Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre Shows Our Need for a Savior

How the site demonstrates the need for the place it hallows.

One of the biggest surprises to Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem occurs when they step inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection falls short of the expectations of many Christians accustomed to Western worship.

Gold drips from icons. Chanting fills the spaces. Incense rises between cold stone walls. Six sects of Christendom betray jealous rivalries over the goings-on within. Territorial fistfights even occur on occasion.

The Holy Sepulchre's dome covers Christ's tomb

(Photo: The Holy Sepulchre’s dome covers Christ’s tomb. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

Without proper mental preparation, a Christian pilgrim may see only the distracting depravity of religion that has affixed itself to this site like barnacles on sunken treasure.

But if we look past today’s traditionalism to history’s tradition, we find an unbroken connection to the central event of all time—the redemption of the universe.

For in this place, Jesus Christ died for your sins and rose again.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre—Its Story

The earliest and strongest Christian tradition places the location of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection at the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.

  • The Aramaic name of the original, rocky outcropping, Golgotha (calvaria in Latin), reflects death in its translation: “The Place of a Skull” (John 19:17).
  • The Jerusalem Christian community held worship services at this site until A.D. 66.
  • The Judeo-Christian synagogue at the site of the Upper Room on modern Mount Zion faced the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, rather than the Temple Mount.
  • After the Emperor Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem and divided it into its quarters, he erected a temple to Aphrodite over the site.
  • During the fourth century, Constantine tore down the pagan temple and rebuilt a church on the site to memorialize the place of Christ’s resurrection.
  • In 1009 the Egytian ruler Al-Hakim had the building destroyed and the tomb of Jesus hacked down to bedrock.
  • The church has been built, rebuilt and expanded (much of what we see today stems from the Crusader period), and different religions, races and sects have obscured the entire original site.
Cross-section of site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

(Cross-section of site of Holy Sepulchre, via WikiMedia)

 This [tomb] certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able effectually to obscure the truth. —Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea

This video shows the constructions and reconstructions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre throughout history.

The Site Shows the Need for What it Memorializes

Ironically, in the very place where Jesus died to make us one, various sects of Christianity fight over rights to the site.

Father Jerome Murphy O’Connor, a professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, has lived in Jerusalem over forty years and bemoaned the constant disharmony in the church:

One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: the six groups of occupants—Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians—watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights (The Holy Land, p. 45).

In a 2008 interview, Father O’Connor commented on the quarreling: “The whole spectacle is unedifying and totally un-Christian in nature.” He added, “I’m not hopeful—either for peace in the Middle East or for peace in the Holy Sepulchre.”


(Google Street View: Look around in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre)

Many Christians are so put off by the religiosity and traditionalism of the goings on in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that they reject its authenticity. I’ve heard reputable Israeli guides point to the Garden Tomb as the authentic site, in spite of the overwhelming history to the contrary. Feelings still trump facts.

It’s hard not to blame them.

On one visit when our tour group shuffled its way through the gaggle of pilgrims in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my daughter raised her camera to photograph the tomb of Jesus.

“NO PICTURES!” a monk exploded at her. With reactions like this, I understand why the tension exists there.

After this monk blasted my daughter, I wanted to walk over and pull his arms off. And by that confession, I admit I contribute to the problem.

The edicule is built over the tomb of Jesus

(Photo: The edicule is built over the tomb of Jesus. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

The Church Proves Our Need for a Savior

It’s easy to wag our fingers at the holy war in the Holy Sepulchre. But we need to make sure we don’t display the same duplicity.

  • Do our children hear us talk about Jesus’ love, but then see us obstinately stay in disharmony with other Christians?
  • Do we praise God with our tongues, but then also curse people in God’s image (James 3:10)?
  • We don’t have to travel to Jerusalem to see the gospel obscured behind walls of religious hypocrisy, do we?

If we’re not careful, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a watching world will see our hypocrisy and miss our Savior.

How ironic that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre demonstrates the need for the place it hallows. In other words, the site where Christ died still proves the need for Christ’s death.

We need a Savior, and our failings prove we do.

Question: What was your experience inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? To leave a comment, just click here.

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  • jdkist1

    Some would have suggested that over on the Mt. of Olives, would be a better sight for the death, burial, of the Lord.
    They note from Matthew, all that the Centurion saw, and thought that no other place would allow for that, except over there. As well, they noted, the closeness to the Garden.

    They sighted that the area was used by the Romans circa AD 70, as a place of Crucifixion, as an example to the city of Jerusalem.
    You could clearly see the crucifixions, and be warned.

    They mentioned an “under-the-radar” church over there that might have been the sight of the crucifixion.

    Any thoughts?

    • I have heard of this theory, but it really isn’t credible. The arguments (some of which you mention below) are certainly debatable and many are farfetched.
      But the fact is that scholars, historians, and pilgrims have an UNBROKEN tradition (that’s huge) that points to the Church of the HS. This central event to Christianity is not a new conversation. The place of Christ’s death and resurrection is too significant to fall off of history’s map until the 20th century.
      Great question.

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  • Ty Crandall

    Very nice to be shown through someone’s eyes a place I have not been. Passion runs through humanity, it’s a gift from Creator God. Sharing one’s personal feelings whatever we may label them as good or bad brought about either directly or indirectly by what we see or experience takes courage.

    Jesus’s reaction to shepherds (religious leaders) and sheep (people) also shows lots of emotions on both ends of the scale. So let’s not kid ourselves that he didn’t get mad and angry, yet Jesus did not sin. We do have that same capacity inside of us, called the Holy Spirit. Have we really surrendered our lives to God and have died and arose again to a new birth or are we only talking a good game? Jesus did say to the affect ‘words are cheap’. Are we really being lead and yoked to Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit? That’s a question that will come up again some day when we stand before the Godhead and they decide heaven or hell is our eternity. Our call now, God’s call is coming to all of us.

    Appreciate this tour and sharing of where once the man Jesus walked in the here and now. Jesus is now in His deity sharing it with the Father.

    Blessings,
    Ty

    • Thanks for your thoughts this morning, Ty. God bless you.

  • Debbra Stephens

    Thank you for this great lesson today – for sharing from the wealth of your knowledge and insight. I am especially struck by this profound truth: “It’s easy to wag our fingers at the holy war in the Holy Sepulchre. But we need to make sure we don’t display the same duplicity. … If we’re not careful, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a watching world will see our hypocrisy and miss our Savior.” Giving thanks today that He is redeeming ALL things!

    • You’re welcome, Debbra. Yes, each time I enter that church I’m reminded of my own hypocrisy on some level and how essential it is that it not get in the way of Jesus. God bless.

  • Hannah Kurtz

    I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this past March basically on the day they uncovered the edicule built over the tomb. Our guide had never seen it uncovered before! So, as you can imagine, the church was VERY crowded with people. The experience was a bit overwhelming, but our guide prepared us mentally before we went inside.

    It was very sad to watch people worshiping a PLACE instead of a PERSON. It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out WHERE exactly biblical events took place instead of focusing on the WHO.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Hannah. We can so easily replace our awe for the Person and the event for the place where it occurred. I’m eager to see the edicule uncovered too— but without the crowds. When you go again (you are going again, right?), go with a friend and get there at 4:30 in the morning. The place is empty and it’s refreshingly reverent.

      • Hannah Kurtz

        I would certainly love to go again, but no definite plans yet 🙂 Thanks for the tip to go early in the morning! (I noticed how quiet the church was in the Passion Week videos and wondered when you went!)

  • I understand, Kathleen, and I share the frustration you’ve experienced. This is why I always prepare my groups beforehand before entering the church. The place itself isn’t as important as what occurred there. The fact that the enemy causes such confusion at that site seems to be a point in favor of its authenticity! —in addition to centuries of evidence. If you go again to Israel, I invite to come with us. God bless.

  • James Weaks

    Visited June 11, 2017. Very glad it was part of my Isreal tour, but the “ring around the Edicule” (never made it in) and the stories of the infighting were a turn off. We went to the lower level, the little Roman tomb off to one side, and other corners. Jerusalem is amazing, the three groups should get it together.

    • I agree, James, but it may take Jesus ruling from Jerusalem before we eradicated the infighting among us! And yes— I love all the nooks and crannies of that church. It is FULL of history and stories. Thanks.

  • Connie

    I was blessed to get to go to Irasel in March of 2015. I was sooo disappointed in the experience at the church. At other sites, in so many cases I felt the present of the Holy Spirit and was in awe. At the garden tomb you could feel His presence, communion was so Holy and I felt we were worshiping in the truth. Exactly where He was buried is not that important to me, because I know He Lives in my heart.

    • Sorry about that, Connie. The experience can be very disappointing indeed. But with some preparation, it can actually be meaningful. The Garden Tomb is a refreshing contrast. Yes!

  • ARM BAR

    I have never been to the Holy land,but what that monk did to your daughter was terrible and shameful,does he realize who is he ?,that’s rude and very bad,are they worshiping God or Church Building?.

    • Some people do ungodly things in the name of God. I think it’s a danger we all should make sure we’re careful not to commit.

  • Kayleen ferguson

    Total distraction!! The eeriness of the world’s seeming worship of the rock, the smells, the noise!! Very difficult to focus on the actual event that took place!!

    • I agree, Kayleen. That’s why I like to go early— like 5 AM— when no one else is there. 🙂

  • Janet McKeown

    Growing up in the Baptist church, I was unprepared for the various “faiths” present in this Church when there in 2009. I was totally put off by how the the Orthodox acted at the “stone of unction”. We had just come from the Garden tomb where we shared communion. The difference is striking and unsettling. Since being home I have read and studied the archeology of Jerusalem and am at peace with The Church of the Holy Sepulchre as being the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and would love to return and see it with the information you and others have provided. Thank you

    • I agree, Janet. History points to it as the place where it occurred, but it takes a special preparation to experience it appropriately. I do hope you return and try it again. It’s worth it. (Try going at 5 AM when no one is there.)

  • Lea

    I returned from Jerusalem December 2016. From another perspective, I am grateful that the Christian religions are trying to protect the Holy Sepulchre! If they were not there, our most holy site would be owned and ruled by the government and then we would really have to use our imaginations. I was prepared for The Upper Room to be one of my most spiritual moments. Much to my surprise, we were not even allowed to pray out loud in this space that is now owned by the government. Happy to hear that one of our Christian religions is trying to purchase the site and turn it back into The Upper Room and The Last Supper. I am grateful for every Christian and every Christian religion that is making it a point to try to protect and preserve our most Holy Land!

    • I agree with you, Lea. We owe a debt of gratitude to Helena and to all those who helped preserve these sites. Without their efforts, these significant places would be buried and covered over with home, shops, and other distractions. All its weaknesses notwithstanding, I enjoy going to the Holy Sepulcher. The sects there cannot remove the significance of the place in my heart.