The Resurrection and Divinity of Christ
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There is one overwhelmingly powerful event in history, which makes everything that can be said or argued about religion pale into insignificance. That event is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; and there is a sense in which it even makes some of the preceding chapters of this book unnecessary. To prove the Resurrection is, with only a few surrounding arguments, to prove the divinity of Christ. Such a proof teaches us not only that God exists, but also Who He is. It takes us a very long way indeed; so far, in fact, that without it St. Paul says our faith is vain (1 Cor. 15:17). It is for good reason, then, that a discussion of the Resurrection is central to apologetics and it should be at once obvious why it is taken here as the major proof of our Lord's claim to be divine.
The problem of Jesus and his claims has, of course, baffled mankind ever since the first prophecies were made to the Jews. We would be ignoring a tantalizing opportunity if we spoke here of the Resurrection only in and of itself as an event which bore little relation to a real and living being. There is much about Jesus that might be said, which would make the Resurrection seem a brief but fitting conclusion to a life, which unfolded over a period of thirty-odd years. Even without writing a fifth gospel, one might—with rich enjoyment—suggest something of the depth and beauty of Jesus before his glorification.
What immediately strikes everyone about the adult Jesus is his unparalleled human integrity. By this I mean far more than the mere honest reliability signified by the word today. Every aspect of Jesus' personality was integrated fully into the whole. We find in history no more persuasive demonstration of what it means to be ideally human than that offered by Christ's own life. The subordination of Jesus' passions and desires to his mission in life; the ability of this man to completely follow out in deed what he put into words, or, to say nothing which he could not or would not bear witness to in his actions; the remarkable self-denial of an unusually gifted man who persisted in his purpose without seeking personal gain of any type—all these things suggest a life without cracks or fissures, a harmony of spirit, mind, and body, of intellect and will, which admitted no duality of purpose, no contradiction, no disability due to evil or sin.
From the age of twelve Jesus' purpose, the overarching goal of his life, was made manifest: He had to be about His Father's business (Luke 2:49). From the time his public ministry began, he possessed a singleness of mind which was divided neither by the hard-heartedness of the public to which he preached nor by the misunderstanding and worldly judgments of his own disciples. "Get behind me, you Satan," he had to say to Peter, his chief disciple, who sought to dissuade him from laying down his life for men (Matthew 16:21-22). And Jesus had already met Satan's own challenge in the three temptations to divert him from his mission by creating a division between his human and divine natures. He could turn stones to bread, both satisfying his own human desires and becoming a wonder worker with a guarantee of success in attracting followers. He could throw himself down to be borne up by angels, and delight in his unique status, showing forth his power in a frivolous trick; he could worship the devil, abandoning his spiritual kingdom for a reign of worldly glory.
In his replies to these temptations we see again his total integrity: he lives "on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God"; he rejects the devil's right to put God to the test; he proclaims that homage is to be done to the Lord: "Him alone shall you adore" (Matt. 4:1-11). No power on earth or beyond the earth could alter this one primary fact of Jesus' existence. Even in what might be viewed as his greatest trial (excluding his passion and death), he showed a stability, assurance and adherence to his purpose far above the ordinary. For on that occasion when the very men he wanted to save with his own broken body and spilled blood found it too hard to accept eating his body and blood unto everlasting life—on that very day when the entire success of his mission swung precariously in the balance—he let his public go, and asked his closest disciples if they too intended to leave (John 6:60-67).
This heroic constancy was matched by Christ's clarity of mind and human insight. He related everything successfully to his purpose. He was neither sidetracked by questions about the worldly order, such as taxation (Matt. 22:21), nor confused by problems regarding the religious law, such as Sabbath obligations (Luke 13:15) or the commandments (Matt. 15:3-4). His insight into the feelings and thoughts of others is demonstrated in matters as diverse as his treatment of the sinful woman at Simon's house (Luke 7:37-50) and his magnificent parable of human relations concerning the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Moreover, Jesus instantly perceived the crowd's wish to make him king after the multiplication of loaves, and so he withdrew to an isolated place (John 6:15). He had always played down his miracles so as to avoid this all-too-human response. And when the response occurred it did not turn his head; he dealt with it decisively and without hesitation.
