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Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: Part I

In this series of articles I wish to consider briefly the chief disputed issue in modern theological writing about the Resurrection of Christ.

An increasing number of Catholic theologians, following a century or more of liberal Protestant biblical criticism, have been saying that we should “rethink” the notion of bodily resurrection in such a way as to be able to affirm, with Hans Kung in On Being a Christian, that “the corporeality of the Resurrection does not require the tomb [of Christ] to be empty.”

What these theologians are saying, in fact, is that the crucified body of Jesus was never miraculously raised to a new and glorious life—or, at least, that Catholics should be free to doubt that such a miracle ever occurred. They maintain that the true sense of “resurrection” is something more “spiritual” than that which Catholics have traditionally accepted.

In what follows I shall try to summarize the reasons why, on historical grounds, the traditional miraculous understanding—that of the New Testament itself–is the most credible one. I hold that modern “reinterpretations” are untenable not only from the viewpoint of reason, but from those of faith and orthodoxy. They constitute a distortion of the faith, one which cannot ever come to be accepted as a legitimate option within the Church.


The two ways of studying the Resurrection of Christ—in the light of reason and in the light of faith–are complementary. Unlike, say, Catholic doctrine on the Trinity or grace, the article of faith in our Lord’s Resurrection, while it is certainly a matter of revealed truth, has never been considered by the Church as one of those truths which are knowable only by revelation and are intrinsically inaccessible to unaided human reason.

The Church has always regarded the rational evidence for Christ’s Resurrection as one of the “motives of credibility” for the Christian faith as a whole and thus insists that an open-minded inquirer can become convinced of the historical truth of the Resurrection without any appeal to the authority of the Magisterium or to the inerrancy and inspiration of the New Testament records.

Against the nineteenth-century fideism of those who held that a rational basis for faith is unnecessary and that all Catholic dogmas should be accepted unquestioningly only on faith, the Holy See insisted that one has no right to expect an unbeliever to admit the Resurrection of our divine Savior before giving certain proofs–proofs which are deduced from the oral and written tradition of Christianity.

Three additional methodological points should be noted here.

First, the terms “proof” and “true and full certitude” have to be understood cautiously. In this context, they refer to the kind of proof and certitude appropriate to historical knowledge. A moral certitude is all that we need claim, not the absolute certitude of face-to-face vision or experimental, repeatable proof, or mathematical proof, or deductive demonstration .

Second, a point brought out by Arnold Lunn is worth keeping in mind. The Church does not expect us to consider any of the motives of credibility in isolation–not even the Resurrection. The fact that Catholic history has been constantly marked by many other well-attested miracles in the lives of holy men and women lends a certain a priori credibility to the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ miracles and his Resurrection.

It would seem surprising, indeed, if a society which for over 2,000 years has produced a constant stream of miracles was not adorned at its foundation by events at least as wondrous. On the other hand, as Lunn remarks in The Third Day, “I am prepared to concede that if the Resurrection were the only case of a miracle in all history, I might be tempted to return a verdict of ‘Not proven.'”

Third, we must carefully use the assumptions with which we begin a historical inquiry into the Resurrection. A fair-minded inquirer approaching the case for the first time will avoid the extremes of both excessive credulity and excessive skepticism.

He will not begin with the attitude (so common among Western intellectuals, including theologians, in a secularist and materialist age) that no testimony, however strong, will persuade him to believe that anyone’s dead body was ever raised to life. To be sure, there is an overwhelming statistical improbability based on experience–billions to one–that any given human being will rise (of his own power) from the dead several days after burial.

But the Christian claim is that this self-powered revivification occurred not to some nonentity, but to one who, by common consent, was one of the most extraordinary and influential men in the history of mankind. There is no way of establishing a priori that this claim is improbable.

This becomes clearer by an analogy: In a lottery in which a million tickets are sold, there is only one chance in a million that any given ticket holder will win first prize. But it would be ridiculous if, on reading in the newspaper that someone had won, I refused to believe it, saying, “That is extremely improbable. This individual would have only one chance in a million of winning such a prize.”

We can summarize the case for the miraculous bodily Resurrection of Christ by considering the alternatives which have been proposed.

“Jesus Never Died on a Cross”

Since the eighteenth century, rationalist critics have attempted to explain the origin of Christianity without reference to any divine activity. In La Risurrezione di Gesu, F. Spadafora cites, for example, the German liberal Protestants Bahrdt and Paulus, who suggested that Christ was only apparently dead on the cross and revived later in the tomb.

Few today would opt for this explanation, because it would require the concurrence of a whole series of events, each of which is intrinsically improbable and for each of which there is no evidence whatever. This amounts to a moral certainty that the explanation is false, when we recall that, in a series of independent possible events, each of which is fairly improbable, the probability of the whole series occurring becomes exceedingly small.

