A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave/Part 2

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2005
This book is widely claimed by skeptics to be the best response to the arguments for the physical resurrection of Jesus. If so, then the best they have to offer is a poor case indeed. It presents no real positive evidence that Christ did not rise from the grave bodily.

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A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave – Part 2

(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005) ed. by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder

Chapter 5: “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” by Richard Carrier

Summary of the Argument:

Carrier believes that “The evidence suggests the first Christians, at least up to and including Paul, thought Christ’s ‘soul’ was taken up to heaven and clothed in a new body, after leaving his old body in the grave forever. The subsequent story, that Jesus actually walked out of the grave with the same body that went into it, leaving an empty tomb to astonish all, was probably a legend that developed over the course of the first century” (105). In order to come to this conclusion, Carrier says, “I will also argue that the claim that his tomb was empty, and his corpse missing, arose a generation or two later” (106). In order to advance his conclusion he posits several premises:

1) New Testament Judaism was favorable to “the idea of a disembodied life separate from one’s body” (107).

2) “It is a very small step to go from that to an idea of the departed soul becoming or being clothed in an entirely new body” (110). He claims both Philo and Josephus indicate this view. The apostle Paul held this view in his use of “change” (= “exchange”) in 1 Corinthians 15 of the mortal for the immortal (135-37 [see n. 158]). Also, his use of the seed analogy shows we get a new body (135). Further, he affirmed the resurrection body was “spiritual” (126-28). And it was not “flesh and blood” (134-35). Hence, Luke 24 can’t be true that it is “flesh and bones” (135). Nor can it have “wounds” (135) for that contradicts Paul’s claim that it is “glorious” and “indestructible” (135). He concludes, “We can therefore reject all the Gospel material emphasizing the physicality of Christ’s resurrection as a polemical invention. Such stories could not have existed in Paul’s day – or, if they did, Paul would surely have regarded them as heresy, a corruption of the true gospel . . .” (135).

3) The “appearances” of Christ were not physical encounters but “spiritual experiences” (151). Paul said he got a “revelation” from Christ (Gal. 1). “This clearly does not mean a flesh-and-blood Jesus knocked on his door, sat down, and told him” (152). It is “an internal and psychologically subjective event, like an ‘out of body experience’” (153). “Acts also depicts Paul’s experience as a vision. . . . However, in every other respect I believe Acts is worthless as a source, because Luke presents three different accounts that all contradict each other, and all contain details that seem contrary to Paul’s own story in Galatians . . .” (154).

4) The empty tomb is a legend based on Mark who wrote about A.D. 70 (plus or minus ten) (155). “This Gospel contains the first known appearance of an empty tomb story. All other accounts rely upon it and basically just embellish it or modify it to suit each author’s own narrative and ideological agenda” (155). “This does not mean these authors must be considered liars. The logic of their sectarian dogma would lead to an honest and sincere belief in an empty tomb: since Jesus must have risen in the flesh, his tomb must have been empty” (156 emphasis in original). They accepted the then respectable, now dubious, premises that: “(1) historical truth can be revealed directly by God through the Holy Spirit, and (2) whatever isn’t historically true is nevertheless didactically true” (156). This means that “the Gospel authors create narratives with deeper, hidden meaning under a veil of history. It was an honest work then, even if it disturbs us today” (156 emphasis in original).

As for the idea of an empty tomb, Carrier says, “I believe he invented it. For Mark the empty tomb was not historical, but symbolic” (156 emphasis in original). This was based on the “‘core’ Gospel inherited from Paul (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which is ambiguous as to whether Jesus rose in the flesh or the spirit), but also maintaining Mark’s own narrative theme of ‘reversal of expectation’” (156).

In summary, “What I have presented so far is an articulation of my theory as origins of the empty tomb story, first as a metaphor in Mark, then as an inspiring element in the development of a Christian heresy that took the empty tomb as literal, using it to bolster their own doctrine of a resurrection of the flesh. That his heresy became the eventual orthodoxy is simply an accident of history and politics” (167).

