Dead Men Stay Dead ... Almost All the Time, Then and Now | Al Kresta | Ignatius Insight
"Jesus' resurrection shattered the after-life expectations of the ancient world," I told a friend last week. He replied that "people back then believed in resurrections—resurrections weren't that incredible." Feeling superiority over past generations is a form of self congratulation that C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery." Could my friend really think that Roman executioners didn't really believe that dead men stayed dead? That those crucified bodies on the roadsides were not regularly eaten by dogs, or dumped into a grave to rot, or the bones polished and placed in an ossuary?
Electromagnetism, string theory and stem cells haven't changed our fundamental human confidence in direct sense perception. When we and the ancients notice that a person hasn't been breathing for a few hours and feel his body grow cold, we both know that he's dead, not merely sleeping. Crypts and corpses formed as firm a union in the 1st as in the 21st century.
Why do we patronize the ancients? Wouldn't you think that life without refrigeration, anesthetics, flush toilets, and first class travel would incline a person to adopt a tough-minded approach to life's likely outcomes? Don't deprivation and suffering hedge against holding extravagant expectations of what life ultimately holds for you? The hardships of ancient peasant life, I'm sure, seemed pretty good prima facie evidence to many that life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" in the famed phrase of David Hume. Our first century ancestors were probably less Pollyannaish than we are about the material world's stern refusal to fulfill our fondest desires when and where we want. It's hard to imagine a smiley face bumper sticker urging us to "Expect a miracle today" decorating the rump of a jackass in 70 A.D. Jerusalem. Prayers were not more commonly answered, miracles were not more commonly performed in olden days. Far more than ourselves, the old holies found themselves companions to infant mortality, famine, drought and disease despite their prayers and because of God's economy of miracles. The Psalms and Qoheleth as well as Christ's warnings and the Apostles' betrayals leave no doubt that unbelief about God's control of human history is an equal and chronic temptation for the antique and the modern.
Yes, of course, ancient peoples were ignorant of many facts that we now take for granted but they weren't more gullible! The wife of a goat breeder might not have known the number of chromosomes that a man and woman each contribute to an embryo but she had no doubt how goats and humans go about reproducing their kind. This is precisely why Joseph, upon learning of the Virgin's pregnancy, immediately planned to break off the engagement. Why did it take an act of divine revelation to convince him that Mary's child had been miraculously conceived? Simply because he wasn't ignorant of how children, sheep and goats are normally conceived. He knew so well that he needed convincing that Mary was a sheep and not a goat, so to speak.
Life's material processes are indifferent to our wishes and ideals, the way that keyboards are indifferent to the sentence I am writing. Nature resists and even repudiates our desire for eternal life and it is against this unsympathetic backdrop, that the good news of Christ's resurrection sounds forth. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it in his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God: "The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus' resurrection was, and remains, without analogy, is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself."
The early Christian understanding of Easter was not that this sort of thing was always likely to happen sooner or later, and finally it did. The empty tomb and the subsequent appearance of Jesus of Nazareth weren't to be counted as a freak occurrence on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the detection of poltergeists. It wasn't a sign that this particular rabbi exercised more spectacular powers than competing wonder-workers. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the beginning of a whole new world. The Human Race had been given a second chance.
The historical foundation for Christ's Resurrection is as strong as ever because it rests on our basic trust in our senses. Yes, dead men stay dead unless there is credible testimony to the contrary. The ancients needed to be convinced every bit as much as we do. The Resurrection is simply the best explanation of the evidence even if its supernatural character offends the sensibility of historians. As Evangelical philosopher William Lane Craig argues: "The resurrection of Jesus is a miraculous explanation of the evidence. But the evidence itself is not miraculous."
the discovery of his empty tomb
his post-mortem appearances
the origin of the disciples' belief in his resurrection and rise of the Christian Church.
"None of these four facts is any way supernatural or inaccessible to the historian. To give an analogy, did you know that after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, there was actually a plot to steal his body as it was being transported by train back to Illinois? Now the historian will obviously want to know whether this plot was foiled or not. Was Lincoln's body missing from the train? Was it successfully interred in the tomb in Springfield? Did his closest associates like Secretary of War Stanton or Vice-President Johnson claim to have seen appearances of Lincoln alive after his death, and so on? These are questions any historian can investigate. And it's the same with the four facts about Jesus."
