Tuesday, April 5, 2016

He Is Not Here

This post is also the cover article for our parish newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.

Several winters ago, Elizabeth and I went on a trip with some friends from seminary. Although we were on vacation, the conversation inevitably turned to religion, and one afternoon we were drawn into a friendly argument about things that no one can prove. I enjoy overstating things to provoke a reaction, and, at one point in the conversation, I asked, “So, if the body of Jesus were somehow proved still to be on earth, would you give up on Christianity altogether?” We had been discussing the importance of the literal resurrection. I believe that the tomb is empty, and my friends do, too, but there seemed to be a disagreement between us on whether someone could call himself a Christian if he refused to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. I asked my question as a way of throwing out a philosophical limit that I felt that no one would cross, but I failed to anticipate how quickly and resolutely my friends would react. All of them, without hesitation or equivocation, said that if the body of Jesus were found here on earth they would stop being Christians.

I was floored—not because of their firm belief in the literal miracle of Easter but because of their uncompromising, unwavering, inflexible insistence that everyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus must agree with them. The conversation ceased immediately. I had nothing else to say. What more is there to say when one party’s position allows zero compromise? In the seven years since that day, I have had lots of time to think about our conversation. I return to it frequently. It is, after all, the central question about the central tenet of our faith: is Jesus’ literal, physical, bodily resurrection essential for Christianity? Can one believe in resurrection without believing that the tomb is empty? Can one proclaim “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” as a heartfelt metaphor for God’s promise of life-after-death reversal without necessarily believing that there is, indeed, physical, breathing, walking, talking life after death?

After seven years of reflection, I have decided that my friends were right: Christianity requires an empty tomb. Again, I have long believed that the tomb is empty, but that part of me that seeks consensus and wants to leave room for skeptics led me to hold open the possibility that, even though I might not agree, one can be a disciple of Jesus without believing in the literal miracle of Easter. As of today, I am letting go of that possibility. You might still feel that way, and I will not tell you that your meaningful relationship with the risen Christ necessitates a change in heart, but I cannot see any way to give one’s whole heart and soul and mind over to the proposition that Jesus is God’s victory for the world without believing that that victory is indeed manifest in the physical world. If Christ’s resurrection is merely a metaphor for hope in a hopeless moment, I think it is time to give up on that hope altogether.

This change of heart has happened gradually, but it has been crystalized by a recent focus on the Easter text from Luke 24. When the women see that the stone has been rolled away and, in their confusion, encounter two men in dazzling clothes, they are told, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” He is not here. Those four words have taken hold of my heart, and so far they have not let go. I am profoundly shaped by that form of the Easter proclamation. Although each version is different, all three synoptic gospel accounts contain those four words: “He is not here.” It is, in its essence, a proclamation from absence, and the absence of Jesus’ body is, therefore, the origin of our faith.

Of all the miracles in the New Testament, none is as dramatic as Jesus’ resurrection, yet, unlike almost all of the rest, it is witnessed by no one. No one is there to see the breath reenter the corpse. No one sees inside the pitch black tomb when the light of Easter morning first hits it. No one stares in awe as the greatest moment in human history unfolds. This is not the feeding of the five thousand. This is not the walking on water. This is not the calling back of Lazarus from the dead. All of those miracles were done so that people could see who Jesus really is, yet the one moment that finally reveals his true identity is testified to by his absence. He is not here. The faith of Jesus’ disciples is faith in emptiness itself.

During the first few weeks of the Easter season, we read stories of the risen Christ’s encounters with the disciples. He appeared to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus. He sought out the disciples when they were hiding behind locked doors and, again, a week later when Thomas had rejoined them. He met them one morning on a beach, where he shared a meal of bread and fish with them. Each time the gospel encourages us to believe that he is risen, but those of us who live two thousand years later never had an opportunity to see the walking, talking Jesus. Our greatest hope lies not on the road or on a beach or in the upper room but back again at the empty tomb.
He is not here. He is risen. The most unlikely truth in human history—that we are loved by a perfect God regardless of our imperfection—is proven not by a word or an argument or an eyewitness but by an absence. If the tomb were not empty, that unlikeliest of hopes would crumble under the weight of doubt. Yet hope survives. Hope triumphs. And our hope is sustained by a tomb that remains empty to this day.


  1. Seven Stanzas at Easter
    by John Updike

    Make no mistake: if He rose at all
    it was as His body;
    if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
    reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
    the Church will fall.

    It was not as the flowers,
    each soft Spring recurrent;
    it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
    eyes of the eleven apostles;
    it was as His flesh: ours.

    The same hinged thumbs and toes,
    the same valved heart
    that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
    regathered out of enduring Might
    new strength to enclose.

    Let us not mock God with metaphor,
    analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
    making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
    faded credulity of earlier ages:
    let us walk through the door.

    The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
    not a stone in a story,
    but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
    grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
    the wide light of day.

    And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
    make it a real angel,
    weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
    opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
    spun on a definite loom.

    Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
    for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
    lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
    embarrassed by the miracle,
    and crushed by remonstrance.

  2. On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus
    by Denise Levertov

    It is for all
    'literalists of the imagination,'
    poets or not,
    that miracle
    is possible and essential.
    Are some intricate minds
    nourished on concept,
    as epiphytes flourish
    high in the canopy?
    Can they
    subsist on the light,
    on the half
    of metaphor that's not
    grounded in dust, grit,
    carnal clay?
    Do signs contain and utter,
    for them
    all the reality
    that they need? Resurrection, for them,
    an internal power, but not
    a matter of flesh?
    For the others,
    of whom I am one,
    miracles (ultimate need, bread
    of life,) are miracles just because
    people so tuned
    to the humdrum laws:
    gravity, mortality-
    can't open
    to symbol's power
    unless convinced of its ground,
    its roots
    in bone and blood.
    We must feel
    the pulse in the wound
    to believe
    that 'with God
    all things
    are possible,'
    bread at Emmaus
    that warm hands
    broke and blessed.