Of Jesus' stability little need be said. For nearly three years he lived on a strict regimen of preaching and traveling with no place to rest his head, with few possessions, with little time for rest (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:3: 6:13; Mark 3:20). He endured all with an even-tempered ability to continue even when his disciples were exhausted. Yet his perseverance was in no way fanatical. When the Twelve returned from a particularly laborious journey, he said, "Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little" (Mark 6:30-31). He was in all things the kind of man the disciples would awaken for help when they were in fear of being drowned in a storm (Matt. 8:24-27).
In facing his passion and death, of course, his strength of will, clarity of mind and stability—all in the service of the same goal—were tested together in what resulted in their overwhelming vindication. In the Garden of Gethsemane an anguished Jesus prayed to his Father, "Not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matt. 26:39). Throughout his betrayal, trial and flogging he was restrained and collected. Few proceedings have been less just even from the human point of view; few men arraigned in court have had more cause for indignant outburst. But Jesus did no more than maintain his innocence; he spoke seldom; he never raved. On the cross he forgave his enemies, provided for his mother and recommended his soul to the Father. His only cry was to fulfill a prophecy (Matt. 27:46; cf. Psalm 22:2).
If Jesus' integrity of person reveals what it means to be fully human, his teaching is so sublime that it is difficult to perceive it as exclusively human even when it comes from such a man. The methods he used are alone sufficient to establish him as a great educator. To the chief priests, scribes and pharisees he could unfold the Scriptures in exegetical exercises unmatched by the best minds of his day (e.g., the question of divorce in Matt. 19:3-9, and his temple teaching in Matt. 21:16,42). He could, when the issue was forced, be prophetically direct: "Let me make it clear," he told them, "that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:31). At other times he spoke in obscure figures, even to the disciples, challenging their minds to ever-deeper insights into truth itself (e.g., on the danger of riches, Mark 10:24-27). His description of the last times (e.g., Mark 13:5-36) are characterized by terrifying imagery, but his imagery could be as gentle and lovely as the lilies of the field when he was exhorting the crowds to trust in God (Luke 12:27ff). And it was usually to these vast crowds of persons from all walks of life that he told the parables which have become so closely identified with the Christian message. Used primarily to unfold the nature of the kingdom of God, they can be understood at a variety of levels, each one more brilliantly gripping in its turn.
As regards the content of his message, each Christian will have a favorite part. The beatitudes, of course, are universally recognized for their mysterious and consoling gentleness. But even the beatitudes build toward the very apex of Christ's teaching as they progressively move into the heights of holiness and suffering for Christ. "Blest are you when they...persecute you...because of me," he said. "Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven"(Matt. 5:11-12). This is nothing less than the end of the most famous teaching of all time and the beginning of the most difficult. It is the doctrine of the cross.
The sublimity of Christ's teaching is seen here more than in any other area. "If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps" (Matt. 16:24). Self-denial and joyful suffering are at the paradoxical center of Christianity. "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it," Jesus said (Matt. 16:25). Each man will be repaid according to his conduct by the Son of Man coming in glory. It will do no good, on that day, to have gained the entire world (Matt. 16:26-27), for, as described in the scene of the last judgment, works of charity and mercy will be the criteria for Our Lord's just repayment (Matt. 25:31-46). And his teaching is a whole cloth; it is rooted in Christ's emphasis on love as the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36-38). To follow his way, we must take up the cross; in taking up the cross we will find the reward due our conduct; that reward, which is life itself, will be measured out according to our own individual acts of self-denying love. Christ alone, among all the teachers of all the ages, has made sense out of suffering.
