"The Bridge Between This World and Eternal Life" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 2, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
"The Bridge Between This World and Eternal Life" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 2, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
Someone recently sent me an on-line account of Christopher
Buckley's reflections on his parents' deaths within a year of each other in
2007 and 2008. The passage is from the author's new book on his famous father,
the late William F. Buckley, Jr. In many ways, it is a touching, even at times
humorous, account. In the course of his comments on life, death, and religion,
as an aside, the younger Buckley informs us that he no longer believes in the
fact of the Resurrection of Christ. I presume that he once did, but now does
not. This information is not presented as an argument but as autobiography
about himself, as if we would care to know his theology in the face of the
death of his parents.
Lots of folks, of course, do not believe in the existence or
Resurrection of Christ. More credibility is usually given to those who once did
believe in this fact but now have "wised up" and do not. We can find others, no
doubt, who did not believe in the Resurrection but who now do. The Apostles
themselves practically needed clobbering over the head to accept it—a
rather consoling fact, I have often thought. We have always to be grateful to
the Apostle Thomas, the famous doubting Thomas, for his skepticism about the
Resurrection—"Blessed are those, Thomas, who have not seen but who have
If one is a Muslim or a Jew, he cannot believe in this fact
and remain what he is. Hindus seem to allow for many resurrections of various
sorts. And, if one is a Buddhist, it is hard to see into what Christ would have
been subsumed. I have met few atheists who hold this doctrine. Lots of people
will acknowledge it—provided it does not mean what it says it does. Still
others will take it on "pure" faith. This means that no suasive grounds in
reason exist that would also make it plausible. Anyone who doubts his own
existence or who doesn't think he can get outside his own mind will,
admittedly, have a tough time with this doctrine. This will be especially true
if he thinks that Christ shared his own philosophic view of reality.
In the history of Christianity itself, this doctrine, from
the very first, has had a stormy career. Many have managed so to mitigate or
even deny it that it ironically seems possible to be a "Christian" and skip
this doctrine, in spite of Paul's famous words to the contrary that without it
our faith is "in vain." Some theories say that Christ did not really rise
again, but the Apostles so wanted it to happen that they imagined that it did.
The fact that the Apostles themselves were quite surprised by the event seems
to be overlooked.
Explanations of the "empty tomb" on Easter morn abound. The
only reason for the emptiness that is not admitted is the one that says that in
fact Christ rose again, as He said he would. The early Jews said the body was
"stolen" in spite of the guard put there to prevent this very absconding by the
disciples. Many psychological theories concoct dream or illusion theories to
account for the phenomenon.
For some odd reason, mankind has worked very hard to deny
that there is evidence or logic in this event. We find what can only be called
a vested interest in its not having happened. The reason for this insistence
that it did not happen seems more moral than scientific or metaphysical. For if
it did, but we deny it, as some wit used to say, "There'd be hell to pay." The
New Testament actually gives the impression that what we hold and believe also
has something to do with our personal destiny as related to how we choose to
Catholicism is not indifferent to mind. It thinks events can
be put into words that accurately state what happened. We can understand these
words both in the here and now and over time. It thinks that witnesses can
reliably tell us what they saw. Finally, it also thinks that, if this event did
happen, the best way to make it known down the ages is for others to know that
it happened probably in the way that it is reported to us, through the
testimony of those who told us what they saw and who, often, died for its
Taking my cue from Chesterton's Heretics, I have always suspected that, when someone bothers
to tell me that he "no longer believes in the Resurrection," that itself is
probably a pretty good reason why it might just be true. We can detect a subtle
relation between what we say we do or do not believe and how we live. Our minds
protect our deeds, the ones we want to keep from harm's way.
One of the reasons I like Pope Benedict is that he seems to
have thought of just about everything long before he was ever elevated to the
See of Peter, and so becoming pope did not slow him down. And he covers his
case in that careful, thorough German scholarly way that dots all the "i"s and
crosses all the "t"s. In what is fast becoming my favorite book of his, Eschatology:
Death and Eternal Life, Joseph Ratzinger
The world's salvation rests on the
transcending of the world in its worldly aspect. The risen Christ constitutes
the living certainty that this process of the world's self-transcendence,
without which the world remains absurd, does not lead into the void. The Easter
Jesus is our certainty that history can be lived in a positive way, and that
our finite and feeble rational activity has a meaning. In this perspective, the
'antichrist' is the unconditional enclosure of history within its own
logic—the supreme antithesis to the Man with the opened side, of whom the
author of the Apocalypse wrote. 
This is a statement of political philosophy as well as of
theology and metaphysics. Rational activity has a proper meaning. History is
not enclosed by man alone. Politics is freed insofar as it is not itself a
divine claim, a claim that it often makes implicitly for itself.
In this connection, the Holy Father's Easter Sermon was
striking (L'Osservatore Romano, English,
April 15, 2009). Death, Benedict affirmed, does not have "the last word." What
follows is extraordinary. "Jesus is risen so that we too, believing in Him, may
have eternal life. This proclamation is at the heart of the Gospel message."
This truth is itself the judgment on those who have no faith in this event. In
denying the resurrection we implicitly lock ourselves into this world, by
Following Paul, if we do not believe in the Resurrection, we
are not to be praised, we are not to be boastful. We are to be "pitied."
