Friday, July 31, 2015

Three Columns About The Resurrection From April 1968

This month I was harangued over The Resurrection again, though this time the dolts doing it apparently didn't have the "Second Law of Thermodynamics" canard at their disposal.  It was more idiotic than that.

I've confessed that I've got doubts about what is meant by "The Resurrection" when someone talks about that, generally they mean that the body of Jesus was reanimated like Frankenstein's moster or some equally absurd idea, one which doesn't seem to fit with the descriptions, such as those are, in the Gospels and other mentions of it in scripture.   As Richard McBrien points out, the Gospels don't tell us anything about HOW it happened or any clear account of what those who reported meeting the risen Jesus experienced.  Some, such as the account of Thomas's meeting with Jesus report a physical but different body who could be touched, a Jesus who could eat.  But not just a physical body as Jesus could appear and disappear.   Which would be scoffed at, so this reposting isn't for the scoffers who I invite to go elsewhere.

Here are three columns Richard McBrien published in April, 1968.  His understanding of what history and why The Resurrection can't be considered, strictly speaking, an historical event.  Which  will probably be too much for many of the people mentioned above to get unless they can understand what he means by that passage.


There was a time in Catholic theology when the resurrection of Jesus was not regarded as an essential part of the Redemption. The full saving act took place on the cross (St. Anselm again!); the resurrection was a kind of epilogue. Jesus rose from the dead in order to prove that he was truly the Son of God. 

The theological atmosphere in the English-speaking world changed considerably with the appearance of F. X. Durwell's biblical study The Resurrection (Sheed and Ward, 1960). It restored the Easter mystery to its proper place at the center, and not on the periphery, of our Redemption. 

Some older (and not so old) Catholics, and particularly priests, do not like to be told that the Church arrived at some deeper theological or pastoral insight after they finished their own formal religious education, in college or seminary. Significantly, they do not usually resist these insights if you can establish that we really held these views all along, but that now we are simply using different terminology. For some, this conviction has become a theological Linus-blanket. 

But this is not the situation in far too many cases, and we do the Church no real service by pretending that nothing has changed except the words. I am not suggesting here that we should ignore the past, or, worse still, reduce it to scorn. But unless we are willing to acknowledge the inadequacies and distortions of the past, we shall never purge ourselves of these deficiencies. We will have submerged our problems and, in the end, have learned nothing from history. 

I should expect very few Catholics, priests or laymen, to be able to point to any extensive treatment of the resurrection in the theology they learned some years ago. Indeed, whenever the resurrection was a topic for study, it was usually in an apologetical framework: Jesus is the Son of God, and he proved this by his miracles and especially his resurrection from the dead. (For a fuller consideration, see Avery Dulles, S.J., Apologetics and the Biblical Christ, chapter IV.) 

Now that we have rejected the idea of the crucifixion as cultic sacrifice and of the Redemption as the payment of a debt owed to God, we are free to view the resurrection of Jesus in a far richer theological perspective. 

The Redemption is the work of the Father, and it is the Father who raised Jesus from the dead for our salvation (Rom. 4:24; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:i4; 13:4; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Phil.2:9; I Thes. 1:10; 1:21). This is the consistent tradition of Pauline theology, although it has not always been part of our catechetical formation. (Some evidence of this emerges from the emotional distress manifested by some Catholics when they learned that the newer translations of the Gospels spoke of Jesus being "raised" from the dead rather than "rising" from the dead.) 

We are, in fact, saved by the resurrection of Jesus. It is through his resurrection that he communicates the new life of the Spirit to us (Rom. 4:24-5). We are reborn in the Spirit because Jesus has been raised and glorified (Jn. 7:39; 16:7; 20:22; 1 Pet. 1:3-4). Death no longer has a final hold over any one of us. The hope of our own resurrection is founded on our faith in Christ's (1 Cor. 15). 

But if the resurrection is torn from the mystery of our Redemption and is regarded solely as a proof for the divinity of Jesus, then it can have no real meaning for the life and mission of the Church. 

On the contrary, we must see that the resurrection is at the very heart of our Christian faith ("Jesus is Lord!"). We Christians believe that human life and history can and will succeed because Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Lord. The resurrection is the ultimate promise of God that his Kingdom will be brought to perfection for us. 

Jesus has left the tomb and gone into the city. He can and must be found there. It is the Church's responsibility to locate him again and again, and release the Spirit which he possesses. The Church is his resurrection community and, as such, a symbol of hope to the world. This is the essence of the Easter message and the task of the Easter faith


It is disastrous when matters of faith are posed in black-and-white, either/or categories. Either the teaching of Pope Pius XI on the morality of birth control is perfectly correct, or the Church is no longer infallible. Either Matthew 16:18 is an absolute proof of the primacy of Peter, or the Catholic Church is not truly the Body of Christ. 

The problem of the resurrection of Jesus can yield the same kind of false dilemma: either the resurrection is an historical event, or it didn't happen at all and we are still in our sins (see 1 Cor. 15:17). 

Some Catholics may be accustomed to thinking that the resurrection is an open-and-shut case: Jesus literally and physically got up from the tomb on Easter morning and, with the same body he had before the crucifixion, walked around, meeting his disciples, talking with them, instructing them. If a photographer were present at the time, he could have "caught" the Lord with his camera. Only "liberal" Protestants deny the historical truth of the resurrection, these Catholics believe, because they, deny, in the first instance, the divinity of Christ. 

