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Resurrection and Real Justice | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

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"Nam qui Deus erat, homo natus est, et qui homo natus est, operatur ut Deus; et qui operatur ut Deus, ut homo moritur; et qui ut homo moritur, ut Deus resurgit. Qui devicto mortuis imperio cum ea carne, qua natus et passus et mortuus fuerat, resurrexit tertia die...." -- Formula "Fides Damasi" c. 500 A.D. [1]

"It is clear from the New Testament that the Resurrection was in no sense a restoration of Jesus to an earthly life as He had previously lived it; but neither was it merely a series of visions which assured the disciples that Jesus was still alive and present with them in spiritual power. The event is rather a mighty act of God, by which Jesus 'was raised up' ... and exalted by the Father to His rightful position of glory at the Father's right hand (Acts 2, 22-36, etc.). It was a victory of Christ over death, with results not only for Himself but for all Christians (1 Pet. 1, 3 f, cf. 1 Cor. 15, 14), and hence the beginning of a new era (Jn. 20, 17, Mt. 28, 16)." -- "Resurrection of Christ," The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. [2]


In the Prologue to the Gospel of John, we read the famous words, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only son from the Father" (Jn 1:14). John is careful to assure us that Christ is not an "illusion," as the Docetists thought, because, for them, it was a scandal that God could actually in any sense be a man, one of our kind. So John uses a word that cannot be mistaken for an abstraction or an illusion, "flesh." Christ did not become merely a human "soul," which He did. He became "flesh," body and soul.

And the dwelling amongst us comes from the word for "pitching one's tent" in a given place, in this case, among us. Once the Word is made "flesh," He needs a place to be, in which to dwell. Obviously, this world is where He intends to be. He is among precisely "us," not on some other planet in some other galaxy, if there be such. We should not forget that the principal difficulty that the ancient witnesses had with Christ was not so much that He was God as that He was man. But neither was He merely another prophet or holy man. He was what He claimed to be, "true God" but likewise "true man." As Fides Damasi says, Christ was born as man, but He acted as God. He was not half one and half the other, but all one and all the other. When He "rose again on the third day," He rose as "true man." As God, He did not have to "rise." God as such does not die. The man who was God does die, but God remains eternal. The God who, as man dies, rises again, true God and true man. The fact that Christ is one Person, with two natures, one divine, one human, allows us to affirm all of these things without contradiction.

As we come to Easter and its central teaching about the kind of beings we are, we often see various ways to understand it. We seek to make sense of the Resurrection—that of Christ and what it implies and promises, namely, that of our own. We know the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is, if true, consoling. It is in fact astonishing. Indeed, the major difficulty with this doctrine as a cornerstone of the Christian faith, as Chesterton often noted, is that it is "too good to be true." This being "too good" is one of the principal theoretical arguments against the Resurrection of Christ as a valid and true event in history.

Since we wish it to be true, so the argument goes, we are just projecting our empty hopes onto an ancient reality. If we have a "theory" that the resurrection could not happen, therefore, as scientists, we conclude that it could not, in principle, happen, even if there is evidence that it did. We proceed to deny fact in the name of our theory. As Christians, however, we do not begin with a theory but with a fact to which there were credible witnesses. On the basis of fact, we build our theory about whether and why it could or could not happen.

We can say of the Apostles, the ones who alone could have witnessed something about this event at the time, that, by all accounts, they never expected that Christ would die and rise again. They were told, as the record shows, that this remarkable event might happen. But from all we know they did not believe a word of it. The unbelief of the Apostles has, indeed, long been taken as an indirect proof that the event happened. St. Paul, in a famous remark, said that if Christ is not risen, our faith is "in vain" (1 Cor 15:14). There is nothing in that remark that proves objectively that Christ did rise again. All it proves is that the witnesses truly testified to what they saw. If it did not happen, we should forget it. If it did, we are faced with something unprecedented that we must address.

Nothing in the record indicates that the Apostles were disillusioned, impostures, or seeing things that they did not see. There is, as we know, a whole literature devoted to attempts to prove that the Apostles could not have seen what they in fact saw. But almost all of this literature has, as a philosophic basis, the presupposition that it could not have happened; therefore, anyone who said that it did happen must be lying, deranged, or confused. Unfortunately for this theory, which would have as its purpose the denying of any necessity to take the matter seriously, no real evidence exists that the Apostles were either lying, deranged, or confused.