5) This theory moves from possible to “plausible” (167) when we note the “fertile soil for the growth of legend” in New Testament times (168). Carrier responds to Craig’s contention that “the sort of legendary embellishment I am advocating should be impossible in so short a time (two generations, roughly forty or fifty years)” (168). This he believes fails for many reasons: (a) “Nor does he discuss the empty tomb narrative, or any miracle at all – his remarks are confined solely to the trial of Jesus” (168). (b) Sherwin-White [Craig’s source] admits that distortion, embroidery, and symbolic exposition of ideas “can arise within two generations” (168). (c) “The Gospel writers are much more akin to the people who believed the legends, than they are to a careful critical historian like Herodotus himself, who often doubts them” (169). (d) Sherwin-White’s test was biased in that he overlooks contrary cases (169 cf. 173). (e) Craig does not define what White means by “hard historic core” (169). This core might not include a physical resurrection, or death and epiphanies. (f) “Herodotus . . . reports that between 480 and 479 BCE the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated armaments, lightning bolts, and collapsing cliffs, a pseudo-historical event that makes an ‘empty tomb’ look quite boring by comparison” (173). (g) Likewise, Josephus records an “obvious legend” in Jewish War (written A.D. 75-79) that allegedly happened only ten to fifteen years earlier (c. A.D. 66) in which it was as bright as noon at 3 A.M., and “a cow gave birth to a lamb.” Josephus added, “I would have dismissed it as an invention, had it not been vouched for by eyewitnesses, and followed by disasters that bore out the signs. These legends in Herodotus and Josephus are no more incredible than an empty tomb” (174). (h) He adds the Roswell UFO legend that developed “only thirty years after the fact” (174).

He makes an interesting observation that the argument from silence, to be valid, demands that: (1) the writer would have known about the event; and (2) if he knew it, he would have mentioned it. Then he asks, “Are there any authors still extant [in Mark’s day] who would have known there was no empty tomb, and who would have challenged Mark’s claim that there was one? No.

Thus, “I have shown that the culture and time were especially suitable for the rise of a legend, that many comparable legends arose with the same speed of development, that we cannot expect any challenge to an empty tomb legend to have survived, and that our pervasive ignorance makes legend even more likely. Therefore, my theory that the ‘empty tomb’ is a legend is plausible” (182).

6) The appearances traditions make my view move from plausible to probable because they support the post death encounters of Christ as “spiritual epiphanies” not physical appearances (182). The evidence offered for this is: “Obviously hallucination is a far more plausible explanation” (186) because they are like other bereavement experiences. If post resurrection experiences are “hallucinations involving bereavement,” then “Why Paul? He wasn’t among the disciples and experienced Jesus much later than they did. So what brought about his revelation? We can never know for sure – Paul tells us precious little. But I can hypothesize four conjoining factors: guilt at persecuting a people he came to admire; subsequent disgust with fellow persecuting Pharisees; and persuasion (beginning to see what the Christians were seeing in scripture, and to worry about his own salvation); coupled with the right physical circumstances” (187) like heat and fatigue along a lonely road. These conditions induced a “convincing ecstatic event – his unconscious mind producing what he really wanted: a reason to believe the Christians were right after all and atone for his treatment of them, and a way to give his life meaning, by relocating himself from the lower, even superfluous periphery of Jewish elite society, to a place of power and purpose” (187). Matthew embellished with the story of the women grabbing Jesus’ feet (189). Luke is overtly polemical (191) and John’s story “becomes enormously embellished” and “more overtly polemical” (191). All this “directly contradicts Paul” who was earlier and “would not have failed to mention it if it were true” (191-92).

His conclusion is that “the common elements, after wiping away the polemic, propaganda, symbolism, and embellishments, are these: a vision of some mysterious kind inspires or informs someone (perhaps Peter or Mary) with the basic outline of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and then scriptures are searched for confirmation . . .” (193-94). “And when we examine the Gospels as a whole, what we see is a chronology of exaggeration: from nothing more than ‘revelatory’ experiences in Paul, to a vanished body in Mark, to a vaguely physical encounter with Jesus in Matthew, to a very physical encounter in Luke, all the way to an incredible physical encounter in John (and if we go beyond the canon, the next stage is reflected in the Gospel of Peter: actual witnessing Jesus rise from the grave)” (194).

Finally, “if we add to this the strength of an inference to naturalism . . . , as well as the extraordinarily low probability of a genuine resurrection . . . , then we have a truly strong case, and only one conclusion is justified by the evidence: Jesus is dead. There is no good reason to believe he was physically raised from the grave as later Gospels struggle to show” (196-97). As for the twelve “facts” widely accepted by contemporary scholars, Carrier claims: “My theory is consistent with all but one of them: the discovery of an empty tomb. And I have given ample reason to doubt that.” So, “Christianity cannot be maintained against Naturalism on the case for Christ’s bodily resurrection” (197).

