John Twisleton examines the mystery of the Resurrection
There is no proof of Christ’s resurrection, only strong evidence. That is the case for any past event. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus stems from the faith of the church and an accumulation of evidence. In past ages its significance was limited to proving the divinity of Christ so that his birth was the incarnation of God and his suffering the overcoming of sin and death. Nowadays Christ’s resurrection is seen as more central than confirmatory both to the church’s transformational dynamic and to apologetics, the reasoned defence or ‘apologia’ of Christian faith. Christianity stands or falls on the event which has a documented history whilst being a metaphysical (‘beyond the natural’) event with significance beyond history. Defending the resurrection we sail ‘between the Scylla of critical pedantry and the Charybdis of vaguely religious psychology’ (Rowan Williams). If we make the establishing of the empty tomb narratives our goal that can reduce to pedantry because it is not the prime issue which is ‘who left that tomb and where can he be found?’ If we make the resurrection just a symbol of love’s triumph, bringing meaning to suffering and so on we also make it less than it is as a metaphysical event rooted in history. Shedding light on, elucidating Christ’s resurrection has an eye to the faith of the church through the ages alongside historical scholarship and the life of the church as the community of the resurrection with a meaning and power beyond itself.
In a few sentences we can make broad brush strokes about the truth of the resurrection. I would put first the existence of a community founded on the resurrection with a dynamic inexplicable without it. Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus give independent evidence for the remarkable growth of the church after Christ’s death. Then, secondly, the credibility of the New Testament witness to the resurrection which has survived two centuries of critical scholarship. The New Testament record of how Christ’s sad and defeated disciples were changed into fearless missionaries is hard to explain without a cataclysmic external impact upon their lives. Minor inconsistencies in the accounts of the resurrection seem to reflect less their being a fabrication and more their being halting attempts to describe a hereto unimaginable event. The role of women as witnesses is controversial for those days and would not have been included in any fabricated story. The abandonment by devout Jews of a weekly tradition of Friday Sabbath to keep Sunday as the day of resurrection has no rival explanation. Lastly there is no grave venerated for the founder of Christianity compared to founders of other religions, only the empty tomb in Jerusalem. These considerations are brush strokes painting a picture of an event pointing beyond itself to the unique action of God in raising Jesus from the dead, the pledge of an imperishable hope held to by a third of the world’s population today.
No one saw the resurrection. We have no eye witnesses or videos. It is not strictly a historical event but metaphysical. Though his friends and enemies saw his crucifixion before their eyes, after that encounter with Jesus entered another realm. This Spirit-filled existence went beyond mere resuscitation of his corpse to make him the source of eternal life to humankind. What happened on Easter Day comes down to us due to a series of transformative encounters with the risen Lord tracing back to the discovery of his empty tomb. Those encounters ceased after a time to continue in a different mode by the descent of the Holy Spirit which is inseparable from Easter. The meaning and power of scripture and sacrament today are linked to Easter, words and signs continuing to manifest the risen presence of Jesus when believers gather in his name. Though the resurrection of Jesus goes beyond history, the witness to it by the apostles and other disciples is historical. It is a solid witness based on the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of St Paul who makes this summary: ‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
In weighing up the historicity of the empty tomb one problem is that the references to the tomb are in the Gospel accounts written at least 20 years after the first letters of Paul which give little reference to the tomb save the reference above to Christ’s burial. Paul’s witness to the resurrection builds from his own encounter with the risen Lord Jesus which he associates with those of the apostles at Easter. So central is the resurrection to Paul’s thought that Acts 17:18 relates ‘he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection’. Some opponents of Christianity see this preaching as built on Paul’s subjective visionary experiences and not on the history of Jesus, his death and resurrection. Against that perception we can point to Paul’s writings as the earliest witness to the resurrection (Romans 4:24f, 6:4, 6:9, 7:4, 8:11, 29, 34, 10:9; 1 Corinthians 6:14, 15:4, 12-17, 20, 29, 32, 35, 42-44, 52; 2 Corinthians 1:9, 4:14, 5:15; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:10). Such a witness to Jesus who died and rose that we might die to sin and rise to new life in the Spirit seems inseparable from the memory of Christ. The resurrection is something in Christian experience because it was the experience of Jesus.
That the writings of Paul do not directly mention the empty tomb does not mean the writer was not aware of and formed by the same events as the Gospel writers. The physical elements of Christ’s resurrection are underlined in later New Testament writings which describe the discovery of the empty tomb alongside encounters involving Jesus speaking (John 21:15-22), touching (John 20:27) and eating (Luke 24:41-43). Whereas Paul’s resurrection experience was visionary and non-physical the accounts in the Gospels are very different, stressing, especially in Luke and John, the physical aspects. That both the Gospels and Paul’s letters are in the New Testament is a reminder of their complementary witness to the spiritual and physical aspects of faith in Christ’s resurrection. As Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road exemplifies, the strong tradition of the empty tomb is secondary to that of the appearances of Jesus to individuals when it comes to resurrection faith. It was seeing Jesus that helped the apostles and others make sense of his empty tomb. Resurrection faith then and now is spiritual and physical for both Jesus and those who trust in him, a resurrection inside of us after repentance and baptism and anticipated for our bodies at Christ’s return. ‘Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Romans 6:4-5).
In Lent 2018 I made it my challenge to prepare 40 pointers to Christ’s resurrection to release daily in Easter Season on social media blog accompanied by classic paintings of the risen Lord with captions setting forth evidence for the truth of Easter. This blog can be accessed at https://40resurrectionpointers.blogspot.com/ It summarises to an extent a month long debate I had some years back with an atheist prominent on social media who wanted someone to engage with about the truth of the resurrection. In that debate I became more aware that, though Christ proved his resurrection to the first disciples, we can only highlight pointers to its truth as I have attempted here and in my earlier book ‘Pointers to Heaven’. There is no knock down proof of a past event but that of Christ’s resurrection needs pondering and with openness to wider metaphysical questions that reach out from it. Is the evidence for Christ’s resurrection trustworthy or is it not? Is Jesus the Son of God or is he not? Are you and I destined for eternal splendour or not? As Alexander Schmemann affirms: ‘The only meaningful thing in life is what conquers death, and not “what” but “who” – Christ. There is undoubtedly only one joy: to know him and share him with each other’.
This essay comes from a series of essays entitled Elucidations soon to be published by Fr John Twisleton SSC.