Even anti-supernaturalists concede the fact of a burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. Likewise, there is widespread recognition of Paul's remarkably early "eyewitness tradition" to the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-8; cf: Gal 1:18; Lk 24:36-42; Jn 20:19-20). Further, the Church's birth in a hostile environment so soon after Christ's death indicates that some remarkable experience regalvanized the band of disciples who had been scattered by Jesus' premature and violent death. Something fortified them, fused them together again and propelled them back into the heart of Jerusalem. What was it? The reappearance of the crucified Christ...now raised in glory...and made evident to their senses. The same sense that had told them that dead men stay dead.
Thus strengthened they made the case for the resurrection. In the presence of hostile audiences, men and women who themselves had witnessed the main events of Palm Sunday and Good Friday and could challenge the Apostles' account of the facts, to that audience, they made their shocking proclamation. This Jesus who you killed has been raised from the dead and we are witnesses to his glory. Repent and believe the good news."
Sometimes proclamation requires confrontation and pushback might follow. Had the Jews or the Romans hidden the body, they could have conveniently pulled it out of cold storage dropped it onto an ox-cart and wheeled it out through the streets of Jerusalem exploding the delusion of the Apostles. Christianity would have been killed not in the cradle but in the womb. But they didn't—even though it would have served their purposes to restore quiet and shut down these zealots.
On the other hand, had the disciples stolen the body (Mt 28:11-15), they were caught in a psychological impossibility. Here they were putting their lives on the line for a phony confection they had slyly cooked up. People may die for what they believe. Nobody dies for what they know is a lie.
The historic arguments are powerful but we can also know the Resurrected Christ today because He is alive and available for us. As Benedict XVI teaches in Saved by Hope:
"His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is 'truly' life." (par 31)
However absurd the notion of the resurrection of the body may seem to our friends, neighbors, and the opinion makers in New York and Washington D.C., they should at least acknowledge that the Christian tradition has located redemption right where the ultimate horror lives- in pain, mutilation, death and decay. The world still largely believes that dead men stay dead so, fittingly, it is right there at the doorway of slime and stench, membranes and myelin sheaths, decomposition and disease, that the light of glory shines. And the Resurrected Jesus is not shy about his materiality.
"Put your fingers in my side. Touch my scars."
"Let us break bread together."
"Let's grill some fish this Sunday down on the Galilean seashore."
"A ghost doesn't have flesh and bone as you see I have."
Our friends may think our solution is implausible but it is hard for them to think that we've got the problem wrong. Love is the final apologetic and as the Song of Songs says it is "stronger than death." Love renders plausible those realities which are not so easily seen. In truth, we aren't so different from the ancients. We fundamentally believe the evidence of our senses that dead men stay dead...unless some trustworthy witness sees differently. And if some dead guy doesn't stay dead then he'd better have something more to offer than a freak show. He must offer the cure for what ails me. "I have a disease. I want to live forever." Nature always tells me No. In Jesus I finally think I hear "Yes, for this you were born. I, in you, and you, in me, as I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Where I go, you will follow and my destiny will be your destiny." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
"Now if the rising of Christ from the dead is the very heart of our message, how can some of you deny that there is any resurrection? For if there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead, then Christ was never raised. And if Christ was not raised then neither our preaching nor your faith has any meaning at all. Further it would mean that we are lying in our witness for God, for we have given our solemn testimony that he did raise up Christ...Truly, if our hope in Christ were limited to this life only we should, of all mankind, be the most to be pitied!" (St. Paul first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, Philips paraphrase).
This column has been reproduced by kind permission of the author.
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Al Kresta is a broadcaster, journalist and author who is, first of all, a missionary. He is the author of Moments of Grace: Inspiring Stories From Well-Known Catholics, Why Are Catholics So Concerned about Sin?: More Answers to Puzzling Questions about the Catholic Church, a follow-up to the best-seller Why Do Catholics Genuflect? And Answers to Other Puzzling Questions About the Catholic Faith, as well as a contributor to Shaken by Scandals: Catholics Speak Out About Priests' Sexual Abuse, Loving Your Neighbor, and the original Surprised by Truth. Kresta in the Afternoon is broadcast on over 120 stations nationwide including the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network and Sirius Satellite Radio. It is produced by Ave Maria Radio every weekday afternoon from 3-6 p.m. Eastern Time. Kresta in the Afternoon takes a closer, Catholic look at current events, issues and ideas. It is conversation with consequence.
For all media inquiries, contact Nick Thomm, Executive Producer of "Kresta in the Afternoon," at 734-930-3164.
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