If there is one chance in fifty that a certain event will occur, we will not be too reluctant to believe it if several people tell us it took place. But that two events of the same probability, not causally linked, should occur together the probability is the square of one chance in 50–one in 2,500. We will want to see strong testimony before believing this. And if four such events occur together in a series, the probability is less than one in six million. We will need really solid evidence before believing reports involving such coincidences.

When there is no such evidence–all the more when there is contrary evidence–we can be morally certain that no concurrence of events took place. To the mere speculation that maybe some such concurrence occurred, we can reply, without fear of being wrong, that such a speculation is erroneous. Quad gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

Let’s return to the series of improbabilities involved in the speculation that Jesus never died on the cross:

1. Roman soldiers–professional executioners whose own lives would be at stake if they let a condemned criminal escape–mistakenly judged Jesus to be dead.

2. The writer of the fourth Gospel, who on this hypothesis believed Jesus to have risen from the dead, had the uncommon medical knowledge and the motive (what motive?) for inventing a conscious falsehood that the spear which pierced Jesus’ side brought forth blood and water (John 19:34-35), without making it clear to his medically unsophisticated readers that such a phenomenon is medical evidence of death.

3. Jesus, without any supernatural assistance, would have had to revive so totally and rapidly from his ordeal as to convince his disciples that a stunning miracle, rather than a mere remarkable recovery, had taken place.

4. Since, according to the hypothesis, this was a return to normal life, Jesus would have really died and remained dead sooner or later–yet the disciples maintained an emphatic and permanently continuing belief that Jesus rose to a new and glorious life, a permanent triumph over death.

“The Disciples Stole the Body”

Reimarus in the eighteenth century revived the classical Jewish explanation: The disciples removed Jesus’ body furtively from the tomb and perpetrated the greatest hoax in history, a pretense that Jesus had risen.

As Lunn observed shrewdly, this is the best alternate explanation because it was the one preferred by the contemporary Jewish leaders themselves. Not only were these leaders highly intelligent, but (unlike modern critics) they were on the spot and had a detailed knowledge of the situation.

If any of the other possible non-miraculous explanations put forward in recent centuries had been more plausible than this one, it is most unlikely that the leaders of the Sanhedrin would have chosen this one. And it is remarkable that for centuries (not just in Matthew’s Gospel) all Jewish opponents of Christianity appealed to this theory.

Once again, let us consider the unlikely string of events which this theory has to invent:

1. Contrary to the available evidence, there was no guard at the tomb, so the disciples were able to rob it unnoticed. But this is unlikely on the basis of the hypothesis itself. If Jesus had made predictions of rising from the dead after three days, and if excited expectations to that effect were being spread abroad, then we would expect the chief priests and Pharisees to take the precautions which Matthew says they did in fact take (Matt. 27:62-66).

On the other hand, if Jesus never made any such predictions, and if there were no rumors going around that he would rise again in a few days (and hence no guard posted), it seems most unlikely that the idea even would have occurred to the disciples to plan such a bizarre hoax. To have any hope of success in such an intrinsically outlandish venture, they would have needed something to build on, at least the excited credulity of a reasonable number of Jesus’ admirers who were expecting a miraculous resurrection.

2. This theory requires 500 conspirators. The oldest testimony to the Christian proclamation of the Resurrection is Paul’s obviously sincere affirmation to the Corinthians, written about A.D. 57, of what he had been taught on becoming a Christian 20 to 25 years previously (1 Cor. 15:3).

Scholars say this is the most ancient “creed” available to us and represents the core of apostolic preaching in the 30s. Among the testimonies which Paul insists on is that of “five hundred of the brothers, most of whom are still alive,” who saw the risen Jesus simultaneously (1 Cor. 15:6). This seems impossible to reconcile with the hypothesis of sheer fraud.

No hoaxers would ever try to get 500 persons to perjure themselves with a story about having seen a man appear to them alive after his death. The number is far more than would be necessary to persuade the intended victims of the hoax, and there would be a very serious danger that, out of such a large number, one or more would repent and expose the fraud.

It is useful to compare the origins of Christianity with those of another religious movement based on reports of supernatural appearances, Mormonism.

The character of Joseph Smith, as testified to by many contemporaries, is such as to excite deep suspicion that he could have been a hoaxer, a suspicion reinforced by the fact that only three alleged witnesses besides himself ever claimed to have seen Smith’s “golden plates.” (One of them, Martin Harris, later admitted he saw them only “with the eye of faith'” since they were “covered with a cloth” at the time.

