What Was the Meaning of the Empty Tomb?

On October 2, 1976, after A Course in Miracles had already been published, Helen Schucman was having a discussion with Ken Wapnick about the physical resurrection of Jesus. Did it really happen? After Ken gave his opinion (“If the body were not real and alive, how could it then resurrect?”), he suggested that Helen ask the “Boss” himself. The answer that came (Absence from Felicity, pp. 398-399) answers much more than the question of a physical resurrection. It addresses the tension between the notion of a resurrected body and the unreality of the body, and in the end addresses the whole nature of the resurrection. I will go through and comment on each part of this remarkable piece of guidance.

Was There a Physical Resurrection?

My body disappeared because I had no illusion about it. The last one had gone. It was laid in the tomb, but there was nothing left to bury. It did not disintegrate because the unreal cannot die. It merely became what it always was.

Jesus opens without mentioning a resurrected body. There is no talk of him walking around, appearing to disciples, eating fish, breaking bread, etc. But he clearly states a core component of the resurrection story—that there was an empty tomb. He says that his body “was laid in the tomb,” but that then “my body disappeared.”

Why did it disappear? Because he had no more illusions about it. “The last one had gone.” I believe that this must have happened in the crucifixion. Think about it—since letting go of the last illusion about his body made it disappear, then if he had let go of the last illusion years before this, then his body presumably would have disappeared years earlier. He must have just recently let go of that last illusion.

This fits the whole nature of the crucifixion. The crucifixion, in the Course’s interpretation, was all about Jesus teaching a message. The message was that “you cannot be assaulted” (T-6.I.4:6), because the thing that gets assaulted—the body—“cannot be real” (T-6.I.4:3). Putting this together with the resurrection guidance, we can thus conclude that in the crucifixion he gave up his last shreds of belief in the reality of his body.

And then it disappeared, not because it suddenly became unreal, but because he fully perceived that it had been unreal all along. Its appearance as a solid, visible thing had masked its underlying nothingness. Once he fully understood its nothingness, “It merely became what it always was.” It became on the level of appearance what it had always been on the level of truth. Rather than disintegrating, it merely stopped falsely appearing to be something.

Notice how this puts a different twist on Ken Wapnick’s point. Ken said that because the body was not real in the first place, it couldn’t come back to life. Jesus said that because it was not real in the first place, it couldn’t disintegrate, it couldn’t die. “It did not disintegrate because the unreal cannot die.” The two perspectives have the same starting point—the unreality of the body—but one (Jesus’) leads to an empty tomb, while the other (Ken’s) apparently does not.

Notice also what this implies about our own bodies. It implies that they only remain in appearance because we still believe in their reality. They are dream symbols that only show up because they symbolize a belief in the mind. When every last bit of that belief goes, the body goes with it. We simply stop dreaming it.

And that is what “rolling the stone away” means. The body disappears, and no longer hides what lies beyond. It merely ceases to interfere with vision. To roll the stone away is to see beyond the tomb, beyond death, and to understand the body’s nothingness. What is understood as nothing must disappear.

His comments about the disappearance of the body lead to a novel interpretation of rolling away the stone. Rolling away the stone means rolling away the body. We associate the body with life—having a body means being alive—but Jesus here associates it with death. The body, he implies, shuts us up in a place of death. The body entombs us. If we are biological creatures, the idea of the body entombing us makes no sense. But if we are infinite beings, beings of limitless life, it makes perfect sense. For the body seems to curtail that infinite state in manifold ways. It separates us from others. It narrows our awareness down to a tiny brain, our joy down to tiny bits of sensory pleasure, our wholeness down to the precarious health of this tiny lump of flesh. It is like the narrow shutter of a camera that lets in only slender rays of the infinite life that we are.

For the above lines, however, the thing that it curtails is vision. Based on Jesus’ metaphor here, while we see with the body’s eyes, we are peering about in darkness, seeing only the dim contours of the interior of our tomb. That stone rolled across the door—the body—literally blocks our vision of the world that lies outside the tomb, the real world. Thus, when that stone is rolled away, for the first time, we finally see. We see the glory of a sunrise landscape stretched out before us, with the first rays of dawn landing on the glorious lilies of Easter morning. We see the real world.

In The Song of Prayer, Jesus says something very similar. He speaks of the time when we will be advanced enough to consciously lay the body down. When that happens, he says, “We are thankful…the need is done…to reach the Christ in hidden forms and clearly seen at most in lovely flashes. Now we can behold Him without blinders” (S-3.II.2:3-4). The body, then, is like a horse’s blinders. It is something that restricts vision—just as in his interpretation of the body as the stone that blocks our vision of what’s beyond the tomb.

Now we can appreciate Jesus’ interpretation of the resurrection here. The resurrection was not the reappearance of the body; it was the disappearance of the body. It was not about the body leaving the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; it was about the mind leaving the tomb of physicality. The disappearance of the body, then, was what allowed for the real resurrection—the resurrection of the mind.

