The hidden fear that betrays our greatest hope
“Where were the sinners, what were they, when Christ died for them? When Christ has already given us the gift of his death, who is to doubt that he will give us the gift of his own life? Why does our human frailty hesitate to believe that mankind will one day live with God?”
–St. Augustine. Sermon.
The real objection to Christianity is not hell, sin, or death, but heaven and eternal life. Chesterton once remarked that the difficulty with Christianity, when seriously examined, was that it was “too good to be true.” One might turn this observation around to read: “Since I do not want Christianity to be true, it is good that I do not know the evidence that it is true.” And why would anyone not “want” Christianity to be true? The most obvious answer is that “Its truth would require me to reckon with it in my life.” Thus, it is better that the argument or evidence for the truth of Christianity be not known, best that it be ridiculed or impeded so that no one really has a chance seriously to consider the validity of its claims on intelligence.
In this context, St. Augustine asked the remarkably penetrating question: “Why does our human frailty hesitate to believe that mankind will one day live with God?” Why, after all, would anyone not want to believe this final purpose for the life of our kind? St. Augustine attributes the answer to “human frailty." We look at the relative shortness of our lives, to our being subject to illness, injustice, and sundry other limitations of mind and body. With some sense, we can certainly conclude that we are indeed frail. On the surface, it would be a presumption to think that some higher destiny exists for us in the light of the “messiness” of much human life and history.
But this cannot be the complete answer. Of itself, human frailty is not a sin, but a description of our normal condition and status in being. Obviously, human beings cannot just “decide” on their own authority or with their own power to “live with God." To live with God evidently requires an invitation into “the house of the Lord." That “invitation”, like any invitation, cannot be something that God “must” offer to us. If God were “obliged” to create us and make us “like gods”, it would follow that we are already gods and need not bother with anything else. In other words, our fragility includes the possibility that we need not exist at all.
Thus, if we do exist, as we obviously do, we must look for a reason outside of ourselves to explain ourselves. We could, I suppose, maintain that there is no such explanation, but this is but another attempt to give a reason. No one can seriously reflect on his own existence for long and not realize that he really had nothing to do with it. And while we can trace our existence to our parents, this just pushes the issue one step back. Our parents are faced with the exact same problem with regard to their existence. To explain our existence, we cannot avoid seeking an explanation for existence itself.
But resurrection does not concern “why we exist as human beings." It concerns the abidingness of our existence even in the face of death, which all men undergo. However difficult it may be to explain our initial existence from nothing, it seems even more difficult to propose that, when we die, we will rise again to live in the house of the Lord. The mere proposal of such an eventuality is, in its own way, defiant. It defies all the deniers of the resurrection of the body. And it makes this defiance not merely because the resurrection of Christ is a fact, but because it has a reason why it is not absurd. It makes good sense. This reason for the resurrection was implicit in what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being in the first place. How so?
The doctrine of the fullness of the life within the Trinity means that God did not need anything but His own life. If there was life other than that of God, it must have had its origin in what alone could bring life into being. This consideration means that, if something besides God exists, it is the result of a choice, not a necessity, in God. Something that cannot exist cannot up and decide to exist. What came to exist outside of God was not itself God. The central beings outside of God were those who could know both what is not God and, in some way, God Himself, thus, angels and men. All else, including the cosmos itself, was create for man and his final purpose.
If beings with reason were invited to participate in the life of God, as they were, they, on accepting this invitation, did not cease being what they were, angels or men. Thus, if man were to be offered a participation in the inner life of God, he accepted this invitation as what he was. He was not just a soul or just a body. His completeness included body and soul in such a way that he could not be what he was unless both body and soul were present in a unified whole. He was capable of knowing and choosing. Among the things that he needed to choose was himself. That is, he needed to know what he is and what he is for. His perfection in that sense depended on his understanding and choosing of himself, his purpose and his limits.
If we deny the resurrection or its possibility, what we implicitly do is to deny the kind of being we are instituted to be. The resurrection of the body is, in essence, God’s response to any doubt we might have about what we are. We will rise again whether we like it or not. We will be judged on the basis of how we lived and chose to live. We are not given any choice here. We are only given information of what our existence is about. We are men, not gods. But as men, we are intended to be more than is possible to our nature. Not only is our initial being a gift, so is the elevation of our nature. We are created men but with an invitation to live a life that is beyond human nature without, at the same time, destroying it. This invitation to participate in God’s inner life, however, is paradoxical. It shows the vulnerability, as it were, of God. He created us without our permission. He had no other choice. He simply arranged that we each exist as a person. His only other choice was not to create anything at all. He chose existence with its glory that may be seen, appreciated, and seen in its origins.
God could not “force” us to love Him or participate in His inner life. To do so, would be to deny our freedom. God had to risk the possibility of being rejected. And once this rejection took place in the Fall, with its consequences, of which death was one, God had, as it were, to “devise” an alternate way to restore us to His original purpose in creating us, a way that would, again, not deny our freedom. This alternate way is what the Incarnation was about. The Incarnation, with its subsequent history in the life and Crucifixion of Christ, true man and true God, was designed to direct our freedom back to its original purpose. That is what redemption means.
This is why the Resurrection of Christ took place both in time and eternity. It was God’s way to repair the disorder caused by an initial free rejection of God that implicated all men. But this repair had itself to leave us free to deny God and His plans for us. In doing so, God depended on our seeing and understanding what our lives were about, what God had intended for us. The denial of the resurrection, whether it be Christ’s or our own, then, is, at bottom, a refusal to acknowledge what we are. In thinking about the Resurrection of Christ, we are also directed to ourselves. Christ’s resurrection was not for Himself alone. In a sense, He did not need it. He "suffered” death for us, to teach us what we really are. The two disciples at Emmaus were amazed and delighted to hear Christ explain the Scriptures and, in effect, who He was.
To think about denying the Resurrection of Christ and about the reality of our own resurrection is a worthwhile effort. Nothing more clarifies for us what is left of man when we insist in denying this possibility. But looked at positively, the Resurrection is but the reaffirmation that it is all right to be a human being. It insists, all appearance to the contrary, that human life is not complete, here or hereafter, unless it is whole. For only if it is finally whole can the invitation to be friends with God make any sense at all. It is for this purpose that we are created. The denial of the Resurrection is a denial of what it is to be a human being. In rejecting the resurrection, we reject what we are in our creation. The efforts to kill Christ, whether those recounted in the Gospels or those which take place in killing or persecuting His disciples, are rooted in a free rejection of why God created and redeemed us in the first place, each of us.
James V. Schall, S.J.,
who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures (St. Augustine Press, 2014).