An Easter homily by Peter Nothnagle on the “Empty Tomb”

April 12, 2020 • 12:15 pm

JAC note: A bit more than two years ago, I made available to readers a Jesus-themed essay by reader Peter Nothnagle, whose day job is helping record early classical music. His essay, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction,” comprised a talk he gave to the to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. It came down on the side of Jesus being “fiction”, and here is its summary:

I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.

That essay has since been substantially revised and updated, and you can read it and download it here. It was very popular and inspired a lot of argument on this site.

Today we have a special Easter homily written by Peter seven years ago and also recently revised. It deals with the “miracle” of the empty tomb, and proffers a number of explanations that are purely naturalistic, even if you do believe that there was an empty tomb. It’s a good read for nonbelievers on this Easter Sunday, and I put it here with Peter’s permission. He invites readers to suggest their own explanations.

And, without further ado (Peter added the cartoon):


The Empty Tomb

Peter Nothnagle, July 17, 2013, revised Easter Sunday 2020

“So how do you explain the empty tomb?”, the Christian asks, assuming it’s a stumper.

According to the Gospel accounts, some of Jesus’ friends and relations (the different versions of the story conflict with each other on this and many other rather important details) visited his tomb two days after his execution (or three days, according to the Gospel of John), only to discover the seal broken, the stone rolled aside, and no body. They were informed, variously by the gardener, an angel, etc., according to which version you read, that the occupant had somehow gotten up and left. This evident miracle is a cornerstone of the Christian faith — who but a god could have pulled it off?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. The story of the empty tomb is not evidence of a miraculous resurrection from the dead. The story is not evidence in support of the claim, it is only the claim. And the closest thing we have to an original source for the story is the anonymous Gospel of Mark, which was only written down after a whole lifetime had passed. The other gospels, written even later, take great liberties with Mark’s account, and elsewhere in the New Testament the epistles of Paul don’t count at all — Paul’s Jesus seems to have been some kind of celestial being who never even came to earth, and whose death and rebirth took place on some spiritual plane.

In order to believe something so amazing as a days-old corpse coming back to life, we’d better have some really good evidence. A reliable first-hand account by a non-Christian, written down at the time, would be good — like if we had a letter written by one of the soldiers guarding the tomb, which started with “You’ll never believe what happened at work today!” Of course we have nothing of the sort. Evidence might be provided by archaeology, although what that might be, I don’t know. After all, an empty tomb is not out of the ordinary (I’ve seen lots!). Since the Christians are accepting of miracles maybe they could produce something more unequivocal, like a first-century video recording of a body that had obviously been dead for several days coming back to life. That might be persuasive. You object that video technology wasn’t available in the first century? But mere humans invented video recording all by themselves — if there’s a god involved, and this god really, really wanted us to believe, you would think that this god could do it too.

A really strong piece of evidence that Jesus had overcome death would be if he were still among us all these centuries later, but we are told that he was beamed up to heaven the day he was resurrected (Mark 16:9,19; Luke 24:13,28-36,50-51), or maybe it was forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3,9). So whoever wrote the stories conveniently incorporated an excuse for why that most persuasive evidence no longer exists.

The only evidence we do have for the resurrection is of the very worst kind — a single fantastic story by an unknown author who didn’t even see it himself, writing from an unknown location at an unknown time for an unknown purpose. Some contradictory retellings (the other three Gospels and Acts) were written even later. All these accounts are preserved only as unreliable copies of long-lost original sources. If we are supposed to believe that anything so, well, unbelievable as the resurrection truly happened, this isn’t the way to convince us!

Christians often address this lack of evidence by saying that there is virtue in believing the story on faith, and that God knows that clear and compelling evidence would take away our capacity to choose freely to believe. Of course, according to the story itself, Jesus didn’t have a problem with demonstrating his resurrection to believers and doubters alike. Also, as a thought experiment, imagine what would happen if someone really did discover a first-hand account of the resurrection written by an actual eyewitness. Would the Christians still deny the importance of clear and persuasive evidence? I suspect not. So the emphasis on the value of accepting the story on faith sounds a lot like an excuse for the lack of evidence, not an explanation for it.