The uniqueness of his achievement, which thus unlocks the fundamental mystery of existence and links it to the highest power of man in love, gives pause to all who would dismiss Jesus as just another brilliant man, or just another discerning and sensitive pedagogue. The sublimity of his thought transcends the ability of man to give purpose to the struggle of existence, even in the wildest visions of the most creative philosopher. The ancient Greeks set the mystery of suffering at center stage, and could not resolve it. The great Buddha, who set himself precisely this task of unlocking the painful riddle of life, finally decided that life itself must be escaped. No one else has come even that close to the truth. But in Christ, life is never escaped, but only abandoned so that it might be received.
After all, it was this Jesus who claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Perhaps he was indeed the author of life itself, giving it more abundantly to men (John 10:10). But the author of life is God. Could this man, who knew the secret of life so well, have been God? He claimed to be one with the Father in heaven (John 14:8-11). He claimed, perhaps more to the point, that, "Before Abraham came to be I AM" (John 8:58). He told his disciples that they would see him "ascend up where He was before" (John 6:62), and he prayed that the Father might glorify him with the glory he had before the world was (John 17:5). Jesus clearly did claim to be God; so clearly that the Jews sought his execution for his blasphemy (Matt. 26:63-66).
Some, over the centuries, have suggested that Jesus was a great teacher, but surely not God; or a pure philosopher, but certainly not divine; or the most honorable man who ever lived, but never supernatural. The whole cloth of his life speaks against such half-hearted recognitions of his special place in time. For there are only two circumstances under which one can take together the serene beauty of Jesus' ethics and the strident discord of his clearing of the temple. There are only two conditions in which we may allow for the sane wisdom of Christ's daily life and the wild proclamation of his eternal existence. And the two conditions are these: either he was mad or he was exactly what he claimed to be.
There is no middle ground, and we have gone far toward proving that the ascription of madness to Christ is unthinkable. His whole personality was too united, steadfast and unmuddled for that. Moreover, in order to further establish the point, we might point to the interesting diversity of charges, which the Jews leveled against him. For Jesus was accused of many things during his public ministry. On the very day it began, when he claimed to be the Messiah by ascribing the prophecies of Isaiah to himself (Luke 4:21), he was called an arrogant fool. On other occasions the facts that he was a carpenter's son and from Nazareth were half-seriously alleged against him as impediments to the truth of his mission. More seriously he was accused of being a sinner (John 9:24) and of trafficking with Satan (Luke 11:15). He was, of course, accused of blasphemy by the Jews, who wanted to put him to death. But since they could not execute the death penalty, they accused him before Pilate of subverting the nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling himself a king (Luke 23:2). He was yet further accused of stirring up the people (Luke 23:5). Yet amid all these diverse charges, no one consistent view emerged, let alone the view that Jesus was mad. Could he have been written off as insane, the Jews would not have had to struggle so hard to discredit him. In fact, only once did the Jews even suggest that he was unbalanced (that he had a demon), and at that time the charge seemed in part connected with their mistaken impression that he was a Samaritan. Besides, those who questioned his sanity were immediately contradicted by their peers: "No one possessed by an evil spirit could speak like this" (John 10:21; cf. 8:48-9, 52). If Jesus was mentally ill, it was singularly difficult to tell.
A case can be made, therefore, for the divinity of Christ without even alluding to the Resurrection. The sense of his divinity arises from the sense that he is somehow larger than life—human but beyond the human mode. The only explanation for the problem his life presents is the explanation of divinity. And Jesus, for his part, proved his claims in a most systematic way, by the medium of miracles.
When John the Baptizer sent his disciples to inquire whether Jesus was "He who is to come", namely, the Messiah (Luke 7:18ff), they received a very clear reply: "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them." Such a testimony rightly spoke for itself. As always, so too here Christ puts the "good news" which he has come to proclaim in the most prominent place—as the only thing more important than raising the physically dead to life. His miracles are always subordinate to his ministry, his Messiahship, his redeeming purpose. It was the same with the cure of the paralytic to show the Son of Man's power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6). It was primarily to confirm his mission that Christ performed the miracles.
