Christ’s Empty Grave in the Writings of David Bentley Hart

Does David Bentley Hart believe in the historical and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? Does he think that the grave was empty on Easter morning? I have seen this question asked many times, and it’s not a surprise. For a few generations now, “radical theologians” of many varieties have questioned the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and have either made it into a “purely spiritual” resurrection or into some kind of ongoing revival of Christ’s moral or political teaching. In these heterodox theologies, it doesn’t matter if the grave was empty. Some would even say that the real gospel message is somehow connected to the truth that Jesus stayed dead just like all the rest of us. There are a few aspects to the theology of David Bentley Hart that can cause people to mistakenly associate him with some of these heterodox ideas. However, a few clarifications can easily explain why David Bentley Hart has repeatedly affirmed the bodily resurrection of Christ and an empty grave on Easter morning.

One reason that some might wonder about this is because David Bentley Hart is known for insisting with Paul that the fleshly body must give way to the spiritual body. Most assume that a spiritual resurrection would not include a body, but Hart maintains that the spiritual is more substantial than the fleshly and that the fleshly body of Christ is transformed with the resurrection or glorification into a spiritual body.

A second reason why some might question Hart’s beliefs on this point is that he is not very interested in making a historical case for the bodily resurrection. Part of this is because he does not think that the event of Christ’s resurrection was understood in the same way conceptually or metaphysically by all of those who witnessed it. As he says in an October 2, 2021 conversation with David Armstrong: “I believe that they had the profound experience of the resurrection. Conceptually, what they made of it, that’s very much a human element of the text.” (This is near the 1:17:36 mark.) While Hart does not spend much time in any writings with the standard Christian apologetic approaches to the resurrection, he does recommend Wolfhart Pannenberg’s case for the historicity of the resurrection in this conversation with David Armstrong (near the 1:19:14 mark).

While being modest in his defense of Christianity related to this topic, Hart has not been shy about asserting his belief in an empty grave. He clearly affirms it with Roland in Moonlight (during a chat with his dog) and in the introductions to both The Beauty of the Infinite and Atheist Delusions. In The Story of Christianity, he has a short section entitled “The Empty Tomb” where he makes these points:

Allowing for literary embellishment, and for the tendency of tales to grow in the telling, there is clearly a single tradition here: the women discovered the empty tomb first and then went to tell the men.

By itself, however, an empty tomb would not have warranted the claims the early Christians made about the risen Christ. For they did not merely believe that he had been restored to life in the manner of, say, Lazarus (who would one day die again); they believed, rather, that he had passed entirely beyond death, triumphed over it and entered into a new and eternal life.

When the risen Christ appears to his followers, he both is and is not as they knew him in his earthly ministry. His body has been not simply resuscitated, but transformed into a ‘spiritual body’ (to use the language of St Paul), at once concrete and yet transcendent of the normal limitations of time and space. He can appear and disappear at will; in Matthew, as the women are returning from the tomb, he ‘suddenly’ shows himself to them; in Luke, he is suddenly in the midst of his disciples; in John, he enters among them and departs again through locked doors. At the same time, he is not a ghost; as both Luke and John emphasize, he can be touched, he bears palpable wounds, he can even share food with his disciples. And, when at last he takes leave of his disciples, he is taken up bodily into heaven. In short, his body has somehow already entered into the transfigured reality of the Kingdom of God; and thus, by his resurrection, the Kingdom has already ‘invaded’ historical time.

Victory over Death

This was the earliest form of the Church’s ‘evangel’ (its ‘gospel’ or ‘good tidings’): namely, that Jesus is Lord. In his resurrection, God’s Kingdom has triumphed, and Christ has been established as ruler over all of time. More importantly, he has decisively conquered all of those powers that formerly held humanity enslaved to sin, death and the devil. For the early Church, Easter was an event of total divine victory in every sphere of reality.

Hart’s primary interest is with the theology and the metaphysics of the resurrection, and he loves to make points such as those raised in “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” (which Hart wrote in response to criticism from N.T. Wright about the spiritual nature the resurrection). Finally, for more on this topic, here are some relevant passages transcribed from this great conversation that David Armstrong had with David Bentely Hart on October 2, 2021 (from A Perennial Digression).