The Christian challenges us to come up with a better explanation for the empty tomb than the miraculous one he accepts on faith. It comes down to a choice between two possibilities:

  • One: An unseen, unevidenced, all-powerful being somehow reached down from His celestial abode, reversed the effects of shock, dehydration, blood loss, and trauma, which were so devastating to a human body as to cause death, and also reversed the effects of days of decomposition, to make a dead man come back to life, with enough of his faculties restored to be able at least to walk and talk (even though, at least according to one account, his body still bore fatal wounds).
  • Two: There is any other explanation which fits the paltry evidence, which is in keeping with what we know about the laws of physics with no miracle required. One such explanation might be “people make up stories”.

If any Christian still wants to pose the question “how do you explain the empty tomb?” as a gotcha for the atheist, let me see if I can think of anything more likely than divine intervention. The best explanation will fit the elements of the story while requiring the fewest additional factors for which we have no evidence. [I suppose I betray my bias when I point out, one last time, that we don’t actually have to explain the evidence or facts, because there are none to explain — we know nothing except what’s claimed in the fantastical Gospel of Mark.]

Off the top of my head, here are ten explanations for the story of Easter morning, A.D. 33, that are all much more likely to be true than the story that Christians believe:

  1. It’s pure fiction, a wholly made-up story fully in keeping with timeless story-telling traditions, having no basis in fact.
  2. Dying-and-rising savior god myths and traditions were common all around the eastern Mediterranean at that time, and this is one of them.
  3. It’s an allegory created to illustrate some theological point, possibly for some esoteric “mystery cult”, in the manner of Masonic rituals today. It wasn’t originally intended to be taken as actually true, but its hidden meaning has been forgotten over the centuries.
  4. The Romans really did execute a first-century itinerant prophet, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave as befitted his social status, the location of which was quickly forgotten. However, as legends about him grew over several generations, the one about his missing body arose and was eventually written down.
  5. There really was a Jesus, but when his followers went to anoint the body they went to the wrong tomb, and, finding it empty, jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he had risen from the dead.
  6. There really was a Jesus, one of whose followers, the wealthy but eccentric Joseph of Arimathea, had Jesus buried in his costly family tomb. But Joseph’s family intervened and got rid of the body, possibly having Joseph put in an asylum to prevent further outrages. Note that Joseph, who should have been a hero to the early Christians, is never heard from again in the Gospels.
  7. There really was a Jesus, some of whose followers removed his corpse from the tomb to a secret location, there to await his expected miraculous return to life. Unfortunately for them, he stayed dead, so they either kept quiet about it, letting the rumors swirl, or they started the resurrection stories themselves to cover their embarrassment.
  8. The local authorities removed the body from the tomb to prevent Jesus’ followers from making it a focus of veneration or unrest, kind of like how Stalin had Hitler’s body destroyed, or the Navy SEALs dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the ocean.
  9. There really was a Jesus, but he lived and died in the ordinary way, and in order to add weight to his teachings, his followers invented stories of signs and miracles to add to his life story.
  10. It all happened more or less as described, but Jesus was a visitor from another planet, whose people removed the body from the tomb using their advanced technology.

Of course, until we can say for sure if anything happened in the first place, there’s little reason even to speculate about how it happened.

See for chapter and verse.

44 thoughts on “An Easter homily by Peter Nothnagle on the “Empty Tomb”

  1. The listed options remind me of the novel Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. I liked it and should read it again.

  2. “Also, as a thought experiment, imagine what would happen if someone really did discover a first-hand account of the resurrection written by an actual eyewitness. Would the Christians still deny the importance of clear and persuasive evidence?”

    I recall once reading a newspaper. There was a “comment” article by a sophisticated theologian, explaining why God didn’t perform miracles. The explanation was that faith was a virtue, and that if God performed “cheap conjuring tricks” then that would destroy faith.

    In the news section of the very same edition there was a story about a statue of the Virgin Mary that was supposedly shedding real tears, complete with a quote from one of the faithful: “It’s a miracle, it has totally restored my faith!”.

    1. I recall something very similar in one of Lee Strobel’s books. God gave us free will. So if God proved his existence, we would have no choice but to believe, thus violating our free will.

