Back in September, Bishop Robert Barron released an article on Word on Fire about the lack of apologetics in the Church today and called for more people to tackle the issues which are driving some out of the Church. Answering that call is of tremendous importance to the Church—especially among the young—so I endeavor to add my small voice to this call for action.
Of the issues which the Church faces today, attitudes regarding the Resurrection might not be the most pressing. However, in order to fully understand the Christian faith, we must reorder our thinking around the Resurrection. As Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). Interestingly, the Apostles’ preaching was eminently centered on the Resurrection, with Paul emphasizing this point even in the face of ridicule (cf. Acts 17). The Resurrection, then, forms the backbone of the Christian faith and—having grounded our belief on this event—the doctrines of the Church fall into place accordingly.
Therein, however, lies an issue. Aquinas divides revelation into two categories: articles of faith and preambles of faith. This is due to his understanding of what Scripture reveals: things which could not be known by human reason and things which could be known by human reason, but only by a few, after a long time, and mixed with many errors. Thus, he believes that the preambles of faith can be demonstrated logically. The articles of faith, on the other hand—those things which could not be known by human reason alone—cannot be proven by human reason. At the same time, if they are true, they cannot contradict human reason and, therefore, cannot be disproved by reason.
The Resurrection falls under the articles of faith. In addition to Aquinas’ points about the inability to prove any of the articles, it would be good to consider that it is impossible to logically prove that an event happened in the past. As Augustine points out in his On the Usefulness of Belief, one does not know—but merely believes—who their parents are. This is due to the fact that one cannot know any event in the past unless they witnessed it. In fact, despite the vast scientific advancement between Augustine’s and our own, his point remains true.
Due to all of this, we should be clear that the Resurrection cannot be proved. However, take out the Resurrection and a lot about the Christian faith and Christian history stops making sense. To deal with this in depth requires far more than the space I am allowed here, but I think a single example will show what I mean and, hopefully, will drive others to do their own research and see for themselves.
While the Resurrection cannot be proved, a compelling case can be made for why it likely occurred. Obviously, this is far less than that certainty to which we are led through God’s grace and which is crucial for our faith, but perhaps being merely open to it will be all the gap the Holy Spirit needs to bring one closer to Christ.
Whether Christ rose from the dead or not, the Apostles are fully convinced of that fact. Now, if Christ didn’t actually resurrect, then the Apostles must have had some motivation for asserting this belief. First, suppose that the disciples were so wrapped up by grief that they could only go on by imagining that Jesus rose from the dead or that they were mentally unstable. Why, then, did they go on to preach and harp on the Resurrection? Perhaps they were in denial about Jesus’ death or the pain was too much for them to hold on to sanity, but why would they go near and far trying to convince people of it and—more importantly—why would anyone believe them? The truth of the painful history of the Jewish people in the first century is that there were several Messianic figures whose followers were utterly committed to them, both before and after Jesus, why is it that this belief about the Resurrection was unique to Jesus and why did others buy into it?
Second, suppose the disciples did it out of desire for gain. What did they gain? They gained followers, of course, but aside from that they also gained plenty of beatings, imprisonments, and finally, executions. The Didache shows how austere practices around wandering preachers were in the early Church. If one of these stayed for more than three days without a good cause, or if they asked for money, they were to be kicked out. What, then, was their profit?
Whatever alternative motivation we try to provide for what the Apostles did in the early days of the Church, it does not explain all the data regarding why: 1) they seemed utterly convinced of the Resurrection; 2) they felt compelled to spread their message to both Jews and Gentiles; 3) they were successful in their mission; and 4) they gained next to nothing for it during their lifetimes. It seems that any explanation for the actions of the Apostles has to be inherently more complicated than the Resurrection in order to account for all of the data. If so, shouldn’t we at least be open to the idea that the most simple explanation is the most likely?