Key to the historical and theological claims of Christianity is the empty tomb of Jesus. According to the canonical Gospels, archaeology and historical reasoning, this tomb was not always empty. After Jesus had been crucified, declared dead and subsequently buried in a tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, his resting place had been closed in with a heavy stone rolled across the opening, and then an official seal of the Roman Empire threatening death to anyone daring to break it. For good measure, in acquiescence to the demands of the Jewish leaders who feared Jesus’ disciples might come and steal the body to then claim fraudulently that he had risen from the dead, the Roman procurator Pilate ordered that a guard of Roman soldiers guard the tomb. Failure to do so would expose them to execution for dereliction of duty.
History records that on that first Easter morning, the sealed and guarded tomb was found open and empty, all except for the grave clothes in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped. Women who came to the tomb that morning to wrap the decomposing body with more aromatic spices were confused to see the heavy stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance, the Roman soldiers paralyzed with fear, and the cause of that fear, an angel from heaven who addressed the women with unbelievable news: “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he laid. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead….”
They do as commanded, finding the disciples huddled in hiding for fear that the authorities might do to them what they had done to the Master. The resurrection of Jesus was not something they were really expecting, even though Jesus had prophesied his conquest over death. And who can blame them. Although the resurrection of the dead was a part of certain Jewish eschatologies, no Jew, learned or not, expected any resurrection to take place before the Day of Judgment. The resurrection of Jesus three days after his brutal execution was not within their frame of reference.
So, when the risen Lord appeared to them later that Easter Sunday, they were filled with fear as well as excitement — their paradigms for life had just been blown to smithereens. All they knew was that Jesus was even greater than they had imagined before his arrest and humiliation. Only the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus can explain the transformation of fearful disciples bereft of hope and purpose after the crucifixion into a band of bold ambassadors proclaiming the victory of Jesus the Lord over the all the powers of evil, and the invitation for all sinners to experience His salvation.
Though other human beings have died and come back to life for a time (Lazarus comes to mind), the life to which they return is merely a continuation of mortal existence. They all still succumb in the end to death. Only Jesus has returned from death with a kind of life that death can no longer touch, and He offers the promise of that victorious life to those who become His followers. That is why the empty tomb is central to the claims of the Christian faith — the good news of the gospel hinges on the person and work of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God who took on the enemies of humanity — sin, death and the devil — and defeated them to free human beings to a future of unremitting joy.
This may surprise you, but Islam also teaches about an empty tomb with regard to Jesus. That grave is found in Medina, in the Mosque of the Prophet. There, under a special green dome in an area closed off to the public, lie the tombs of Muhammad, his close friend and first caliph of Islam Abu Bakr, and ‘Umar, the second caliph of Islam. There are disputed traditions that this mausoleum also contains space for one more grave, reserved for Jesus. But although scholars dispute the traditions, the vast majority of Sunni faithful believe it, because it fits with popular Islamic eschatology, which runs like this:
The prophet Jesus, who never died by crucifixion but was rescued by Allah and taken to heaven without seeing death, has been awaiting the command of Allah to return to earth for the last chapter of human history. Numerous traditions record what will happen through Jesus:
Abu Huraira narrated that Prophet Mohammad said: “There is no prophet between me and him (Jesus Christ). He shall descend, so recognize him when you see him. He is a man of medium height, (his complexion) is between reddish and white; he will be (dressed) in two yellowish garments; His head looks as if it is dripping water even though it is not wet. He will fight people in the cause (for the sake) of Islam, will break the Cross and kill the swine (pigs) and abolish Jizya (tax on Christians and Jews); and Allah will put an end to all religious sects except Islam during his (Jesus’) time. He (Jesus) will slay the Antichrist (Dajjal) and he will stay on Earth for 40 years. Then, he will die and the Muslims will perform the funeral prayer for him.” (Abu Dawud and Musnad Ahmad).
Other traditions fill in some blanks: Jesus will return to serve as Caliph of the Muslim world. One of his principal tasks will be to defeat the Dajjal (Islam’s version of the Antichrist) and the armies of evil (consisting mostly of Jews). Jesus will destroy them, and will order the conversion of all remaining Jews and Christians to Islam, or their execution if they refuse. Under his rule, the Caliphate will expand to rule over all the world, and all religions will be expunged from history except Islam. In the course of his forty-year rule, Jesus will marry and have a family, and the world will live in complete harmony and overflowing bounty. Finally, Jesus will succumb gently to old age, somewhere between Mecca and Medina. His body will be carried to the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina, and in accordance with Islamic funeral rites it will be laid in the grave prepared in advance for him next to Muhammad, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. In short order, Allah will bring history to a close with the onset of the Day of Judgment and the sorting of all humanity into groups headed for an eternity in Paradise or Hell.
