No single dimension of the Resurrection provides a comprehensive understanding but different ways the central mystery of our faith is related to Catholic discipleship and common theological understandings.
The Catholic faith is centered, undoubtedly, on the Resurrected Lord of all, Jesus Christ, Christus Victor! By no means could we ever hope to comprehend this mystery as the climactic point of human history; yet, we can apprehend something meaningful about it. Because we cannot wrap our minds around this mystery, we are instead forced to think about it from different perspectives. There is no single dimension of the Resurrection that can provide us with a comprehensive understanding. What follows are some different ways in which the central mystery of our faith is related to Catholic discipleship and common theological understandings. Ideas have consequences. Beliefs affect behavior; doctrine helps to determine devotion. It is my hope and prayer that we will be more conscious of Easter Sunday throughout the liturgical year. Let us now turn to Christ’s Resurrection, and its relevance for all of our beliefs and practices as Catholics.
Easter and Theology
First, the Resurrection is a necessary prolegomenon (the study of the preconditions which make theology possible) for the Christian faith. While it is true that “we believe in order to understand,” it is equally true to say that “the more we authentically understand, the more disposed we are to have faith.” Genuine knowledge can be used by God as a springboard for Catholic faith. Whether one wishes to theologize on the Resurrection as an act of forgiveness, or as the commencement of the new future, or as the establishment of the Apostles’ proclamation, none of these are possible if Jesus’ body still remains in the tomb (cf. 1 Cor 15:12-19). That is why we need to defend the historicity of the Resurrection in order to make theology a genuine possibility.
The apologists’ concerns also act as a call to reinvigorate what the late Cardinal Avery Dulles has called the “herald model of the church.” The case for Christ’s Resurrection can be just one means through which the saints can become equipped to become confident in verbally sharing their faith (cf. Eph. 6:19; Col. 4:5, 6; 1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3). Apologetics reminds us of why we believe, and in whom we believe. Building confidence might help believers to share the things we believe with others, and to face the suffering that is often accompanied by these exchanges. By having good reasons for faith, we know that whom we believe can be backed with legitimate evidence.
The Resurrection appearances of Jesus from the dead are closely linked to the Church’s mission (thus the branch of theology known as “missiology”) to spread the good news. Not only did the first percipients see the Risen Jesus appear to them, they also sensed their newfound mission to inaugurate the reign of God. As Kenan Osborne has remarked, “there is a mission and commissioning connected to the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, both men and women. . . . In other words, during his lifetime, Jesus did not ‘institute’ a church. He did not establish the twelve as bishops, nor did he establish a new priesthood. All of this hierarchical development arose in a post-resurrection milieu, and was brought about because of Easter faith.” 1 In other words, all the mysteries of the Passion come to fruition only on Easter morning: the institution of the Eucharist, the sacred orders of Christ’s priests, the truth of Baptism as a “first resurrection,” makes sense today only because Christ defeated death for all time.
The Resurrection also has implications for Christian eschatology (the branch of theology concerned with the study of the “last things”). Human beings long for something else beyond their earthly lives. Indeed, the Resurrection acts as the final exemplar of our own resurrection from the dead at the end of time. Therefore, it provides us with some idea of what our future lives will be like in the eschaton (cf. 1 Cor 6:14; Phil 3:21; 1 Jn 3:3). Jesus’ Resurrection also serves as the forerunner to the new creation at the end of time (Rom 8:19-23).
