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Strong in Faith: Is the historicity of the Resurrection essential to your Faith?

A fortnightly discussion chaired by our Catholic university chaplaincies.

Discussion 12: Is the historicity of the Resurrection essential to your Faith?

EMERSON STEVENS: Yes, the Resurrection signifies Christ’s (literal) triumph over death, and the evidence that our sins had been paid for once and for all. While I think it is acceptable to interpret some aspects of the Bible (for example occurrences within Genesis and the Apocalypse) as allegorical, I think when we begin to question the ‘historicity’ of Christ’s deeds, we play a dangerous game that can ultimately end up with the questioning of the historicity of Christ Himself.

GERALD BONNER: Yes, of course! If Jesus did not rise from the dead, in His physical—though glorified—Body, then Christianity is utterly false.

JESUS TAPIA AMADOR: And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14). I guess St Paul outdid us by a couple of years only in spotting this. As Gerald points out, without the Resurrection our Faith is meaningless and false. For what are we hoping for? Who do we preach? We can actually use the historicity of the Resurrection to strengthen our Faith.

THOMAS SCHAAB: What does historicity mean? The textbook definition would be that it is a recorded/remembered fact accepted by most historians. But is it? Yes and no. It largely depends on the beliefs of the historian. Is it remembered and recorded by Christian historians and writers? Yes, the first being Paul as Jesus Tapia Amador has pointed out. The question also resonates with the question: Is the Resurrection an ‘actual’ event—as perhaps the Crucifixion—or an allegory—as perhaps the Creation Myth? I would say both and more. Something has happened, in an actual sense, that started our religion and is indispensable for it; but also indisputable on historical grounds. How exactly did it take place? Even the Gospel writers cannot agree on that. However, what happened is more than just an actual event. It is a mystery, one of the central mysteries of our Faith. I believe that to wish to reflect on this mystery for a lifetime is crucial for any Christian. However, to wish to establish it as a mere historical fact, putting it in the same category as perhaps Caesar’s campaigns, is a dangerous thing. It reminds me of the lust for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Resurrection and how, when and why it happens is a thing best left to God. The only realistic and ultimately human response to this mystery is to hope for it with a humble heart.

ROSINA McGREADY: The minute we question and try to base the Resurrection historically is the minute we begin to lose Faith—Christianity is about faith and hope. The Resurrection is a mystery and we as Christians base our faith in this. Plus, if there was historical evidence for the Resurrection then everybody would be Christians. Plus perhaps there would be no challenge in regards to good and evil? This is what makes Christianity so exciting.

GERALD BONNER: Thomas, perhaps ‘to wish to establish it as a mere historical fact’ could be dangerous, if one is deliberately trying to strip the Resurrection of its eternal significance. But to seek to establish it as a historical fact is not dangerous, rather it is a very good and necessary thing because it has eternal and transcendent significance ‘only’ if it is a historical fact. To be Christian and not recognise it as a historical fact would be madness—though I don’t think you were promoting such a view. In this confused day and age we need that to be understood clearly.

Rosina, I think there definitely is evidence for the Resurrection, and arguably ‘historical evidence’ depending on how exactly you define that term. We don’t ‘just believe’ in the Resurrection without good reason. To give just one example, the Anglican scholar NT Wright has argued that the only explanation for the emergence of Christianity as a specifically ‘Messianic’ movement is the ‘fact’ of the Resurrection—the Crucifixion destroys any claim that Jesus is the Messiah, unless He rose from the dead. We should be able to point out the historical evidence for our Faith to those who may ask us. Faith is not ‘believing without evidence,’ it is trusting God on those things He has revealed about Himself that we could never have discovered by reason alone. And why do we trust that God has revealed Himself, because we have evidence and good reason to do so. We have evidence for the Resurrection, and then once that it accepted the Resurrection itself becomes the greatest evidence for Jesus’ other claims.

ROSINA McGREADY: Yes, I agree with some of what you say. However, if it really was a historical fact, then everyone would be Christians surely? But they are not. And that’s when faith comes into play for me and for many more people I am sure. For many people historical evidence will never be enough. I suppose that is when some people begin to argue that faith is a gift.

GERALD BONNER: We seem to be talking slightly at cross purposes. The Resurrection definitely is a historical fact—by which I mean it happened, which obviously we both agree on. As to why isn’t everyone Christian when there is historical evidence, well basically I’d agree with your last post that for some historical evidence will never be enough—“If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31). More broadly though, the answer is the effects of sin, which has weakened our wills, darkened our intellects and disordered our desires, leaving us prone to doubt even when there is sufficient evidence. Sin has both held back us Catholics from properly—and convincingly—proclaiming the truth, while sin can also make all of us, believers and non-believers alike, reluctant to accept the truth even when the evidence is there before us—how often do even we Catholics really stop and think about what the fact of the Resurrection means?

I am not saying that every non-Christian is sinfully doubting in the face of evidence. Many are invincibly ignorant—which is partly our fault as Christians for not living and proclaiming the truth—and therefore not committing a sin of doubt. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make up one doubt”—we must resolve people’s difficulties with Catholicism by, among other things, pointing out the evidence. After that though they, like us, must make a choice whether to accept the evidence or not—and to do that, overcoming our sinful nature, we do need the grace of God… faith as a gift as you say.

Next week: Pope Francis is calling for the Church to ‘go outside itself’ and reach out to those in spiritual need. How can we put this into practice? Have your say at http://www.facebook.com/scostronginfaith


To deny the Resurrection is to deny Christ Himself

The Resurrection obviously goes to the heart of Christian claims about Jesus of Nazareth. There are two aspects to the question of its historicity. Firstly, does it matter whether the Resurrection truly happened?

Secondly, does it matter whether we can prove that it really happened?

As came across in the discussion, the answer to the first question as really quite simple: yes, of course it matters. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then we cannot rise with Him. If the Resurrection did not happen then Christianity is fundamentally meaningless: the stumbling block of the Cross would be so for all, and the Church would be a fraud. If Christ is not risen then Life has not overcome death. But Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, as He said! Alleluia, alleluia!

So the Resurrection is central to our Christian faith and must be central to our own personal faith too. But does it then matter whether we can prove the Resurrection? It is certainly an important question; historical truths and the truths of Faith cannot contradict each other, as there is only one truth. Historical claims, however, are another story entirely, and we can be sure that if someone claims to have disproved the Resurrection then he has made some error.

But just saying that we know from Faith that the Resurrection can never be disproved will not convince anyone. Indeed, it is more likely to get agnostics thinking that we are not intellectually honest or serious. What is needed instead is for us look without fear into the history of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection to see what positive evidence can be found. This has already been done by a number of historians, believers and not. One English journalist famously set out to disprove the Resurrection and ended up convinced of its truth.

Historical facts are always open to interpretation, and given how disputed claims are over events as recent and well documented as the Second World War, it is hardly surprising that there is no historical consensus over the events of the first Easter weekend. To put it simply, for someone who is not open to believing that Christ rose from the dead, the burden of proof is considerably higher than for someone who already believes.

This is of course why we should be so thankful for the gift of faith, and should pray that others be open to believing: that they see that the door of faith is always open. Facts without faith are nothing. There is no record, for example, that the soldiers who were guarding the tomb became Christian, even though they knew the truth of what happened.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith. To deny the Resurrection is to deny Christ. While the truth of the Resurrection is essential to our faith, proving it historically is not necessarily so. Nonetheless, we have nothing to fear from honest historical investigation and it can help us to come to a greater understanding of the events of that first Easter and bring us ever closer to Christ.

—Have your say at http://www.facebook.com/scostronginfaith

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