DID CHRIST RISE FROM THE DEAD?
by JOSEPH GRECH,
CORPUS CHRISTI COLLEGE, MOUNT WAVERLEY, VlC.
ISBN - 85826 - 054 - 9
A.C.T.S. No 1624 / Do (1972)
In this pamphlet we have a careful and critical examination of the
scriptural evidence for the central mystery of the Christian faith -the
resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb.
The author goes on from that point to discuss briefly the reality of
the Risen Christ living in His church
St. Paul writes, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is
useless, and your believing it is useless . . . If our hope in Christ
has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all
people." (1 Cor. 15:14). This is a very big claim. On the other hand it
clearly portrays St. Paul's attitude towards the Resurrection. This
event, is the foundation of all
Christian belief. For us, men and women of twenty centuries later, the
Resurrection is not only a past event. It is the pivot of all our
beliefs and hope in Christ. Some may ask us, "Why do you still believe
in such fantasies?" Our reply is that we have proof that Christ really
rose from the dead, and this proof is mainly found in the New
Testament. Now the purpose of this pamphlet is to grasp what the New
Testament claims in preaching Jesus risen from the dead, and to analyse
why this proclamation can be accepted today.
The whole of the New Testament has in view the same event, by which
Jesus who was dead passed into life. The Resurrection of Jesus is, the
focus of everything proclaimed in the New Testament, including its
statements about the relationship between God and
man. In fact in I Thess. 1:10, we find St. Paul
saying, "You are now waiting for Jesus, His son, whom He raised from
the dead, to come from heaven to save us from the retribution which is
coming." Similarly in the Church, this New Testament conviction is
fundamental to the whole Christian tradition as St. Paul himself
affirms in 1 Cor. 15. In this letter, St. Paul gives evidence that in
the early Church, the resurrection is of fundamental importance being
the focus of all belief in Christ. In fact he says, "Well then in the
first place, I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that
Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he
was buried; and that he was raised to
life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures; that
he appeared first to Cephas and secondly to the twelve".
Moreover, the New Testament furnishes us with two important events, as
a proof of Christ's resurrection:
(A) The appearance of Jesus to his followers after his death, and
(B) the empty tomb.
The earliest document that clearly describes Christ's
appearances to his followers, is St. Paul's report in I Cor. 15:1-11. When examining this
report, one must in the first place emphasize that it is very close to
the events themselves. This is a very important factor to remember,
because there is no danger of "inauthenticity with regards to the
events as they occur in the narrative of this particular letter of St.
Paul". This closeness of the events factor involves first of all the
time when St. Paul wrote the letter and secondly the age of the
formula, which St. Paul used in his narrative. Scholars can now
ascertain that verses 3b-5 which read, "That Jesus died for our sins in
accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised
on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he
appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve", form part of an older formula,
originally in Aramaic, which St. Paul had already found in use. This is
especially clear when we find the phrase, "according to the
scriptures", repeated twice.
Now, St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians was probably written in the
spring of 56 A.D., in Ephesus. This was before any of the gospels were
written. However, St. Paul speaks from a still older personal
knowledge. According to his letter to the Galatians 1:18, we are
certain that St. Paul was in Jerusalem three years after his
conversion. There he, at least, visited Peter and James. St Paul's
conversion was in 33 or in 35 A.D. and if Jesus' death is to be put
approximately in the year 30; then Paul would have been in Jerusalem;
between six to eight years after Christ's death. From this it can
be seen that the statements in 1 Cor. 1:15, are very close to the
actual event of the resurrection.
This observation is further strengthened by another fact, at which we
have already hinted, namely that St. Paul is also using a formula that
was previously coined. This formula was perhaps preached or recited by
the early Church at worship. Thus St. Paul does not make statements
straight from his memory, which anybody could doubt. Rather, he appeals
to a formulated tradition which was nearer still to the actual events.
