The church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site of Jesus' burial
At the centre of the Christian faith is the belief that God became incarnate in Jesus and that, when Jesus was crucified, God showed his approval of Jesus by cancelling the death sentence that he suffered and raising him from the dead to a renewed life. Thus Jesus, who died by hanging on a cross, a sentence that excluded the victim from the community of Israel, was declared God's chosen. A mighty claim!
The resurrection is central to this narrative. However, it is widely agreed that the resurrection is not an event in history. This means that it cannot be included in the academic discipline of history, which cannot cover "supernatural" [for want of a better word] events. But it is a major failing of many academics that they confuse the limits of their subject with the limits of truth. There can be events that do not fit into an academic discipline, and these can be significant. The resurrection is an event in sacred history, the long story of God's dealing with humans through the Jewish people. But this does not end all discussion. We must investigate it to determine what we might legitimately believe about it.
The resurrection either happened or it did not. Unfortunately there have been a number of intermediate explanations, none of which are impressive. Those who claim that all those who reported Jesus' appearances were lying may be discounted, as this presumes that the sceptic knows exactly what happened. Others write off the events as mass hallucination or delusion. Again, this cannot be completely disproven, but to know this the sceptic would have to identify and psychologically analsyse everyone who experienced the resurrected Christ. This is impossible, but we might note that sceptics require rigorous academic proof from everyone else.
Yet there were claims that the apostles stole the body in the night, as Matthew's gospel reports. The guards claimed that they had been sleeping on duty when the body was taken. This presumes that the body had actually disappeared. But these guards were Roman soldiers, who were always executed for sleeping on duty. So why were they not executed? Something odd had happened; and why did they not hear a heavy stone being rolled away? This beggars belief. However., some might argue that the chief priests stole the body to prevent the apostles stealing it, but then why not dig it up when the resurrection story circulated, or at least say where it had been put?
The claim that the women went to the wrong tomb is sexist. It was based upon the assumption that women are not very bright people and liable to make silly mistakes. I do not think that we need to entertain such a claim.
On the lunatic fringe is the idea that Jesus awoke in the tomb, pushed the stone away and strolled off. Medically this is impossible. A person who is crucified undergoes suffocation when he is hanging downwards and has to raise himself by his arms to breathe. So when Jesus appeared dead on the cross he would have been in the position where he was not breathing. After a few minutes death would have happened. Furthermore he was speared to ensure that he was dead. Such a blow would have seriously wounded him had he lived. Survival in these circumstances would have been miraculous, even with modern medicine.
Maurice Casey makes a more credible case that Jesus' apostles genuinely experienced bereavement visions, which are not unknown among bereaved people [Jesus of Nazareth, Casey, t and t Clark, 2010.] This is feasible, but there are stories that do not comfortable fit into this model, such as the meeting on the Road to Emmaus [which is heavily theologized and from Luke, not a reliable historian] and the eating of boiled fish. Casey accepts that Paul's vision did not fit into this bereavement vision model, and his argument is therefore weakened. While it is possible that some of the experiences were bereavement visions, can he assert that all were; and how does this claim fit in with the empty tomb?
It is noted that the gospels present quite garbled accounts of the resurection experiences that have defied systemisation into one narrative. This is because, I believe, they occurred to people who were widely dispersed in a society in which communication was slow. I suggest that there were many of these experiences, many of which were unrecorded. This would make an integrated account well nigh impossible.
Yet it is sure that the defeated enthusiasts who followed Jesus did not slink away. After three days they were empowered and began to organise a community. What was the transformative experience that turned defeated and frightened men into spiritual heroes? They had in those three days undergone a profound religious experience that founded the largest religion in the world and has empowered it over two thousand years. Something happened.
Yet Christians must not think that they understand the resurrection. The nature of the risen Christ eludes comprehension. We have not concluded the investigation, but have merely completed one chapter; and we have a very large volume to study.
In the end, certainty cannot be had in human affairs. The resurrection cannot be proved or disproved. It all boils down to the faith decision. Does the story of Jesus as told by the church speak to you? Does it empower you and enrich your religious thought? Faith or lack of it involve a decision. This decision is not an arbitrary leap in the dark, but is to be made after a considered reflection.
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