Meeting Hegel Halfway at the Empty Tomb

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it .
—Matthew 28:1–2

The Drama and Non-Drama of Resurrection

A peculiar detail in Matthew’s account of the resurrection has not, it seems to me, done much theological work. While the three other gospels have the women discovering the tomb with the stone already rolled back, Matthew has them coming to a sealed tomb, and “suddenly” —idou, that attention-grabbing word used to such effect by Matthew and Luke—they become witnesses of the event.

What they witness, though, is not the resurrection, but the bodiless tomb. If evangelical harmonization feels important, we can read Matthew’s account as showing us what the other three do not: that whether the women witnessed the action with the stone or not, the tomb was empty before it rolled.

Commentators, when they pay attention to this detail, tend to associate it with the idou found a few verses later in Matthew, when Jesus “suddenly” encounters the women. Easter Jesus is one who inhabits space and time differently, it is said, so that he can appear when and as he needs to. In other words: he does not need the stone moved, as distances and obstructions are no longer limitations for him. John is the most explicit about this connection, showing him to be able to pass through locked doors (20:26).

Certainly, that delimitation is an element of what we are intended to notice about Jesus in these accounts. Taken in isolation, though, this might suggest that the Christological dial is beginning to tilt toward his divinity and away from humanity. Whatever his body is made of now, stone walls and wooden doors do not affect it. He is stranger than before, less recognizable to us, less known.

I suspect there is more to be gathered from this narrative detail. If we linger for just a moment with Matthew’s telling, it is clear that the dramatic action at the tomb, since it is not the fanfare surrounding the resurrection itself, must point us to the event of revelation. It is not, that is, the emptying of the tomb that shakes the earth and brings an angel or two down from heaven; the drama is an accompaniment to the act of witnessing, the coming-to-know that Christ is risen. So even if he is now stranger than ever, the accounts are precisely about the humans around him—still spatially and materially limited—coming to know and recognize something and someone that they did not know before. They are coming to know something so real that it comes from beyond the solidity of earth.

This dual observation—the negative one that the resurrection itself happened with little or no fanfare and the positive one that its revelation shook the physical and metaphysical foundations—might lead us to new insights in the connection of theological ontology to theological epistemology. That is to say, the non-drama of resurrection has something to say about what is, and the drama of revelation has something to say about our coming to know it, our coming to be as witnesses of what is.

In that sense, the empty tomb presents the interaction of eternal life with temporal witness.

Is that even a thinkable thought? Before witness turns into testimony, before the women can tell the disciples what they have seen and heard, they must have an idea, a concept, of what it is that they have seen and heard. They must know it. Even if the concept only takes shape in the telling, it still must take shape: telling is a sign of knowing, not the other way around. So how can an idea from beyond temporal reality form within a time-bound mind? Can there be such an act, the act of witnessing the infinite, that does not “suddenly” involve losing one’s finitude?

The Emergent Thought

It is likely that no one has asked—or will ask—this question with more care and patience than Hegel does in his Science of Logic. Can a concept be shown to be “that which exists in and for itself” (29)? Can conscious thought emerge as a child of what truly is, rather than simply a reasoning capacity shut off from access to the objective world? Hegel’s journey into the question, I want to suggest, can bring us a new insight as to what is happening at the empty tomb.

In setting up the question of the Logic in the way he does, Hegel has flipped the guiding question of the Phenomenology of Spirit. There he wanted to know whether consciousness can reach out toward the reality of being. Now he begins with unlimited being, and he wants to know how this being, in all its infinity, can emerge as conscious thought. In these terms, the Logic is closer to the problem of the tomb: it is not so much whether Mary can adequately grasp the truth of the event, but rather if what most truly is can enter into Mary’s understanding.

The title of his work demonstrates the connection that he is after. He is not writing a text on logical theory, but on “the loftier business of logic” (17), the business by which it gives an account of itself as grounded in what is real. “Syllogisms work!” is about as far as most theories of discursive thought can take us. Hegel wants to know if the functioning that we call thinking is “scientific”: have we asked all the questions and made all the tests we need to make in order to verify not this or that thought experiment but the grand experiment of thought itself? Can we show thinking to be faithful to being?

The key engine that drives the inquiry, as is well known, is negation. However—and this is often glossed over in simplistic presentations of Hegel’s thought—negation is not external collision, but internalized alterity. Being finds its negation in nothing; this is not, though, a nothing beyond being, but a nothing implied by being’s infinite abstraction from each and every thing. Nothing emerges as a force intrinsic within and resistant to being, and being’s response is to negate or resist the emergent nothing.

When we descend (or ascend?) the ladder toward existing things, we discover an important change in the way this engine of negation drives us onward. In being’s infinity, the nothing could only have emerged from within. Among the finitude of beings, however, alterity appears extrinsically. The other does not begin as an awareness within my consciousness, but as a true other, strange and at first even unknown to me. Still, no movement toward conceptualizing the other happens until the other has become intrinsic to me. She becomes not just an abstract other, but a known other, a not-I, even as I become not-her. Only the internalized other can be the object of negation.

As an analogy, Hegel asks us to think about homeopathic medicine. An herb confronts a disease in a body. The disease did not generate the herb, thankfully, since if it did healing would be unlikely. Still, the healing does not begin until the herb is taken into the body. The two—herb and disease—begin to form themselves as negations of each other. If in the end we have before us a healed body, a still existing being, it is because the resistance of the disease which the herb internalized provided just the right negation for the herb to be, and so allowed the body to heal. The opposite is also true: if the disease wins out, the thing—a corpse—before us is evidence that the disease has found in its internalized negation of the herb the power to refuse the herb’s negation of itself (90).

So I encounter something that is not-I, and I immediately set about the task of mediation: I cannot know the truth of the other until the other is one who emerges within me. And this internalizing is what gets the resistance, the negation, underway. What does this emergent other want from me? Is it trying to take over, become me? What do I want from it? To swallow it up so that it is annihilated in the overpowering self that I had already pre-formed before I ever met this new clamor for truth within? Life itself is this motion of emergence, resistance, and new emergence.

And when the struggle reaches a conclusion, what then? The negation itself has been negated, Hegel says, in that all my efforts to assert myself by dissolving it, and all its efforts to assert itself by dissolving me, have only brought about an irresistible new being, in which the strange truth that is other carries on as a force existing within me. Even more strangely, I carry on as a life force within this not-I. We “shine,” Hegel says, within one another (342). The being of the negated other shines within the emergent essence. I come into self-awareness as existing, as what I am, only “by virtue of another” (338), namely the reflected shine of the other that marks the battle of negation that has made me what I am.

As his treatise moves toward the resistance that produces the concept, we begin to see the dazzling announcement Hegel has been attempting to make. When I come to know something, I do so through a process of encounter, internalization, resistance, and emergence. And this process is the very same pattern that exists in the thing—as the thing—that I come to know. My idea of an herb is not randomly stamped on the distant reality of the herb itself; rather in thinking “herb” I am beginning to see how the being of the herb is itself a kind of thinking, insofar as “the demand that being should be exhibited”—or made manifest—“has a further, inner meaning: . . . implied in it is the demand for the realization of the concept” (739). The known herb emerges into conceptuality as a culmination of the unknown herb’s emergence into being.

What Hegel is attempting here, boldly in a universe still so shaped by Kantian critique, is a demonstration that concepts can tell us the truth about being. The phenomenal herb is not the fullness of the noumenal herb. Still, the herb that will always now be, shine, within the life of the healed body and the mind of the one who came to know the healing is a faithful reflection of the rich, diverse, multifaceted strangeness that is the herb itself. The phenomenon can illuminate accurately the noumenon. Epistemology is—can be—ontologically rich.