In fact some hold that if St. Paul had received this passion formula
soon after his conversion, which was probably the case, it must have
reached back to the first five years after Christ's death. Thus in view
of this formula and the nearness of St. Paul to the alleged events, the
assumption that the appearances of the risen Lord were really
experienced by a number of believers and not perhaps invented later,
has a very good historical foundation.
According to this account of St. Paul in I Cor. 15:1-11, and the sacred
gospel accounts, it was the appearances and not the empty tomb that was
decisive for the disciple's faith. St. Paul gives us a detailed list of
appearances in the passage just mentioned, "Next he appeared to more
than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are
still alive, though some have died; then he appeared to James, and then
to all the apostles; and last of all he appeared to me too; it was as
though I was born when no one expected it." As we read the account of
these appearances, we can see that three major aspects stand out.
(1) the witnesses;
(2) their location;
(3) their form.
The common feature in all the appearances is that they were granted to
those who were already followers of Jesus. More important is the fact
that when Jesus appears, all the witnesses recognize him as the same
Jesus Christ who talked to them, who taught them, who performed
miracles, and who died on the cross. Thus there is no question of a
mistaken identity. This is quite easily proved from 1 Cor. 9:1; Gal.
1:16 and I Cor. 15:8-10. These three passages show us what happened to
St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
Here he clearly tells us, that he became Christ's follower and,
moreover a preacher of Jesus, precisely
because he had seen the risen Christ. "I personally, am free: I
am an apostle and I have seen Jesus, our Lord". (1 Cor. 9:1.)
Again, we can say that the consistent record of the New Testament is,
that the visions of Jesus after the resurrection did not lie within the
natural power of any who might have wished to see Him. Christ did not
return for a public inspection, like Lazarus. The initiative lay always
and only with Jesus in making himself visible. This is a proof against
those who argue that these appearances were merely a figment of the
imagination. In fact in the Acts of the Apostles we read "Yet three
days afterwards God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen, not
by the whole people but only by certain witnesses God had chosen
beforehand." (Acts. 10 : 40-41).
To us, these appearances were assurances to those who believed in Him,
that their hope in Him, was not in vain. He wanted to show them that,
in reality, their salvation could only be possible through Him; for He
has now conquered evil.
There is no uniform tradition as regards the place where these
appearances were witnessed. In the gospels we find that these
appearances occurred in Jerusalem and in Galilee. It is quite difficult
to harmonize these variant traditions.
However, it could be argued that these appearances really occurred in
both places. In fact, some theologians have suggested, quite reasonably
I think, that the appearances as shown happening in the gospels; first
at Jerusalem, then in Galilee and finally again at Jerusalem, could
well hint at where the disciples were, first during the feast of the
Passover, secondly between the feast of Passover and that of Pentecost,
and finally during the feast of Pentecost.
The Form of the Appearances
With regards to the character and form of the Easter appearances, the
first thing to be considered is that they may have involved an
extraordinary vision, and not an event that was visible to everyone.
This can be clearly seen from the Damascus event. It was impossible for
St. Paul to be unaccompanied, for the Sanhedrin . would not commission
Paul to imprison the Christians of Damascus without an escort of
soldiers. Thus, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the
account of St. Paul's journey given in the Acts of the Apostles.
However, this does not mean that what was seen was imaginary. This fact
had made some say that there are divergencies in the form of the
appearances, and that while Paul witnessed to a purely spiritual
vision, they are represented as progressively more materialistic as the
gospel tradition develops. However, and this is the most important
thing, all the appearances in the gospels depict the same phenomena as
experienced also by St. Paul, namely that of a body identical with that of Jesus. It was
a changed body for it transcended the limitations of the flesh, yet it
was at the same time capable of sharing itself in the same ways of the
At this point, I would like to remark about the terms 'glorified' and
'spiritual' when referring to the state of Christ's body after the
resurrection. I agree with such terms only so far as they do not imply
any doubt on the physical resurrection, and only as long as they do not
turn Jesus into a ghost.
The Identity of Jesus
Again, the apostles and even St. Paul stress the identity between the
risen Lord and the Jesus whom they knew and remembered. Let us not
forget the famous expression of doubting Thomas, "My Lord and my God".