Response to the Arguments:

This is not merely a chapter; it is a small book of 127 pages! Since there is no way to respond to every particular point, we will concentrate largely on the central point of his presentation. First we will make general comments which speak to central points in his thesis. If any one of the first four of these criticisms is correct (and they all appear to be), then Carrier’s conclusion fails. Then we will respond to specific misinterpretations relevant to his thesis.

I. Some General Comments on Significant Points:

1. His dates for the Gospels are too late. Luke was written by A.D. 61-62.[1] Carrier believes Mark was written before Luke which would be the late 50s. This is too early for embellishment since the apostles were still alive.

2. His interpretation of Paul and 1 Corinthians is faulty. (a) The resurrection body was not immaterial. The word “spiritual” (pneumatikos) used by Paul in Corinthians means physical, as is demonstrated by its use of the water, manna, and rock God used to nourish Israel (1 Cor. 10:3-4). (b) Soma, which is used of the resurrection body, means a physical body.[2] (c) Appearances are literal, and (d) the Gospels overlap with Paul (1 Tim. 5:18 cites Luke 10:7 and were written before Paul died). Also, Tom Wright’s research in The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that anastasis is almost uniformly used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature, with this being the case until about A.D. 200.[3]

3. Further, in 1 Cor. 6:13-15 Paul makes it very clear that it is the physical body (soma) that will be raised, saying, “Foods for the stomach and stomach for foods, but God will destroy both of them [by death]. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a Harlot? Certainly not.” Several things are clear from this text. First, in each case the word body is soma which Gundry[4] demonstrates always means physical body when used of an individual human being. Second, in this context it clearly means physical body since it that which of (a) eats food and (b) has a stomach, and (c) is the instrument of fornication. Third, what will be “raised up” later is clearly that which is “destroyed” by death.

4. There is an identity between pre and post resurrection body[5] (a) See John 2:19-22 where the “it” affirms that the same body that died comes back to life. (b) It had the crucifixion scars on it (Luke 24; John 20). (c) Paul’s seed analogy implies identity. Carrier wrongly concludes that those who “grew up in an agricultural society” (146) would not imply identity, but he is mistaken since the same dormant plant (inside the seed) that goes in the soil comes out of it. Every farmer knows that if you plant wheat, wheat comes out – the same wheat you planted, not another kind. (d) Romans 8:11 says “our mortal bodies will be ‘made alive’” (149), not replaced by another body. In order to avoid this, Carrier has to claim that this is either a “contradiction” in Paul, or it is not about the resurrection but about our “present life” (149). But this cannot be because: (1) Paul uses “flesh” made alive, not spirit, and (2) Verse 23 in context speaks of resurrection (150). (e) 1 Corinthians 15 says to “put on” not replace. And (f) resurrection is “standing up” of a physical body.

5. He admits his argument is weak and biased. He says, “nor do I have any direct ‘proof’ that legendary embellishment is at play” (180). He claims, “This sparseness of the historical record thwarts everyone’s ability to fully understand these narratives” (180 emphasis in original). He admits the argument from silence is weak (177); however, he uses it to support his thesis (see below). Yet he comes to the unwarranted conclusion that his argument is probable and even highly probable (196).

6. He admits the early Fathers held resurrection of the flesh (123) in opposition to his view. Indeed, later Fathers did too. Only Origen, whose views were condemned as heretical, is quoted in his favor of his view. He cites Origen’s unorthodox views, saying, “It is clear that Origen’s conception is much closer to Paul’s than anything we find in the rest of the Church Fathers” (144). He cites Gnostic cults favorably on a spiritual resurrection body (137-38). In short, he claims second and third century heretics and cults are right, and that the first century apostles and eyewitness testimony are wrong on the physical resurrection.

7. How can an implausible hypothesis move a view from plausible to probable? He claims that the appearances traditions make his view move from plausible. But these appearances recorded in the Gospels were physical not “spiritual epiphanies,” as he claims (182).

