What difference does it make whether or not the body of Jesus remained in the tomb? The way in which you answer this question reveals a lot about your understanding of the Christian faith.
To many, Christianity is a religious system that has much in common with the other religions of the world. Most of them teach that we should live for a higher purpose, treat others well, and try not to be too selfish. In that case, what really matters is that the teachings of Jesus live on. What happened to his body after his death isn’t really important.
When I was a college student, one day I was looking through the religion section of the library. I found a book with the title “Easter Faith and History,” and I thought that it looked like an interesting Christian book. But after spending a few minutes reading though the book, I discovered that the author
believed describes the belief of others[correction: see comment below] that “Easter faith” had no connection whatever to what happened to the body of Jesus. To him, what was important was that the message of Jesus lived on in the church.
There are quite a few people who accept this view of the Christian faith, including some theologians. In preparing for my Easter message, I came across this quotation from NT scholar Marcus Borg:
I now see Easter very differently. For me it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involved something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant. My argument is not that we know the tomb was not empty or that nothing happened to his body, but simply that it doesn’t matter. The truth of Easter, as I see it, is not at stake in this issue. [M. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, p. 131.]
That’s how Marcus Borg and many other scholars see it. The Apostle Paul had a different idea:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; ??you are still in your sins. Then those also who ??have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are ??of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:17-19)
According to the New Testament, the bodily resurrection of Jesus makes all the difference. The resurrection validates Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and demonstrates the finality of His victory over sin and death. Jesus predicted His own resurrection on numerous occasions, and in doing so He staked His credibility on the fact of the resurrection. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then he was nothing more than a pious fraud.
The fact is that the Christian faith is founded on God’s acts in human history. Because of this, it can never be reduced to a mere religious philosophy or moral code. If Jesus was not who He claimed to be, and if He did not die in our place on the cross and rise from the dead, then there is no point in being a Christian because there is nothing left of the Christian faith.
In the words of NT scholar George Ladd:
The uniqueness of the scandal of the Christian religion rests on the mediation of revelation through historical events. Christianity is not just a code for living or a philosophy of religion. It is rooted in real events of history. To some people this is scandalous because it means that the truth of Christianity is inexplicably bound up with the truth of certain historical facts. And if those facts should be disproved, Christianity would be false. This, however, is what makes Christianity unique because, unlike other world religions, modern man has a means of actually verifying Christianity’s truth by historical evidence.
Many opponents to Christianity have understood this, and so have worked tirelessly to provide arguments against the resurrection of Jesus. One such opponent was a British lawyer named Frank Morrison, who set out to disprove the resurrection by carefully examining the evidence on the basis of the legal standards for evidence used in the courtroom. Part way through his research, he was convinced by the evidence and became a Christian! You can read about his studies in his book Who Moved the Stone?. In the first chapter, titled “The Book that Refused to be Written,” he tells his story.
For further reading see Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by William Lane Craig. In this article he interacts with contemporary biblical scholars and explains why the bodily resurrection of Jesus best explains the evidence that we have.