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Theological Significance of Christ’s empty Tomb

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Theological Significance of Christ’s empty Tomb

According to scriptures in the Old and New Testament, the main reason why Christ came to the
world was to save the lost and ensure that man gets saved from God’s wrath. This is known as
the salvation plan which was meant to ensure eternal life for the whole of humanity. A key
milestone in this process was Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Bultmann, 1984). The first
people to know of his resurrection found out when they went to wash his body with perfume
only to find that the tomb was open with an angel telling them that the man they were looking for
had risen from the dead. This story is captured in all the four gospels with three of them
providing details about the conversation they had with the angel (Pannenberg et al, 2010).
In the book of Matthew this is recorded in 28: 5-8. In Mark this is found in 16: 2-8. In Luke the
story is found in 24: 1-8 and finally John 20:1 which is less detailed. Despite being a key
component of the resurrection story, the issue of the empty tomb has seldom received much

theological attention (D’Costa, 1996). This is not to say that its significance is completely
diminished. Its inclusion in the story of Jesus’ resurrection has led scholars and observers from
different places make attempts at analyzing it and the significance it held. In this exercise, this
incident will be analyzed with respect to the different theological explanations that have been
forwarded to try and explain what the absence of Jesus’ body from the tomb means to Christians
(Barton and Stanton, 1994).
As stated above, several theological explanations have been forwarded in a bid to explain the
empty tomb’s significance. One of them is that this was meant to provide evidence of the
fulfillment of scripture. Another meaning could be the fact that it was meant to show Christ’s
victory over death (Wright, 1996). It could also have signified a literal illustration of how eternal
life happens. The temporal nature of death could be another meaning of this empty tomb. This
could also have been a final show of God’s power (Küng, 1984). The empty tomb could also
have been meant to give the disciples hope that all was indeed well and their belief and sacrifice
was not in vain. This empty tomb was significant events since it drew new attention to Jesus by
making his disciples see that he was not of this world (Mackey, 1979).
According to the three verses and more specifically the words of the angel, the emptiness of this
tomb was meant to signify the fulfillment of prophesies made by the prophets and Jesus himself
concerning his death at the cross, burial and resurrection. It is common knowledge that a corpse
will stay stationary wherever it has been laid since it is impossible for it to reanimate. This is
why the women expected to find Jesus’ body lying here. The work of the angel was to expressly
inform them about what had happened so as to avoid speculation. It was already expected by the
Jewish religious leaders that his disciples would steal his body and this led them to place a guard
of Jewish origin at the entrance to the tomb so as to ensure nothing of this sort took place. An

account of this preventive action by the Pharisees is found in Matthew 27: 62-66. This shows
that the stone was also kept in place as a seal to prevent anybody from taking away the body and
claiming that Jesus had resurrected on the account of a missing body from the burial site. This
was an extension of the Pharisee’s plot to discredit Jesus who the accused of being an impostor
out to mislead the people. The guard who was posted must definitely have been given a
description of the disciples so that he could stop them. The first people to the tomb however were
women who by themselves could not have moved a stone meant to stop men from accessing the
body. The person they talked to in the tomb was in human form but is described as an angel.
Their participation in this clearly indicates that this emptiness was part of a much larger divine
plan. It should be noted that in the story of Jesus, angels were used by God to communicate
messages that would have otherwise not made sense if announced by humans. These include the
pregnancy of Elizabeth who was presumed to be barren, the pregnancy of Mary who was a virgin
and also the need for Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus to move to Egypt and avoid the child
being killed in the wake of Herod’s decree (Brown, 1973). All of these were miracles and since
angels were involved once again in this, all evidence points to the occurrence of a miracle well
beyond the ability or imagination of human beings. These women then rushed to tell the disciples
about that they had seen.
The second theological explanation that can be applied in explaining the significance of the
empty tomb was that it was a manifestation of Christ’s victory and overcoming of death which
has always been regarded as a person’s final fate. The emptiness of the tomb means that death
could not hold him forever. This is in tandem with the Acts 2:24 which states that death could
not have a hold on him (Lüdemann, 1995.). This miracle was evidence of Christ’s great power
over nature and also the forces of evil. When he died on the cross, it seemed that Evil had

triumphed over good given that Christ was on the side of good and he was fighting evil through
his ministry (Davis, 1993). During the period of his arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, death and
burial, evil forces generally had an upper hand over him. His three year old ministry appeared to
be coming to an end for good since its leader was being targeted. When he died, the proverbial
last nail on his coffin had been hammered in and the disciples began to lose hope in a man they
greatly believed in. The empty tomb with no evidence of human beings interfering clearly
indicated that Jesus had resurrected. His unexplainable sudden appearances to them would have
been suspect if nobody had seen the empty tomb (Lüdemann, 1994). This incident therefore
proved to his followers that he was indeed the man who had been buried three days earlier. The
powerful theological message carried by this incident is that death could not hold Jesus as it did
to everyone else (Fergusson, 1985).
Another theological reason that has been fronted with respect to the empty tomb is the fact that
this was meant to affirm the fulfillment of prophesies made about the Messiah. Several Old
Testament prophets as well as Jesus himself spoke of his resurrection from the dead and all of
these would have been considered empty prophesies if Jesus’ body would have been found in his
tomb. Jesus was more direct when he talked about his resurrection while most of the Old
Testament prophets employed figurative speech. In Acts 2:22-32, Peter preaches about the
prophesies made by David in psalm 16:10. The confirmation of this resurrection which Peter is
talking about was done when the tomb was found empty. Once the scriptures had been
confirmed, the disciples had a renewed confidence to preach to the people telling them about the
good news. This school of thought is appropriately captured in Paul’s sermon to the Corinthians
in verse 14 of chapter 15 where he says that if Christ’s resurrection did not happen then their
preaching and faith was being done in vain (Geering, 1971). The discovery of the empty tomb