1:12:44
Paul doesn’t hide his meaning on this. He is not at all subtle on this. Flesh and blood can’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. You have to be liberated from flesh. The outer man, literally for him, means the body of flesh. The outer man is striving with the inner man which has been in-spirited, perhaps, or is spirit already. But there’s a real physiological—that the possession of the members, the physical fleshly members of the body of death, vies against the spirit in us—and you don’t even have to make a distinction and say whether he’s talking about the human spirit or the divine because that’s a distinction that he often elides.

1:13:51
…Yes, real transformation. I think Paul believes that flesh and blood—you escape from them by death, but then it really is that same body that’s transformed into spirit along with all of creation, that the age to come will be an age of spirit or hospitable to or reconstituted having a spiritual frame. So sloughing off is probably the wrong language to use because that suggests that it’s simply a matter of escaping from the prison of the flesh. That would be a good orphic image and it might be not entirely alien to what Paul said. But Paul’s still a Jew—of a specific kind, of a Pharisaic kind and he has a theology of resurrection and that resurrection is not the revival… (Remember the Pharisees were fairly well-trained Hellenistic philosophers. People forget the Pharisees were not a sectarian orthodoxy. They were actually very Hellenized in their intellectual tradition from what we can tell.) By resurrection, what they mean is this transformation, this embodiment in an angelic or a spiritual form.

1:15:52
…Luke’s not, let’s be honest, not as consistent, or he apparently doesn’t work from a philosophical context quite the way Paul does. Our one metaphysical moment in Acts, “In him we live and move and are,” may actually be a quotation. I have no doubt that Paul would say that, but when he talks about Paul and the Pharisees in the book of Acts, the construction of the language there suggests that he knows the Pharisees understand resurrection as spirit or angel. It certainly, grammatically, is a very weird sentence, and it doesn’t seem at all to mean that they didn’t believe in the… well, first of all, why would it be in the singular—it doesn’t say, I believe, pnevmata or angelos. So I don’t know, but …there may have been this language: “Don’t touch me, I’ve not yet ascended to my….” That might have been part of the early church tradition that there’s the empty tomb but then there’s the full glorification.

…I don’t really feel a need to reconcile the Lucan narrative and the Pauline language. I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense. I believe that they had the profound experience of the resurrection. Conceptually, what they made of it, that’s very much a human element of the text.

David Armstrong: For my own faith in Christ’s resurrection, I believe Jesus rose. I don’t believe that there are Jesus bones somewhere in a tomb, and I’m also fully comfortable talking about Jesus’s resurrected body as a pneuma or as a spirit or as a fully angelified, deified corpus. That’s basically all that keeps me Christian at this point. I believe that happened.

David Bentley Hart: Paul of course speaks of Christ as the life-giving spirit, and I think he does mean just that. He means that the risen Lord, the one who is marked out by resurrection, by that same Spirit that will raise us, is himself now fully spirit as risen and therefore is the life-giving spirit. That’s what his last Adam language refers to.

…It is true that—temperamentally I’m quite happy just being a syncretist without any fixed abode—but it is true that the account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (not of the witnesses) and the sheer historical perplexity of why the Christian community survived and thrived in a way that say the followers of Theudas didn’t, I’ve always thought that’s one place where Wolfhart Pannenberg was right. The historical evidence of something extraordinary having happened which everyone basically (and again, I rely on 1 Corinthians 15 not the Gospel narratives which are all clearly embellished and based on traditions that have been heard and reheard and altered but with the common core—the women got there first)… It’s 1 Corinthians 15, talking about those who saw the risen Christ, it’s the sheer mundane nature of this report, the matter of factness, the numbers educed. This is not like a sighting of Elvis at the grocery store. He’s not talking about some excitable… He’s talking about a number of concrete experiences on the part of people who, by all the logic, all the historical precedent, should really have scattered and fallen apart, reuniting and then of course Paul bearing witness, the fact that he met with the apostles who talked to him, that he learned of the experience, …the nature of his conversion which doesn’t strike me as as plausible in the sort of banal psychological terms people would try to impose on it (he had a psychotic episode and decided it was jesus…). That actually, curiously enough, that’s where I find myself unable to come up with a plausible counter narrative if I wanted to because sometimes when I’m arguing with the infernalist faction (which is after all 95% of the church) I sometimes think yeah, maybe, this whole religion is just a way…

1:23:26
It is hard to get away from that. I think clearly that the event happened. Trying to reduce the event to something you can interpret in simple terms is the mistake. Paul clearly has a handle on what he believes happened because he has a semi-stoic understanding of the stakia of the cosmos with that general platonizing tendency that was part of the lingua franca also of the hellenistic greco-roman world and and I think he’s talking in terms of spirit and flesh. Luke is telling the story as best he can, and you know that for him in that part of the gospel he uses spirit in its vulgar sense meaning a ghost because it can also be used …this is the problem with the multivalency of words obviously, so he emphasized something else. Yet in the narrative in Acts, we have what sounds like he’s repeating the kind of language that people are really using speculatively in the course of the debate that he’s trying to recount.