What is "new" about our thinking about the resurrection of the body since, say, last Easter is the publication, in the meantime, on November 30, 2007, of Benedict XVI's Encyclical, Spe Salvi, on hope. In this encyclical, it strikes me, there is one feature that deserves considerable attention. Usually, arguments for the truth of the resurrection of the body are almost exclusively from the side of believers or those favorably disposed to them. But if the doctrine or fact is true, we might also expect that the "logic" that considers this doctrine objectively also might be true.

What do I mean by this "logic?" Suppose we do not begin our consideration of the validity of the supposed resurrection of the body with what Christians say about it. The Nicene Creed clearly says: "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come." This affirmation is what is generally attacked on theoretical and factual grounds, on whether it "could" happen or whether it "did" happen. While leaving these theoretical and factual questions where they are, let me outline another way to approach this question, one that actually leads through modern philosophy.

To begin, I will recall something in Plato. In his Republic, we read of a conversation with Plato's brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon. We have to face the question, they think, of whether we should be just not on the basis of rewards and punishments. They want to hear justice praised for its own sake. If we are just and get no reward, or if we are unjust and do get a reward, it makes no difference. This often happens in the world. But because of this widespread failure in the world of proper punishment for doing what is wrong or inadequate reward for what is right, it seems that the world is poorly made. And who else could make such a world "poorly" but God Himself?

But this vision of an unjust world will never do. Socrates proposes the immortality of the soul precisely as a remedy for this situation. What is unrewarded or unpunished in this world will not escape recognition. If there were no future life, it would mean that many crimes would go unpunished and many virtues unrewarded. But since there is a judgment on death, there will be no escape via death. Basically, heaven and hell stand as supports for what is right. These doctrines do not so much arise out of the whims of an arbitrary God, as is often postulated, but out of the iron logic of justice and man's vivid reaction to the unbalance.

In the course of his reflections in Spe Salvi, an encyclical about the four last things, Benedict remarks that much modern ideology is "moralist" in tone. What does he means by this? He means that modern atheism makes a moral case for itself on the basis of the accusation that religion itself is the cause of the injustices in this actual world. It supposedly deflects man from doing what needs to be done to right injustices. Modern ideology is "moralist"; that is, its passion is for justice, in effect, an absolute.

Much injustice is seen in the world. Ideology claims the right to eradicate it. It is going to outdo God, as it were, at His own game. In the event, modern ideologies ended up not so much making a better world but making little hells on earth. In thinking that they had grasped the causes of human disorder, they merely sought to impose their own ideas onto the world. Somehow, these ideas were not in accordance with human nature but radically against it. What it is to be a human being remained. The same problems remained within the operation of the ideologies.

But the plot thickens. Modern Marxist thinkers, who did see what happened when this ideology was put into practice, still were convinced justice seekers. Benedict has read them. He cites in particular the well-known Frankfurt philosopher, Theodore Adorno, whom he probably knows. Adorno is not a believer. He sticks to the view that religion is not convincing. Yet, he notices a peculiar fact. If God badly making the world such that, within it, we have terrible injustices, we still have to face the Platonic fact that the world is ill-made if specific historic crimes are not punished in fact. Even if God is not admitted, the "logic" of justice is acknowledged. The ideology did not get rid of injustices either.

Where does this "justice logic" lead? Remember, we Christians have faced the same issue. We think that Christ came into this world to redeem us from our sins. We locate the source of evil in human free will, which will remain present wherever there is man. We do not think God can or should take away our free wills so that we cannot sin. Were He to do this, we simply would not exist as the kind of beings we are. To put it briefly, we have a superior explanation about the meaning and consequences of evil in the world and how it is met. Adorno's problem is met in the Incarnation and Redemption. We cannot redeem ourselves. Why not?

Another Platonic background stands behind this issue. In the Phaedo, another myth is found about the condition of the world and our place in it. Here we see that the immortality of the soul is postulated because justice must finally be done if the world is to make sense. Thus, after we die, we are brought to judgment. If we are guilty of crimes, we are subject to punishment. We are thrown into the River Styx where we float and flounder helplessly around and around until the person against whom we commit our sins individually forgives us. This is a remarkable concept.

When we read this account as Christians, we are aware that we cannot wholly forgive someone else of sins committed against us, even though we are supposed to "forgive those who trespass against us." Every sin is not merely committed against someone else, but it reaches to Him who causes others to be at all, who loves what He creates. In other words, the atonement for sins seems to require some divine intervention itself. This is what has happened. The standard understanding of Christ's Crucifixion is that He has sacrificed Himself to atone for all of our sins. But He is an innocent sufferer. So suffering can have a sacrificial meaning. "Man learns by suffering," the Greek tragedian wrote.


