Does the empty tomb really matter? Asking the same question at Christmas with regard to the Virgin Birth, we found that (in addition to the implied bearing on the truth of Scripture) most important matters of faith and theology are involved. Can we say the same at Easter in relation to this miraculous sign at the end of the life of Jesus? Or is the empty tomb something which, though we accept it because it is recorded in Scripture, has little or no bearing on faith or confession?
Now it may be negatively granted that as the Virgin Birth is not the Incarnation, so the empty tomb is not the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the actual rising and leaving of the tomb, which are not described in the Bible. These are not quite the same thing as the resultant emptiness of the tomb and its discovery. In our anxiety to see the importance of the latter, we must be careful not to equate it with the former.
Two points, however, are to be considered. First, the empty tomb, even more conspicuously than the Virgin Birth, belongs indissolubly to the apostolic and scriptural tradition which proclaims the Resurrection. Thus, to disentangle the one from the other does violence to the evangelical record as a whole. And to reject the one is necessarily to reject the other. Second, while the story of an empty tomb does not prove a resurrection, the story of the Resurrection could hardly carry much credence were the tomb still occupied. Strained explanations of the empty tomb may be invented at a pinch, but there can be no effective proclamation of the Resurrection that does not include the story of the empty tomb. Denial of the latter implies rejection of the former. The empty tomb is an indispensable sign or accompanying phenomenon of the Resurrection.
This does not mean only that it is evidential support for the reality of the Resurrection. For, like the Virgin Birth, the empty tomb gives important hints or indications of the meaning of the basic act. It tells us that Jesus is risen. But it also declares something of the nature and significance of his rising. It forces into the open some of the issues that underlie debates as to the actuality of the empty tomb or the Resurrection to which it points. An adroit use of terms might well confuse the issues in relation to the Resurrection itself, for example, by surreptitious equation with a natural immortality of the soul. But in relation to the sheer factuality of the moved stone and unoccupied grave, there can be no such confusion.
The empty tomb makes it plain that we are concerned here with a special act of God. Men can do many things. They can crucify Christ. They can bury him. But the tomb marks the end of human possibility apart from flowers, spices, pathetic tributes, or at most a cult, or at worst spoliation. From this point on, only God can act. Only God can roll away the stone, scatter the guards, and leave a tomb empty apart from the graveclothes. Only God can raise to life the One who, having given himself up to death for sin, is committed to the grave. If the tomb represents the end of human possibilities, it represents also the triumphant exercise of divine omnipotence laughing at human impossibilities that amount to supposed human certainties. In the words of the angel to Mary, “with God nothing shall be impossible.”
But if the empty tomb points us to a direct act of God himself, it points us to an act of lifegiving, of new creation. After all, men might have done something to make the tomb empty, for example, stealing the body in fulfillment of a scheme of deceit or removing it in a stratagem of suppression. Neither of these possibilities meets the reality of the situation, however, for the empty tomb does not indicate merely the removing of a body. It indicates its quickening. In this regard, the graveclothes are important. They could hardly have been discarded as they were, had the case been one of reinterment or possible restoration to the old life. In fact, they are no longer required. God has acted, not simply to remove or restore, but to quicken to newness of life. The old is put off that the new might begin. The Humiliated of the Incarnation and Crucifixion is now the Glorified of the Resurrection. The sepulcher, like the Red Sea, is not just the place of the engulfment of the old, but also of the emergence of the new. More than ever, we are outside the sphere of human possibility. Man can occasionally restore the heartbeat which has stopped, but he cannot give genuine newness of life. God alone is the Lifegiver. He alone can raise one from the dead. God in this sovereign act has given to his beloved Son the life of the resurrection as the first-fruits of the new creation.