      It’s really a wonder why that doesn’t convince more atheists…

  3. I much enjoyed Nothnagle’s piece of several years ago and shared it with some family and friends. It’s a great piece because it is an easily read encapsulated version of mythicism (I also appreciate that Nothnagle is an Iowan as that is my home state though I currently have been enjoying the Texas climate for the past 40 years).

    #1, 2 and 3 are the most likely scenarios. When you ponder #2 and then refer to the more in-depth examples presented by Richard Carrier, it’s almost impossible to believe in a flesh and blood Christ.

    I often use an analogy…imagine that you and I existed one hundred years from now and neither of us had ever heard of Superman. I approach you with a comic I dug up from the 20th century. It describes a superhuman being who could fly, bend steel, had x-ray vision—in essence, a god. I present it to you and you are suspicious. “How could this be?” you ask. “Well here it IS—it is printed in this book.” Being a skeptic you would want to explore accounts outside of the source material. You can’t validate claims made by the source using the source itself. So you google (or whatever that might be in one hundred years) and you discover that Superman was a mythical character of the 20th Century and they were many characters like him with special powers but none of them were real in-the-flesh beings.

    This isn’t really much different from the Jesus claims made in the bible. There isn’t a secular or first-hand source that validates ANY claims of his existence. It’s only the syncretic gospels and we are finally beginning to accept that those are mythical allegories. That is, those of us who choose fact over faith.

    1. The Superman analogy seems flawed to me. AFAIK, there are no Superman followers. Perhaps only because Superman didn’t attempt to establish a religion or even express much of a philosophy.

      My own gut feel that there was a real Jesus is based on the idea that a new religion requires a leader, someone who makes a decision to go in a certain direction and convinces others of his or her quest. Are there any religions created by committee? Even if there are, they probably still had a leader.

      Of course, even if there was a leader, there’s no guarantee that the gospels are talking about them. Clearly they are making up stuff with their miracles and such. If you are going to invent miracles, why tie yourself down to describing the actual Jesus?

      1. Most people seem to forget how confident they are that every other god that has ever been claimed to exist — Zeus, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, all of them — did not actually exist, despite the legions of stories about them. Thus, the existence of followers of and stories about a god doesn’t seem to be very compelling evidence of the existence of that god — including Jesus.

        1. It depends on the stories. Do the stories about Zeus et al really propose that they were regular folk? Jesus’s miracles seem to be presented as if he was a normal guy other than being a religious leader, the son of god, and miracle maker. He’s portrayed as a person who walked among his tribe. Zeus, on the other hand, is the god of sky and thunder. That carries a sort of other-worldly character which is more like the Christian god who doesn’t walk among us but must be represented on earth by Jesus and angels.

          (Disclaimer: I know little about mythology because it’s … mythical.)

          1. While the Greek and Roman gods were never portrayed as ordinary mortals, they did walk among the mortals and even fathered children with them.

            Does the difference in the purported habitat of a particular god really do anything to lend credence to his existence?

            1. “Does the difference in the purported habitat of a particular god really do anything to lend credence to his existence?”

              Well, yes it does. While stories saying “he lived among us” aren’t a sufficient condition for his existence, they are a necessary one. On the other hand, if “Greek and Roman gods were never portrayed as ordinary mortals”, I certainly wouldn’t argue with them.

            2. I’ve read that in ancient times (probably before the Axial Age, if that is meaningful) there was a permeable continuum between the mundane and gods. Men could become gods, gods could act as men, demi-gods were a possibility.

              Which, I guess, was built on the idea that real life included divine agents and miracles as part of the natural order of things. Which in turn was built on the ideas of animism and the ‘spirits of place’ of earlier practices.

      2. But Christianity, as it emerged in the 3rd-4th centuries, really was created by committee. It took many years of vigorous — make that violent — disagreement and political maneuvering to hammer out a lumpy, internally-contradictory “catholic” (i.e. “universally accepted”) faith. But there have always been a great variety of Christian beliefs, starting way back before the supposed life of Christ. You can see it just in the New Testament — the authors of the Pauline epistles and the gospels had very different ideas of who or even what Jesus was — a spirit? A man? God himself? Paul, in the very earliest Christian writings that survive, was already complaining about all the rival Christianities he encountered.