As has been suggested, however, the nature of Christ's mission required either that he be invested by God with power and truth, to be able to give and unlock the secrets of life, or that he be God himself. The miracles testified to the truth of his teachings. They proved that the seal of God was upon him, and, since he did indeed claim to be God, they proved that his claim to be God was true. As Jesus himself put it, "The works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness to me" (John 10:25). A hundred miracles could be taken to illustrate the point, but the raising of Lazarus in John 11 is a very good example. When he arrived on the scene, Jesus proclaimed to Martha and Mary that their brother would rise again. Martha replied that she knew he would rise, on the last day. Then Jesus made his point: "I am the resurrection and the life: whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die." It was no idle claim. Drawing near to the tomb, Jesus ordered the stone rolled away: "Lazarus, come out", he commanded. And Lazarus indeed came out.
Among all the miracles however, the one, which best proves that Jesus has complete lordship over life is his own Resurrection. He predicted his own rising on three specific occasions, referring to the outcome of his passion and death (Matt. 17:23; 20:17-19; 26:32). After the Transfiguration he cautioned the disciples to "tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead" (Matt. 17:9). And although there is an obvious case for the use of the Resurrection to prove the Divine ratification of Christ's mission, a case can also be made for the direct use of the Resurrection to prove Christ's own divinity. For on the occasion of his driving the moneychangers out of the Temple, he spoke quite clearly on this point. When asked by what authority he acted, he referred to his body and said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I shall build it up again" (John 2:18-22). He thereby claimed his body was the dwelling place of God.
The authenticity of the Scriptures upon which we draw for the proof of the Resurrection has been established in another place, and there can be no doubt that the gospels and epistles (especially 1 Cor. 15:1-19) are what they claim to be—documents written to describe the life of a man at a time when eyewitnesses were still present to controvert the testimony. There are in fact four independent sources—as shown by minor discrepencies which corroborate their independence and therefore strengthen the overall record—of information about the Resurrection: Matthew and John, separate eyewitnesses; Mark from Peter; and Luke from Paul from other eyewitnesses.
Moreover, those who suggest that these writers lied when it came to miraculous matters such as the Resurrection run afoul of the obvious lack of co-ordination in the accounts, which nonetheless affirm the same thing. Further, the use of women as witnesses in the accounts would have been poor propaganda, since women were not valid witnesses in those times. Critics also fail to note that the writers proclaimed the Resurrection among people in a position to know the facts, that they had every opportunity to modify their story, being ridiculed, rebuffed, ignored, impoverished, persecuted, and in some cases executed for their efforts. Their obvious dedication to truth makes a lie here psychologically unlikely, as does their heroic perseverance in what they would have known to be falsehood, for they could not have been misinformed.
More, in fact, is known about the circumstances following the death of Jesus of Nazareth than about similar circumstances for any other classical figure. The record comes through clearly: he was laid in a new cold tomb, horizontally hewn from rock for Joseph of Arimathea, in a garden on a hillside near Golgotha, outside the walls. He was wrapped, a stone was rolled over the entrance, the tomb was marked with the seal of the Empire, and a guard was posted. Equally clear is one other fact: on the third day, the tomb was empty.
No one questioned this. It was not a point of contention, even among the Jews. The emptiness of the tomb was never mentioned by the first century opponents of the Resurrection. Had the body been there, it could have been dragged through Jerusalem to give the lie to a fast-spreading Christianity. But the body was not dragged anywhere. And the first task of the anti-Resurrection theories (which all contradict each other, as mere exercises in system building inevitably do) was to explain away the emptiness of the tomb. There have been two main attempts to do so.
The first explanation, both in time and importance, is the "Theft" theory, which charges that the disciples stole the body in order to perpetuate a hoax. Adopted by those on the scene, the Sanhedrin, the best minds of Israel, as the most plausible way to protect their anti-Christian position, this theory is perhaps the only one worth considering. (But we intend to be generous and to examine later theories as well.) In any case, the first weakness of the theft theory is that it runs into all the problems of the "lie" theory used to discredit the gospels themselves. There is no conceivable motivation for the theft or its attendant lies, and plenty of motivation for the disciples to say Jesus never rose.