8. His counter-examples are not parallel cases. The Josephus legend about a cow giving birth to a lamb is not the same as the empty tomb story for many reasons (174). First, it is a single example, not multiple cases. There were twelve resurrection appearances to a total of over 500 people. Second, the Josephus story is based on hearsay evidence whereas there were numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ (Matthew, Mark, John, Peter, James, and Paul). Third, the Josephus story is against the natural; the biblical reports are of events that are beyond the natural (i.e., supernatural) but not against the natural. Even in Christ’s virgin birth it is a human giving birth to a human, not a cow giving birth to a lamb! Fourth, something that extraordinary needs multiple confirmations. The resurrection did. It had over 500 witnesses on twelve different occasions, with direct physical encounters (seeing, hearing, touching, and eating) which turned skeptics into the world’s most jealous and effective missionary society.

Likewise, the Roswell UFO case was different in crucial respects. First, it was exposed as a fraud by contemporaries; the resurrection was not. Second, there is physical evidence for the alleged UFO men, namely, the military dummies used, etc. At best, this illustrates how credulous some people can be, but it does not show how the evidence for the empty tomb and resurrection can be explained naturally. And to explain its success in revealing a fraud a result of modern technology (a) begs the question; (b) is an argument from silence; (c) a could on the same ground explain away are unusual events from the past like the victories of Napoleon.[6]

II. Some Specific Comments:

There are numerous points related to his argument that are worthy of brief comment, most of which lead to an opposite conclusion from his.

1) Carrier admits that “Luke probably believed he was writing history . . .” (p. 225, n. 315). Indeed, Luke did write history, and it was very good history (see Hemer). And contrary to Carrier, there are no contradictions in Luke’s accounts.[7] If so, then there is no good reason to reject his account of the resurrection of Christ in the same physical body in which He died (Luke 24).

Carrier’s attempt to undermine the accuracy of Luke is feeble (p. 230, n. 364). He says Luke had a penchant to double (e.g., two angels at the tomb, two angels at ascension, two men on road). But Matthew has two blind men healed and Luke only one. As for how there can be both two and one at the same time, there is an infallible mathematical principle that reconciles these verses: whenever you have two, you always have one. It never fails! The Gospels that say one do not say only one. Further, no one else mentions the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and it would be unlikely that one would walk alone. Further, he claims that Luke mistakenly gives the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus as seven miles when it was really fourteen. This is not doubling; it is half-ing. Further, Josephus (Wars of the Jews 7.6.6), a first century eyewitness, gives the exact same distance as Luke did (24:13)!

2) Carrier claims: “Nor do any of the other epistles, whoever actually wrote them, assert a resurrection in the flesh or even suggest it” (148). This is not true. Paul did (Rom. 8:11 cf v. 23). Paul says the resurrection body was “soma” (1 Cor. 15:44) – a word which means a physical body when used of individuals in the New Testament (as Gundry demonstrated). Further, John refers to Christ in his post resurrection body as being in “the flesh” – 1 John 4:3; 2 John 7). Indeed, Paul speaks of the same body that was taken from the cross as being raised from the dead (Acts 13:29-30). He even cites the same verse Peter did in proof of the resurrection of the “flesh” (Acts 13:35 cf. Acts 2:31). Paul also uses soma which means physical body as interchangeable with flesh (1 Cor. 15:38-39).

3) Carrier acknowledges that two words are used for resurrection in the New Testament (anastasis (rising up) and egersis (waking up)), but both of these words imply a physical body which he denies (154). Further, Jesus said that at the resurrection of believers they would “come forth” from the “graves” (John 5:28-29). But this is where their dead bodies were. Further, it is the body that sleeps, not the soul. The soul is conscious between death and resurrection (Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 6:9; Luke 23:43; Matt. 17:3). Hence, it is the body that arises out of its “sleep” which Jesus said refers to death (John 11:11, 14).

4) He also wrongly claims that Mark records Jesus as saying, “I will destroy this holy residence made by hands, and in three days build another house not made by hands” (157). What Mark actually recorded is that Jesus’ accusers claimed: “You who destroy the temple and build it in three days” (Mark 15:29, emphasis added). This fits with what Jesus actually said, namely, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 emphasis added). It is clear that the temple (body) that died was the same one that would be raised from the dead (cf. v. 21). Paul said substantially the same thing in Acts 13:29: “. . . they took Him [i.e., His body’] down from the cross, and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead. And He was seen for many days…” (Emphasis added). Clearly the first two references to “Him” are to His body that was killed and then laid in a tomb. But the last two references (which are to resurrection and appearances) are to the same “Him” (or He), revealing the identity of the pre and post-resurrection body of Jesus.</nowiki>

5) Carrier attacks the argument used by defenders of the physical resurrection that no one ever produced the body or refuted Paul’s claim of the many witnesses who were still alive, saying, it is an illicit argument from silence (177). Yet he himself uses the same kind of argument, claiming that his legend theory is correct even though there is no direct evidence for it. He argued, “This is because, unlike today, very little got recorded in antiquity, and of that little, very little came into the hands of later writers, and of that, very little again survived the intervening two thousand years, in its entirety or in quotation, for us to consult today” (177). But this is clearly an argument from silence. By contrast, Paul provides positive, eyewitness evidence for the resurrection.

