but surely to be resurrected is not “simply to return to life”?
Specifically, resurrection is not a return since it involves a `passing beyond’? to which there is a necessarily irreversible element. Since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor the perishable the imperishable” it follows that “this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality”. Resurrection is not cyclic but linear.
Thus resurrection is also something which, in Augustine’s words, “the like of which we have never seen”. True, we can find parallels, such as in the Apostle’s comparison with the seed which `dies’ when it is planted and `rises’ to new life. But these are as much insights into the resurrection as comparisons with `water, ice and steam’, or Augustine’s own reference to the human psyche, are insights into the Holy Trinity. They are merely aids to the intellect and helps for faith. They are not the thing itself. In the end, the resurrection is as much a mystery as is the Trinity.
Indeed, this element of mystery infests the four Gospels. Their initial account of the resurrection seems deliberately constrained to something `the like of which we have seen’ – namely unexpected absence. The shock of the empty tomb is truly the first `experience’ of the resurrection. And the next is the presence and testimony of angels – not an everyday experience, but in Biblical terms not a unique one either. Yet these are not so much resurrection `appearances’ as `dis- appearances’.
The appearances themselves are dramatically withheld. Indeed, if 16:8 is Mark’s intended ending, this is so indefinitely in his case. And when, in the other Gospels, they finally do come, the appearances are tantalizing challenges to faith, not absolute elucidations. They are “proofs”? to those Apostolic witnesses whose faith must needs be strongest, but they are not full revelations. Rather, they are `appearances’ in the sense that Ezekiel’s vision was of “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. They show what happens when that which is resurrected impinges on that which is not. But they do not show us the resurrection in itself any more than thunder shows us electricity.
Of course, the events surrounding the resurrection are true revelations. In particular, the missing body reveals that the present human person is the ultimate object of redemption. But what we shall be is hidden as well as revealed in this resurrection. The risen Christ may be mistaken for a stranger, yet have his wounds probed. He may eat fish, yet appear in locked rooms. He may cook breakfast, yet speak from the heavens and blind an opponent. Resurrection is into an order of existence replete with new possibilities, yet what resurrection is or what those possibilities are remain almost entirely beyond our imagining, let alone our experience. The relative silence of the Bible is that of eloquent discretion at this point.
Meanwhile, the object of our faith (which for Augustine is synonymous with our love) is the resurrection of Christ in itself. And, insofar as it witnesses to this event, it would be sufficient to believe in the emptiness of the tomb alone. Indeed, the Gospels show the actual appearances of Christ to be a `commentary’ on the resurrection, characterized by rebuke as much as by encouragement. Contrary to one popular poster campaign, the risen Jesus’s word to his disciples was not “?Surprise!” but “Why are you surprised?”
But this does not leave us free to opt for a `resurrection-less’ Christianity, for the resurrection is finally the testimony to who Jesus is. Specifically, it is a testimony both to the truth of his words and to the goal and efficacy of his ministry, since he himself predicted it as a necessary part of the process of redemption. (Surely the Gospel writers’ willingness to expose the unbelief of the disciples at this point is sufficient testimony to the authenticity of these words?) But more than that, the resurrection is the Father’s testimony to the Son, for neither did he let his holy one see corruption.
The empty tomb is thus a necessary testimony to the Gospel and a sufficient proof for faith to seize on. When we preach “Jesus and the resurrection” we preach not a particular view of the life to come but a particular view of Jesus. And when we extrapolate from the empty tomb to the ascended Lord we declare that, whatever we or others may ultimately believe about oral traditions, textual criticism, literary dependency and so on, there is not only more to this message than meets the eye – there is more here than has ever met any eye.
John Richardson is chaplain of East London University.