The heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is His death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3–4). This good news about Jesus wasn’t a mythological medley of spiritual metaphors. It wasn’t a story invented to puff the public appeal of a carpenter-turned-Rabbi. These were not “cleverly devised tales” (2 Pet 1:16) meant to deceive the masses into an unfounded faith. Early Christians made it clear that the gospel is based on historical events that occurred with real people in real places. Christ suffered “under Pontius Pilate,” a real historical figure. He was buried in a real tomb owned by a prominent Jerusalemite, Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:57–60). And He rose again on the third day—seen, heard, and even touched by numerous eye witnesses (1 Cor 15:5–8).
When people visit Israel today, they are bombarded by all sorts of claims regarding the location of certain biblical events—from the place where an angel visited Mary to the place where Christ was born . . . from the hillside where Jesus preached to the cliff where the herd of possessed pigs plunged into the Sea of Galilee. Sometimes pilgrims are left wondering which of these claims are based on historical fact or simply conjecture. But when it comes to the place of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, things get really messy. In fact, two competing locations for the death and resurrection present themselves as the true place of Golgotha and the tomb—the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the more recent Garden Tomb. And the difference between these two locations is quite literally darkness and light.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is cramped among the buildings of Old Jerusalem, covered by layer after layer of stone structures. Numerous Catholic traditions compete for control of the site, sending droves of worshipers through a maze-like route of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Up narrow stone steps . . . past the supposed crucifixion site smothered in Catholic kitsch . . . down another flight of stairs . . . through a hallway painted with a mural depicting the death, wrapping, and burial of Jesus . . . and finally into an open hall crowded with Christian-like people first rudely shoving their way past others to see the burial site, only to reemerge weeping and wailing for their sins. I was actually told once by a burly Italian priest that I couldn’t go into the chapel because I wasn’t Catholic! To my evangelical eyes, the place is awful when it should be awesome. I always walk out of that cold, cramped, crowded Church with a feeling of despair, not hope.
But when I walk into the place of Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, it’s like walking into a Thomas Kinkade painting. Birds chirp, butterflies flutter, trees wave in the cool breeze, visitors walk leisurely along garden paths, praying and singing hymns. A guide points out the craggy cliff which, with some imagination, looks like the features of a skull. He points to the area that used to be a site of public execution—a perfect fit for the crucifixion of Christ. Then he leads us to a tomb . . . a real tomb. Not a church, but an ancient burial site once covered by a rolling stone. There it is, in the garden, not far from the place of crucifixion, standing open . . .and empty. Pilgrims slowly file in and out. No pushing, no shoving, no burning incense, no purchasing candles, no kissing rocks—just meditating on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Like I said, the contrast is darkness and light. The only thing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb have it common is that they both claim to be the place of the gospel events. Of course, evangelicals who visit the Holy Land almost instantly reject the Catholic location, and almost unquestioningly accept the Garden Tomb. It’s easy to see why. But in all likelihood, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre holds the best claim as the authentic site of Christ’s death and resurrection. On my last trip to Israel, I had the hardest time answering visitors’ questions about this. I really wanted to say, “No, that Catholic Church isn’t the real thing. This beautiful garden is the place.” But I couldn’t. Instead, I had to quietly tell those who asked the simple archaeological and historical facts.
The Bible says Joseph of Arimathea placed Christ’s body “in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock” (Matt 27:60). However, the grave at the Garden Tomb has all the characteristics of an Old Testament period tomb, not a new tomb. Besides this archaeological fact, the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has very strong historical claim. It is mentioned very early on in Christian history has having been memorialized by the Christians in Jerusalem as the location of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In contrast, Gordon’s Calvary and its nearby tomb have no such pedigree. As difficult as it is for me to admit, the Garden Tomb is just a pretty place.
But as I reflect on the troubling condition of the true location of Christ’s death and resurrection, I’m not surprised. From day one Satan and the opponents of Christianity have been trying to cover up, confuse, and destroy the heart of Christianity. What better way for Satan to obscure the truth than to adorn the place of Christ’s atoning death and saving resurrection with a kitschy cross and a creepy crypt! And as I reflect on the many weeping worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre who push and shove their way through the gaudy grotto, I feel sadness at what the simple, beautiful, inspiring gospel of Jesus Christ has become for so many. Instead of a source of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, it has often become a center of impurity, idolatry, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, disputes, dissensions, and factions. Evangelicals like you and me are not immune to this, either.
Although historically we must accept the likelihood that the place of Christ’s death and resurrection is concealed by a massive Church . . . spiritually we should strive for the purity and beauty symbolized by the Garden Tomb.