Moreover, it may be argued that the disciples were too afraid to be thieves. Scripture tells us they all "left him and fled" (Matt. 26:56). Peter cringed before a mere serving girl when she identified him as one who had been with Jesus. Apparently, the disciples hid in their homes until Mary Magdalene came and reported that the tomb was empty. It is difficult to conceive of such men having the boldness of robbers. Moreover, the shift in the mood of the disciples after the third day, their growing courage, and ultimately their willingness to suffer, cannot be explained by their own theft of the body.
Another major consideration revolves around the precautions of the chief priests, reasonable precautions, which there can be no reason to doubt. They solicited and received a guard from Pilate to keep watch over the tomb. Accordingly, the tomb itself was marked with the seal of the Roman Empire (Matt. 27:62-66). This seal, an imprinted cord stretched across the stone, made anyone who tampered with the grave—as evidenced by breaking the seal—liable to punishment. The guard would have routinely been composed of four soldiers trained to duty. If awake, these men could have cut the thieving disciples to pieces. Fishermen and tax collectors would have had no chance of success. If asleep, all four of the guards would have risked death, the penalty in the Roman army for sleeping on watch.
Such a highly unlikely scenario is made even less plausible by the fact that the four guards would have had to sleep through the movement of the heavy stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. And yet this theory was the one adopted by the chief priests, who bribed the mystified guards to say they were asleep and promised to smooth things over with Pilate to avert their punishment (Matt. 28:11-15). Interestingly enough, the guards were also told to state that the disciples stole the body. Therefore, as St. Augustine rightly asked: if the guard was awake, how could the theft succeed, and if the guards were asleep, how could they identify the disciples as the thieves? The fiction is transparent.
There is one final consideration. Scripture states clearly that when Peter and John came to check the emptiness of the tomb, they discovered that the grave clothes were all neatly laid aside. Peter "observed the wrappings on the ground and saw the piece of cloth which had covered the head not lying with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself" (John 20:6-7). Whatever may be said of the precise configuration of these wrappings, whether or not they appeared as if undisturbed by the departure of the body which they had imprisoned, it is undeniable that they were in the tomb, and rather remarkably neatly in the tomb. No thief slipping past a guard would take the time to unwrap a body before removing it from the premises. And no thief would ever go so far as to roll up the headpiece and lay it primly aside.
On close examination of the historical sources for the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ, therefore, there can be found no reason for crediting the "theft" theory with any plausibility whatsoever. It is nothing more than the first, best, and most intricate system of lies built up to discredit that version of events which most clearly fits the facts.
But the theft theory is not the most outrageous attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Nearly eighteen centuries after the death of Christ, in the so-called Age of Reason, when men again felt compelled to deny the Resurrection owing to the rationalist superstitions of the times, a new theory was developed. Here called the "swoon" theory, it suggests that Jesus did not die, but only went into a deep faint, from which he later recovered. Did it not deal with such a serious matter, this theory would be humorous.
To refute the swoon theory, one must first establish the certainty of Christ's death. From the accounts of the passion, we know that Jesus was scourged as an example to others. This scourging would have been done by the flagrum, straps embedded with bits of bone or metal. For the indefinable offense of Christ, there would have been no prescribed limit. The result is that the beating was undoubtedly brutal. The veins and muscles, perhaps even the bowels, would have been laid bare.
We know also that Christ was crucified, a particularly effective form of execution. Crucifixion could kill in a host of ways. The crucified experienced dizziness, cramps, thirst, starvation, sleeplessness, traumatic fever, tetanus, shame, asphyxiation, long torment and gangrene. In addition, a soldier put a sword through Christ's side. Medical authorities are quite clear about the result of that act of brutality. Blood and water flowed from the wound. In that order, this flow signifies rupture of the heart, a certain cause of death.
Moreover, no one questioned that Jesus was dead. Like the empty tomb, the initial death of Christ was never a point of contention. Quite to the contrary, the Jews thought he was dead, and Pilate, who questioned the experienced centurion, verified the death before releasing the body to Joseph of Arimathea. As for Joseph himself, he would not have requested the body—and used his own expensive tomb for burial—had he not thought Jesus were dead. His own followers wrapped him for burial on Friday (and returned again right after the Sabbath to complete the burial preparations). Surely they, who loved him well, made certain of his death.