Is it mere coincidence that the one who most doubted the resurrection
of Christ, should make the boldest affirmation of belief? Would St.
Thomas say, "My Lord and my God", to a mere phantasm? And did he touch
the body of an imaginary ghost? Can we sincerely believe that St. John
is lying, when in chapter twenty of his gospel he describes this
encounter? Let us also remember, that it was these appearances that
transformed the apostles from being cowards (they fled during our
Lord's passion) to courageous believers.
EASTER APPEARANCES ARE NOT TO BE EXPLAINED FROM THE EASTER FAITH OF THE
To maintain first of all that the appearances were produced by the
enthusiastically excited imagination of the apostles, does not hold at
least for St. Paul. Before his conversion, St. Paul was an enemy of
Christ. He did not even recognize Christ as a prophet but as a heretic,
the usurper, still less as God.
The apostles themselves, on the other
hand did not believe that Christ would rise from the dead. Let
us not forget the disciples of Emmaus. They recognized Christ only
after He broke the bread and disappeared. It is true that Christ had
repeatedly announced his resurrection, but the disciples were never
able to grasp its meaning, through no fault of theirs, for they had
never experienced such an event.
WE CAN SAY IS, THAT THE EASTER FAITH OF THE APOSTLES IS TO BE EXPLAINED
FROM THE APPEARANCES.
Again, it has been asserted that Jesus' disciples were prone to visions
and that the manifoldness of the appearances may be explained through a
sort of chain reaction resulting from the first appearance to St. Peter.
Now, first of all they could not have been prone to visions about the
resurrection for they were simply incredulous that Christ would
rise from the dead. Secondly, there could not have been a chain
reaction, for the individual appearances did not follow one another so
quickly and in the same place. For example, St. Paul witnessed the
risen Christ, three years after Jesus' earthly end in Jerusalem, on the
road to Damascus. St. Peter, on the other hand, witnessed Christ in
Jerusalem itself and only a few days after Jesus was buried.
Thus all the evidence points to one end, namely, that Christ really
appeared to his disciples, and that the disciples really saw Christ,
they recognized Him and were positive that it was no illusion. in fact
everything that they built, that is, God's people in a universal
Church, has its foundation in these appearances.
The Empty Tomb
None of the evangelists describe the actual resurrection itself not
even St. Matthew in his long narrative of the passion at the end of the
gospel; because it was not witnessed by anyone. The gospels and St.
Paul witness to the fact of the resurrection, however, by testimony to
the appearances, as I have already shown, AND TO THE EMPTY TOMB. It is not
however correct, to distinguish two forms of this testimony as though
the idea of the empty tomb had been an afterthought; an attempt to
objectivize what had already been originally a subjective experience of
The earliest records that we have do not specifically mention the empty
tomb. Consequently, the empty tomb has been held to be a development of
a false tradition. However, even in the pre-gospel tradition, as far as
it can be seen from the Pauline letters and the Acts of the Apostles,
the empty tomb is certainly implicit.
In 1 Cor. 15:4, we find, "that he was buried, that he was raised on the
third day in accordance with the scriptures."
In Acts 2:31 we find, "he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of
Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see
Again, in Acts 13:29-30 we have, "and when they had fulfilled all that
was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him down
in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead."
Now, all these extracts imply belief in a bodily resurrection. However,
when we turn to the gospels, their evidence on the empty tomb is in
We may point out also that the trustworthiness of the report about the
empty tomb is not shaken by the fact that St. Paul nowhere mentions
specifically the empty tomb. The reason is because the event does not
affect St. Paul's aim in his letters, namely the relation between
Christ and all believers. But it was a different case with the
apostles, and this is the reason why we find the empty tomb quite
clearly mentioned in the gospels. How could Jesus' disciples in
Jerusalem have proclaimed the resurrection if they could be constantly
refuted merely by viewing the grave in which his body was laid? Paul
Althaus, the Protestant theologian remarks, "In Jerusalem the place of
Jesus' execution and grave, it (the resurrection) was proclaimed not
long after his death. The situation demands that within the circle of
the first community one had a reliable testimony for the fact that the
tomb had been found empty. The resurrection kerygma could not have been
maintained in Jerusalem, for a single day, for a single hour, if the
emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all
concerned." [including even the enemies of Christ!]