3. The fraud hypothesis requires us to believe that the role of initial witnesses to the Resurrection, in the disciples’ fictitious tale, was given to people whose testimony would automatically be suspect in the eyes of contemporary society. All the Gospels mention one or more women as the first witnesses to the Resurrection, and this must have been part of the received tradition from a very early stage—a tradition approved by the first generation of Church leaders.

Now, no first-century Jew (male or female) who wanted to deceive the general public with striking tales of miraculous apparitions would ever cast women in a leading role, since in that patriarchal society women were not accepted on a par with men in Jewish law courts. Why would the conspirators give themselves needless difficulties?

4. The disciples’ motivation for conducting such a conspiracy seems unimaginable. This is probably the most obvious and overwhelming objection to the conspiracy theory. The conspirators would have known from the outset that to preach the miraculous resurrection and divinity of a man who had recently been executed for b.asphemy and sedition by the Roman governing authority, at the behest of the powerful Sanhedrin, would be a risky business indeed.

Returning to our comparison with the origins of Mormonism, we may remark that the social environment in first-century Palestine was in sharp contrast with that of the U.S. in the nineteenth century, where a strong tradition of religious freedom, pluralism, and acceptance of a multitude of denominations made it relatively safe and socially acceptable–not to mention lucrative–to start a new church or a new cultic movement.

Even the lure of personal aggrandizement could hardly have been operative in the New Testament case: The apostles were not posing as prophets, claiming to enjoy a permanent hotline to God which would enable them to produce divine oracles for every occasion and to draw the adulation of thousands of awestruck followers. They assumed only the humble role of witnesses to an extraordinary fact, the Resurrection of their divine Master. They consistently directed attention away from themselves and toward their crucified and risen Lord.

What a contrast with the Mormon “prophet,” Joseph Smith, who manufactured hundreds of “revelations” (some of which paid him handsomely in money and sexual indulgence)! He finally had himself proclaimed “King of the Kingdom of God.”

All that the apostles could have anticipated from a “resurrection” hoax was the adherence of a few and persecution from those more numerous and powerful—and possibly the fearful death by crucifixion which their Master had endured. Unless we want to contradict the evidence yet again, most of them ended up laying down their lives for the Christian cause–another reason to believe their witness. (As Pascal remarked, “I readily believe those witnesses who get their throats cut.”)

The Hallucination Theory

This theory has been popular since the days of Celsus in the third century. It was revived by nineteenth-century Protestant liberals such as Strauss, Renan, and Harnack. The most ingenious version combines it with the fraud theory: One or two of Jesus’ admirers, it is suggested, removed the body from the tomb in order to perpetrate a pious fraud on the rest. They were motivated by a distorted kind of devotion to their deceased Master, a twisted desire to see his influence perpetuated, even at the cost of deceiving and endangering his best-loved followers.

Still, we are confronted here with a series of improbabilities which cumulatively rule out this hypothesis with moral certainty:

1. Though it is not impossible that someone with this warped mentality should just happen to be around at the right time and place, the odds would be against this contingency.

2. The difficulty mentioned above applies equally here: lack of access to the body if there were guards and probable lack of motive (and lack of hallucination) if there were not.

3. Either the tomb robbery took place after the supposed “visions” or before them. It could scarcely have happened beforehand, because there could have been no hope of success. No one could have foreseen these lifelike visions which the other disciples were soon to have, nor would any sane man anticipate that an empty tomb alone would persuade anyone that Jesus’ body had been raised to life rather than stolen.

On the other hand if the pious fraud took place after the “hallucinations,” we have to postulate a disciple who knew about these startling “visionary” phenomena and was able to get to the tomb, make his decision, and remove the body out of sight–all of this before any of the other disciples arrived to check their “visions” against the reality of the tomb and without arousing their suspicions in regard to his own furtive activity.

4. Assuming the fraud, on this theory, was prompted by someone else’s “visions,” it seems difficult to account for the unanimous tradition that the order of events was the reverse of this: empty tomb discovery first, appearances second. The apostles, being honest men on this hypothesis, would have handed on and insisted on the facts as they knew them: They “saw” the risen Lord (so they thought), went to check the tomb, and, sure enough, it was empty.

5. The contemporary Jewish leaders, who knew the situation much better than modern critics, apparently rejected the hallucination theory as an explanation of what had been happening. By far the best explanation for their failure to adopt this theory is that the New Testament’s account of the apostles’ experiences and message is factually reliable: Their speech and demeanor were such that they could not easily be dismissed as hallucinating madmen, and they were so insistent on the flesh and blood reality of the risen Jesus—someone whom they were able to touch, eat with, walk and talk with in broad daylight, someone on whose body they could see marks–that the only feasible alternative to believing them was to brand them as liars. The Jewish establishment opted for the latter.

