Is He Risen Indeed?

April 25, 2015 Length: 14:57

Fr. Christopher asks, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, is Church Tradition honest? Could the whole story have been made up? Surely anything less than honesty in the Church is not acceptable.

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The reality of Christ’s resurrection is central to our faith. St Paul says as much: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:14f).

Discussion with Children here.

How do we know that Jesus is alive?

St Thomas is supposed to have doubted the truth of Christ’s resurrection. We have to face the same issue. Can we rely on the fact?  If the resurrection did not happen then Christianity itself is false.  Heretics and atheists have tried to undermine the Church’s teaching. We need to be able to defend our faith.  This is true of all aspects of the faith but the resurrection is central. We also have to ask another question. Can we trust the Church in this matter?  Let us consider some of the arguments.

Is Church Tradition honest? Could the whole story have been made up?  Surely anything less than honesty in the Church is not acceptable. Why would the Church invent the resurrection, an idea preposterous to the Gentiles and for those Jews who did accept it but who rejected Jesus as the Messiah, so obviously a fraud?  Recall that the empty tomb prompted many of these unbelieving Jews to conclude that the disciples had stolen the body and hidden or otherwise disposed of it (Matthew 27:62-64).  This idea is just as difficult to swallow, if not more so, than the resurrection itself.  Why would the disciples be so disrespectful to the Man whom they loved and who was, indeed, God?

The witness of the Church to the truth of the resurrection was not confined to the twelve apostles; it included seventy further disciples, and beyond that a number of followers. The fact of the resurrection was supported by a number of eyewitnesses. St Paul wrote: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:3 f).  The early Church relied on a set of historical facts with witnesses to the truth. A falsehood would be exposed by knowledge shared in the community.

Moreover the Gospel narratives portray real people with real doubts and faults, which supports their being accurate. All is included, “warts and all”. Critics may point to some minor inconsistencies in the accounts of the resurrection appearances. Yet such variation actually suggests honesty. Witnesses to any event will vary in the exact details recalled.  The Church has accepted these varying accounts and it is significant that these differences survive rather than having been neatly edited out. The accounts are clearly truthful.

Moreover, one of the strongest arguments for the reality of the resurrection is the revolution in the thinking and behaviour of the disciples. They were scattered and fearful after Christ’s arrest.  St Peter denied Christ during the trial. Yet, he preached a matter of weeks later at Pentecost about the resurrection, saying: “God raised Him from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him.” (Acts 2:24). The disciples undertook great hardships and labours for Christ. St Peter was not alone in facing a martyr’s death.  They clearly believed in the reality of Christ’s resurrection and in His mission.  Many others have faced martyrdom and suffering since and continue to do so. The fact that some denied Christ in persecutions is less remarkable than the vast numbers who held, and continue to hold to their faith.

The Church grew by the power of the resurrection and this growth is shown by non-Christian sources.  Tacitus, a Roman historian, reported that around 64 AD there were a large number of Christians in Rome suffering persecution (Tacitus Annals Book 15). The increase of the Church from a fairly small number in Jerusalem to being present as a considerable body in Rome and elsewhere across the Roman Empire in a mere thirty years is truly remarkable. Such growth could not have happened if the resurrection had been unreal. Let us not forget that this was within the life time of many of the eyewitnesses who had seen Christ after His resurrection. Tacitus also mentions Pilate and the crucifixion of Christ as historical. External sources corroborate some aspects of the Gospel narratives and show the Church as an historical reality from an early date.

The Church of the Apostolic period clearly believed in the resurrection. Could they have been mistaken? There was a heresy, called Docetism, which claimed that Christ only appeared to die, that His presence on earth in human form was a mere illusion. This denied the humanity of Christ. There is a related argument that is used against our faith which claims that the appearances after the resurrection were of some form of spirit or an illusion. This is exactly the claim that is denied by today’s Gospel. It was, perhaps, something that St Thomas was concerned about. His doubt was not, therefore, about whether the other disciples had seen something; it was about exactly what they had seen. St John Chrysostom brought out this aspect in a homily on this passage: [St Thomas] “did not say ‘Except I see,’ but, ‘Except I handle,’ lest what he saw might somehow be an apparition… Yet the disciples who told him these things, were at the time worthy of credit, and so was He that promised; yet, since he desired more, Christ did not deprive him even of this.” (St. John Chrysostom Homilies on the Gospel of St John C.87). Christ gave St Thomas the assurance that he needed, that the physical resurrection was real. Christ deals with our needs, doubts and fears also.

Christ was physically present in the room with St Thomas and the others. Even though He was no longer bound by physical constraints and could appear in a locked room, there was a continuity in Christ’s Person both before His death and after His resurrection. As the risen Lord, he continued to eat thereby showing a continuing physical aspect:  “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:42f).  The chapter after today’s reading in St John’s Gospel includes both a miracle and Christ sharing a breakfast on the beach. (John 21). The resurrection was of the whole person of Christ, body and soul.  Likewise in our resurrection we shall be whole persons.

St John’s Gospel starts with saying that God took flesh and dwelt amongst us. (John 1). The Gospel reading today includes St Thomas’ recognition of Christ as “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Christ has both human and divine natures.  His resurrection makes possible our resurrection. To deny the truth of the Gospel one has either to dismiss the New Testament and the Tradition of the Church as some form of contrived myth, or even as a plot, or some sort of monumental error. We ruled out these possibilities earlier. In fact only one explanation fits all the facts. Christ did, indeed, rise from the dead.

Thus, with confidence, we can say in the Creed: “He rose again on the third day” and that we: “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the World to come.”

The Gospel is true. We experience Christ through faith and the Church. Christ’s words to St Thomas are fulfilled in the experience of the Church throughout the ages: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). We encounter Christ because we believe and our belief is reasonable.
Christ is risen!