Something new began at Easter dawn. The meaning of hope is changed and
grounded. Easter is not just "a moment in history, but the beginning of a new
condition. Jesus is risen not because His memory remains alive in the hearts of
His disciples, but because he himself lives in us, and in him we can already
savour the joy of eternal life." Notice here Benedict corrects any notion that
Christ is just a figment in the "memory" of the Apostles. The Resurrection is
not just like other passing historical moments. It makes something, history
The following passage of Benedict, I think, is of enormous
significance. He goes right down the line on the alternative "theories" about
what is meant by the Resurrection. He allows no alternate understanding except
the clear fact that it happened. "The Resurrection, then, is not a theory, but
a historical reality revealed by the man Jesus Christ by means of His
'Passover,' His 'passage,' that opened the 'new way' between heaven and earth."
We need to look at that sentence again. The Resurrection is
not a "theory." It is a reality of history. We may or may not accept the
evidence, but we cannot deny that this is what the Church affirms about this
event. Many would like the Church to become "modern" by denying the event. The
Church remains ever new precisely by not denying it.
The pope continues in the same mode, again somewhat mindful
of Chesterton and the heretics: "It is neither a myth (some say it was), nor a
dream (others say this), it is not a vision or a utopia, it is not a fairy
tale, but it is a singular and unrepeatable event." What a strong sentence! The
rejection of the "vision" hypothesis deals with the psychic theorists. The
rejection of the "utopia" deals with the politicians, who have scourged society
in the past century seeking to put the Kingdom of God on earth. The "fairy
tale" deals with those who want to make it a nice myth. But this does not
reject the "fairy tales" of C. S. Lewis or Tolkien. They in fact teach what is
orthodox. Or as Chesterton and Tolkien put it, this is the one fairy tale that
The Resurrection is an "event" that took place at a definite
time, a definite place, to a definite person, and witnessed by others with
names. It will not happen again. History is not cyclical. Its happening once is
to be "remembered." That is, it changed the meaning of human history, or
better, brought it back to what it was intended to be, the locus of our
entrance into the divinity as adopted Sons of God.
The statement of the fact is clear: "Jesus of Nazareth, son
of Mary, who at dusk on Friday was taken down from the Cross and buried, has
victoriously left the tomb. In fact, at dawn on the first day after the
Sabbath, Peter and John found the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene and the other
women encounted the risen Jesus." However we choose to deny the evidence of the
Resurrection so that we can comfortably live without it, we cannot avoid the
forceful assertion that this Resurrection is what happened. This is a report,
not a theory.
This pope is himself a philosopher of the first rank. He
knows the literature and on what it is based. As he said in Spe Salvi, the primary philosophical ground for the truth of
this doctrine is provided by a Marxist philosopher (Adorno) trying to figure
out the logic of justice. Adorno could see that the Resurrection of the body
has to be true, historically true; otherwise the world is indeed in vain. The
Resurrection is "light." This light shines in the "darkest" regions of our
hearts in the world.
To what does Benedict refer here? "I am referring
particularly to materialism and nihilism, to a vision of the world that is
unable to move beyond what is scientifically verifiable, and retreats cheerlessly
into a sense of emptiness which is thought to be the definitive destiny of
human life." This was, eerily, the very sense that I had while reading the
Buckley account, especially about the Cross in the garden that was to contain
his parents' remains. This emptiness, as Benedict says, is the logical
alternative to eternal life and resurrection. It is indeed "cheerless." It
leaves us empty. The destiny of human life is "nothing," "relative," it might
be anything else but what it really is.
"It is a fact that if Christ had not risen, the 'emptiness'
would be set to prevail. If we take away Christ and his Resurrection, there is
no escape for man, and every one of his hopes remains an illusion." How
straight forwardly does this pope speak to us. The circle is closed without the
light. The pope says: "It is a fact." He does not mince words. Take away the
Resurrection. Think logically and reasonably what follows. No real hope for
each individual remains. And the corporate alternatives, the utopias, the political
kingdoms, leave us as individual persons behind. They themselves turn into
horrors because they are animated by a gnawing despair and a furious activism
to avoid it. No escape exists for each of us to a destiny that includes
precisely his individual person unless it is true that Christ has risen and
told us that we are to follow Him.
In his Regina Coeli
comment on Easter Sunday, Benedict explained: "The divine plan of salvation,
despite all the obscurity of history, will certainly be brought about." We must
listen carefully to such direct words if we decide to "deny" the Resurrection.
The plan will "certainly" be brought about. Each of us has the purpose of his
creation in his soul.
We are made for eternal life. It can be achieved because of
this Resurrection. "His Resurrection has formed a bridge between this world
and eternal life over which every man and
every woman can cross to reach the true end of our earthly pilgrimage." Notice
that Benedict says of this "bridge" that each man and woman "can" cross over it
to eternal life.
This "can" implies that we can choose not to cross. We
cannot choose not to be resurrected no matter how we live our lives. This will
come about for all. But our lives and choices within our polities and our days
will be the context in which we live this eternal life, either an eternal life
of our own making or that of God's making. Such is our dignity.
No one escapes the choice, no matter when or where he lives
his four score years and ten, no matter whether he be Christian, Jew, Muslim,
Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or whatever. These too will pass away to rise again.
We will be left with the Resurrection of the dead after the manner of Christ in
the manner He described. But as Benedict often states, God cannot and will not take
away our freedom to deny Him and His plan for us. He cannot save us if we do
not want Him on His terms, not ours. I like the image of the "bridge between
this world and eternal life." To cross a bridge, we have to choose first to
cross it. There is no other way to the other side.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life
(Washington: The Catholic University of America Press,  1988), 214.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:
The Truth of the Resurrection |
Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Immortality, Resurrection of the Body, Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Balthasar, his Christology, and the Mystery of Easter |
Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale | Aidan Nichols O.P.
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.
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
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),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
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!