Some remark that at those times there existed a taboo, against the
opening of graves, and thus the story of the empty tomb is a mere
fable. This, in the opinion of many scholars, does not hold ground for
it is historically proved that at those times the Roman authorities had
felt the necessity to make laws prohibiting the stealing of bodies from
graves. It is also very interesting to note that the Jewish authorities
were sure that the tomb was empty. Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his book,
"Jesus God and Man", remarks that the Jews would have every interest to
preserve a contrary report. "However, quite to the contrary, they
shared the conviction with their Christian opponents that Jesus' grave
was empty. The Jewish polemic limited itself to explaining this fact in
its own way, which was detrimental to the Christian message."
He Was Buried
On the other hand, there is no doubt, that the body of Jesus was placed
in the tomb. Both in the primitive Pauline summary of 1 Cor. 15:4, and
in the Acts preaching in chapter thirteen verse twenty eight; Jesus'
burial is specifically mentioned. Again, against the natural assumption
that under Roman law, the body of Christ, as a condemned criminal would
have been thrown in a lime pit, or let to rot, we have the firm
tradition repeated over and over again in the New Testament that Christ
was buried. They all confirm that Joseph of Arimathea, at the risk of
losing his reputation within the Pharisaic circle, had Christ buried in
a new grave. We do not suppose that the New Testament also incorporates
Divergences in the Narratives
To be fair, we would like to mention that there are differences in
detail in the gospels. It is a well known fact, however, that these
differences have oftentimes been exaggerated. There are variations of
names, in the number of the women who visited the grave and in their
motives. [All of this is easily explainable.] There are various
descriptions of the figure or figures at the tomb and there is also a
divergence about what these figures said and how the women reacted.
[Again, easily explainable.] None of these however, is the kind of
difference that calls in question the authority of the narrative. The
very fact that there is no uniformity in secondary facts tells against
any subsequent fabrication or agreed story.
The basic fact, the resurrection itself, is common in all sacred New
Testament writers. All in all, one can say that the faith in the
resurrection did not depend on the fact that everyone had the same story. Nor should too much be
made of the divergences. The resurrection is the most unique event in
the gospels. Now, confusion in details is rather to be expected
especially if your source is tradition, as in this case.
Unanimous Basic Narrative
If we leave the details of description aside, the basic witness is
extraordinarily unanimous. It is that Jesus, through the aid offered by
Joseph of Arimathea, was first wrapped in linen and then given a
hurried burial in a new rock tomb in Jerusalem. This tomb was then
sealed by a large stone. Then, after the rest imposed by the Sabbath,
some women came to the tomb in order to anoint Christ's body. But they
found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.
This turn of events was quite unexpected. To say that the empty tomb
was the product of wishful thinking is to ignore the fact that it was
the last thing that the women or the disciples could have wished. When
they found the tomb empty, their sole desire was to recover the body.
In the gospel of St. John chapter twenty verse fifteen, we find Mary
Magdalen saying, "Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you
have put him, and I will go and remove him."
There are also some who suggest that the apostles stole the body. This
could not have been the case for the simple reason that the apostles
were cowards. When Jesus was confronted by the soldiers in the garden
of Gethsemane, they all fled. They barricaded themselves in the "upper
room", and did not venture out till Christ appeared to them. Even
Peter, their leader, had been so afraid that he denied Jesus three
times. They were simple people who always fled from danger, and it was
only through the special gift of the Holy Spirit that later they had
the courage to face danger and die for Christ.