6. The disciples, on this hypothesis, experienced group “hallucinations” or “visions”—as many of them as 500 at one time and place. This is exceedingly implausible. There is no psychological evidence that large groups of people can suffer from exactly the same mental aberration at exactly the same time and to “see” phenomena of exactly the same sort, phenomena which have no basis in any external reality independent of the subjective consciousness. (The whole concept of “group” or “mass” hallucination seems to have been concocted over the last century as a rather desperate attempt to explain away the modern series of Marian apparitions to multiple witnesses which began with La Salette in 1846.)

7. The original witnesses to the Resurrection, we are asked to believe, not only were deluded at the time by purely subjective hallucinations but ever after remained utterly convinced of the reality of what they had seen, so much so as to be willing to suffer torture and death for that conviction. Such a thing is not just improbable, but utterly extraordinary and inexplicable.

The fact is that “visions” or hallucinations do not as a rule convince anyone that a person’s dead body has been raised to life. History has witnessed many reports of people seeing “ghosts” or brief apparitions of distant friends or relatives, often (so it turns out later) around the time of their death.

But such phenomena (however they may be explained) practically never prompt people to believe that the “person” seen has risen miraculously from the grave, much less to devote their lives to preaching this alleged miracle as an absolute dogma.

Normally, those who experience such apparitions would never wonder whether the corpse is still on Earth; they take it for granted that it is, because the nature of the apparition itself gives no grounds for suspecting otherwise.

Such visions are practically always given a purely spiritual or psychological explanation by those who see them: Some will describe what they saw as a “ghost”; some say it was the spirit of the departed–evidence that the soul survives death; others will ascribe it to some form of telepathy or “psychic energy.”

Now, first-century Jews were familiar with the idea of spirits existing apart from bodies and possibly appearing to those on Earth (see 1 Sam.. 28; Wis. 3:1-3 ; Matt. 10:28; 14:26; 17:3; Luke16:19-31; 23:43, 46; 24:37, 39; Acts 7:59). Given the types of “visions” or “apparitions” which the human race is (relatively) familiar with, the disciples would have explained their experience in one of the usual ways mentioned above, empty tomb or no empty tomb.

At best, they would have concluded that the spirit of Jesus, another holy prophet, was happily at rest in paradise (what was termed “Abraham’s bosom”) and would rise from the dead on the Last Day along with the rest of God’s people. In short, to persuade the disciples that Jesus had already triumphed fully over death in a unique way, their “visions” must have been every bit as “physical” and lifelike as the Gospels say they were–and that means “visions” of a unique, unheard of description.

“They Went to the Wrong Tomb”

This supposed explanation of the empty tomb, put forward notably by Kirsopp Lake early in this century, is so preposterous that it need not detain us long. When everyone on both sides of the controversy—disciples and Sanhedrin leaders alike—had the very strongest motives for checking which was truly Jesus’ tomb, it is absurd to suggest that everybody was confused as to its whereabouts and that nobody ever succeeded in locating it and finding the corpse.

Only a small number of gravesites in a small area would have warranted investigation, even if we assume either sudden death or sudden amnesia on the part of those who, so recently, had actually deposited the body in the tomb.

Quite apart from that, such a theory will have to cope with all the insuperable difficulties we have just been considering in trying to explain the “apparitions” since (as all will agree) an empty tomb alone could never have produced the unshakable apostolic faith that Jesus had risen bodily.

“Myth from the East”

This hypothesis, put forward by such scholars of comparative religion as Sir James Frazer, is not so much an alternate historical explanation as a refusal to attempt any historical explanation. It alleges the Resurrection is another myth from the East about gods who die and rise again, such as Isis and Osiris in Egypt or Attis and Cibele in Asia Minor.

The hypothesis ignores two vital facts:

First, unlike these oriental legends, belief in Jesus’ Resurrection refers to a historical person, not to deities whose worshipers did not attempt to locate them in any specific earthly place and time.

Second, belief in Jesus’ Resurrection arose very soon after his death, whereas the legends of pagan deities always refer them back to some dim and distant past at the dawn of time or else assert that this “dying and rising” of the god is not a visible event at all, just an otherworldly process which is mystically manifested in the constant return of spring after winter and which must be accepted without any sort of proof.

As Arnold Lunn and many others point out, these “dying-and-rising-god” legends are perfectly in harmony with the Christian belief in Christ’s Resurrection: They illustrate how the human spirit was instinctively longing for the reality which finally came in Christ. In no way do they undercut the Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

In the next installment Fr. Harrison looks at the “Yes, Christ truly rose, but . . . ” theories and shows why they’re appealing–and why they’re false.

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