Jesus’ empty tomb in Islam sends very clear anti-Christian messages to the world, if they are listening.
First, the Muslim Jesus has not conquered death, only temporarily sidestepped it. Allah rescued him from crucifixion and “raptured” him to heaven where from 33 AD till now he has been waiting patiently for Allah’s command to return to earth to resume his ministry and complete his mission. At its completion, he too, as with all other mortals, will fall prey to death.
Second, since Jesus was not crucified, he made no sacrifice which could atone for human sin. Islam rejects the claim that Jesus is the divinely sent Saviour to whom all sinners are graciously invited to turn for salvation.
Third, since Jesus is only mortal, the biblical claim that God took on human nature in the person of the Messiah is rejected out of hand, and designated as shirk (Arabic for “association”, i.e., pretending something from the creation is equal with the one true God). In Islam, the sin of shirk is unpardonable, and the hottest fires of hell are reserved for those guilty of its practice. According to the Qur’an, this includes orthodox Christians and Jews (whom Allah accuses of calling Ezra the Son of God, even though there is no evidence in Jewish sources to back up this charge).
Fourth, the Islamic Jesus will come back as the leader of Islam on earth. His actions will validate Muhammad’s claims that Islam is the true religion and all other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, are false. We are told that this Jesus will break all crosses in the world, driving home the point that the message of salvation through the substitutionary atonement of the Lamb of God on behalf of helpless sinners is wholly specious. The essence of Christianity will be exposed as a lie, according to Islamic eschatology. This Jesus will go on to kill all pigs, which symbolize all that is unclean and haram in the world. It is possible, since the Qur’an refers to Jews as “sons of apes and pigs”, that the destruction of “pigs” by the Islamic Jesus refers to the elimination of Jews from the future world. Even if not, however, the next task of Jesus will accomplish that same result. We are told that Jesus will abolish the jizya, the special poll tax required of dhimmis (Jews and Christians and other minority monotheists who wish to stay alive and are willing to live as second class members of society, subjugated under Islamic law). The reason for the abolition of jizya is that the dhimmi class will no longer be tolerated. Now the Islamic Jesus will give every non-Muslim the choice: become a Muslim or be executed. This final caliph means business. Under his leadership, Islam will expand until, as the Qur’an says, “the religion is all for Allah” (8:39). Not only will all recalcitrant Christians and Jews be exterminated, so also will Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, Confucianists, Bahais, Zoroastrians, Mormons, secular humanists, atheists, naturists, animists, tribalists, transcendentalists, futurists, agnostics and passivists. If you are not a Muslim and you would classify yourself in some category other than what I have listed, you will be exterminated by the Islamic Jesus as well, unless you bow in submission to Islam.
Once this unrelenting Jesus has chopped his way to a world united under Islam, he will rule magnanimously in the name of Allah until death comes for him. At that point, his subjects will carry his body to Medina and bury it in grave next to that of Muhammad, according to Muslim burial rites. Then, the empty tomb of Jesus will be filled by a lifeless corpse that can offer no hope of eternal life to any lost sinner.
The Islamic Jesus is neither Savior, Resurrected Lord, Son of God Incarnate, Prince of Peace, Good Shepherd nor Light of the World, but only the Sword of Allah who will come to slice and dice the world by force until the totalitarian agenda of Islam is accomplished.
The next time a well-meaning simpleton tells you that Islam and Christianity are fully compatible sister faiths that can coexist in harmony, please let them know in no uncertain terms that the teachings of Islam are a full-scale attack on the central tenets of the Christian faith. To justify its existence, Islam must destroy the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in the crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Son of God, whom we know as Jesus Christ.
Islam has declared war on the gospel, and hence on the Church. It is the task of the Church to respond appropriately to this attack, not with force but with the proclamation of the Truth in love. Our confidence is this: the false Jesus of Islam is no match for the true Jesus of history. The Kingdom of God will overcome all pretenders.
To quote a genuine prophet, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”