It is well known that eschatology is intimately linked to one of the human persons’ ultimate questions: What can I hope for? In a world without immortality and God, life inevitably becomes absurd—no heaven to be gained; no hell to be shunned. By contrast, in a world in which our own resurrection becomes a live option, hope is reinstated for humanity. According to the scholar and scientist, John Polkinghorne: “Resurrection hope is necessarily engaged with a tension between continuity and discontinuity. This follows from the fact that its picture of the new life to come is framed in terms of its being the eschatological transformation of the old life, and not simply the latter’s abolition and replacement.” 2
Christ’s Resurrection also has connotations for pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. The reign of God is larger than the Church. God the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere at all times. And, in this very way, the Resurrection vindicates the reality of the reign (Rom 1:1-4). The reign is akin to God’s great clean-up-work in this world. The reign, however, intimately works in the Church in a special manner. As Pope Benedict XVI once proclaimed at an Easter Vigil:
The Resurrection is not a thing of the past; the Resurrection has reached us, and seized us. We grasp hold of it, we grasp hold of the risen Lord, and we know that he holds us firml,y even when our hands grow weak. We grasp hold of his hand, and thus we also hold on to one another’s hands. And we become one single subject, not just one thing. I, but no longer I: this is the formula of Christian life rooted in Baptism, the formula of the Resurrection within time. I, but no longer I: if we live in this way, we transform the world. It is a formula contrary to all ideologies of violence, it is a program opposed to corruption and to the desire for power and corruption. 3
The point to be underscored is that Christ is raised to gather a people, not individuals apart from one another. The Resurrection, the consummative act of Christ’s atonement on the Cross, happened for all—past, present and future—not just a few individuals (cf. Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2). 4
One cannot leave out these conclusions and fail to mention harmartiology, the theological study of personal, social, and structural sins. The fact that God had to become a human being (cf. Phil 2:5-11), die, and then be raised, shows just how far God has to go to get our attention. This ought to make us realize how much we are in need of clear instructions from God. The unlimited God has to limit himself in our sinful condition in order to communicate effectively with the human race, according to C. Stephan Evans: “However much we may obscurely desire God and sense a problem in our current condition, we lack both adequate sense of what God is like, what it would be like to properly related to him, and how far removed we are from having such an understanding of God and such a relationship to him. It is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that God reveals these things to us, and they cannot be achieved through any myth of human devising. Our salvation depends on a revelation from God; if it could be achieved through an imaginative construction, then we would not be the fallen creatures we in fact are.” 5
What is more, Christ’s Resurrection has a bearing on ecumenical efforts (the sustained search by Christians to find agreement on the fundamentals of the faith). A cursory glance at the major branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism) should be able to persuade anyone how many believers from different Christian communities and persuasions have an interest in Christ’s bodily Resurrection. The fact that Jesus was raised is a common point of reference that all Christians can agree on. As believers, we should start our conversations and debates on what we already agree on. It is only after we have settled upon what we agree on that we can begin to narrow our differences. We cannot miss out on what Osborne has to say here: “Although the many dialogues that the ecumenical movement inspired did not focus on resurrection research, the issues these dialogues did raise have steadily asked each of the churches to delve into its ultimate meaning as a ‘Jesus’ church. If all our churches proclaim the message of Jesus, what is this message that so unites us? Naturally, this includes the very meaning of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus.” 6
Belief in the Resurrection can easily stir up the human imagination to generate a greater conviction of faith. Once people suspect that Jesus could have really been bodily raised from the dead, they will immediately begin to see how much of a privilege our faith is, and that our lives constitute a significant part of the grand story, making sense of human life. All legitimate theological understanding is designed to do this (and explains part of the reason why J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton were so very popular in the twentieth century).
Though certain understandings of liberation theology are not so popular in certain quarters of the Church, there is a sense in which the Resurrection becomes a liberating tenet of our faith. Certainly, the Resurrection is God’s way of ensuring the Church, and potential converts, that real victory will one day come to those of us who live with oppression (oppression that is akin to the murder of the Sinless One). Many movements of liberation can draw from this insight, including those in civil rights, and protests against discrimination, and other forms of injustice. Similar to the concerns of the liberationist, the death and Resurrection is a major motif with the nature-grace problematic. The potential of the human body is brought to fulfillment in the final resurrection at the end of time. At this point, we will become more human than we could have ever imagined here on earth. There is no compromise on the goodness of created realities. Rather, grace builds upon what God has already created and brings it to its final destiny.
