The Resurrection of Jesus – A Stretch of the Imagination?
Surely Catholics of the twenty-first century cannot be expected to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead? Isn’t it a bit far-fetched, a major stretch of the imagination? Can we not just set this particular belief aside and simply love each other, be good to one another; isn’t that what Christianity is all about? Do we really need to believe in the Resurrection?
Think of those times you made one of those ‘pyramid’ constructions with a deck of cards. You whip away one card and the whole thing collapses. That would be Christianity if the truth of the BODILY Resurrection of Jesus proved null and void. St. Paul was crystal clear on this point: “If Christ had not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). All that you do to deepen your relationship with Jesus- daily prayer, regular reception of sacraments, works of charity etc. – and all that has been written and done in the name of Jesus over the past two millennia would collapse into NOTHINGNESS if He had not been raised from the dead on that Easter morning. It would all be completely worthless. ‘The Resurrection of Jesus,’ as we read in the Catechism, ‘is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ’ (CCC #638). It pulls everything together; definitively demonstrates the truth of Jesus’ words and promises; makes His claim to divinity absolutely undeniable.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn 11:25). His death liberated us from sin; His resurrection burst open heaven’s doors for us, winning us an incredible new life of grace.
Matt Maher’s epic worship song conveys this beautifully:
‘Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives all fear is gone…’
Fear of what? Complete annihilation through death. For though we physically die still, it’s only temporary. Our soul goes to God (unless we choose otherwise) and begins eternal life with Him; and one day our bodies will be restored to us. So, death is no longer the end.
Nevertheless, you are likely to encounter many – even believers – throughout your life of discipleship who will dispute it even happened, who will try and explain it away, so it seems something like that it is, so that it’s more palatable to the modern ‘enlightened’ mind. I remember, for instance, coming across a research paper purely by chance several years ago, which attempted to assert that the apostles only said and did what they did because they were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the trauma of losing Jesus in such a horrific way. Others will claim that upon reminiscing about Jesus – as we would typically do when we lose someone we love – the disciples simply came to realize that Jesus’ spirit remained with them interiorly, that this was all the resurrection meant; It was merely subjective, experienced in their minds and hearts. Others even claim that Jesus was not actually dead when they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in the tomb, that He simply recovered (not so sure they appreciate how expert the Roman soldiers were at their job – if they didn’t finish the job, their own lives would be forfeit!). Then, of course, we have the account in the Gospel of Matthew which speaks of the chief priests bribing the guards who had stood watch at the tomb: “Tell people, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep” (Mt 28:13).
Such theories, however, are terribly unsatisfying when you match them to the Scripture accounts – and to the incredible courage, dogged determination and zeal shown by the apostles and early Christians as they strove to deliver the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. “Can we really imagine,” as Bishop Barron says, “St. Paul tearing into Corinth with the earth-shaking message that a dead man was found to be quite inspiring?” He continues: “Again and again, they [the apostles] emphasise how discouraged, worn down, and confused they were after the crucifixion. That this dejected band would spontaneously generate the faith that would send them careering around the world with the message of the Resurrection strains credulity.”
The Resurrection was a REAL event – and the Gospel writers along with St. Paul went to great lengths to spell this out for us. Jesus didn’t just appear to the apostles on numerous occasions following the Resurrection – they touched Him, shared meals with Him for 40 days till His Ascension into heaven – but He also appeared to others, as St. Paul makes clear in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Ce’phas and to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at the one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep…Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15:4-8). Note how St. Paul takes care to clarify that Jesus appeared to 500 people AT ONCE – and additionally, that most of these witnesses were still alive. So, anyone doubting the truth of Paul’s words could easily find witnesses who would corroborate them – or refute them if they were indeed untrue.
What if the apostles deliberately concocted the story to achieve fame and notoriety? Well, they certainly achieved notoriety, but not the celebrity or Hollywood kind. For instance, the words of St. Paul: ‘Five times I have received…the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness…from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure’ (2 Cor 11:24-27). Quite a lot to endure for a concocted story. Quite a lot to endure for a man – even an undeniably great man – who remained dead and lifeless in a tomb!
Moreover, take note of another incident from the life and ministry of St. Paul: ‘they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city’ (Acts 14:19-20). Oh yes, they must have stoned him pretty extensively to think he was dead. He likely had broken bones, at the very least a very battered body. And yet he got up and went BACK to the very people who had stoned him – that very day. Again, a man or woman might have been exceptionally inspiring during their lifetime – but to that extent?
Yet, at the same time, little wonder that people try to explain it away. It’s unsettling. It’s beyond our comprehension. It asks a great deal of us. Even the Church acknowledges that it ‘remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history’ (CCC #647). The dead are meant to remain dead. So, as historically verifiable as it is, believing in the Resurrection remains also an act of faith: It means assenting to and grasping the idea of God’s almighty power, to the reality that He can even overturn the very laws of nature (because, of course, they came from Him in the first place).
The Resurrection of Jesus – a stretch of the imagination? Yes, in the sense that it TRANSCENDS all human capacities. But an emphatic no in a modern understanding of it being a myth, symbolic or an outright lie – because it’s TRUE in every sense of the word. And there’s an incredible future reality awaiting us precisely because it is.
‘And then one day we’ll all cross that river
And fight life’s final war with pain
And then, as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory
and I’ll know that He reigns.’
(‘Because he lives’ by Matt Maher)
The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith!
Thank you for sending us Your Son,
Not only for the brilliance of His life, love and witness,
But that in dying He destroyed our death
And in rising restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!