Yet the empty tomb, while it emphasizes this newness of what God has done, reminds us of the identity between the incarnate life and the resurrected. Jesus does not merely live on in virtue of natural immortality. We are not in the sphere of philosophical or spiritist speculation or experiment. On such assumptions there need be no empty tomb. Indeed, there could not be any empty tomb. But neither could there be any real identity. Immortality of this type, while apparently opening up attractive possibilities, involves an ultimate dichotomy of body and soul which destroys the reality of the supposed continuing life. Against such empty speculations stands the empty tomb with its basic witness that the whole man is raised to newness of life in God. As a body was prepared for Christ in incarnation, so that body is raised in resurrection. No trace of the earthly body remains. It is transformed into the incorruption and immortality of First Corinthians 15. Yet there is incontestable identity forbidding any transmutation of the lifegiving work of God into a normal possibility of sinful man. No wonder liberalism, with its gnosticizing desire for the human possibility of immortality rather than the divine act of resurrection, dislikes the unmistakable sign of the empty tomb! No wonder its evasion of the sign is linked with transmutation of what it signifies!
Finally, the empty tomb with its witness to the raising of the body of Christ carries with it the promise that we are to be raised and glorified with him. He might have come forth from the tomb in the divine majesty and glory of his eternal life as the Son. He might have sloughed off the humanity which he took at the Incarnation and discarded the crucified body or shattered both it and the tomb in a display of irresistible sovereignty. But had he done so, his substitutionary work for us would have been broken off at a decisive point. Identified with us, he died for our sins; identified with him, we have died the death of sin. But in that same identification he would not have risen for us, nor we in him, had there not been the witness of the empty tomb. We could die at peace with God knowing that atonement was made for sin. But we would have no hope of a resplendent destiny of eternal glory in the new creation of God. Christ himself would have risen, for he could not be held back by death. But he would not have risen as our representative, as the firstfruits of redeemed humanity. Against such notions is the firm assurance of the empty tomb that the Lord Jesus, as he lived and died in the body, has also risen in the body. In the rising of his body, we have the assurance of the quickening of our mortal bodies, of the issue of regeneration in resurrection, of justification in glorification, of the life of pilgrimage in the eternal life of inheritance. The empty tomb is the sign that this is no mere illusion but sure expectation grounded in the fact that it is already accomplished in Christ our Saviour, Representative, and Head.
To put back the body, roll the stone to its place again, seal up the grave, and set the watch of hostile unbelief means to deny both Holy Scripture and the heart of the Gospel itself. It is to send us looking for acts of men instead of the great act of God. It is to substitute human hopes of continuation for receiving the new gift of life from God. It is to enforce the artificial sundering of the soul and body which God has bound in life, death, and resurrection, with all the evils, confusions, and illusions which such disruption ineluctably entails. It is to deprive us of the only sure ground of confidence, both for this life and eternity, namely, that Jesus Christ himself is ours in life and death and resurrection, and therefore we are his. Well do we hesitate, therefore, before we reject the angelic testimony, “He is not here; he is risen,” and attempt any rash reversal of the sign of the empty tomb.
A PROBLEM NO CHRISTIAN CAN IGNORE: THE REFUGEE
There has always been an international refugee problem: men displaced across national lines for political or national reasons. Biblical history tells us that wholesale population removal was practiced both by the Assyrians and the Babylonians long before Hitler incorporated it into his foreign policy dealings with the Poles.
The first international effort to cope with the refugee problem was made by the League of Nations at the end of World War I. White Russian refugees from the U.S.S.R., Armenian refugees from Turkish persecution, Italian refugees from Mussolini’s fascism kept the problem current during the ’twenties. In 1933 Hitler created a whole new crisis with his persecution of the Jews, which continued a dozen years. But the largest single group of refugees that the world has ever seen, 8 million people, was a consequence of World War II. The efforts of UNRRA succeeded in resettling, repatriating or reintegrating into the local economy some 6,500,000 persons, leaving 1,500,000 to be cared for.
The UN International Relief Organization then received UNRRA’s residual funds and added government contributions, and operated from 1949 to 1953. The refugee problem reportedly was reduced in Europe to “manageable proportions.” However, 200,000 remained in refugee camps, mainly in Austria and Germany where the influx from East Germany continues at the rate of 100,000 fugitives a year from the tyranny of Soviet imperialism. After 1953 the UN again took an active interest in the refugees of World War II and assisted the governments of “first asylum” and cooperating agencies with funds for food, shelter, and clothing. There are still 150,000 refugees living in such camps in Europe, although the closing of the camps is in prospect by the end of 1960.
