For the next week, I’ll be blogging on the most climactic event in all of history: the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Is it true? Did the Bible get it right? Are there other plausible alternatives? Wading through Flannery O’Conner, myth-spinning fishermen, Homer’s Iliad, legendary body-snatchers, a crucified Judas, the Battle of Waterloo, and hallucinating ghost-whisperers, I’ll seek to convince you, before Holy Week, that the Resurrection is not just a good story, but a literal, historical reality.
Part 1 of 7 – Two Messiahs
Part 2 of 7 – To Hell With It
Part 3 of 7 – Is the Bible Just a Myth?
Part 4 of 7 – Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?
Part 5 of 7 – If Jesus Died on the Cross, Did He Rise Again?
Part 6 of 7 – The Bible-less Resurrection
Part 7 of 7 – What the Resurrection Means
*This series is a revamped version of the one we did last year during Holy Week*
To Hell With It
From the very beginning of Christianity, the Resurrection of Jesus was its central claim. Fr. Robert Barron explains:
“When the first Christians proclaimed the Gospel, they didn’t say a word about Jesus’ preaching. What they talked about was his resurrection from the dead. Look through all of Paul’s letters, and you’ll find a few words about Jesus’ philosophy, but you’ll find constantly, almost obsessively, reiterated the claim that God raised Jesus from death.”
|Far too many scholars.|
Far too many scholars and theologians today brush aside the Resurrection as a fanciful myth. They consider belief in the literal, physical Resurrection to be naive at best, irrational at worst.
For example, it’s not uncommon to hear Biblical scholars say, “The Resurrection means that the teachings of Jesus are immortal.” Much as the music of Beethoven and the plays of Shakespeare still resonate today, much as the wisdom of Socrates continues to stir us, so do the teachings of Jesus live on in this way. The Resurrection simply means that Jesus’ wisdom and truth will never die.
Other theologians claim, “The Resurrection means that Jesus’ cause goes on.” Much like the cause of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa goes on when we fight for equality, dignity, and compassion, so does Jesus when we practice love, peace, and selflessness. Jesus “lives on” through the lives of those who follow his example and he is in that way “resurrected.”
Finally, many skeptics posit that the Resurrection-language in the Bible was never meant to be taken literally. The Resurrection accounts, according to these thinkers, are essentially parables, figurative stories describing how these saddened, defeated disciples sat around a table and eventually became “lifted up” by their conviction that the way of Jesus was more powerful, more life-giving, than the way of Rome. Through this realization, “Easter faith” was born in their hearts, and Jesus was again alive.
But come on.
Can we really imagine Paul or Peter marching into foreign lands and shouting,
“I want to tell you the great news about a man whose teachings are really interesting! He was a great speaker and very nice. Even though the Romans killed him, I really think that we should try and live the same way he did. So quit your silly gods and instead follow this really inspiring man!”
Anyone proclaiming that message would have been laughed out of town. Just as today, the ancient world had no shortage of inspiring men. There were many wise teachers, plenty of noble humanitarians, and tons of imitable examples. So what was special about Jesus of Nazareth? Why were whole villages drawn to his movement well after his death?
In 1950, the young Catholic writer Flannery O’Conner was invited to a dinner party. The party was hosted by Mary McCarthy, a prominent writer of the time, and was attended by many other elite intellects. Throughout the party, O’Conner was terrified that she would embarrass herself in front of these smart and cultured people.
At some point during the party, the discussion turned to the topic of the Eucharist. McCarthy, a fallen-away Catholic, wasn’t convinced that the Eucharist is really, truly the body and blood of Jesus. In her mind the Eucharist was a beautiful, powerful symbol, and “a pretty good one” at that, but nothing more.
As McCarthy spoke, all eyes slowly shifted toward the young, nervous O’Conner as people waited for her reaction. O’Conner, with great bluntness and clarity, muttered the first response that came to her mind: “Well, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!”
Imagine the shock at that reply.
But O’Conner was right. And precisely the same thing can be said about the Resurrection. If the Resurrection is just a symbol or a sign that Jesus’ teachings hold great value, then to hell with it. If the Resurrection is merely a representation of how Jesus’ way prevails, then forget it.
The Christian writer Frederick Buechner says it like this:
“If I thought that when you strip it right down to the bone, this whole religion business is really just an affirmation of the human spirit, an affirmation of moral values, an affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Great Example of time and no more, then like Pilate I wash my hands of it.”
Here’s St. Paul making the same point to the Corinthians:
“And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith….If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins….If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (1 Cor. 15:15-19)
The Resurrection grounds all of Christianity, and if it falls the whole religion topples. If the Resurrection is proved tomorrow to be a fabrication then I will be the first one out of the Church. It would mean that my God is actually dead–that he actually did not prevail, that his story is over; that he joins Confucius, Lao Tse, Buddha, and Mohammed among the religious dead.
Everything in Christianity–everything–flows out of the Resurrection. As Fr. Barron explains, the four Gospels, the letters of St. Paul, the theology of Augustine and Aquinas, the poetry of Dante, the mysticism of Teresa of Avila, the beauty of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, the sermons of John Henry Newman, the radical witness of Mother Teresa, and the existence of every Christian gathering in the world–all of it flows from the event of the Resurrection, and without the Resurrection, none of it makes a bit of sense.
Seeing how central Jesus’ Resurrection is, we’ll now turn our focus to an investigation of what really happened to this first-century Jewish Messiah.
Instead of proving the Resurrection itself, it’s much simpler to disprove any alternatives. So over the next four parts of this series, we’ll explore the only four possible scenarios regarding the death of Jesus.
First, the Bible is wrong. It’s a myth or legend at best, an intentional fabrication at worst. Therefore since we can’t trust what the Bible says about the Resurrection, Christianity unravels.
Second, Jesus never actually died on the Cross. And if he was never killed on Good Friday, there is no Easter Sunday.
Third, Jesus was tortured, nailed to a cross, and killed, but he never rose from the dead. Therefore, Jesus falls in line with the other false Messiahs who were silenced and exposed as hacks.
Finally, if if we can disprove each of these three scenarios, we’re left with just one possibility: what the Bible and Tradition say happened to Jesus actually happened–that Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day he rose again from the dead.
For a look at the first scenario, move on to Part 3 – Is the Bible Just a Myth?
Sources for the Series
Fr. Robert Barron’s work influences pretty much everything I write or teach. So if I didn’t get something from any of the sources below, I probably got it from him.
- Dutko, Bob – Evidence for the Resurrection
- McDowell, Josh – Evidence for the Resurrection
- Shea, Mark – The Evidence for the Resurrection
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (pp. 182-188)
- Barclay, William – The Mind of Jesus (pp. 287-314)
- Barclay, William – The King and the Kingdom (pp. 189-211)
- Barron, Fr. Robert – Word on Fire (pp. 51-57)
- Benedict XVI, Pope – Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (pp. 241-277)
- Buechner, Frederick – The Magnificent Defeat (pp. 74-81)
- Kennedy, Dr. James – Risen Indeed: Evidence for the Resurrection (pp. 1-53)
- Kreeft, Peter – Catholic Christianity (pp. 80, 137-138)
- Kreeft, Peter – Handbook of Catholic Apologetics (pp. 185-234)
- Sheed, Frank J. – To Know Christ Jesus (pp. 368-380)
- Strobel, Lee – The Case for Christ (pp. 21-174, 255-368)