Again, it is totally unfounded to say that some unidentified robbers
took away Christ's body. The only alternative explanation is that
either the women visited the wrong grave or that Jesus merely swooned
on the cross and subsequently he could escape from the grave. As
regards to the first proposition it is impossible for Mary Magdalen was
present at the burial of Jesus.
Christ Had Died
Here I would like to mention that the gospels stress the fact that
Christ died before he was pierced by a lance; however, I am emphasizing
the centurion episode for a clearer proof that Christ really died. The
second proposition ignores the fact that the centurion pierced Christ's
side with a lance. Thus in reality Christ indeed was dead for no one
could survive the piercing of a lance in his chest after so much
punishment. Moreover, the gospels tell us clearly that the Roman
authorities made sure that Christ was dead before letting Joseph of
Arimathea bury him.
Thus, all the evidence shows that Christ died, was really buried, and
that after three days the tomb was found empty. This, largely supported
the belief that Christ rose from the dead, and this fact was
substantiated by Christ's appearances. While referring to the empty
tomb, N. Clark writes, "The empty tomb stands as the massive sign that
the eschatological deed of God is not outside this world of time and
space or in despair of it, but has laid hold on it, penetrated deep
into it, shattered it, and began its transformation." On the face of
it, it looks the most public and solid piece of evidence.
Our Experience of the Living Christ
I see the proof of the resurrection in the experience of the living
Christ, today. If the appearances had been merely an imagination or an
invention of the apostles, one would expect the idea that Jesus was
alive, to have grown progressively less vivid once they had to face
danger and martyrdom for that belief. Yet, and this is the most
interesting fact, the conviction became more settled once the
appearances had ceased. This was due to the Holy Spirit whom Christ
promised as a protection, in the apostles' mission. St. Paul in
Galatians 2:20 writes, "and I live now not with my own life, but with
the LIFE OF CHRIST WHO LIVES IN ME."
Similarly, it was to the signs of the living Christ, [the miracles,] to
"the work which you see and hear", (Acts 2:33), "to the powers now at
work in his name" (Acts 3:15-16), that the first apostles appealed, as
much as to the events they witnessed, for the testimony to Christ's
The Church and The Resurrection
The very existence of the Church is itself a major proof of the
resurrection. The Church came into being, precisely because the
apostles became filled with unbelievable courage, when they saw the
risen Christ. We have only to remember the words of St. Peter's first
speech to the crowds that occurred immediately after Pentecost. In the
Acts of the Apostles chapter two, verses thirty two to thirty four we
"God raised this man Jesus to life, and all of us are witnesses to
that. Now raised to the heights by God's right hand, he has received
from the Father the Holy Spirit, who was promised, and WHAT YOU SEE AND HEAR IS THE OUTPOURING OF
This is the most evident proof, because the continuing existence of the
Christian Church, which lives by the experience of the resurrection, is
a fact of history that is not open to doubt. No one can deny its
existence, however sceptical one may be of the empty tomb or the
In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we find, (verse 3),
"To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs,
appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of
God." Now all these proofs mentioned by St. Luke, are not there simply
as historical explanations of the apostles' faith, but as the acts of
God to which all subsequent faith must remain in response.
The Role of The Spirit
Yet neither are the historical facts, by themselves, the witness. Let
us not forget the Holy Spirit. Christ himself told the apostles that he
had to die, that he would rise again on the third day and that he had
to go back to the Father. He also promised to the apostles that he
would send his Spirit to them. This happened. From cowards they became
courageous witnesses of Jesus and did not deny him, even when faced with death. Thus
even the Holy Spirit is a worthy witness to the risen Christ, for he
was sent by him as a guide. In Acts 5:32, we find, "We are all
witnesses to all this, we and the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to
those who obey him." Without the Holy
Spirit, the Church could have never come into being, and could have
never repulsed all the dangers and the difficulties that the powers of
evil continuously hurl against her.