With this background, let me now return to Benedict and Adorno. As the pope cites him, Adorno maintains that, even though he does not believe it, the only "logical" way that there ever could be true justice in this actual world would be for there to be something like the resurrection of the body. Clearly he is right. There is, no doubt, something amusingly ironic about a Marxist philosopher appearing prominently in a papal encyclical as an upholder of the basic Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Why does he say this? What did Adorno mean?

As I unravel his logic, Adorno implied something like this: Agreeing with Plato that the world is full of unpunished crimes and unrecognized good deeds, the fact is that most of these crimes, especially the great ones, go unpunished or unrewarded. The world itself is thus full of moral disorder and unbalance. As Plato said, the popular view is that great criminals get by with their crimes and the saints are punished. The ideological movements of modernity that addressed themselves to the eradication of this situation only made things worse than we had ever seen before. They created their own hells on earth. So something was wrong with their approach and premises.

But Adorno is very concrete. He sees that the repair of historical crimes cannot be an abstraction. It must reach each individual against whom the crime was committed. If I might put it in modern terms, each aborted fetus, unjustly killed, must have its day. And that can only come, as Adorno clearly sees, if there be an actual resurrection of the body. In addition, as the pope emphasizes, there must be a judgment of the living and the dead to set the record straight. This position is pretty much what Plato understood. For Benedict, it seems quite normal that an honest philosopher, if he carries out the logic of a given premise as far as it must go, will arrive at a truth, even if, in the end, the same philosopher cannot himself accept it.

On this Easter, 2008, I think, we are in the extraordinary position of finding that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body makes considerable sense to non-believers. In fact, it solves the unbelievers' speculative difficulties about retributive justice. Adorno is quite right. If there is no resurrection of the body, there is no way in which the world is properly made.

This position is what Chesterton argued all along, of course. As this year, 2008, is the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Orthodoxy, let me conclude by citing Chesterton. Adorno had said, and the pope cited him with great appreciation, that if we are to have a just world, we must have a resurrection of the body, that is, those who were responsible for the crimes and those who were not rewarded need to be accounted for. The resurrection of the body means that we remain what we are, what we choose ourselves to be by our deeds and theories. Of Christianity, Chesterton says in Orthodoxy: "No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved, but a man to love him."

Adorno's point of view is that of justice. The resurrection of the body is not, of course, only about justice. It is about God remaining God and man remaining man. Modern ideology has not solved its own problems in its own order because they cannot be solved there. Adorno rightly saw that a "judgment of the living and the dead" is necessary for the completion of our understanding of the world. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that on Holy Saturday, Christ descended into hell to experience of the nothingness of those who have utterly rejected the gifts that were given to them. Nothing that could have been done was not done. But the mystery of the world is not our anguish over justice. It is that the final word is not justice but mercy, a mercy that does not deny the fact that justice needs to be done for the world to be set aright.

I go back to the man being punished in the river Styx waiting for the one he killed to forgive him. The Pharisees were scandalized because Christ forgave sins, a divine prerogative, as they knew. The resurrection of the body means that there is already Someone on that shore who can pull us out, even if those we sinned against will not forgive us. Christ died for all sinners. The resurrection of the body restores human creation to the original integrity in which it was created and without which we cannot be complete. Man was originally created to see God face-to-face. This is the other side of Adorno's justice and its completion. The "logic" of both sin and love is the resurrection of the body, by which alone, saints or sinners, we see God face-to-face in judgment of all we are. As Chesterton said, it is often the heretics that enable us to see most readily what not only is true, but must be true if we are also to understand what we are.

"He who was God, was born a man; and He who was born a man, acts as God; and He who acts as God, dies as a man; and He who dies as a man, rises as God. He who, having put aside the reign of death, with the same flesh in which he had been born and suffered and died, rose again on the third day...."


[1] "For He who was God, was born a man, and who was born a man, acted as God; and He who acted as God, as man died, and He who as man died, as God rose (again). Having overcome the reign of death with that flesh with which He was born, suffered, and died, He rose on the third day...." Denziger, #16.

[2] "Resurrection of Christ," The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2d Edition; London: Oxford, 1974), 1178.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
The Truth of the Resurrection | Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Cross — For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Question of Suffering, The Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Easter Delivers Us From Evil | Carl E. Olson
The Easter Triduum: Entering into the Paschal Mystery | Carl E. Olson
The Paradox of Good Friday | Carl E. Olson
The Encyclical on Hope: On the "De-immanentizing" of the Christian Eschaton | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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