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On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Catholic View

By Jonathan Bennett

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Resurrection Icon by Fr. James Obermeyer

For billions of Christians throughout history and today, this cry of joy is the start of the Easter (Pascha) season and sums up the earliest and most important belief of the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Yet, many Christians seem to know very little of its significance, or the exact doctrines of the Church about the resurrection.

The passion and resurrection narratives are the heart of the four canonical Gospels. Everything else finds its fulfillment, completion, and importance there. Indeed all the gospels and the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. All four Gospels speak of the empty tomb. Luke's account, which provides much detail says:

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise." And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and 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. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths y themselves and he went home wondering at what had happened (Luke 24: 1-11, RSV-CE).

Also, the Gospels present appearance stories. Again, an example from St. Luke:

As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, 'Peace to you.' But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.' And when he had said this he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. Then he said to them, 'These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high' (Luke 24: 36-49, RSV-CE).

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Almost all of the stories involve appearances of Jesus to his followers, and almost all involve Jesus imparting wisdom and most importantly doing things. The Church has a word for the reality of Jesus' resurrection from the dead: the bodily resurrection. This means that Jesus was raised from the dead in his body, not merely as a spirit or a ghost. The story above from Luke makes this abundantly clear since a phantom or spirit does not eat.

When the Church speaks of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, what does it mean? It is important to note that we do not believe in a mere resuscitation. Jesus' resurrection was different, for example, from the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus was resuscitated and lived, but died a natural death later. In Jesus' bodily resurrection, his human body is transformed into a glorified body for which there is no future death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:35-56) (1). Yet, it is not a different body, but the same body he had since his birth: just transformed. So, the Church affirms the continuity of the pre and post-Easter body of Jesus. Tertullian (early 3rd century) wrote:

...you will also allow that it was in the flesh that he was raised from the dead. For the very same body which fell in death, and which lay in the sepulcher did rise again (2).

The exact "how" of this event is a mystery, but it is still Christian Truth (believed in faith). Jesus is alive today in his glorified body; there are no bones lying around somewhere! Belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential doctrine.

Why is the resurrection of the body important? The bodily resurrection is key to not only the belief in the resurrection, but also other tenets of the Christian faith, especially the sacraments. First, it is a continuation of the Incarnation. God's loving identification with his people is in both death and the victory over death. Second, the bodily resurrection affirms the goodness of and God's lordship over the created realm. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God's original purpose for mankind is fulfilled. We were created for a bodily existence and are redeemed by Jesus Christ in that state. The bodily resurrection also finalizes and affirms the redemption of all creation begun when God become man in the Incarnation. Third, the bodily resurrection has important ethical implications. Because the redemption of the world has come through the created order, it demonstrates how highly God values the created order and specifically the body. Our bodies can and must be dedicated to God's glory now. This forms the basis for not only personal holiness, but also social justice. How we treat others, in the now, in the material realm, matters. Redemption did not occur in the some abstract spiritual realm, but in history, in creation. Thus, the living of God's kingdom is now, in creation, not just in some future spiritual state.

Now that we have established the importance and nature of the resurrection, what did the resurrection do? What meanings does it have? First, the resurrection vindicated Jesus, his ministry, his claims, his saving work, and the later claims of his followers. The resurrection established among his followers that Jesus truly was Lord, Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man. It (further) revealed his divinity and his Sonship. It also fulfilled his work on the cross to save humanity from our sins. The Truth possessed by the Catholic Church today stems from the Resurrection as the Catechism notes:

The Resurrection above all constitutes the confirmation of all Christ's works and teachings. All truths, even those most inaccessible to human reason, find their justification if Christ by his Resurrection has given the definitive proof of his divine authority, which he had promised" (3).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus destroyed death and allowed those who follow Jesus to have eternal life like him. Christ, according to Paul in Colossians, is the firstborn from the dead (1:18). In I Corinthians, Paul also says: "Christ is risen from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (15:20). Christ's resurrection is not merely an event for himself, but for deliverance of humans from the bonds of sin, death, and the devil. St. Athanasius eloquently wrote:

Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself assumed the same in order that through death he might bring to naught him that hath the power of death, that is to say the Devil and might rescue those who all their lives were enslaved by the fear of death." For by the sacrifice of his own body, he did two things: he put an end to the law of death, which barred our way; and he made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made man, death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. That is what Paul says, that true servant of Christ: "for since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. Just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ, shall all be made alive... (4)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ ultimately must be examined in the context of God's history of salvation, a mystery which had previously been hidden. This salvation was gradually revealed from the beginning of time and culminating and finding completion in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The early Fathers and medieval theologians saw the Old Testament events as not only predicting Jesus, but also prefiguring many aspects of his life. This often found its expression in poems like the 17th century Latin hymn:

Where the Paschal blood is poured
Death's dark angel sheathes his sword
Israel's hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe
Praise we Christ whose blood was shed
Paschal Victim and Paschal Bread
With sincerity and love
Eat we the manna from above (5)

Thus, the resurrection represents the fulfillment and climax of God's plan of redemption and salvation for humanity. The good, but fallen creation is restored and redeemed in the Incarnation and the resurrection. The sinless life and resurrection of the Jesus, the second Adam, is an "undoing" of the sin and death of the first Adam (cf. Irenaeus). In the same way, the imperfect shadows of the Old Testament are given their true meaning in the reality of Christ.

The resurrection of Christ, connected to the Incarnation, is the central event in the history of the world, fulfilling not only the Old Testament, but even all of the ancient myths. As C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used to remind us, the Resurrection is mythic, while also being fact. By myth we mean a concrete way of expressing an abstract reality. But please do not think this means the resurrection is not true or did not happen. Rather, this makes the resurrection more true and affirms its reality in an even greater way. As C.S. Lewis noted:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where to a historical person under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle...this is the marriage of Heaven: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact, claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar and the philosopher (6).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is also, as J.R.R. Tolkien noted, the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe, which is the "peculiar quality of the 'joy' in successful fantasy (which) can be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth" (7). On a more basic level, a eucatastrophe is a "good ending," particularly when a good ending is not expected! The resurrection of Jesus Christ fits this model. The Crucifixion appeared to be the end of Jesus and dying with him the hopes of a world stuck in bondage to death since the Fall. Yet, just when everything appears hopeless, amazingly and miraculously, Jesus is raised and vindicated. And this resurrection reveals the underlying reality of God's plan in the Incarnation and the overall salvation history.

Why should we believe the resurrection today? Many in the modern period became skeptics with regard to the resurrection. As the modernists of the liberal persuasion became obsessed with debunking the resurrection, unfortunately modernist conservatives began to try to prove the resurrection based only on logical or scientific terms. There were many witnesses reported to the resurrection and this is a good case for its authenticity. The Gospels and even St. Paul mention witnesses to support their claims. However, the Resurrection transcends any logical or material "proofs." The Catechism says:

Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles' encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history" (8).

If we must speak of "proofs," the greatest evidence lies in areas apart from first century archeology. First, the truth of the resurrection is seen in the actions of Jesus' early followers, especially in their martyrdom. It's unlikely that the disciples would have gone to their deaths over the failed teachings of a crucified man. However, if Jesus truly were vindicated through his resurrection, then it makes this scenario much more plausible.

Second, the truth of the resurrection is known through our current relationship with Jesus through his Church. This type of "proof" for the resurrection seems to be the underlying theme behind the story of the journey to Emmaus in Luke (24:13-35). For those who meet Jesus and who have met him throughout history, in prayer, the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and especially in the Body and Blood during the mass, Jesus is truly alive. This is not the logical proof that many modernists demand, but it has been a constant "proof" since the day of Christ. Christianity does not merely venerate a dead leader, we adore, worship and commune with a living Lord.