Another category of refugee developed after World War II, consisting of 900,000 Arabs, 350,000 Hungarians, refugees from Algeria in Tunisia and Morocco; Yugoslavian refugees in Austria, Italy and Greece; Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, Macao and Japan; Tibetan refugees in India, and others in many countries of the Middle East.
Thus a total of 2,500,000 refugees remains, including those left over from World War II. The city that has become a symbol of today’s refugee problem is Hong Kong, which has 1,250,000 fugitives from Red China who cannot be repatriated. Taiwan (Formosa) is ready to accept a reasonable number despite problems of population and economy. Opportunities for resettlement from Hong Kong are not good in most lands due to the race quotas. Much has already been done by way of integration into the local economy, but the Hong Kong colony faces limits of land and resources, and has reached the saturation point.
Some 2,500 people are crowded into single buildings for refugees in Hong Kong. In three city blocks recently there were 42,000 disaster victims. A minimum of five persons (there is no maximum) are herded into a room of 120 square feet at a rental of $2.65 monthly in United States dollars. Hong Kong and its suburbs present the largest refugee problem in the world; nearly a million refugees in the city and its suburbs, and 300,000 persons living in shacks on the tops of domestic buildings.
Many centuries ago the Israelites received a divine injunction to be kind to the “stranger” and the “sojourner” in their midst. In 1960, International Refugee Year, Christians should be giving every encouragement to those arms of sympathy and love that are extended to the homeless ones, most of whom are innocent victims of a troubled age.
COMMUNIST PARCEL OPERATION A SPECIES OF BLACKMAIL
Generous-hearted Americans are unwittingly submitting to blackmail to the extent of millions of dollars annually by sending relief parcels to the needy behind the iron curtain.
This situation was revealed recently in a report on the Communist parcel operation by the U. S. Committee on Un-American Activities. Red regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union extract exorbitant fees and duties ranging up to 250 per cent of the value of relief parcels, netting immense sums for the international Communist movement.
Those who wish to aid friends and relatives or Christian brethren in these Red-dominated lands should weigh this thoroughly laudable desire against possible complicity in the plot to “make the world safe for Communism.”
ACADEMIC RESPONSIBILITY AND SUBVERSION OF THE GRIDIRON
One of the popular interests of Americans is sports, and one of our American traditions is the Saturday afternoon football game which today is viewed by millions in the various stadia and over TV. With the coming of professional football, experience and training have increased the players’ skill. Yet a new phenomenon has emerged: professional games are played almost exclusively on Sunday, and the desecration of the Lord’s Day exacts a continuing toll from players and spectators alike.
Professional teams now vie with each other in “drafting” stars from our college campuses. To be so drafted is an honor coveted by the athlete and reflects glory on his alma mater.
Why are so few voices raised against these distracting and degrading influences, including Sabbath breaking? Why do so few responsible heads of institutions speak out against this “recruiting,” against the dishonest enticing of students to their campuses, against under-the-table subsidies to prospective athletes and the commercialization of amateur college sports? Why no voice of protest from the college and university presidents in America? If there is such, its tones have surely been muted. Are there so few who have the moral courage, the spiritual sensibility, and the academic honesty to speak out against this subversion of the gridiron?
Some six or seven years ago one of America’s greatest football heroes called a close friend one morning. He had just been offered a small fortune to sign with one of the professional teams, plus a salary which would have made him independently wealthy within a few years. This young man was a Christian and he was deeply troubled. He wanted and needed the money, but his conscience was also aroused.
He asked for friendly advice. The reply was that, as a Christian, he would have to make the decision before his Lord. “But,” said the friend, “pray about this and call me back in six hours.” Late that evening, this sorely tempted athlete called back. “I just cannot go ahead. Thank you for praying for me too.” That same fall this young man, whose name was a household word across America, entered a theological seminary. For the past two years he has been richly used of God as minister to students, associated with a large university church.
