The Resurrection: Hysterical Belief or Historical Reality?

By Dr. Alan Fimister
Assistant Professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

At the Last Supper, Our Lord told his disciples, “Amen, amen I say to you, he that believeth in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do,”1 and this prophecy has been vindicated in the many marvels that have filled the lives of the saints throughout the history of his Church from that day to this. In one respect, however, no member of his mystical body has equaled the works of the Savior. Christ alone, from beyond the grave, raised himself from the dead. No human soul has the power to resume its own body. If it did, it would not relinquish it in the first place.  

No one stood outside the tomb of Christ and implored God to raise Jesus from the dead. Jesus himself, in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit, raised himself from the dead. “I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”2 Thereby, beyond all of his other miracles, he showed forth his divinity. ⊲

Denials of Historical Reality

Two types of people seek to deny the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The first are those who deny the reality of miracles, usually Deists or Atheists. We ought not detain ourselves too long with this sort of objection. As St. Paul teaches, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made so they are without excuse.”3  In other words, St. Paul is saying that at some level, the Atheist or the Deist (a pagan monotheist) does not just err, he lies. They are “men who by their wickedness suppress the truth … they are without excuse.”  

A man might assert that he has visited Italy and we might (rudely) doubt his claim and he might demonstrate it to us; but if we deny that Italy exists altogether, our problem is more fundamental and requires a remedy of an altogether different sort. Jesus did not rise again to prove that God exists. The mere fact of changeable, frail, mortal, imperfect and transitory creatures is enough to demonstrate the existence of the Almighty and Eternal God. Jesus rose from the dead to show us that he is God and that his word is life: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”4 

As any historian or criminal investigator will confirm, a series of identical narratives is a sign of collusion and possible falsification.

The second group of deniers are those who accept the existence of God and the possibility of the miraculous but deny specifically the accounts of the Resurrection in the New Testament. In this regard, the first thing to remember is that the New Testament is the most well attested document from the entire ancient world. There are more manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament books than of any other document from the classical Roman Empire or earlier. To be sure, this is because the monks who preserved the ancient texts cared more about the New Testament than any other text, but this does not change the fact. Taken as accurate, the facts and teachings recorded in the New Testament obviously make it more important than any other text on earth. 

Add to this the fact that none of the disciples gained anything earthly from preaching the Resurrection. All were tortured, all but one died of it. A conspiracy to fake the Resurrection would be implausibly elaborate and prolonged and lack all motive. 

Eyewitness Accounts

The intellectually honest inquirer must therefore face up to the accounts of the Resurrection in the New Testament. However, the accounts of the Resurrection in the New Testament, in the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians are all strikingly different. There is a great deal of overlap between the other parts of the Gospels from Our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan until the Passion, but when we come to the Resurrection there is much more divergence – even the initial appearance of confusion. According to the traditional attribution, Matthew and John are eyewitnesses. Mark was perhaps present in Jerusalem at the time of the Passion. Mark lived in Jerusalem with his mother in the early years of the Church and he is often identified as the youth who ran naked from the Garden of Gethsemane,5 an incident which only he records. Mark, too, is therefore a partial eyewitness of the events of Holy Week.  

The diversity of the Resurrection accounts is in fact a telling feature of authentic eyewitness testimony. In the face of an event of such magnitude as the Resurrection, it is natural that each person’s experience and first realization of what had occurred would be very precious indeed. The apostolic witnesses would also have a strong sense of the obligation to bear witness to the Resurrection exactly as they had experienced it. Although Our Lord appeared as risen to 500 disciples at one time in Galilee6 and walked with the 11 through the outskirts of Jerusalem on one occasion (Luke 24:50), his resurrection appearances were precious and calculated. Two of them, his appearances to Peter and James, we only know of but not about.7 Yet they were considered very important to identify and record, as St. Paul makes clear. We know of 10 appearances in total, five on Easter Sunday and five in the remaining 40 days before the ascension. This may not be an exhaustive list.8

Vatican II tells us of the Sacred Scriptures that “God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” The sacred texts are thus free of all error and yet show the marks of being written by human authors who were in normal circumstances fallible and limited. Mark tells us a group of women including Mary Magdalene came to the tomb that morning and saw the Angel guarding it. Matthew concurs but gives us much more dramatic detail about the manner in which the tomb was opened. One might be tempted to consider these details as embellishments until one realizes that Matthew has exclusive access to other information which only could have come from the soldiers guarding the tomb. 

Further Appearances

In his Gospel, Luke seems to assume, but never asserts or implies, that the Ascension occurred rather soon after the Resurrection. By the time he wrote Acts, he knew better and is careful to emphasize that Jesus “presented himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during 40 days.”9 Similarly, John describes Mary Magdalene’s journey to the empty tomb but without averting to any other witnesses or the encounter with the angel, presumably because she herself, in the excitement of the moment, did not explain any details. But he gives away the fuller account in his report of her words, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”10  

Luke makes no mention of the command to go to Galilee11 and yet it is clear that this was important and eventually obeyed.12 Indeed, the Resurrection appearance with which Matthew’s Gospel ends is the only event that seems to fit St. Paul’s reference to an occasion when “He appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”13 Presumably, Luke knew of these words but lacked any accounts of the appearances in Galilee and so omitted them, lest they seem inexplicable to the reader. Given that the appearance of the Lord on the mountain in Galilee was the moment when the Great Commission to baptize all nations was proclaimed, presumably information about it circulated less freely because of the disciplina arcani,14 the practice of reserving teaching on the sacraments to those who had been initiated.  

The diversity of the Resurrection accounts is in fact a telling feature of authentic eyewitness testimony.

One might imagine that the apparent inconsistencies in the Resurrection accounts were a problem for the skeptical inquirer. They are not. In fact, they profoundly confirm the reliability of these accounts. They are all resolvable and in resolving them, a much more rounded picture emerges of the events described in which the apparent inconsistencies end up reinforcing each account in ways which, significantly, the writers themselves could not have foreseen. As any historian or criminal investigator will confirm, a series of identical narratives is a sign of collusion and possible falsification. Seemingly confused reports which, upon closer inspection, produce a clear and three-dimensional picture is the sure note of historical reality. 

  1.  John 14:12
  2.  John 10:17-18
  3.  Romans 1:18-20
  4.  John 20:30-31
  5.  Mark 14:51-52
  6.  Matthew 28:16-20 & 1 Corinthians 15:6
  7.  Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5 & 7
  8.  Acts 1:3
  9.  Acts 1:3
  10.  John 20:2
  11.  Mark 16:7 & Matthew 28:7
  12.  John 21:1
  13.  1 Corinthians 15:6
  14.  Matthew 7:6, Revelation 2:17
  15.  Luke 23:56-24:1
  16.  John 19:38-42
  17.  Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47
  18.  John 12:7

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.