At Easter we don’t celebrate a myth or a great psychological symbol. We celebrate a historical event.
It’s important to understand what the Church claims. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, famous on YouTube, speaks of psychological and symbolic ways he appreciates the resurrection as a great freeing principle, but he says the question of the actual rising of Jesus from the dead is “murky and complicated.”
He’s wrong. The question is simple: Was there a point in history in which Jesus Christ was dead and then a point at which he was alive again?
On that question, the evidence is very strong: Yes. Jesus literally rose from the dead.
1: The argument from Christ’s weakness.
It is important to look at the way the New Testament story is told. In several ways, this does not look like a “resurrection myth,” like the story of the Phoenix, which skeptics like Peterson point to.
Jesus is not presented as an all-powerful mythic figure who triumphs over foes. He looks rather weak, in fact. “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he says. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out.
After the crucifixion, the heroic figure of Jesus isn’t what loomed in his followers’ mind: His weakness did. The Apostles came back because something extraordinary happened: Their defeated leader rose from the dead.
2: The argument from the Apostles’ weakness.
If the apostles were making up a religion, they didn’t do it the way most founders of new religions have. They didn’t make themselves look great and worthy of respect. They made themselves look like a train-wreck.
“Far from showing us a community seized by a mystical exaltation, the Gospels present us with disciples demoralized (‘looking sad’) and frightened,” says the Catechism. “For they had not believed the holy women returning from the tomb and had regarded their words as an ‘idle tale.’ When Jesus reveals himself to the Eleven on Easter evening, he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”
If they were making up a religion, they were doing it wrong, giving people reasons not to put faith in them.
3: The transformation of Saul.
Apart from the Twelve, we have the case of St. Paul. He went from zealous persecutor to zealous preacher after seeing Christ alive. This extraordinary transformation — from someone scandalized by the Christian message to its chief proponent — makes sense if Christ rose. But it makes no sense if he didn’t.
Paul returns to his personal resurrection story again and again, even when he is on trial. It fuels his faith; it makes all the difference to him. He even says “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14).
He bet everything on the actual Resurrection, and invited us to do the same.
4: No early Church debate.
The early Church debated many fundamentals, even the nature of the Resurrection, but not the fact of the Resurrection. That was a given.
In John’s account, when Peter and he enter the empty tomb they “saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.” For John, the sight shows that Jesus wasn’t taken away, and that he didn’t rise like Lazaraus did. Something new had happened. Says the Gospel: “he saw and believed.”
5: The faith of the martyrs.
Christians, from the Church’s first days to our own day, have been willing to die for their conviction that Christ rose from the dead. For them, the Resurrection isn’t a sweet dream that they indulge in, but a hard reality they suffer and die for.
“He was also truly raised from the dead, his Father quickening him, even as after the same manner his Father will so raise up us who believe in him by Christ Jesus,” said the martyr Ignatius. He was torn apart by lions in the year 108 for believing that.
“He who raised him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do his will, and walk in his commandments, and love what he loved,” wrote the martyr Polycarp. He was burned at the stake in 155 for his beliefs.
6: The “inconsistent” accounts.
Gospel writers included different details and material from different sources — all of which mention the fact of the Resurrection. We have the story of Emmaus, the story of the breakfast by the sea, Thomas helpfully establishing that Jesus still had wounds, the story of Mary Magdalene, and more. These many stories all attest to the same fact of the Resurrection.
Bible skeptics point out the discrepancies between the various accounts, while Bible defenders show how they can coexist.
The larger point is often lost: They read like different peoples’ experience of the same event, not like a conscious effort by a group to make something up.
7: The eyewitnesses.
In his letter to the Corinthians, which many scholars date at around A.D. 53, St. Paul spoke of how Christ appeared, alive, to 500 at once. If it weren’t true, it would be impossible to make that claim so soon after the event occurred.
When Paul talks about the Resurrection again and again, there are two facts that are important to him: That the tomb is empty, and Jesus has appeared to many. They are both compelling pieces of evidence because they would be relatively easy for his audiences to disprove.
8: Non-Christian historical accounts.
There is actually quite a bit of evidence about the existence of Jesus in such ancient sources as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata. They all mention various aspects of Jesus’ life.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote a history in the year 93 that mentions that Jesus was crucified and appeared alive afterwards to his followers. Though the text is questioned by some scholars, there are multiple versions that retain the essential fact of Jesus dying and then somehow resurfacing, alive.
Tacitus mentions Jesus also, citing his crucifixion as having proved unable to stop the “superstition” of Christianity.
However the debate about the various texts turns out, Tacitus’ point is a good one. Why wouldn’t Jesus’ crucifixion end his religious movement? Because he rose from the dead.
9: Jesus didn’t die again.
Not only does the evidence support Jesus’ Resurrection — it supports his ultimate claim, that he is divine.
Others have returned from brief death in our own time, and from longer death in New Testament stories. “Christ’s Resurrection is essentially different,” says the Catechism. “In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space. At Jesus’ Resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state, so that St. Paul can say that Christ is “the man of heaven.”
Jesus rose never to die again. Because of that, we see …
10: The rise of a historical religion.
Christianity spread and grew despite persecution not because of the power of the Apostles’ personalities or the perks of the faith — the Apostles were weak and there were penalties, not perks — but because of the Resurrection experience of the early Christians.
The historical fact of the Resurrection of Christ, in his glorified body, is the building block for every dimension of the Catholic faith.
- How can we each meet Jesus, even though we weren’t alive when he walked the streets of Palestine? Because he rose from the dead and lives today.
- How are we able to have our sins forgiven in confession? Because after the Resurrection he breathed on the Apostles and gave them the power to forgive sins.
- Why do we hope in heaven? Because Jesus rose and went there for us.
At Easter we don’t celebrate a myth or a great psychological symbol. We celebrate the historical event that is the foundation of all of our hope and joy and happiness.
He is truly risen. Our faith is not in vain.