The Infinitude of the Finite

Fascinating enough, you may say, but in the case of the resurrection we are not talking about Mary coming to know a healing herb. Neither is she simply meeting a fellow creature and forming a concept of that creature that allows it to be what it is even as it takes on a life intrinsic to her. Here we are talking about coming to witness, and then somehow know and conceptualize an event that cannot really be known at all. An event characterized only by what is missing: he is not here. They have taken him away. How can Mary come to know the risen life of the Son of God?

Said differently, how can a finite knower come to know an infinite being? The help that Hegel offers here is in the reminder that the infinite can never really confront the finite as other, since that would finitize the infinite. Although they sound like it, the infinite and the finite are not opposites. I cannot actually—coherently at least—say that life without limits, or infinite experience, is limited by being fundamentally different from the life I now know. That would be like saying, “On the other side of that fence is everywhere. But not on this side.” Does the very presence of the fence not imply that “over there” is not everywhere?

The finite is not even “other” to the infinite, but internal to it. “There is not an infinite which is infinite beforehand, and only afterward does it find it necessary to become finite, to go forth into finitude; the infinite is rather for itself just as much finite as infinite” (123). Finitude, Hegel tells us, is generated by resistance within the infinite.

And alternatively—this is key for the Marys at the tomb—the infinite is the internal vocation (110) of every finite thing. It is the pattern “trying” to emerge within every finite emergence. Said differently: the infinite lowers itself and becomes the calling to life without end particular to each finite thing. And then, in the same moment, it elevates this vocationally-awakened finite being into the true boundlessness of all things.

There are limits, it must be said, to the distance a Hegelian account of the resurrection as revealed can take us. Insofar as the finite that emerges is always immanently related to the infinite ground from which it emerges, Hegel remains locked out of a theologically orthodox account of the great analogy of being. Indeed, he may not have been happy with my characterization of the “pattern” that conjoins thinking and being, since pattern implies analogy, and Hegel’s dialectic is too immanent to allow for analogies that cross ontological divisions. For such a step, we might consider the still very Hegelian account of the “divine humanity” in Vladimir Solovyov.[1] For him, the infinite Christ can appear in finitude, and we can know that Christ, because Christ’s divinity, from all eternity, envelopes our humanity. Ours, but transposed “in a different key,” you might say. Or rather, our humanity is his divinity transposed.

Outside the Tomb

Returning then to the drama/non-drama of the resurrection, I might venture the following hypothesis. The risen Jesus displays the true pattern of infinite being shining in and through an embodied finite life. There is no apocalyptic confrontation of the infinite power of God with the finite materiality of creation, since the infinite has always been the intrinsic vocation of the finite, and the finite has always been intrinsic to the “composition” of the infinite. Jesus does not even walk through the wall of his tomb, but simply is beyond the grave as a “more infinite” manifestation of the more finite life he lived before. The body is not in the tomb, not because it physically left, but because it has been gathered up into its own ultimate being, the risen life of Jesus of Nazareth. It simply cannot be there, since he has risen.

And this is what Mary comes to know. There is an angel and an earthquake not for Jesus, but for Mary. The truth of being that emerges in her consciousness shakes the very foundations of reality. This is not to say that the apocalyptic events were only in her mind, but rather that for true being to emerge in our minds is enough to cause a minor apocalypse. The resurrection is what is real, but the life limited by death must first encounter it as strange, other, non-earthly, angelic. Only then can a finite life internalize the revelation, resist it, insist on not being destroyed or absorbed by it. And so, eventually, Matthew suggests, we might come to find ourselves as finite beings who have been shaped from within by the stunning non-drama of Jesus’ risen life.

[1] Vladimir Solovyov, Lectures on the Divine Humanity, trans. Boris Jakim (Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press, 1995).

Featured Image: Georg Ebeling, Mausoleum Auf Dem Stadtfriedhof Engesohde in Hannover Mosaik mit Engel, photo by Bernd Schwabe in Hannover; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Anthony Baker

Anthony Baker is Professor of Systematic Theology at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He is the author of several books, most recently, Leaving Emmaus: A New Departure in Christian Theology.

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