        So my thesis is that Christianity wasn’t — couldn’t have been — founded by one inspired, charismatic leader. It arose out of many distinct if related sets of beliefs that existed all over the region. The character of Jesus, the source of it all, was a late 1st-century literary invention. It seems likely to me that the Jesus described by the author of Mark wasn’t even intended to be taken as an historical figure — he was a character in a story that was written to convey hidden messages to the initiated.

        1. I think you are talking about the vast superstructure of Christianity. Of course that was built by committee. And of course, even if Jesus did exist and started a religion, it wouldn’t have been created from nothing. And certainly after a leader dies, or steps down, there are going to be changes and splintering.

          “So my thesis is that Christianity wasn’t — couldn’t have been — founded by one inspired, charismatic leader. It arose out of many distinct if related sets of beliefs that existed all over the region.”

          Both of those could be true. Christianity (or whatever it was called at the time) could have been founded by a real person AND arose out of existing beliefs in the region. If your point is that this person really didn’t have much influence on the religion as we know it or what it grew to be shortly after, that makes sense. Religions evolve and mutate like all memes.

          1. Everything you say is possible, except it doesn’t comport very well with the very limited evidence. It would be great if Paul had written in his letter to the Galatians “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ except for the parts I heard from actual eyewitnesses“. It would be great if Bishop Clement, in his letter of ca. AD 60, had pointed to Jesus’ crucifixion as an example of an innocent person’s suffering, or if Josephus had mentioned Jesus among all the other would-be messiahs in early 1st-century Judea. But what we have instead is the very first writing about Jesus, the letters of Paul, which seem to describe him as some kind of angelic intermediary between God and man, written to established congregations of Christians who likewise must have believed in this incorporeal Jesus. No mention of any kind of parentage, disciples, miracle-working, or in-person appearances of any kind. So I must conclude that all those attributes of Jesus came later.

            1. I can’t get into battles over the evidence for or against the existence of Jesus, the real man. I am no religious scholar. But let me make one final observation. It is quite common for people to be made into gods or demigods as time passes. Lincoln has been made into a vampire killer! I suspect it doesn’t happen so often going the other way. No one is suggesting that Zeus was really just a regular guy.

      3. It is not flawed if you view it through the lens of approaching people who “don’t follow” superman. You are a proselytizer pushing your demigod on someone who does not believe. Correct, no Superman followers. But you are trying to convince them that he exists. Imagine yourself one of those people. You are going to demand more than simply a book that states his existence. So you look outside the source. You discover that he is fiction.

        Not a flawed analogy.

  4. I recall avidly reading Ben Goren’s similar and similarly convincing essay on WEIT. It’s been a long while since Mr. Goren posted. Does anyone know how or what he’s doing?

  5. I like a variation on number 6.

    Joseph of Arimathea – a member of the Sanhedrin and therefore one of the people who decided to have Jesus bumped off – took the body of Jesus on Friday afternoon intending to have it put in a common grave as was the custom with executed prisoners in those days. However, there wasn’t time to get there before the Sabbath, so he put in his own empty tomb (which was nearby) temporarily.

    On Saturday evening, when the Sabbath was over, he sent some people to move it and put it in the common grave, but he didn’t tell Jesus’ followers that he had done that.

    Thus the women arrived at the tomb the next morning and there was no body. Confusion reigned. Mix in a bit of cognitive dissonance. Leave to simmer for thirty years and you’re done.

    I’m not claiming that this is what happened, only that it is vastly more plausible than Jesus actually coming back to life.

  6. Nice piece!

    “But what about ______?”

    You have to hand it to whoever started this – whatever it is. Whataboutery. Sometimes “what about” means something, but usually not. It’s almost like a thing to say when the audience has decided the show is bogus and they’re leaving.

  7. When Peter met Paul surely the one thing he would have talked about would be the empty tomb, yet Paul, the earliest Christian writer, says othing about an empty tomb.

  8. It seems odd to me that Nothnagle didn’t include the possibility that Jesus didn’t in fact die on the cross. There are many attested occurrences of people appearing to be dead, and reviving much later.