This faith and this help by the Spirit led to the very composition of
the gospels. The sacred books are nothing else than the faith of the
early Church in Christ under the guidance of the Spirit. Keeping this
fact in mind, J. A. T. Robinson remarks, "This sign of the Spirit is
the experience of the living Christ, in those who believe in him and in
the church, and the indispensable internal testimony. WITHOUT THIS, JESUS MIGHT HAVE BEEN RAISED
BUT COULD NOT HAVE BEEN PREACHED AS RISEN."
THE MEANING OF THE RESURRECTION
We have just seen that the New Testament provides us with a basis for
our belief in the resurrection. Its
truth has been established. But we may ask, is the resurrection
an event that happened a long time ago, and thus has no meaning for us
today? Is it ONLY important as
the foundation stone of the Christian faith and of the Church? For us,
as Christians, it has still a very important meaning. It is the fact on which our faith depends.
Without Christ present among us as he promised, what value would our
faith have? We believe in the resurrection, because we believe in
Christ. We have just established a
kind of historical proof for the resurrection, but for us the
word of Christ has the greatest value. We cannot forget Christ's words
to St. Thomas, "You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who
have not seen and yet believe."
Thus because we believe in the risen
Christ, we, each one of us can say with St. Paul, that, "it is
not I who lives, but that Christ lives within me." Our faith compels us
to realize that we are not believing in a phantasm or in a ghost, but
in Christ risen from the dead. Only in this truth can our faith make
sense. If it were only based on an imaginary being, then it is right if
others call us superstitious. But the resurrection makes us hope and
trust in Christ.
The Resurrection and The Eucharist
Again, the resurrection gives a real meaning to the Eucharist. At
the most solemn moment of the Mass, the Consecration, we know that
because of the resurrection, we have Christ present, and not simply a
memory. Because Christ is alive today, we know that Communion is not
just a remembrance, but that we are really partaking of the Body and
Blood of Christ.
How can we believe in Holy Communion, if we do not accept the fact that
Christ is risen? Christ himself said, "Take you and eat it for
this is my Body." These words really make sense to us because we know
that Christ is not to be found among the dead. He is alive, he is at
the right hand of the Father, and thus in a mysterious manner, He makes
us share in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
The same thing can be said about prayer. We pray because we believe in
a personal contact with God. This can only be possible because Christ
is still alive, and thus we can communicate with him and vice versa.
What comfort could we find if we only pray to an idea, to a mere
phantasm, or to an object that we ourselves created because we were
forced to believe in Christ's resurrection without any proof.
The Individual and The Risen Christ
As an individual, my Christian commitment, makes sense only because
Christ is still present in the heart of all those who seek to do his
will. Christ said, "Follow me", and I followed. Where am I to follow
him; to a grave and to a heap of bones in Jerusalem? Not at all; I am
going to follow him because he said to me, "Lo, I am with you even to
the end of the world." This is Christ's promise to us. This is why I
have hope in Christ, and because I have hope in him; because I believe
that he is always with me in body and soul; then I am very willing to
commit myself to him. Ernst Bloch says that hope generates commitment.
This is the case in my own life.
I believe in the resurrection; this belief generates a hope in Christ
that I will rise with him at the end of time; and this hope makes me
follow a commitment. Christ promised those who follow him a place with
him in the Kingdom of his Father. Christ cannot lie, and his promise
cannot be fulfilled if he is dead. It will be fulfilled because he is
alive now. That is why for me the resurrection means salvation and that
one day I too will rise from the dead.
A Basic Fact
Thus for us as Catholic Christians the resurrection is the basis for
everything, for our life, for our beliefs and hopes. The resurrection
inaugurated a new and better way of relationship between God and man.
Now Christ has done his part. He has shown to us the true way, he even
died for us to prove his love for us, and in order that we might yet
still know for certain that he is God, he rose from the dead.
Still living in the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ
is inviting every one of us to come to a closer relationship to him.
The only thing that remains is for man to make his response. God has
proved himself too much and too often. Now it is our turn to prove
ourselves by striving to do the will of the resurrected Lord.
BERNARD O'CONNOR, Diocesan Censor.
J. R. KNOX,
Archbishop of Melbourne