“Now if Christ be preached, that he arose again from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen again. And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain: and your faith is also vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14)
These words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Church at Corinth get straight to the point. If Christ did not physically rise from the dead, then our religion is vain. He did not have in mind “vanity” in the sense of being excessively proud about one’s appearance, but vanity in the sense of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
St. Paul is telling us that if the Resurrection is not literally true, then we are literally wasting our time with Christianity. He’s not interested in the social function of religion as a “community of believers,” even if it “brings people together,” or “gives people purpose,” or any other feel-good subjective theology. He’s talking about objective truth, and telling us not to waste our time.
But the modern world has a hard time with the Resurrection, and in general with miracles and everything supernatural. At least since the 19th century (or perhaps since we left Eden) the Western mind in particular has been on a campaign of demythologizing the Faith preached by the Apostles. We read our Bibles like good psychologists, trying to extract some bit of ethical or life wisdom from the stories, but not taking seriously the miracles that are so clearly proclaimed.
We modern sophisticated people know better than our forebears. We are enlightened, scientific, rational — not like those people in olden days who just believed anything the preachers preached at them. Of course, this is a ridiculous caricature of history, of our own history, and of our own ancestors. We moderns are not unlike surly teenagers who think we know better than our parents and grandparents, and think that whatever they believed and valued must for that very reason be rejected.
But giving the devil his due, so to speak, we can honestly wonder about the question: Why don’t we want to believe in the Resurrection? What is it about this doctrine in particular that we find so unsettling? Why have so many modern “theologians” made careers for themselves by interpreting the Resurrection as something other than what the New Testament manifestly teaches that it was — namely a dead man coming back to life? (The actual Greek phrase in the New Testament — anastasis ton nekron — literally means “a corpse standing up.”)
To begin with, rather innocuously, it’s obvious that the doctrine of the Resurrection is just weird. We’ve never seen a dead man rise from his grave before, so it’s no wonder that we should feel some resistance to believing this good news. Jesus’ own generation — and every generation since — has been in the same position of incredulity with regard to the astonishing proclamation of a corpse standing back up.
Old Aristotle (the “master of those who know”) teaches us that we learn first of all through direct sense experience, and then from repeated sense experiences our mind abstracts out concepts, which we then understand intellectually. We know what life is, because we have seen many living things. And we know what death is, because we have seen many dead things. And we know that living things die, but dead things don’t come back to life, because we have always and only seen things happen in this order.
We also like life and dislike death. Healthy organisms have a healthy self-preservation instinct, and a healthy aversion to anything that threatens their continued state of being alive. Human beings, with our rationality and capacity to anticipate the future, know and dread our own mortality, and we know and dread the mortality of those who we love. Simply put, death is awful. It can ruin your whole day (or decade) when someone you love dies. We hate death, and rightfully so.
We invent all kinds of stories to comfort ourselves. Much of our intellectual history can be read, in a certain light, as a history of rationalizing death. From ancient Buddhism and Stoicism to modern materialism, we have tried to explain life to ourselves in such a way that makes death sting less, or at least seem to sting less. The pain is just too unbearable. We have to explain it away. But perhaps we are wiser than our own philosophies. Perhaps our pain is telling us something about the true nature of being. But perhaps not. Perhaps we’re just evolved organisms that naturally want to survive, and therefore hate death. It’s an odd sort of comfort, but then so is heroin, and plenty of us think that’s a good idea too.
Now here's the rub. If Jesus Christ died and came back to life, then our modern, secular worldview is wrong. It has to be, because it can’t accommodate the fact of the Resurrection. A theory’s inability to accommodate new data is a symptom of error. So if St. Paul is right, then we are wrong. This might be more awful than death.
But it gets worse. Because if Christ came back from the dead, then that seems to indicate not only that we are wrong, but that he is right. The Resurrection, by its very strangeness, means that we must look again to Jesus, listen again to His words, and hear again his reproach against us: Be perfect. Love your neighbor. Forgive unconditionally. Be a saint.
We know what he said. We know our marching orders. We just don’t want to obey. We want to do what we want to do, when and how we want to do it. We are thoroughly modern in our idolatry of our choices. If Jesus indeed rose from the dead, then deep down we know that we have a lot of soul searching to do, and a lot of repenting. And that might be even more awful than being wrong. So, we don’t want to believe in the Resurrection.
David A. Smither writes from Texas.