I did assume a human form with human attributes afterwards, to speak to those who were to prove the body’s worthlessness to the world. This has been much misunderstood. I came to tell them that death is an illusion and the mind that made the body can make another since form itself is an illusion. They did not understand. But now I talk to you and give you the same message. The death of an illusion means nothing. It disappears when you awaken and decide to dream no more. And you still do have the power to make this decision as I did.

Now Jesus verifies the other key aspect of the traditional resurrection story: his appearances to his disciples. He says, “I did assume a human form with human attributes afterwards.” Yet he downplays the importance of this. It wasn’t really the same body. He dreamt another body (“the mind that made the body can make another”) and did so merely to speak to his disciples. And the reason he spoke to them was to send them out to “prove the body’s worthlessness to the world.”

And this they did. Filled with unshakable conviction from their encounters with the risen Jesus, his disciples faced their own, often violent, deaths with cheer and serenity. Like Jesus, they thus demonstrated that the death of the body need not be feared. This is how they proved “the body’s worthlessness to the world.”

But they didn’t fully understand. They misinterpreted Jesus’ reappearances. Seeing him with a restored body, they linked this with the Jewish teaching of the resurrection of the body. So they concluded that it didn’t matter if their bodies were destroyed, because they would get them back when the last trumpet sounded, and then take those bodies into Heaven.

He says that he tried to tell them that the body was a meaningless illusion and that he was just conjuring one up on the fly. But apparently they interpreted the meaning of his appearances, based not on his words, but on their prior belief systems. The post-Easter disciples, in other words, were apparently just as thickheaded as the pre-Easter disciples. And thus we have had two thousand years of Christian belief that the body is an inherent part of our nature as God created us, a part that will on the last day be raised up, so that we can spend eternity with it.

Jesus, however, is not daunted by this ancient and profound misunderstanding. He knows that this is how it goes with us humans. So he calmly says, “They did not understand. But now I talk to you and give you the same message.” Do you see the hope in that? The hope that maybe, this time, we will understand? Maybe this time we will realize that death means nothing because the body was never real in the first place. Maybe this time we will withdraw our investment in it so fully, so deeply, that one day it will simply vanish. For, in fact, the ability to make the body disappear was not unique to him. “And you still do have the power to make this decision as I did.”

God holds out His hand to His Son to help him rise and return to Him. I can help because the world is an illusion, and I have overcome the world. Look past the tomb, the body, the illusion. Have faith in nothing but the spirit and the guidance God gives you. He could not have created the body because it is a limit. He must have created the spirit because it is immortal. Can those who are created like Him be limited? The body is the symbol of the world. Leave it behind. It cannot enter Heaven. But I can take you there anytime you choose. Together we can watch the world disappear and its symbol [the body] vanish as it does so. And then, and then…I cannot speak of that.

Notice how Jesus’ language changes here from the earlier descriptive statements to these injunctive statements. “Look past…Have faith…Leave it.” He has switched from telling us what happened on the original Easter to telling us how we can live its message in our present day lives.

We are all within the tomb of the world, with the stone of the body rolled across the entrance. But we are not lost. “God holds out His hand” to us, to help us rise from this place of death. And Jesus can help, too, for he has made the journey that we must make. From his unlimited state, he reaches out to us. As we let him lead us to Heaven, our task is not to try to lug the heavy stone of the body along with us. It cannot go to God, for it did not come from God. Why would God have created a limit like the body? How could He have created us within this limit, when He Himself is limitless? As Jesus lifts us into Heaven, we will briefly look back and watch the world disappear along with its symbol, the body. And what will happen then cannot be described.

A body cannot stay without illusions, and the last one to be overcome is death. This is the message of the crucifixion: There is no order of difficulty in miracles. This is the message of the resurrection: Illusions are illusions. Truth is true. Illusions vanish. Only truth remains.

Here we have a succinct summary of the messages of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. We’ll start with the crucifixion. What does it mean to say that the message of the crucifixion was “There is no order of difficulty in miracles”? To understand this, we have to consult the section called “The Message of the Crucifixion” in the Text (T-6.I). That section repeatedly refers to the crucifixion as an “extreme example” (2:1) or an “extreme case” (11:6). It says, “I elected, for your sake and mine, to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter” (9:1). The crucifixion, then, was a demonstration, a demonstration that even the most extreme assault cannot hurt us and therefore isn’t truly real. By showing this to be true in such an extreme case, he showed it to be true in our own far milder cases. He showed it to be true in all cases. Thus, just as the miracle can heal any sickness, regardless of its size, so the miracle can overlook any assault, regardless of its severity. Why? Because there is no order of difficulty in miracles. That is what Jesus showed us in the crucifixion.