6) Further, he contends that an argument from silence is sometimes valid if (a) the writer would have known about the event, and (b) if he knew it, he would have mentioned it. The writer knew about the event. But by this same argument, Acts is dated before 62 and Luke before that (see Acts 1:1 and Luke 1:1) (see Hemer). For surely Luke would have known if Jerusalem had been destroyed and if Peter and Paul had died. And surely he would have mentioned it since he is writing a history of events surrounding that place and time period. Further, when Carrier’s test is applied to his own legend theory that Mark added the empty tomb story and the other Gospels embellished it, neither of his two criteria is met. But, as important as this alleged embellishment was, then surely it would have been known and mentioned by one of the many contemporary New Testament writers, but it was not.

7) Carrier uses another weak argument from silence when he declares that “we have no evidence that Christ’s tomb was venerated. For the site of the greatest miracle in history, in which God Incarnate himself once rested, would have been venerated even if empty – indeed, especially then” (179 emphasis in original). This meets the first criteria (surely it was known) but not the second. For monotheistic Jews, as the disciples were, would not involve themselves in idolatry which this would have been to them. Any later attempt by others who would have made a shrine of it would have been thwarted by the fact that the Christians were scattered and then Jerusalem was destroyed. As Habermas notes, this argument is somewhat strange in that, in the scholarly literature, that the tomb was not venerated is an argument in favor of the empty tomb.

8) He admits “nor do I have any direct ‘proof’ that legendary embellishment is at play” (180). He claims “this sparseness of the historical record thwarts everyone’s ability to fully understand these narratives” (180 emphasis in original). Isn’t this too an argument from silence? Further, this does not hinder scientists or historians from reconstructing the past.

9) “Hence I [Carrier] agree with Robert Gundry . . . [that soul can’t survive without soma] though soma could be used in antiquity to mean ‘person’ in an abstract sense, Paul does not use it that way” (215, n. 211). If so, then the resurrection body must have been physical since Gundry proved that soma always means a physical body when used of an individual human being in the New Testament. But Paul used the word soma of it in 1 Cor. 15:44.

10) He claims Herodotus was a critical historian and yet says, “Far from being a model of accuracy, Herodotus was widely known even in antiquity as the ‘Father of Lies’” (225, n. 314).

11) He denies the historicity of Luke but admits that “unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke probably believed he was writing history, and may have believed, though wrongly, that Mark had too” (225, n. 315). But Colin Hemer firmly establishes the historicity of Luke’s writings.

12) He claims that Mary did not touch Jesus nor did Jesus keep his promise to Mary (230, n. 368). But this is refuted by several lines of evidence. First, she was already touching Jesus in this encounter for the text should be translated “Do not hold me” (John 20:17 RSV). Or “Do not hold on to me” (NIV) Or better, “Stop clinging to Me” (NASB). The Greek word is haptou (fr. hapto) which means “touch, take hold of, hold.” Indeed, Arndt and Gingrich list a case where it means “stop clinging to me” (p.102). Second, the women in Matthew “clasped his feet” and Mary was among them (Matt. 28:1, 9). Further, He promised to ascend to His Father which He did bodily (Acts 1:10-11).

13) Finally, there are many problems with his speculative reconstruction of why Paul converted. Not only do we not have any evidence for any of these, but there is often evidence to the contrary, such as Paul’s remorse.[8]


  1. See Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).
  2. See Robert Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology: with Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
  3. See N. Tom Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).
  4. Gundry, Soma.
  5. See Norman Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), chapter 3.
  6. See Richard Whately, “Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte,” in Famous Pamphlets, ed. H. Morley (New York: Routledge, 1890).
  7. See Norman L. Geisler and Thomas A. Howe, When Critics Ask (Wheaton: Victor, 1992).
  8. For many responses/details on this, see Gary Habermas’ Risen Jesus & Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). 49-50, n. 157.

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