1:25:36
Also there’s no reason to think that for John the spiritual body would be intangible. It’s capable of that, being whatever it can be. It can pass through locked doors but also eat, break bread. There’s no reason why a higher corporeality would lack any of the powers in a lower form. In fact, it would almost certainly be metaphysically assumed by most that, virtually, it would possess all powers of the lower body in a higher and more refined state, and it’d be a matter of how to express this. There’s no reason to see in the palpability of the wounds of the risen Christ any claim that this is not a spiritual body.

Fra Angelico. Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb (Cell 8). 1441.

8 thoughts on “Christ’s Empty Grave in the Writings of David Bentley Hart

  1. Thanks.
    I’m not sure that DBH is affirming his belief in an empty tomb here? He is recounting a ‘tradition.’
    I’m not sure that Dale C. Allison believes it either!

    Like

    • Hart has said this explicitly in a few places. In the chat I cite above, he not only claims it about Christ’s dead body but about all of creation: “it really is that same body that’s transformed into spirit along with all of creation.” Hart’s own metaphysics—at this general level and on this topic—is very close to what Hart considers Paul to have believed.

      Like

      • Ok, it is still not a statement about an ’empty tomb’ that DBH wouldbelieve in…and of course it’s not necessary…he’s crafty…I must look up Roland in Midnight for the passage you refer to…
        And tbh if ‘Christianity’ actually requires an ’empty tomb’ it is strangely materialistic lol…

        Like

      • Here’s a little from Atheists Delusions: “We see the glory of God revealed in a crucified slave, and in which (consequently) we are enjoined to see the forsaken of the earth as the very children of heaven. …In the light cast backward upon the scene by the empty tomb, it becomes all at once clear that it is not Christ’s ‘ambitions’ that are laughable.”

        DBH is explicit about this all over, and he’s the last person I’d call crafty in the sense of shy about sharing any of his ideas or beliefs. This is not materialistic at all. The entire metaphysics of DBH maintains that flesh is only a contingent way of participation in our more substantial spiritual embodiment. Mind and spirit are substantive in ways that our current material and mechanistic confusions can not imagine much at all any more.

        Like

      • Not to overindulge here, but DBH says of the resurrection: “I’ve always thought that’s one place where Wolfhart Pannenberg was right.”

        And here is Wolfhart Pannenberg:

        The resurrection claim “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned” (Jesus, 100).

        He also says that we must accept “the facticity of the resurrection of Jesus as the Christian faith proclaims it” (Jesus, 352).

        Likewise: “The fact that the early Jewish polemic against the Christian message about Jesus’ resurrection, traces of which have already been left in the Gospels, does not offer any suggestion that Jesus’ grave had remained untouched. The Jewish polemic would have had to have every interest in the preservation of such a report. However, quite to the contrary, it shared the conviction with its Christian opponents that Jesus’ grave was empty.” (Jesus, 101)

        Another location: “In Jerusalem the empty tomb had to be important as a self-evident fact.” (Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 359)

        Like

      • I’m glad that you read this all so closely, and I’m grateful for you engaging. At one point, David tells Roland that he believes in all kinds of resurrection accounts from various human traditions. In that section, they talk at length about “rainbow bodies” (a Buddhist concept as I recall) and the problem of historicity. I gave my book away, or I’d look it up. DBH is easy to misunderstand in this area because he certainly insists upon a spiritual understanding of substance and embodiment. He also rejects any attempt at historicity in the sense of being able to definitively know and evaluate the various conceptual understandings of the NT authors. This all makes it easy to think that he is happy to let the body of Christ sit in a grave while Christ’s spirit rises. However, he sees flesh as an incomplete expression of spirit so that when the spirit is fully manifested, the flesh is superseded and transformed. It’s a dualism you’ll never find in DBH to say that flesh doesn’t matter and can be simply left behind by our spirit.

        Like

  2. Pingback: Easter and Materialism | Jesus and the Ancient Paths

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s