Almost at the same time that he was facing this decision, another star athlete was presented with a similar proposition by one of the famous professional football teams. He too was a Christian and had been active in his local church. He yielded to the lure of money and added fame, and joined in the desecration of the Lord’s Day. Today he no longer plays, nor is his name ever mentioned.
The situation precipitated by professional football has confused many, including promising high school boys who have as a result distorted their sense of values. Those academicians to whom they should look for guidance and help are either directly involved in the sorry mess or are so anxious for the success of their own college teams that they themselves have lost their perspective. If many American colleges and universities are thus hindered from making a definite contribution to the moral and spiritual values of our nation, those who head these institutions and who keep silent when they should speak, must bear their share of the responsibility.
NCC ASKS A VERDICT ON ITS PROGRAM AND WORK
The National Council of Churches has initiated an inquiry among its member denominations on such specific questions as:
Is the Council the best possible agency for interchurch cooperation and united action?
Is the Council effectively furthering Christian unity?
Has the Council contributed a greater understanding of the “true nature of the Church”?
On what topics should the churches speak as a united voice through the Council?
The usefulness of this inquiry will depend on several points.
First, will this appraisal be directed solely to “denominational leaders,” as indicated in the news release, or, will responsible denominational gatherings and individuals at the lay level be confronted with these questions and permitted a candid reply? In many denominations, the men most outspoken in their approval of the Council’s work have gravitated to membership on the Council. This has tended more and more to comprise the Council of men of one particular viewpoint. This problem can be met better if the denominations appoint to the Council men who represent a cross-section of denominational opinion. The lack of healthy dissent within the Council has led to some of the strongest criticisms of its actions. This can only be remedied by the denominations, which owe to themselves, and to the Council, the appointment of men of more representative viewpoints. The fact that the present inquiry apparently is directed to “denominational leaders” would indicate that only the opinions of men already committed to one particular viewpoint are assured.
A second matter is the importance of heeding the official protests of official denominational gatherings. In the past, several official meetings have protested strongly certain of the Council’s specific actions and pronouncements. But such protests have never received favorable action on the part of the Council. Since the majority within the Council differed from the official protests of certain member denominations, such denominational protests have gone unheeded.
One afterthought may be worth mention. More and more ecumenical activity reflects the dim notion that the kingdom of heaven “cometh by propaganda.” The views of critics are grotesquely caricatured (for example, they are said to oppose application of the Gospel to social injustices, or to oppose a pulpit free to preach the Gospel, when the free Gospel is precisely what they champion in these matters). Personal derogation is aimed at earnest disputants of particular ecumenical programs. Champions of Christian unity readily invoke such labels as “extremists,” “radicals,” “fundamentalists,” “literalists” (slurs quite akin to those once aimed at the earliest believers by foes of Christianity) in brushing aside and repressing criticism—as if such ecumenical labeling actually decides the truth or falsity of issues at stake. The latest propaganda sally (doubly inappropriate on the lips of men resentful of broad accusations) places critics of church leadership in the unwitting service of Communism. The final outcome of such unfortunate tactics should be clear, namely, widening of current doubt over the prudence of Protestant leadership, prompted in this case not by slander from without, but by intemperate judgments within.
We think NCC’s proposed inquiry can be of real value provided it is permitted to reach down to the levels of misunderstanding and resentment. Otherwise it will result in a “mandate” merely from those already committed to the Council’s present policies. The community of faith deserves a fresh vision, especially of Christ the authoritative head of the Church.
The Risen Christ
How silently the Easter dawn unfurls
Upon the earth—soundless
As His hand, Omnipotent, rolling
Away the stone before the tomb.
See Christ step forth, embodiment
Of all that cannot be destroyed,
The Lord of Life, Light, Truth, and Love,
Restorer of man’s faith and hope.
Now is Christ risen from the dead!
Rejoice! Let those who worship
At an empty tomb bestir themselves;
Today He Lives—He Loves!
MILDRED N. HOYER
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