In this week's essay 1 shall bring to the reader's attention a sample of some recent work being done by Catholic theologians on the problem of the resurrection. It should be pointed out that nothing in these studies diminishes the deeper theological and religious significance of the resurrection, which we outlined last week. 

Do we really have to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is an historical event in the sense that his goings-about on Easter Sunday could have been recorded on camera if one were available? The answer is very probably "No," and the clearest expression of this view has been produced recently by G. G. O'Collins, S.J., of Cambridge University, in an article which would ordinarily not come to the attention of my readers: "Is the Resurrection an 'Historical' Event?" in Heythrop Journal (October, 1967; pp. 381-7). 

Father O'Collins notes the renewal of interest in the resurrection on the part of Protestant theologians. Those of my readers who follow the progress of theological discussion through the pages of The New York Times and the news magazines will know by now that the new "theology of hope," proposed by Jurgen Moltmann and others, accords a central place to the resurrection of Jesus. 

But Father O'Collins finds that some of the newer Protestant thinking, far from being "liberal," insists too strongly on the historical character of the resurrection. It is such an event, they suggest, that an historian could verify it by his own scientific methods. 

However, an event cannot be called "historical" unless it meets certain conditions: (1) its causality must be open to scientific examination; (2) the event must have been witnessed by impartial observers; and (3) the event should bear some relationship to the kind of happenings we commonly experience. 

The resurrection fails to pass this test: (1) we cannot investigate its causality, because the scriptures themselves do not attempt to give an account, let alone a precise and detailed account, of how it occurred; (2) only believers testified to the appearances of the Lord; (3) the resurrection bears no analogy to our common experience. 

In brief, an "historical" event is one that happens in the realm of space and time. On that basis, Father O'Collins concludes that it is not an ''historical" event. By his resurrection Christ entered a new mode of existence of the glorified body, a Spirit-filled existence in which he is the source of life for mankind (2 Cor. 3:17; 1 Cor. 15:43 ff.). 

For the most part, his glorified existence is only to be described in negatives: immortal, impassible, etc. "If in fact Christ on the far side of the resurrection continued to exist under the bodily conditions which we experience and within which the historian operates, he would not be the risen Christ" (p. 385). 

The argument here is that the resurrection is central to our redemption in Christ and yet we need not regard it as an "historical" event in the strict sense of the word. How can this be? More next week.


The resurrection of Jesus differs from the other raisings from the dead mentioned in the Gospels: e.g., the young man from Nain (Lk. 7:11- 17), Jairus' daughter (Mk. 5:35-43), and Lazarus (Jn. 11). 

First, these events are described in some detail, whereas the resurrection of Jesus took place "in the silence of God" (St. Ignatius of Antioch). Secondly, there was never a problem of identification regarding the risen Lazarus or the risen daughter of Jairus, for example; whereas we have several instances in the Gospels where even his disciples failed to recognize the risen Lord. 

But the major contrast lies in the fact that the daughter of Jairus and the others resumed their lives under normal bodily conditions and would eventually die again. They had not yet entered into the final state of their existence. 

Jesus, on the other hand, does not return to our space-time condition. With his death and burial his historical existence is completed. He has moved into his final state of existence where he is now Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17; "see also 1 Cor. 15:43 ff.). 

Does all this mean that the resurrection was not "for real," that our faith is founded on an illusion? Not at all

Something objective did happen on Easter Sunday and its effects have manifested themselves ever since. The apostles themselves proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus as a real event, because they experienced and understood it as such. St. Paul would even argue that without the resurrection our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). 

The apostles were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them at definite times and in specific places and to a particular number of persons. These events were not regarded simply as mystical experiences and certainly not as hallucinations. On the contrary, "these appearances are historical from the side of those who encountered the risen Lord, but not from the side of Christ himself" (G. G. O'Collins, S.J., Heythrop Journal, October, 1967, p. 386). 

The resurrection and subsequent appearances are not subject to verification by the objective historian, and yet they are real events. This means that we must believe not only in the redemptive value of the resurrection, but also in the event itself. This is not true, however, in the case of the crucifixion. 

While faith is required to see the cross as the tree of life, faith is not required to accept it as an historical fact. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and an historian can verify this. But this is not so with regard to the resurrection. And yet the resurrection is just as real as the crucifixion. "Reality" comprises more than what is narrowly regarded as "historical." 

In other words, one can accept the resurrection as a real, bodily event, without necessarily calling it "historical." I say "necessarily" because there are theologians today (and they are not all fundamentalists) who continue to insist on the strict historicity of the resurrection. (For these references, see Father O'Collin's' article in Heythrop Journal.) 

While there may be room for discussion on the precise meaning of "historical," it must be clear that no Christian can responsibly deny the reality of the resurrection. It is something that really happened to Jesus of Nazareth and not merely to his disciples and apostles (as Bultmann has suggested). 

Indeed, the reality of the resurrection is the only thing that fully accounts for the faith and proclamation of the primitive Church. The apostles were men transformed by their experience of the risen Christ. No other explanation suffices for the extraordinary events that followed Easter Sunday and Pentecost. 

Now, as then, the only effective proof of the resurrection is a living faith. The resurrection remains an event which transforms and is transforming. A community which proclaims only a biological resuscitation of a corpse which lived some 2000 years ago is, at best, an historical anachronism or a curiosity piece. 

The risen Lord can only be experienced today, as he was in Palestine, in the breaking of the bread -- as men break bread with one another and give hope to those without hope, joy to those without peace, justice to those without rights. The Church, as the risen Body of Christ, must be precisely this kind of community

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