The providence of God is also exemplified once we begin to explore, in earnest, Christ’s Resurrection. This conclusion is derived from understanding the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), when God decisively revealed himself in Christ. It also pertains to the fact that we have access to historical evidence for such an event—and remarkable evidence at that. This suggests that providence may want scientifically-minded persons to know more about such evidence. Listen to Polkinghorne once again: “One of the most significant things about Jesus of Nazareth is that we have heard of him. He lived two thousand years ago in a not very important frontier province of the Roman Empire. He died comparatively young, painfully and shamefully executed and deserted by the band of close followers that he had gathered around him. He wrote no book that could have conveyed his message to future generations. Yet, everyone has heard of Jesus and, even from a secular perspective, he has been one of the most influential figures of the whole history of the world. We take our knowledge of Jesus so much for granted that we mostly fail to see how surprising it is.” 7
The systematic study of protology—the study of the ultimate origins of creation—is also brought into full light, once we see the ramifications of Jesus’ Resurrection. The doctrine of creation, out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo), was not originally formulated through the philosophical reflection on the impossibility of an infinite number of past events, and standard big bang cosmology. Rather, it came into existence when the first Christians thought out the implications of the Resurrection. In the words of Ted Peters:
The key points of continuity between redemption and creation is the idea that the future can be different from the past, i.e., the key is eschatology. More abstractly put, God does new things. . . .Turning to the New Testament, we can further reconstruct the movement from redemption to creation. Here, the Gospel is the experienced power of new life in the Easter resurrection that provides the foundation for our faith and trust in God, to fulfill his promise, to establish a new creation in the future. The world as we know it is replete with death, with the precedent that dead people remain dead. But, now, something new has happened. God has raised Jesus to eternity, never to die again, and God promises us a share in this resurrection when the consummate Kingdom of God comes into fullness. Now, we can ask: What does it take to raise the dead? What does it take to consummate history into a new and everlasting kingdom? It takes mastery over the created order. It takes a loving Father who cares, but who is also a creator whose power is undisputed and unrivaled. . . . The logic here is: the God who saves must also be the God who creates. Nothing less will do.8
Easter faith is also a reminder for all Christians that theological language is inevitably intertwined with the use of metaphorical language. The very use of the term “resurrection from the dead” is a metaphor used to describe something that actually happened to Jesus which we cannot describe univocally, and thus, one-sidedly. According to Wolfhart Pannenberg, an ardent defender of the historicity of the Resurrection: “This is not a special expression for a reality which can always be experienced, but something which normally cannot be experienced directly and, therefore, must be described by a metaphor, in analogy to our rising from sleep daily.” 9
Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead also has relevance for the Catholic theology of progressive justification, or what is sometimes called sanctification. The Resurrection of Jesus must be seen not simply as life after death. More fundamentally, it is life in God, life with God, life in God’s love and peace, after death. It is this “in God” and this “with God” which characterizes the risen life far more than the ‘after death’ aspect.” Thus, the Resurrection has implications for the way humans continuously respond to the divine in the life of faith.
Jesus’ Resurrection can provide a framework through which we can unify the rather disparate New Testament passages that speak of the Resurrection. Because we believe in the Resurrection, we can use that belief as a foundational point of departure when understanding the individual New Testament texts. It is easy to take individual passages and interpret them one-sidedly, unless we already have some understanding of doctrine beforehand. The Resurrection is, therefore, relevant for biblical interpretation. Similarly, the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection is linked to a theology which urges believers that Scripture opens our eyes to the truths of the Gospel. Conversely, belief in the Resurrection leads one to Scripture reading. As Frank Crüsemann says:
With this unbelievable tale is contrasted the story that, as no other, makes the resurrection believable: the Emmaus story. It is the story of a way that leads from having closed eyes, form not perceiving and not understanding (cf. Lk 24:16), to having eyes and knowledge (v. 31). What affects this turnabout is presented in the clearest fashion: Scripture. . . It involves something that is found there from beginning to end and that demands faith and makes faith possible. . . . He can apparently be known only in this way, and he apparently wants to be known only in this way. No glory, no miracle, no overwhelming experience evokes faith and knowledge, but only the horizon that is opened by the interpretation of Scripture.10
According to Crüsemann, then, understanding the Sacred Scriptures becomes a necessary precondition for helping persons to develop faith in the Gospel.
The challenge of offering a response to why God would allow evil in the world—what is commonly called “theodicy”—is affected by Christ’ Resurrection. 11 In the Christian response to this primal problem, God does not stand aloof over creation, watching dispassionately and without concern. He enters this vale of tears and suffers on our behalf. And he conquers evil by being raised from the dead. As Evans has written, “if the story is true, it can be taken as assurance that God cares about evil, and will act ultimately to redeem the greatest evil and bring about good. The story is not merely a claim that God cares about evil and suffering, but a concrete manifestation of that care. God himself chooses to suffer with his creation, and then triumphs through that suffering.” 12
As for guidance in theological understanding, the doctrine of the Resurrection of Jesus reminds us that the most tense, theological position, a position that tends to be on a “razor’s edge,” tends to be the one that is true. Those who usually have the truth, tend to hold on to a view that is highly nuanced. To be more precise, it is much simpler to posit monotheism, or polytheism, than it is to argue for the Triune God. Yet, the latter is perfectly coherent, and probably the most rational. As the scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, has written:
It seems to this writer that a firm grasp of the two elements of continuity and transformation, that spring from the New Testament itself ,will prevent our approach to the resurrection from yielding to the two extreme positions that threaten all Catholic theology today: a liberalism that would completely rewrite revelation in terms of contemporary experience, without any real obedience to what has come down to us in the Bible; and a fundamentalistic conservatism that lacks historical sensitivity in considering revelation and its formulations. 13
The Resurrection of Christ affects the forgiveness of human sinfulness, thus having relevance for soteriology, the study of salvation (cf. Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:17; Acts 13:38-39; Acts 5:30, 31; Acts 10:43; Lk 24:46-47). The Resurrection conquers sin and defeats death, but the consequences remain; these benefits are ours through being incorporated into Christ.
