Gospel Disproof #2: The Empty Tomb

Some of the best Gospel disproofs are right out in plain sight. Take the Empty Tomb for instance. Everybody’s heard of it. It’s the centerpiece of the Easter story. It’s the core of the Christian apologetic for Jesus actually rising from the dead.

Nobody ever stops to think how very very odd it is that the Empty Tomb would end up in such a pre-eminent place.

Imagine for a moment that the Resurrection story were not the result of distraught disciples being nudged over the edge by one trauma too many. Imagine that you are a genuine, messianic incarnation of God, and that you’ve just willingly sacrificed your life for your beloved disciples, and then—by your own omnipotent and godly power—have just raised yourself from the dead both as a vindication of your ministry and as the redemption of your disciples. Where are you going to go now? Disney-frickin-world?

There’s basically three places a genuinely-resurrected Messiah would be immediately after his resurrection: either (a) still in the tomb, waiting for his disciples, or (b) on his way to meet his disciples to let them in on the good news, or (c) already with his disciples. He’s risen from the dead, and he has work to do with his disciples before he “ascends into heaven,” so we ought to expect that his next destination, after the tomb, would be right back with his disciples again.

That being the case, there’s really no good reason for the disciples to have discovered an empty tomb unless the empty tomb itself is the actual astonishing post-Crucifixion event. If a genuine resurrection had occurred, we would expect the Resurrection itself to be the primary focus of the story, with the Empty Tomb relegated to the same trivial and barely-mentioned role as the Folded-Up Burial Cloth and the Rolled Away Stone—part of the story, of course, but just as passing details, not as the main drama. The primary evidence would be provided by Jesus himself showing up, in person, and everybody seeing him (including unbelievers).

On the other hand, imagine the Empty Tomb as the only objectively-factual portion of the Resurrection story. Imagine the disciples, already emotionally strained and exhausted by the sudden and violent execution of their hoped-for Messiah, abruptly confronted with the shocking and inexplicable disappearance of the very body itself. If, under such intense stress, some of them began to see Jesus the same way Elvis fans sometimes see Elvis, what sort of stories would that produce?

Right: the appearances would be markedly ghost-story-ish and separated by large gaps, just like what we find in the New Testament stories. They’re subjective appearances, and therefore they depend on the believer’s frame of mind, which changes from moment to moment. Large-scale, multiple-witness “visitations” would require particular social circumstances, like what you sometimes find in modern Pentecostal congregations, and even then the group experience would not produce a manifestation visible to unbelievers. And yet, because of the Christian emphasis on “spiritual truth,” these invisible appearances would not seem like lies to Christian eyes. They would be real, “true” appearances—spiritually speaking.

Meanwhile, for outsiders, the actual, visible evidence would be the Empty Tomb. That would be the part everybody could see, and therefore the part that would displace the Resurrection itself as the primary evidence for the validity of Christianity. A real Resurrection wouldn’t need to leave that task to a mere vacant hole in a rock, because a real Risen Savior wouldn’t just be a subjective experience in the minds of believers only. The actual New Testament stories are not the events we would expect if an actual Resurrection were literally true, but they’re exactly what we would expect to see if the “Resurrection” only happened in the minds of believers. Right down to the centrality of the Empty Tomb.

Not an ironclad, last-nail-in-Christianity’s-coffin disproof, I’ll grant you, but just one more bit of evidence that is inexplicably more consistent with a skeptical explanation than a credulous one. And that’s all I’m going for here.



  1. CJO says

    It’s the core of the Christian apologetic for Jesus actually rising from the dead.

    Which is ironic, as the story’s first appearance is in Mark, which shows no tendency whatever to apologetics. The women run away, terrified after their exchange with the young man in white, and “they said nothing to anyone”.

    Matthew, on the other hand, a revised and expanded retelling of the story found in Mark, and written some decades later, already shows that the apologetics wheels were spinning furiously, and understandably so: you can imagine the author saying “what the @%#& am I supposed to do with this material?!” But the apologetic touches and subsequent legendary embellishments added in Matthew make the later story actually incompatible with the narrative in Mark (watch the contortions modern Christian apologists go through to harmonize them). And then Luke, with its focus on Jerusalem as the site of all the important subsequent developments in the life of the new cult, completely guts the suggestion in Mark that the resurrected Christ would go before his followers, back to Galilee, where it all began. (Nothing more than a hint to the initiate that he should “go back to Galilee,” that is, take in the whole story over again with full knowledge of how it ends.)

    I take all these literary developments as a tacit admission on the part of the authors of these texts that there is nothing to go on besides the enigmatic ending of Mark, and, further, as evidence that the story, like so much in Mark, originally was meant to be understood symbolically, as an extended parable, a project that was actively, you could say aggressively, misunderstood by the authors who adapted the story to their pseudo-historiographical apologetic programs.

    All the literary considerations aside, I fully agree with you that the story as it stands is historically incoherent, even if you harmonize the conflicting accounts.

    • TMAX says

      However, you all seem to agree that there is ample evidence to support that there was in fact a crucifiction that took place. Lets start there and work towards the credibility of the witnesses. Working backwards, start with the trial and who the judges were. These figures can be historically verified.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I think the word “crucifiction” sums it up pretty nicely, actually. It’s a fiction, i.e. a story. That’s why people either believe it or disbelieve it. Belief and disbelief are reactions to a story.

        The crucifixion stories are popular, widely repeated, and fervently defended, but that doesn’t make them true. They have some pretty gaping holes, plot-wise, not the least of which is the fact that we don’t have a risen Jesus here today. That’s why believers try to build credulity out of “witnesses” and empty tombs and such. They’re sharing a story, because a story is all they have. They don’t have a resurrected Son of God. It’s just a story about an allegedly resurrected alleged Son of God.

        So no, we don’t have “ample evidence” that any such crucifixion actually took place. Lots of people were crucified back then, and some of them may have been casualties of religious bickering, and one of those might have given rise to some kind of new variation on the old resurrection myth. But what we have in the Bible is men who, by their own admission, are writing documents intended to convert people to their religion. That’s no more “evidence” of the resurrection than Joseph Smith’s “Golden Plates” are of his “anointing” as a prophet.

  2. rwahrens says

    Read Bart Ehrman.

    The four gospels were written by four (or more) different authors, borrowing (as noted above ) from earlier accounts (plus Q) at four very different places and times for very different audiences for very different reasons.

    Which is what explains the differences and the contradictions. None of them were written as historical accounts or proofs, they were mainly apologetic accounts, written as either guides for new adherents, worship texts or as “proofs” against other christian sects. Or a combination of the above.

    Historical, they are not, nor were they intended as such. Hell, we don’t even know WHO wrote them, nor for that matter, which sects the authors may have been members of.

    Ample proof in itself of how the bible is not either a historical document, or proof of anything.

  3. Darron says

    The contrast between the Gospels and the letters of Paul, written at least a couple of decades before the Gospel of Mark, concerning the alleged crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is also striking.

    Paul never claimed to have met Jesus “in the flesh,” but insisted that he first encountered Jesus during his famous “vision” on the road to Damascus. Paul did meet some of Jesus’ disciples, however, so one would think they would have regaled Paul with tales of the “empty tomb” if they actually considered it a leading piece of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and that Paul would have mentioned it in his famous epistles. But Paul never mentions the “empty tomb” in his letters, even when he was trying, as in First Corinthians, to reassure early Christians that faith in Jesus’ resurrection is justified.

    In fact, Paul’s account of the crucifixion and resurrection is notably lacking in any factual detail. Some contend that Paul didn’t believe that Jesus’ human body was resurrected, but that the resurrection was into a new, “spiritual body.” Of course, the “empty tomb” would have no significance for that sort of “resurrection,” which might account for Paul’s failure to mention it. Orthodox Christianity insists, however, that Jesus’ physical, human body was resurrected, so Paul’s failure to mention the “empty tomb” poses a real problem for its apologists.

  4. Tige Gibson says

    I would also add that if they decided to make a sequel now, the original actors are way too old. After all, they promised the sequel in THIS generation.

  5. Tige Gibson says

    I find it extraordinarily difficult to distinguish arguments about the historicity of the Bible from an argument about the historicity of a Spiderman comic book/movie. Honestly, why does this really need to be done?

    In my conversations with Christians, I just stick to a simple three point program addressing the root of the problem: the lack of need for salvation (considering Applegate is a fraud), the dubiousness of the gift of salvation (considering Jesus takes in back in resurrection), and the confusion of the qualities of God in a being more akin to Satan (dooming people and all). This always leads to the Christian shutting down the conversation. Shutting them up at least is the second best result next to deconversion.

    A small group of atheists spending too much (really any) effort to debunk the breadth of theology spreads our resources too thin as well as being ineffective. Theology is sewage and it should be flushed not swam in.

    The whole reason the Bible is so thick and theology such an immense field is to fool people into thinking there is a needle in the haystack.

  6. says

    … and as Ehrman points out, regarding “there’s really no good reason for the disciples to have discovered an empty tomb unless the empty tomb itself is the actual astonishing post-Crucifixion event”: Exactly. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Mark gospel stops there. The rest appears to have been added later (also here, for that matter). Or maybe that was the point you were driving at? (Of course, the evidence that Jesus was crucified and buried, or ever existed, is relatively slim to begin with, so it doesn’t really matter – but I’m willing to grant that assumption for the sake of argument).

  7. Lauren Ipsum says

    Tige: the lack of need for salvation (considering Applegate is a fraud)

    Can you explain this reference? It sounds intriguing but I don’t know what you mean.

    • Rabbit Scribe says


      I don’t have time to do this justice, but I believe “applegate” refers to Original Sin (Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit). The Christian gospel absolutely stands or falls on the historicity of the Book of Genesis. They need one man and one woman, objects of direct creation with no ancestors who are living in a perfect world, to choose nonetheless to disobey God. Use an online search engine like Biblegateway.com to search the New Testament writings of Paul for “Adam.” You’ll find numerous variations on the theme, “Because Adam: Jesus.”

      Well, nope. History didn’t begin 6,000 years ago on a Monday and our species evolved from a single common ancestor just like everybody else. No two people are responsible for all the trouble in the world, and there’s no invisible stain that needs washing away by the blood of the Lamb. That’s that.

      • says

        Read gen 1 and 2 as a single story. In gen 1, the Elohim – the spirits – make the world and the stuff in it. The spirits separate the waters, the spirits make the plants and animals, the spirits create the races of humanity each in there own image and likeness (which is why black people are black). Gen 2 is about one of these Elohim named Jehovah.

        In that context, original sin is only a problem for the Semites.

      • satan augustine says

        But genesis 1 & 2 are two completely separate, different creation stories: things are created in a different order in the two chapters, man & woman are created ex nihilo simultaneously in chapter 1 whereas in chapter 2 a woman is made from a man who is made from dirt…

    • says

      Some people think that a snake tricked our great-great- . . . -great grandparents into eating an apple, and because of that we all need to be punished. Unless a half-human half-god is sacrificed on our behalf. Lauren is suspicious that this story might not be accurate.

  8. marko says

    I believe that applegate is a reference to the garden of Eden and original sin. If we assume that never happened, then there is no need for us to be redeemed. Either that or it is a delicious new apple based drink brought to us by satan.

  9. cottonnero says

    Applegate, I believe, as in Watergate. The Adam and Eve fall-of-man story, complete with serpent and fruit.

    Which is to say, no need for salvation because the Fall didn’t happen either.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    My version of the empty tomb argument:

    I have a tiny invisible pink unicorn on the palm of my hand. Do you see it?

    No? Well – that proves it’s invisible!

  11. Helena Constantine says

    This essay is somewhat weakened because you pose three logical alternatives for where Jesus would be, and why the disciples would not have discovered the empty tomb. Except Christians long ago addressed that objection, and since you ignore their answer, you will not have much impact on them. He was off harrowing hell. Silly, I know, but its how they think.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Christians long ago addressed that objection, and since you ignore their answer, you will not have much impact on them. He was off harrowing hell.

      To my understanding, the “harrowing of hell” was supposed to have happened during the 3 days and nights he was, like Jonah, in the “belly of the earth.” I hadn’t heard of anyone saying it was after the resurrection.

  12. Stevarious says

    Can you explain this reference? It sounds intriguing but I don’t know what you mean.

    He’s referring to the Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve didn’t actually exist, we know them to be a myth. Therefore, the Fall never occurred and there’s no original sin for us to need to be saved from.

  13. jon says

    I once had a fundamentalist spend an hour showing me all the reasons the empty tomb was the “true proof” that Jesus had risen. These included: not the wrong tomb, not drugged, not stolen, Roman guards’ integrety as witnesses, etc. After patiently listening for the hour, I suggested he had missed one possible solution …

    wait for it …


    Guy never spoke to me again.

  14. says

    Lauren Ipsum,

    I think he means that since we now know that all of humanity are not descended from a single pair of parents, that it follows that there never was a literal Garden of Eden, and there was never anyone to blame for eating the forbidden fruit. It’s all just an old myth. As if there were ever any doubt.

  15. Cambrian Ratcatcher says

    Lauren Ipsum-

    If Tige means what I think (s)he means, it was a reference to the Garden of Eden story-

    To wit-

    1. If Adam & Eve fell from grace (original sin), salvation through redemptive sacrifice (Jesus) was necessary.

    2. Jesus dies, salvation gained.

    3. However, our knowledge of biology reveals that the Genesis story could not have occured as described (evolution means no special creation, no Adam & Eve).

    4. No Adam & Eve, no original sin. Without original sin, the redeeming blood sacrifice of Jesus becomes meaningless.

    5. Hence, there is no “need for salvation” “because “Applegate” is a fraud”

    This is one of my major peeves with liberal christianity- it’s all well and good to adapt your religion to be relevant in light of modern knowledge (or, at least, preferable to fundamentalism), except for the small detail that said knowledge, you know, undermines the entire foundation of their theology.

    Liberal theists- atheists/humanists without the courage of their convictions.

  16. says

    Reginald that is a great analogy.

    The end of the matter however is what does history say according to discrete mathematical logic, science, archeology, and any other objective and examinable evidence.

    Discrete mathematical logic: One is one and three is three. Therefore one is not equal to three. Hence Judaism/Torah is unrelated foundationally to Christianity.

    Science: No man (and in this observable world we deal only with matter) has ever once he has begun to decompose after death, ever had that process reversed to live and walk again. Zombies excluded.

    Archeology: There is however a tomb in Talpiot, Jerusalem, that has been documented with pictures, still living witnesses, ossuaries with names (Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek) which contain real bones. All dated to the 1st century CE.

    Understand people we are dealing with a Jewish man who lived and died and had his life re-written by Hellenist anti-Jewish/Torah religionists.

    But this Torah/Jewish teacher was the one the Hebrew Prophets foretold of. A man to show Israel how to return to the Creator of the Universe. It’s Torah!

  17. scenario says

    I’d like to see someone make an animated version of the unedited bible. Tell the version of the bible in the opening credits and have the whole thing open captioned so that the believers can see that the film makers are showing the actual bible.

    Would religious people let their children watch an unedited bible?

    Would they be surprised when the movie isn’t remotely close to what they believed the bible says?

  18. Peter B says

    Note for Deacon Duncan: This is post attempt #2. Please toss if #1 finally show up or makes it out of the moderation queue.

    Tige: the lack of need for salvation (considering Applegate is a fraud)
    Lauren Ipsum: [seriously paraphrased] WTF.

    I can explain this reference. I am an ex-evangelical Christian living nicely without religion. My background made this easy to decode. The clue is the words, “need for salvation.”

    Go back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Adam’s original sin of eating the forbidden fruit (a.k.a. apple) put the stain of sin on all mankind. Thus the seed for salvation. Jesus’ emaciate conception means that He was the only acceptable sacrifice for sin.

    At least that’s the official story as I understand it. Not that any of it makes any actual sense or has any impact on how we should live our lives.

    (But is original sin a necessary doctrine? I think not. Personal sin is enough to condemn each person to an eternity of separation from God … in Hell.)

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