This certainty alone is enough to discredit the wild speculations of the swoon theory. Even assuming, however, that Jesus did not die, but was merely weakened and faint, the theory cannot stand. A man in such a state could hardly have revived sufficiently in the stone-cold tomb overnight, to remove the grave clothes, an impossible task for a healthy man. These wrappings were stuck on with myrrh, which rapidly hardens into a sort of glue. In his weakened condition, Jesus would have been unable to escape, let alone take the trouble to fold up the cloths and lay them in neat piles. Nor would he have been able to roll away the huge stone (uphill). Three strong women, on the way to the tomb, wondered how they would get that rock out of their way (Mark 16:3).
Once outside the tomb, Jesus would have had to fight off the guard, an incredible postulation. Thereafter, he would have had to walk miles on wounded feet, and convince his disciples that he was alive and had conquered death. But St. Paul described Christ with the word egegertai, which indicates a return to life free from corruption and definitely removed from death. No mere resuscitation is referred to here. The disciples saw a glorious Christ, not a walking corpse. Finally, of course, Jesus would have died eventually, and his tomb would have become a shrine, unless we suppose he was able to disappear without a trace.
With such considerations in mind, we lay the swoon theory to rest. But two final points about these theories, which purport to explain away the empty tomb may justly be made. First, while the theft theory supposes that the disciples lied, the swoon theory supposes Christ lied. And yet its proponents always claim to admire Christ's ethical deportment. Second, the most recent of the famous attempts to solve the problem of the tomb, the Passover Plot, has the honor of combining the two theories into the suggestion that there was a conspiracy to chemically induce the swoon, assist Jesus in his escape from the tomb and propound the attendant lies. Thus this peculiar assertion may be refuted the more easily by the arguments against both theories at the same time.
There are two other theories still raised up today against the Resurrection which purport only to explain away the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ, and which ignore the problem of the empty tomb. These theories are for this reason less significant, but their more recent vintage lends them a certain power, making them worthy of consideration. The first of these, advanced with the rise of psychology in the nineteenth century, is the "hallucination theory", the implications of which are obvious. For this theory attempts to make the Resurrection—like so much else in modern religion—a purely subjective phenomenon.
We do not, of course, have numerous reports of various private hallucinations involving a resurrected being. We have instead the solid unanimity of the gospel accounts. What we must be dealing with, therefore, is collective hallucination, an occurrence many psychologists now deny. Those who accept the possibility require the following condition: extensive and prolonged conditioning, which produces great expectation in a group suddenly moved to hysteria. In fact, for any hallucination at all, the following sub-conditions are necessary.
First, there must be a high-strung, nervous mood. But the disciples were in a variety of moods when they saw the risen Christ. Mary was weeping, Peter filled with remorse, Thomas incredulous and the disciples on the way to Emmaus were simply distracted by the recent events. Second, there must be a link between the hallucination and past individual experiences. But all the disciples saw exactly the same thing with diverse experiences. Third, a restricted, emotion-charged locality is necessary. But again, the appearances were diverse: to Mary in the garden; to Peter later the same day; to the apostles in the upper room; to the seven on Lake Tiberias; to 500 on a Galilean mountain. These experiences also involved the senses of sight, touch and hearing, and so have a concreteness unusual in this type of phenomena.
Psychologists further note that repeated hallucinations either increase in frequency/intensity to a crisis or slowly fade away (as mental balance is restored). The vision of the Risen Christ did neither. It simply departed at the Ascension, and was never seen again, in that form, by anyone. Moreover, hallucinations can cause only temporary changes in life-style, whereas the changes for the apostles were permanent.
As for the criterion of conditioning and intense expectation, we can only point out that the disciples did not expect the Resurrection because they had no idea what Christ was talking about when he referred to it. On one occasion they thought he was a ghost, and were frightened. On two occasions they did not recognize him. When Peter and John heard that the tomb was empty, they were so far from proclaiming Christ had risen that they ran to check out the story. Thomas even insisted on touching our Lord's wounds. And Mary Magdalene, far from mistaking a gardener for Christ, actually saw Christ and mistook him for a gardener.