therefore served to grant the followers of Jesus a go-ahead to continue teaching people about the
message he brought since they had witnessed for themselves its confirmation (Carnley, 1987).
Had this tomb not have been discovered, the church as it is known would never have come to be
since the people who initially spread it would not have been convinced about the need for their
Part of the message that Christ taught about in his ministry was about eternal life or life after
death (Davis, 1989). He did more than just talk about the possibility of a person’s life continuing
after death and before his crucifixion he raised Jairus’ daughter in Matthew 9:18-26. When he
was first approached with news of the young girl’s death he told the people not to worry for she
was merely sleeping. This did not make any sense to the people but Jesus understood fully well
that he had the power to raise her much in the same way that they would wake up a sleeping
person. At this time Jesus was probably teaching them about the fact that death was something
temporary when analyzed from the perspective of God’s salvation plan for humanity. Jesus
provided further proof of this point by he himself coming back to life and ascending to heaven a
forty days later. This idea of death being temporary would only make sense if people looked at it
from a spiritual perspective rather than the humanistic perspective (Torrance, 2000). In this
regard, the empty tomb refers to Christ’s death serving a higher purpose other than to appease
the Pharisees who wanted to get rid of him. This teaches believers that the different things they
worry about are nothing compared to what God has in store for them. The plans that God has for
believers greatly surpasses the threats that present themselves (Sykes and Clayton, 1978).
Another way in which the missing tomb is looked at theologically is that this was a manifestation
of Christ’s increased power which was about to be manifested through the ministry spearheaded
by his disciples upon his departure (O’Donovan, 1986). On Christ’s part, this new power was

seen in the manner that he kept appearing to his disciples. His unexplained appearances are
mentioned in two key incidents. The first of these was when he met Cleophas and his friend on
their way to Emmaus (Lash, 1986). When he walked up to the two men discussing his
resurrection the bible says “They were kept from recognizing him” and this shows that the power
he now had transcended what was there initially prior to the crucifixion. This is found in Luke
24: 13-35 NIV. Jesus then suddenly vanishes from their sight. In Luke 24: 36-40 Jesus suddenly
appears to his disciples and this immediately scares them since they did not understand how he
came to be with them. Given the significance of baptism as a prerequisite for being Christ’s
follower and the attainment of salvation, it is also likely that this was meant to illustrate to his
believers that they become transformed when they resurrect with him following their baptism as
illustrated in the book of Romans 6:4.
The significance of each of these theological explanations about the significance of the empty
tomb varies from theologian to theologian depending on the influences he or she has been
exposed to as well as personal reasons (Barth, 1959). The thing that all these views have in
common is the fact that they acknowledge the profound importance of the empty tomb in the
story of the Passion of Christ. This marked the beginning of a new spiritual era so to say. Had the
women not have seen the empty tomb, it might have been impossible to convince the disciples
that the man they were seeing was indeed Jesus. Thomas’ doubts would have been expressed by
each one of them but this was not the case. The narrative of the women and the appearance of
Jesus corroborated his resurrection and all the prophesies that had been made about it (Avis,


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Barth, K. (1959). Dogmatics in outline (Vol. 56). HarperCollins.
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Brown, R. E. (1973). The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Paulist Press.
Bultmann, R. (1984). New Testament Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Fortress Press.
Carnley, P. (1987). The structure of resurrection belief. Clarendon Press.
Davis, S. T. (1989). The Resurrection of the Dead. Death and Afterlife, 119-144.
Davis, S. T. (1993). Risen indeed: Making sense of the resurrection. Wm. B. Eerdmans
D’Costa, G. (1996). Resurrection reconsidered. One world Pubns Ltd.
Fergusson, D. (1985). Interpreting the Resurrection. Scottish Journal of Theology, 38(3), 287-
Geering, L. G. (1971). Resurrection: a symbol of hope. Hodder and Stoughton.
Küng, H. (1984). Eternal life?: life after death as a medical, philosophical, and theological
Lash, N. (1986). Theology on the Way to Emmaus (pp. 42-43). Scm Press.

Lüdemann, G. (1994). The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology trans. John
Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 503-513.
Lüdemann, G. What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.:
Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 8.
Mackey, J. P. (1979). Jesus, the man and the myth: a contemporary Christology. Scm Press.
O’Donovan, O. (1986). Resurrection and moral order: An outline for evangelical ethics.
Pannenberg, W., Morris, L., & Rahner, K. (2010). Understanding Jesus Approaches to
Christology. The Anointed Son: A Trinitarian Spirit Christology, 129, 10.
Sykes, S. W., & Clayton, J. P. (Eds.). (1978). Christ, Faith and History: Cambridge Studies in
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Wright, N. T. (1996). Jesus and the Victory of God (Vol. 2). Fortress Press.

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