    Even odder is someone who doesn’t believe Jesus existed spinning theories about how a non-existent person had his body removed from a tomb.

    1. In coma for less than 36 hours, I like that one. He also ‘died’ suspiciously quickly, 8 hours on the cross?
      That is if he existed at all, which is pretty unlikely.

      1. The founder of Christianity existed with a probability of 1.

        The only question isn whether the character in the Bible stories is based on the founder or not. My opinion is that he is. Yours is that he isn’t but I don’t think either of us can claim that our opinion is correct with any significant level of confidence.

  9. Nothnagle’s 2nd point looks the most authentic. Almost all of the Christian myths originated in ancient Egypt. Richard Carrier has a believable
    theory that Jesus is a product of a process call euhemerization in which mythological beings became part of religion based on some real life hero that became deified over time.
    There’s also something odd about Christianity in that crucifying looks suspiciously like animal sacrifice which was quite common among
    near eastern religions and cults. But in this
    case the reason where obfuscated by theological

  10. I still don’t get it. If Nothnagle is convinced that Jesus never existed, why would he waste his time arguing that—and oh, by the way, he also didn’t rise from the dead? One would think that would go without saying.

    1. You’ll notice that I wrote that I am offering explanations that I consider “more likely to be true than the story that Christians believe”. Some of them were attempts at humor on this day of either great sanctity or great sarcasm, depending on your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). But even if I believed that Jesus was a real person, which I manifestly do not, I wouldn’t be asserting that any of my 10 alternatives is what really happened. Because we don’t have sufficient evidence.

      What I do believe is that the author of Mark was a devoté of Paul, and wrote his gospel as a secret teaching tool, taking Paul’s accounts of his visions and intuitions and turning them into an allegory about a real, human teacher. That may not be correct, and we probably will never know for sure, but one thing I am sure of is the true story would turn out to be a lot more complicated and interesting than a simplistic, literal reading.

      And the resurrection? No.

    1. It would be good if the supposedly infallible gospels could agree on what happened and who saw it, too.

    2. According to Matthew, the tomb WAS still sealed when the women arrived. They [and the guards] saw an angel come down and roll the stone away. When they looked in the tomb, it was empty. Evidently, Jesus escaped from the sealed tomb, Houdini-like.

      The other Gospels say that the stone had already been rolled away when the women arrived. This discrepancy was the first time I realized that the Gospels couldn’t be taken as Gospel. At first I assumed that each Gospel simply included information that the others didn’t, and I tried to reconcile the conflicting accounts, but couldn’t–either the women saw the stone being rolled away, or they didn’t.

      Wikipedia presents a handy summary of the conflicting versions .

  11. Them: “Well, if Jesus really didn’t rise from the dead, why would his followers die for a lie?”

    Me: “Religious people are killed for various reasons. Almost every religion seems to have its share of martyrs.”

    Them: 😳

    1. Not only religious people. People die for all kinds of causes and reasons. Sometimes nefarious or crazy ones. Is the ideology of Pol Pot correct? People died…and killed for it.

  12. “Stalin had Hitler’s body destroyed”

    I thought Hitler himself ordered that he be burned in the courtyard. His lieutenant shot him and had the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun burnt.

    1. Hitler and Eva both took cyanide and Hitler simultaneously shot himself, having left orders to burn and bury the bodies as you say. As I understand it, after the Red Army overran Berlin the bodies were dug up and reburied in a secret location, only to be dug up again and dispersed. There is a skull fragment that is said to be Hitler’s in a former KGB archive in Moscow.

    1. “It’s another zombie story” – yup, it just won’t die and there’s an unstoppable search for more brains to infect.

  13. “According to the Gospel accounts, some of Jesus’ friends and relations (the different versions of the story conflict with each other on this and many other rather important details) visited his tomb two days after his execution (or three days, according to the Gospel of John),”

    How would anyone know if they were related to Jesus?
    Why did they all visit on the same day?
    What were they looking for?
    How did they know which tomb to look in?

  14. If I could draw cartoons, I would draw some of Jesus’ surviving followers sitting around in their old age, remininscing about the first Easter Sunday. And one of then would be saying “Hold on a minute – I said the first tomb on the LEFT”.

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