The other theory, which explains only the appearances is no better. We may call it the "symbol" theory, and it is really the result of modern secularized or neo-modernistic theology, which refuses to accept objective criteria for faith. Basically, this theory argues that the apostles did not really see the risen Christ, but that they did not lie either. Rather, they were expressing their faith in Christ's message of transformed, new life through the use of symbolic terms. This theory is refutable on a number of grounds.
First, the traditional Jewish faith in ratification of a prophet's mission by being taken up with God never posits a unique resurrection prior to the last day. Yet this "ratification" is as close as we can come to "resurrection" in the traditional milieu in which the apostles worked. Thus there is no source that the evangelists could or would have drawn on to select the symbol of resurrection for Christ's notion of new life. Second, the symbol theory does not explain why there was no grave cult for the dead Jesus, as there assuredly would have been under such circumstances. Third, it can hardly be postulated that the disciples were transformed from radical fear to iron courage—from flight to martyrdom—by a mere symbol. Such transformation could have come only from the actual appearances themselves.
In fact, there is no question that the disciples truly believed Christ physically rose. They say he "manifested himself" (Mark 16:12-14), "stood among them" (Luke 24:36; John 20:19), and "showed them" his hands, feet and side (Luke 24:40; John 20:20)—very concrete terms. The word opthe used by Paul to express "he appeared" (1 Cor. 15:3-8) denotes a physical disclosure, a literal seeing. Paul, of course, was knocked off his horse by the risen Christ (something no symbol could ever do). Moreover, the Resurrection became the basis for the change of the sacred Jewish Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, indicating that a remarkable intervention of God in creation occurred on that particular day. The very existence, and certainly the distinctiveness, of the early Christian Church can hardly be explained without reference to a belief in a physical resurrection by those in a position to know.
What more can one say? What is necessary here is an objectivity before the facts, a willingness to follow them to their logical conclusion with no interference from preconceptions. A truly scientific spirit is required, for scientists are to work without preconceptions, and it is a gross preconception to begin an investigation of the Resurrection with the assumption that miracles cannot occur. Such a notion makes any objective evaluation of the data impossible.
Those who proceed with such preconceptions end up with only wilder and wilder theories, as the obviousness of the Resurrection increases. In the day before the authenticity of the gospels was firmly established by modern historical and literary criticism, there were those who dismissed all of Christianity, and especially the Resurrection, as an exciting and inventive syncretism. Still others regarded it as a myth, as if there were no eyewitnesses ready to challenge the early reports. For a time it was thought possible that the Christ who appeared after the Resurrection was an imposter as if the entire thing were a monumental swindle that went uninvestigated because the victims were afraid to go to the police. There is a remarkable and anti-historical notion in most secularist circles even today that because Christians were powerful in the thirteenth century they must obviously have created the idea of the Resurrection in order to seize that power in the first century. All the suffering is so quickly forgotten.
What, then? We could suggest with some that Christ's body was swallowed up (sans graveclothes!) in the Good Friday earthquake (which occurred before he was laid in the tomb and left no fissure either on Golgotha or in the tomb). Or we might argue with K. Lake (1907) that the entire affair can be explained by the fact that the women, on Easter morning, went to the wrong tomb. But this is the insanity of intellectualism and the mythology of the modern world. For there is only one explanation consistent with the data. The Resurrection was an event of history and it remains the pre-eminent fact of life. Without it there is only nonsense. With it, Jesus Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 15
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Lunn, Arnold, The Third Day (Burns and Oates, London: 1945)
Madgett, A. Patrick, S.J., Christian Origins Vol. I (Xavier U., Cincinnati: 1939) esp. chap. VIII.
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McDowell, Josh, Evidence that Demands a Verdict I (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1970's, complete reference unavailable)
O'Collins, Gerald, S.J., The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Judson Press, Valley Forge: 1973)
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