I’ve heard the saying, “We have an empty cross because Jesus no longer hangs there, He is risen.” True enough. As Christians we do not worship a God who is dead, but one who died and rose again on the third day. Paul is clear about the importance of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” and “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” It’s pretty clear, if we don’t believe in the resurrection, Christianity is just plain stupid. Symbols are important, they teach, they proclaim, and they summarize the thing that they stand for. So the question is, “is the ‘empty cross’ a good symbol for the resurrection?”
In a word, no. The cross would have been empty irregardless of whether or not Christ was raised. By the evening of that first Good Friday, the two thieves on either side of Christ had also been taken down from their crosses. Their bodies remained in the grave. The thing about the cross is that it is a symbol of death, but not just any death, the death God incarnate, Jesus Christ. What makes the symbol of the Cross significant is “who” hung there and what that accomplished. There on the Cross, Christ willingly offered Himself as the perfect substitute for us, endured God’s wrath in our place, and shed His blood for our forgiveness. The Cross is an important symbol, it says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). This is why Lutherans do not shy away from having a cross with Christ in their sanctuaries. The Cross has meaning precisely because Jesus suffered and died on it. The tomb also has meaning precisely because Jesus rose from the dead and left it empty.