Finally, the proof of the resurrection relies on its resonance with the human story and its ability to change hearts throughout the ages. Christianity started out as a religion of a few followers of Jesus with no education, no armies, just the Good News of Christ's resurrection. And now Christianity is all over the world and has had billions of adherents throughout history. It is because of the Story! Tolkien sums up well the qualities of the Christian Story:

The Gospel contains a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. They contain many marvels - peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered history and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation (9).

Thus, Christianity is the fulfillment of and answer to all of our human longings everywhere and at all times. It is the entering of myth into human history. The Story of Jesus resonates with our hopes and conquers our fears. We can never go back in time to prove it, but it proves itself to us today, especially when we worship Christ and encounter him through the Sacraments and mysteries of the Church. It is best to end the bulk of this essay on a quote by Tolkien which sums up well the reality of the resurrection:

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality.' There is no tale ever told which men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art that is of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath (10).

Brief Resurrection FAQ:

1. What are the other theories of the resurrection? Why should these be rejected?
Some argue for a spiritual resurrection, in which case, Jesus' spirit lived on while his body died, and is still dead. Besides being against the witness of Scripture and Church tradition, this view is also anti-creation. It makes our redemption outside the realm of history and creation. Others argue for a solely metaphorical or legendary interpretation of the resurrection. In this case, the resurrection is only a story and not an event in history. In that case, we are still not delivered from death and sin. All of us will die a non-metaphorical death, so we hope for a non-metaphorical resurrection! Others describe the resurrection of Jesus as Jesus' teachings living on in his followers. However, without the resurrection Jesus is just another failed philosopher and leader. His resurrection vindicated his teachings. Some theorize that Jesus was swooned (i.e. he fainted) and three days later came to. This can be filed under "the pre-moderns were idiots" category. It's highly unlikely the Romans (who had done thousands of crucifixions) would've taken someone off the cross who wasn't dead. They did their job with cruel efficiency. Finally, some academics have argued that the disciples only hallucinated and thought they saw Jesus alive. File this one under the previous category. Although not "blessed" with modern enlightenment, even pre-modern men and women could tell the difference between a man and a ghost (the Gospels go out of their way to show Jesus was in body). It doesn't fit with enlightenment criteria, but clearly the Scriptures and Church tradition present a bodily resurrection. They couldn't explain it (Greeks from the first century thought the idea just as absurd), but they believed it through faith (as we do today).

2. How is Christ's glorified body different from the regular body?
Thomas Oden lists four differences which we find helpful:

1.) Plasticity or Subtlety- the glorified body is entirely subject to employment by the Spirit
2.) Agility- the glorified body has abundant energy and ability to move
3.) Impassibility- the glorified body no longer suffers
4.) Glory- the glorified body is luminous. This state fulfills the original higher and dignified purpose of the human body (11).

3. Why did Jesus' glorified body have wounds?
Thomas Aquinas gave an excellent summary of reasons: to confirm the disciples' faith, to rightly intercede for humanity, to show the Father what he had suffered for humanity, to demonstrate the continuity of the pre and post-Easter body, and to show on the last day to all humans "an everlasting trophy of his victory" (12).

Footnotes
1. Thomas Oden, Word of Life, Systematic Theology, Volume II, pg. 459.
2. "On the Resurrection of the Flesh," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 3, pg. 581.
3.Catechism of the Catholic Church, #651
4. St. Athanasius, Tr. and ed. by a religious of C.S.M.V, "On the Incarnation of the Word," pg. 37.
5. Latin, tr. Robert Campbell, alt. The Hymnal 1982, pg. 174.
6. C.S. Lewis, "Myth Became Fact," God in the Dock, pp. 66-67.
7. Quoted in http://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/TOLKIEN.TXT
8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #647.
9. Quoted in, A. Kelly "Faith Seeking Fantasy: Tolkien on Fairy Stories," http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/Issue3/kelly.htm.
10. Ibid
11. Oden, pg. 481,482.
12. d., 469.

Last updated 04-13-2016

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