Believers and non-believers alike have been arguing about the Resurrection since the day Jesus rose. What really happened? How was he raised from the dead? Did an actual dead body really come back to life and step out of the grave, or was the Resurrection a monumental life-changing event inside the consciousness of Jesus’s followers? Or was it both a real physical event and an event inside the consciousness of believers?
Obviously nobody was there to see what actually happened. Those who claimed that Jesus was alive again didn’t see him rise and emerge from the tomb; they met him only after he had already risen and, immediately, believers and sceptics began to divide from each other: persons who claimed to have touched him and others who doubted that testimony.
There have been sceptics and believers ever since, and no shortage of persons, professional theologians and non-scholarly Christians alike, who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as a faith event but not as a physical event, where an actual body came out of a grave. The faith event is what’s important, they claim, and it is incidental whether or not Jesus’s actual body came out of the grave.
Was Jesus’s Resurrection a faith event or a physical event? It was both. For Christians it is the most monumental event, faith and otherwise, in history. Two thousand subsequent years cannot be explained, except by the reality of the Resurrection. To understand this only as a literal fact, that his body rose from the grave, is to cut the Resurrection off from much of its meaning. However, that being admitted, for Christians, the Resurrection must also be a radically physical event.
Why? First, because the Gospels are pretty clear in emphasising that the tomb was empty and that the resurrected Jesus was more than a spirit or ghost. We see that, for instance, in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus invites a doubting Thomas to verify his physicality: “Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me. Touch me. You can see that I have a living body; a ghost does not have a body like this.”
As well, and very importantly, to cut the Resurrection off from the literal fact that there was real physical transformation of a once dead corpse is to rob it of some of its important meanings and perhaps of the deepest root of its credibility. For the Resurrection of Christ to have full meaning it must, among other things, have been a brute physical fact. There needs to be an empty tomb and a dead body returned to life.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection