Happy Easter, everyone! “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). St. Paul here tells us that Jesus’ Resurrection is the foundation of our faith and life. Dr. Peter Kreeft says that he always found it interesting that “Christianity, of all the religions of the world, is the most easy to disprove. If the bones of the dead Jesus would only turn up in some tomb in Palestine, all Christianity would be destroyed”.
We believe that the Resurrection is not a metaphor, but is a historical claim. We assert that it’s a fact that Jesus is risen, that He is with us all the days of our life, and that He brings us the fullness of life.
So, on this holiest of days, let’s reflect on the reality of the Resurrection and try to appreciate this mystery. Ven. Fulton Sheen says, “We are made to know” (Your Life is Worth Living, 30), the mind is meant to know truth. God gave us an intellect so that we can know, and we should try to understand what the Gospels and history teach us.
When we examine the Gospels, we can observe four facts noted by Pope Benedict XVI:
1) The disciples were skeptical; like us, they didn’t understand the Resurrection and were slow to believe (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 242-245). The women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body, and so were surprised when it wasn’t there. Even when they were told by angels that Jesus was risen, they were astonished. St. Luke writes, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:10-11).
This teaches us something about the patience of God. He knows we have doubts and difficulties, He knows we need evidence. So, over the next 40 days, Jesus appeared to them gently, to strengthen and convince them that He was resurrected and that His words were true. In our journey with Jesus, it takes time to understand fully what He reveals to us—this is normal.
2) Every historian finds it fascinating that the Gospels record Jesus appearing to women, because, at that time, women couldn’t give legal testimony. So, if the Resurrection had been made up by Christians, why weaken your case to say that women were the first to see Him risen? Even in other parts of the New Testament, Christians wrote, “The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon” (Lk 24:33; Cf. 1 Cor 15:5). Even though Jesus appeared first to women, the early Christians, in their creeds, wrote that Jesus appeared to Simon (not that He appeared to him first), because they were trying to convince other people. The fact remains that each of the four Gospels, coming from different oral traditions, all agree that Mary Magdalene and other women were the first to see Jesus, and the only reason to write this was because it’s true.
From a spiritual point of view, it’s fitting that these women were the first to see resurrected life, because they were faithful and were the ones who stood by Jesus while He was dying. God loves all of us, even when we betray Him, but He is first seen by those who love Him more.
3) Pope Benedict acknowledges that not every single detail of the Gospel narratives are matters of faith (261). Tonight, we hear, “Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” (Mt 28:2-3). Is that historically true, that an angel sat on a stone? Well, it’s possible, but this detail is not a matter of faith for Christians. Christianity states that the Resurrection is a historical fact, and whether or not an angel sat on a stone doesn’t affect the argument. We acknowledge that the Gospel writers sometimes made literary additions, to make a point, which historical writers still do to this day.
In the historical movie Apollo 13, at one point, the three astronauts are shown arguing, which never happened, because we have the audio recordings of the whole mission. Yet, it’s put in there so that the audience realizes that they’re in danger, which they were! We would never know this, however, if we just listened to them calmly trying to solve a life-or-death problem! Nevertheless, it’s still an accurate historical movie.
We also have two accounts of Hannibal crossing the alps to attack Rome, and both are contradictory, but no historian doubts that he did attack Rome (Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 216). In the same way, the facts for the Resurrection don’t change: Jesus’ body is placed in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, the tomb is visited by women on Sunday morning, the body is missing, and many people and groups of people have encounters with the risen Jesus. As for an angel sitting on the stone, it’s probably mentioned because it’s a symbol of victory, as the Resurrection is a victory!
4) The Gospels record many appearances of the risen Jesus to His disciples, and these appearances seem to be the best explanation for Christianity’s rapid growth. Fr. Gerald O’Collins has compared these appearances with studies of hallucinations, bereavement experiences, and mystical visions. In one study of 293 widows and widowers, about half of them claimed seeing their loved one after death. None of them, however, dramatically changed their lives, most kept the matters to themselves, and there was always a ‘sad awakening’ to the fact that the loved one was still dead (Easter Faith, 12-14).
This is different from the Gospel accounts: “So they [the women] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greeting!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (Mt 28:8-10). When the disciples met the risen Jesus, their whole lives changed: it become their life’s mission to share Jesus’ rising with everyone, and most died for this; and thousands of Jewish people converted in weeks and gave up social structures that existed for over a thousand years like animal sacrifice, the mosaic laws, the Sabbath became Sunday, and God became a Trinity. Historians think it’s so fast that it needed a cause, and the cause can’t be a dead leader.
If this had all been a delusion, we’d still need to explain the empty tomb. Robbing bodies from tombs was common back then, but, just because someone’s body was stolen would not be enough to convince people to change their entire lives and beliefs when there’s nothing to gain (Fr. Robert Spitzer, God So Loved the World, ).
Has anyone watched the Netflix Series Waco: American Apocalypse? It’s a sensationalistic documentary about a 30-year-old cult that ended in a violent shoot-out. I bring it up because, once their leader died, the whole thing fell apart and all his insanity became manifest, as apparently happens with every charismatic leader who dies. But, “after a short public career, Jesus was abandoned by nearly all his close followers, crucified as a messianic pretender, and apparently rejected by… God… Yet within a few years the reform movement which he had proclaimed… spread explosively to become a world religion. How can one account most plausibly for this phenomenon?” (39-40).
Fr. O’Collins then compares Jesus to three other founders of world religions: Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad. Buddha spent his long life teaching; so did Confucius, and he was celebrated when he died; Muhammad had a wealthy wife and military victories to help gather followers and spread his teaching. “In these three instances we can point to publicly verifiable causes which furthered the spread of their religions… the long careers of the founders, financial resources, and success in battle. In the case of Christianity, the founder enjoyed none of these advantages… The subsequent propagation of the message of universal salvation in His name remains an enigmatic puzzle unless we admit a cause (the Resurrection) adequate to account for the effect” (40).
Perhaps the most practical question to ask is: If Jesus appeared to the disciples, why doesn’t He appear to us, to convince us? Do we know the answer? It’s because, if He were to appear to us, would we love Him? If Jesus flew in the sky and said, ‘Here I am, I’m God,’ would we love Him? In the end, Jesus doesn’t just want us to acknowledge that He’s there, He wants our love, the way He loves us.
Our faith is about what’s true, but it’s also about love—isn’t this a sign of God’s goodness, that He doesn’t force us to believe? He gives us reasons and evidence, which help us appreciate that Jesus is truly risen, that we can stake our lives on Him, and that we, too, can be raised. But most importantly, the risen Jesus wants us to come to Him freely, to find the fullness of life in Him, and share that life with others.