To really teach that lesson, Jesus had to relinquish all belief that he could be attacked, all belief that the life in him could be extinguished by anyone or anything. In other words, he relinquished all belief in death. And death, he says, is the last illusion to be overcome (echoing St. Paul’s statement in I Cor 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”). This makes sense when you realize that death, according to the Course, is more than just the cessation of bodily functioning. It is really an idea, that the life—the joy, awareness, vitality, holiness, and permanence—that God gave us can be compromised in any way. “It is the one idea which underlies all feelings that are not supremely happy” (W-pI.167.2:4). Death, then, is not so much a single illusion but the essence of all illusions. It is even the essence of the illusion that we call a “living” body, for as we saw above, the body seems to curtail the unlimited life that God gave us in our creation.

When Jesus relinquished the idea of death, once and for all, the body had to vanish. His body was a shadow cast by the dark shape of death in his mind, but now that shape had gone. How, then, could its shadow remain? Now that all illusions had passed away, the only thing that remained was reality, the reality of his unbounded mind, no longer entombed, no longer curtailed, free to be exactly as God created it—limitless. And that is what he means by “Illusions vanish. Only truth remains.”

These lessons needed to be taught but once, for when the stone of death is rolled away, what can be seen except an empty tomb? And that is what you see who follow me into the sunlight and away from death, past all illusions, on to Heaven’s gate, where God will come Himself to take you home.

This beautiful concluding paragraph makes plain his intent. He wants to tell us what really happened, not so much to set the record straight, but to tell us what his resurrection means for us. For when he rolled away the stone of his own belief in death, he rolled away ours, too. We may think we are still shut up in our tomb, but if we will just take his hand, we will suddenly see that the stone is gone, the door is open. He will then lead us out of this place of death and into the sunlight, across a field of shining lilies, and then “on to Heaven’s gate, where God will come Himself” to take us home.

Now that we have finished this guidance, we can survey its vision of the resurrection as a whole. What strikes me most is that Jesus affirms every single aspect of the traditional story—there was a crucifixion, an empty tomb, he appeared to his followers, and then ascended to Heaven—but then radically reinterprets each and every step. In the traditional understanding, the significance of the crucifixion was that it killed his body. And the significance of the resurrection was that God reversed that; God raised up his body. The resurrection, then, was Jesus coming back to life in a bodily sense. His body was restored to life, even to a higher state of life. The meaning of the empty tomb, therefore, was that his body had come back to life and left the tomb. The meaning of his appearances to his followers was that he had presented to them his resurrected body. And the meaning of his ascension is that he had now returned to Heaven, body and all, physically rising up into the sky.

In this new version, however, every element has changed in meaning, for whereas the former story was all about the death and resurrection of his body, the new story is all about the unreality of his body. Now, the significance of the crucifixion was that in the midst of it, he had realized that his body was nothing, so that it literally didn’t matter what brutal things were done to it. This realization led directly to the empty tomb, which did not occur because his body had been resurrected, but because it had disappeared. Its nothingness had been fully grasped and made manifest. He then reappeared to his followers, not in his resurrected body, but in an ad hoc body manifested strictly for that occasion. The body wasn’t the point; it was just a device needed in order to speak with them. And what did he want to say? He wanted to send them on their mission of proving to the world just how worthless the body is. So even the resurrection appearances—in which he displayed a body—were really about the unreality of the body. Finally, he ascended to Heaven, not with his resurrected body, but by leaving his body behind, by realizing that its nothingness could never contain his now reawakened mind.

As you can see, even though both accounts include the exact same sequence of events, they are actually two entirely different stories. One story is about the body: about what was done to it, how it died (for our sins), and how it was brought back to life, visited friends, and ascended to Heaven. The other story, as I have said, is about the unreality of the body, but it is really about more than that. It is about the rising of the mind above the body’s limitations. In this story, in the midst of the most incredible physical abuse, the mind realizes that its body is unreal and thus cannot impose suffering on the mind. Through that realization, the body vanishes. It ceases to curtail the mind, ceases to limit vision. The mind then rises from its entombed condition, so that it can first see the real world, and then awaken to its unbounded state in Heaven.

Since the Course would agree with Christianity that Jesus was “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Cor 15:20), these are really two stories of our own future, two different accounts of our own destiny. Which one do we want to be our story? Even though it would be nice to have a glorified, everlasting body, one can’t help but think that even an immortal body would get old after a while, if you know what I mean. To be cooped up in a body forever, confined to one place and time, separated from others, gazing forever on meaningless outer surfaces—is this our idea of eternal felicity? Or do we sense that real happiness lies in transcending the body’s limits, and rising into a state that would be impossible to even imagine while still within these fleshy walls? Do we want Jesus to lead us into a bodily Heaven, populated with separate forms, or do we want him to lead us beyond the body, out of the tomb of physical existence, and into the eternal sunshine of God’s limitless Mind?


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]