When asked–“What is Easter, anyhow?”—we usually hear in response that it is a “mystery”, that it is beyond our capacity to understand. But when we think of the core of Catholicism, we recognize that something said to be a “mystery” is not opposed to reason in the sense that it goes against reason.
Rather it means that the issue—be it Trinity or Incarnation—is true according to divine reason. Our reason does not immediately grasp it because we are not God.
But this fact that our knowing power is not itself divine does not mean that what is beyond our reason is against reason, that it is irrational. The rationality of God, as it were, is not opposed to the rationality of our minds.
Rather, in requiring us to think about a divine mystery, we become more insightful in seeing how this revealed truth expands and confirms what we know as true from reason.
But do not most people claim that the resurrection is against science, against experience? Revelation itself says both that God never intended death in the first place and that it is given to every man once to die and thence the judgment. While we may talk of ghosts and spirits, experience is right. Death is final. Why not just leave it at that?
We do not “leave it at that” because we do have an explanation of the Resurrection of Christ, and, on this basis, the potential resurrection of everyone else. This explanation makes considerable sense. Moreover, in its own terms, it does not exist in a vacuum. That is, we have historical witnesses to it that are credible in their own terms.
Those who maintain that the Resurrection of Christ did happen do not dream this happening up out of thin air. It is true that our belief in the actuality of the Resurrection of Christ is grounded on the testimony of others. There is no reason why such testimony cannot be true.
Every effort has been made to undermine the validity of the witnesses to the Resurrection as they are reported in the New Testament. No doubt, good arguments have been brought forward. These critiques are in fact welcome as they force us to consider them and relate them to the evidence we have for the fact of the Resurrection.
Generally speaking, the Resurrection is denied because it is said to violate the evidence of history or reason. The question then arise about the basis of the critiques, whether they are themselves coherent and in conformity with other facts.
When we speak of the “intelligibility” of the Resurrection, we first have to clarify what we are talking about. The first point to be reckoned with is that the person we are talking about here is Christ. If Christ was not who He said He was, all bets are off. The Resurrection is directly connected to Christ who acknowledged Himself to be true God and true man.
The Resurrection is only possible if Christ was both true God and true man. In this sense, the Resurrection means that the man, Christ, was indeed killed on the Cross. It means that this same man, as witnesses affirm, rose again, the same man but in a new mode of being Himself.
Who was killed on the Cross was the Word made flesh. From the beginning all human beings are involved in a plan of the Father whereby other intelligent beings would be invited to participate in the eternal life of the Trinitarian Godhead.
If they were “invited”, it means that any one or all of them could conceivably refuse or accept the invitation. The purpose of the universe is to provide a “place” wherein this choice could be made in the context of the lives of other finite beings who received the same invitation.
Thus, Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead,” as it says in the Creed. No human life is complete until it is judged on the question of whether it freely accepts the invitation to eternal life, the purpose of its initial creation.
Due to what we call “the Fall”, we live in the aftermath of a disorder, of a choice not to follow the initial invitation of God to live His inner life. What we call the Incarnation and Redemption are intelligible to us, revealed to us, as God’s counter-initiative to save us, that is, reestablish a way to eternal life.
The reason that this “second” initiative of God was through the Cross and not some other way was that no one could participate in the inner life of the Godhead who chose not to do so. How was this “choice” possible or made manifest? It was to be the result of how the two great commandments were lived or rejected in the actual life of any given person in any given era.
But where does the Resurrection fit into this transcendent plan? We can gain some help from Plato in understanding this fact. Plato, to be sure, maintained the “immortality” of the soul, not the resurrection of the body. The understanding of the soul is to be learned mainly from reason, from the nature of our knowledge and longings.
In Plato, the immortality of the soul is the answer to a political question; namely, since not all crimes are punished and not all good deeds are rewarded, it must mean the world is created in injustice. The only way to maintain that the world is made in justice is to propose, as Plato did, a judgment after death in which unpunished crimes would be dealt with and good deeds rewarded.
This position was not at odds with revelation. In fact, it was in its direct line. But man did not commit his crimes just with his soul, but with his whole self, body and soul, in his person.
Thus, the resurrection of the body was revealed to us in a twofold light. First it restored the whole being who was responsible for his actions in this world and, secondly, it provided a definitive judgment about the life of the person as lived, whether in fact in the freedom given to it, it chose freely to accept the eternal life as offered to human beings as the purpose of their existence in the first place.
Thus, looked at from this point of view, the intelligence of resurrection makes sense. But it is the Resurrection of Christ that grounds both the origins and destinies of those, as full persons, invited to participate in the eternal life of the Trinity.
Those who reject this invitation are likewise restored to full personal life to form their own city. As God cannot force anyone to be free, the Resurrection always has about it the drama of a second chance, one that is rooted in mercy, in a love that forgives, provided only that we choose to be forgiven.
In the end, no one can be saved, or even wants to be saved, who does not choose to accept the invitation that has defined the purpose of his existence since the beginning.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. His latest was published last month, The Universe We Think In.