Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
Every year, in the days after Easter Sunday, the good sisters at my parochial school told us the story of St. Thomas, the apostle who refused to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. As the only Thomas in the classroom, invariably all eye turned on me—more than forty pairs of them. (It was the 1960s. Catholic schoolrooms were crowded.)
It’s okay. I could take it. And from the days even before I made my First Communion, when my mother taught me how to pray at Mass, at every elevation of the Host I have prayed in my heart the words of Doubting Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
So, to make amends for poor Doubting Thomas, I’d like to take on the questions that some Christians have been wrestling with for more than a century: Did Jesus Christ rise physically from the dead? Or could his resurrection have been purely spiritual — the ascent of his soul to heaven? Or perhaps Jesus’ “resurrection” was a sense among his disciples that in some way their friend and teacher would be with them always.
Skeptics have always cast a cold eye on the notion that Christ had risen from the dead — St. Thomas being the most famous. But there is one thing to be said for doubt: at least a believing Christian of any denomination can meet it head-on in an open debate. These days, however, Catholics and other Christians who hold to the traditional understanding of the Resurrection of Our Lord are faced with something a bit more sly in the form of theologians who don’t deny the Resurrection outright, but recast Christ’s rising in ways that diminish it, and ultimately diminish Christ Himself.
Subtle attempts to undermine the reality of the Resurrection are not new. At the turn of the 20th century, some theologians advanced the idea that the Resurrection was not Christ coming back to life and stepping out of his tomb, but Christ taking on an immortal life in heaven.
About 30 years ago the Swiss Jesuit, Hans Küng, put forward the argument that the Resurrection was not a supernatural event, but a kind of spiritual awakening among the disciples who felt that in some way the Jesus they knew was still alive.
What does the Catholic Church say to these reinterpretations? It declares what it has believed from the beginning: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. His Resurrection was a real event. A host of witnesses—over 500 according to the New Testament—testified that they saw the Risen Christ physically present among them. For 2000 years the Catholic Church has taught that the Resurrection of Christ is a historical fact, as true as the fact that George Washington climbed into a boat to cross the Delaware.
That said, there is another dimension to the Resurrection. No human being saw Christ rise from the dead. No one witnessed the moment when his human body was transformed into his glorified immortal body. So, while the Church asserts that the Resurrection is the central truth of our faith, she also confesses that it is a great mystery, which the human mind cannot understand.
Why do some clergy and theologians, including a few who describe themselves as Catholic, tap dance around the Resurrection, trying to reduce it from the great miracle and absolute mystery that it is to something fuzzy and decidedly not supernatural? Rather than speculate on motives, let’s follow the revisionists’ arguments and see where they lead.
The theories we’ve already mentioned may start out as attempts to understand the unfathomable mystery of the Resurrection, but they end up reducing it, minimalizing it.
The theories about the Resurrection we mentioned at the outset of this article all have one thing in common: the way their proponents see it, on that first Easter Sunday, Jesus Christ was still dead. Hans Küng does not suggest that Christ actually came out of the grave; he says that after the terrible events of Good Friday, the apostles consoled themselves with the happy thought that somehow Jesus was still alive. But this theory that Christ’s “real” Resurrection was the passage of his soul to heaven leaves his body dead and decomposing in the tomb.
That these theories diminish the Resurrection from a miracle to a nice feeling is obvious. But these theories do something much worse: they reduce Christ from the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, to a good man and a wise teacher — on par with Ralph Waldo Emerson. And that is the real trouble behind these attempts to recast, or update, or simplify the Resurrection: they take away from the world what the world desperately needs—a divine Redeemer—and gives the world instead a teacher of ethics.
Teaching is a splendid profession, and ethics are a wonderful thing, but they pale to insignificance beside God-made-man who by His death on the cross reconciles us to His Father, and by His rising from the dead throws open for us the gates of Heaven.
All the evangelists tell us on that Sunday morning the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid was empty. An empty grave is no proof of resurrection, yet there was something about the condition of the tomb and the linens in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped for burial that convinced St. Peter and St. John that Christ had risen from the dead.
That first fledgling belief in the Resurrection was confirmed very quickly as the apostles and disciples encountered the Risen Christ, sometimes individually as in the case of St. Mary Magdalen—the first to whom Christ revealed Himself, and sometimes collectively—such as ten out of the eleven surviving apostles to whom He appeared in the room where they had gathered for the Last Supper. All the gospels agree that these encounters were real. Christ’s followers were able to perceive Him with their senses. They saw Him. They heard Him. They ate and drank with Him.
The apostles’ experiences with the Risen Christ dispelled their fear that he was a ghost come back to haunt them. St. Thomas, who missed Christ’s first appearance among the apostles, demanded physical proof. And he got it when Christ returned again and summoned Thomas to put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the Lord’s wounded side.
To reverse the effects of the Fall of Man, to atone for the sins of the world, Christ died on the cross. But as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, Christ’s sacrifice was only part of the equation. He had to rise from the dead, too. The Resurrection, says St. Thomas, was “necessary in order to confirm our faith; also to strengthen our hope; and lastly, in order to manifest in our Lord’s Person the marvels of the glorious life to which He has destined us.” St. Paul, true to form, put it more directly: “If Christ be not risen again, your faith is in vain, for you are yet in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15.17)
Every Catholic from St. Paul to St. Thomas Aquinas to the authors of the most recent Catechism have understood that the Resurrection is the bedrock of our faith. By rising from the dead, Christ fulfills all the promises God made to mankind through the prophets. By rising from the dead, Christ establishes the authority of everything he taught while He was physically present on earth. By rising from the dead, Christ reveals that He is God.
If Christ is not God, then the execution of Jesus is no more meaningful than the execution of Socrates. If Christ is not God, then his teachings carry no more weight than the teachings of any other good man. Deny the reality of the Resurrection and you deny the divinity and authority of Christ. Once you’ve done that, Christianity collapses.
When skeptics tell you that the Resurrection of Christ is a parable, or a symbol, or metaphor, do not listen. Listen instead to what the Risen Christ told Doubting Thomas: “Be not unbelieving, but believe.”