The disciples’ experiences of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are intimately connected to the early church’s rationale in formulating certain ritual actions, over and against others. A case can be made that ritual behavior is affected by the encounters with the living Christ. As Michael Welker explains: “These appearances are connected with symbolic, liturgical, or missionary acts that will all be constitutive for the life and the worship of the early church; for instance, the greeting, ‘Peace be with you!’ the breaking of bread, the opening of the Scriptures, the disclosure of the secret of the Messiah, the blessing and sending of the disciples, and other ritualized actions and signs.” 14
The Resurrection, as a real event, also has implications for theology proper, the study of God as he is in himself. It shows that God is good, that God is personal, that he is willing to act in history for our sake, and that he is loving and concerned with our welfare as human beings. For how could there be a miracle unless there is a God who can perform such an act? Further, Jesus’ literal rising from the dead to be with God has direct relevance for trinitarian theology. 15 Pope Benedict XVI has also seen the subtle connection between the Resurrection as an event and Trinitarian theology, in his homily at the Easter Vigil of 2006: “What happened there? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and for me personally? Above all: what happened? Jesus is no longer in the tomb. He is in a totally new life. But how could this happen? What forces were in operation? The crucial point is that this man Jesus was not alone, he was not an ‘I’ closed in upon itself. He was one single reality with the living God, so closely united with him as to form one person with him.” 16
On the more practical side of things, Jesus’ death and Resurrection serve as the model for Catholic morality. Every time we die to self for the sake of others, we rise again to new life in Christ. Perhaps, non-Catholics can likewise realize salvation in Christ. Although they do not have a conscious awareness of the Savior, they can recognize the importance of sacrificing oneself for the betterment of others. In so doing, they can mystically participate in Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection to eternal life. In this very way, the Resurrection helps believers to understand the inner rationale of the Church’s view on salvation outside the church, or what is commonly called “the theology of religions.” Finally, we can say that Christ destroyed the power of the devil through his Resurrection (cf. Col. 2:13-15) and in this sense, it also has a role for demonology and spiritual warfare.
The Risen Lord is available to us today. Not only was it an event of history, happening in first century Palestine, but it also transcends time and space. As the Catechism remarks:
Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history. This is why the risen Christ does not reveal himself to the world, but to his disciples, ‘to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.’ 17
Because the Risen Lord is working in and through the Church Catholic in the power of the Holy Spirit today, Easter faith must be linked to almost everything we believe and practice as Catholics.
- Kenan B. Osborne, The Resurrection of Jesus: New Considerations for its Theological Interpretation, (Mahwah: Paulist, 1997), 18. cf. 90, 123, 124. ↩
- John Polkinghorne, “Eschatological Credibility: Emergent and Teleological Processes,” Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, ed. Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 48. ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI made this point in his Easter Vigil homily in 2006. ↩
- Kenan B. Osborne, The Resurrection of Jesus, 22. ↩
- C. Stephan Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History, (Oxford University Press, 1996) 60. For similar observations by Evans, see 63, 71, 72, 80. ↩
- Kenan B. Osborne, The Resurrection of Jesus, 26. ↩
- John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, (New Haven: Yale University, 2005), 60. ↩
- Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” Physics, Philosophy, and Theology, ed. Robert Russell, William Stoeger, and George Coyne, (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 1988), 277. ↩
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?” Dialog 4 (1965), 129. ↩
- Frank Crüsemann, “Scripture and Resurrection,” Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, ed. Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 92–93. ↩
- Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate, (Oxford: Oxford University, 2003),191; cf. 197. ↩
- C. Stephan Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith, 169. ↩
- Raymond E. Brown, “The Resurrection and Biblical Criticism,” Commonweal, vol. 87, no. 8, (Nov. 24, 1967), 236. ↩
- Michael Welker, “Theological Realism and Eschatological Symbol Systems,” Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, ed. Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 37. ↩
- Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004),110-143. ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil homily (2006). ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §647. ↩