Each year, the feast of Easter celebrates an event that most people, if they thought about its meaning, would like to accept as true but which seems impossible. This event is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was crucified, after a dramatic trial involving the Roman governor, one Pontius Pilate, and several Jewish leaders—Annas, Caiphas, among others.
How does one come to terms with this account? Does it make any sense whatsoever? Why does anyone need to bother with it? Basically, the only reason we might need to concern ourselves with it is that it is true.
One way to deal with this event, whatever happened, is to deny that it ever occurred. In that case, one could say that it is a piece of fiction or wish-fulfillment, like other tales that are handed down. The trouble with this view is that considerable evidence exists that attests to the actuality of this event. Scholars and philosophers over the centuries have explained these events in various ingenuous ways in order to avoid having to admit that something of monumental, world-historic importance did happen in Jerusalem when Tiberius was the Roman Emperor. Even in the Gospels themselves, we find efforts to maintain that Christ’s body was stolen, not resurrected. Others claim that He never died. He managed to slip away somehow, never to be heard of again.
It is a first principle of classical Christianity that, if anything in this account that has been handed down to us is irrational, unhistorical, or impossible, it must be rejected, even by the firmest of believes. If Christ was not who He said that He was, we have absolutely no reason to listen to or believe in Him.
In this sense, the biggest skeptics about the truth of the Resurrection are, or ought to be, Christians themselves. This approach means that not only do the facts of time and place have to be coherent, but the understanding of what is going on has to be logical and explainable. It has been the considered judgment of philosophical Christians, reflecting on the evidence, that no effort of archeology, critical analysis, historiography, or science to dislodge the facts and thus the truth of this event’s reality has been successful. They remain open to consider any new hypothesis or evidence to the contrary.
In fact, these endeavors to prove that the Resurrection is a non-event have proved to be a primary, though indirect, basis to establish the truth of the event. Throughout history, each “proof” that this event did not happen has served, on examination, to suggest that it did, when the reasons given for its falsity are examined and found wanting or dubious. Such examination, in fact, has been a major impetus to the increase in philosophic acumen within philosophy itself.
But we have two sides of this consideration. One side has to do with the history of the events surrounding the death and Resurrection of Christ. When and where did it happen? Why was there an issue? Why did the actors do what they did? Does it fit in with the time in which it was supposed to have happened? When it comes down to it, we know of the Resurrection of Christ through the testimony of certain of His disciples, through the action and words of His enemies or pagan historians. We have no photographic or local media coverage, of course. But the reports of those who did witness the event have been faithfully handed down to us. We have no reason to maintain that these witnesses were liars or deceivers. They simply recorded what they saw and heard. Most of them died for what they saw and heard.
A second side of this consideration of the Resurrection is not so much the record of the event and how we know it, but “Whether it makes sense?” This second issue arises out of the original testimony, but it has its own logic and life. Hearing all the observations and explanations of the witnesses and the credibility of those observers to be consistent over the centuries, we still recognize that anyone could still say that it just does not cohere. It is not possible to hold its truth.
Thus, we have to ask: “Why the Resurrection?” In this sense, we do not want to rehearse the history or facts as they were known but whether this Resurrection fits into any order whereby its intelligibility is not just a contradiction that we “must” believe because it is “irrational”—Credo quia absurdam. If it is “irrational” or “absurd”, as I said before, we cannot believe it. We need to know then: “Why does it make any sense so that its explication is not inwardly incoherent?”
How does one go about dealing with this latter question? We are guided in this, no doubt, by what Christ said of Himself, what Paul and the other writers said of Him, as well as by the reflections on this same topic by thinkers over the centuries. We are not the first ones to ponder these issues. Indeed, they are intended to be reconsidered, reflected on by each member of each new generation of mankind.
Obviously, the first question we must ask ourselves is this: “Who was resurrected from the dead?”
We have obscure instances of “near-death” experiences and recovery from death for a short period of time. Even in the New Testament, we have the account of the raising of Lazarus and of the son of the Widow of Naima. But these men subsequently died. The point of Christ’s Resurrection was that He did not die again. Why not? Because of who He was: Christ was a man, but He was the Word made flesh. He belonged to the Godhead. “I and the Father are one.” The Resurrection was part of a divine plan whereby death would be overcome. God did not arrange for human death from the beginning. What He intended from the beginning was for each particular human person to receive the gift of eternal life. It is in this background that we must think of the Resurrection.
The rational creature known as “man” was intended to remain what he was, namely a man, a peculiar kind of animal. He was not to become a god or an angel. Moreover, God did not first create the cosmos and subsequently create man within it. He first intended to create man, to associate him within His inner Trinitarian life. The cosmos was the locus in which the central drama of man’s choice about what he would be was to be carried out. The cosmos is for man, not man for the cosmos. Man was intended, from the beginning, to live a life that was beyond his own given nature. In this sense, he was invited to choose God, not have God “forced” on him. God could not cause him to choose Him without man’s own choice. The whole drama of man’s Fall in which he chose not to accept God’s initial invitation not to die continues with the Incarnation.
God the Son became incarnate in the world in order that man could repair the damage that was caused by his rejection of God’s original plan. God is under certain restrictions. In a sense, it is the problem of all friendship. That is, we cannot be anyone’s friend, even God’s, if we do not choose to do so. No one can be our friend unless we choose to let them be our friend. God is bound by the same restriction. If eternal life were to be filled with robots who are there whether they like it or not, it is not the real inner, Trinitarian life of God. Such a world is not even worth existing.
The penalty for man’s disobedience was death. But death could be overcome by God who is life. The path to this overcoming of death was by the Cross, not by some glorious, triumphal appearance in the world. Death comes to every man. Yet, man is not complete if he is not body and soul. Thus, even a doctrine of the immortality of the soul, a valid position, does not provide a complete answer to the question of human destiny. Man is a whole, body and soul, both in his sins and in his virtues. His life must be judged as to how it was lived. The resurrection of the body is due eventually to every man, whether he dies in sin or in glory. The reason for this is that man is neither properly awarded nor properly punished unless he is finally a whole. The Resurrection of Christ is the first step in humanity’s coming back to what each person was intended to be.
The Resurrection of Christ is both an announcement of what we are intended to be, but also an invitation to accept this final status of eternal life. There is no salvation without freedom. There is no freedom without the possibility of rejecting God’s plan for us.
Why the Resurrection? It lets us understand that God’s plan has been worked out. Because of it, we have an explanation of why we exist and what we can be, if we choose. And we must choose. In this sense, our choices about what we are and how we live decide what we shall be. The Resurrection explains the truth of our particular being, why we exist, why we are the beings in the universe who not only are what they are, but who choose what they shall be as essential to what they are.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University (in Washington DC) for many years. He is the author of numerous books.