James Carroll

He is risen; the faith is the proof

By James Carroll
April 25, 2011

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WHAT IF there were surveillance cameras in the time of Jesus? What if they were running in the tomb where his corpse was laid out, in the upper room where he appeared to his disciples after Easter, or at the hilltop from which he later ascended into heaven? If obtained after the fact, what would videotape from those cameras show? The decomposition of the corpse halted, its molecules being reassembled, its chest all at once heaving with breath? In the upper room, a figure coming through the wall? On the hill, Jesus with arms outstretched being slowly launched skyward? If such videotape were to become available, and instead it showed nothing — would Christian faith thereby collapse?

Of course not. Why? Because the resurrection of Jesus is addressed not to a machine but to the eyes of faith. The example, though, demonstrates the modern fallacy — the way a post-Enlightenment religious imagination gets easily sidetracked into questions of “scientific’’ or “historical’’ proof. What “actually’’ happened on Easter and in the days after? Were the laws of nature upended by a “miracle’’ or not?

The credulous seize on phenomena like the Shroud of Turin, the cloth remembered as having wrapped the lifeless body of Jesus. A medieval relic, it is said to offer a reproducible image of Jesus at the moment of quickening, with so-called computer scientists lately getting into that act. The skeptical, on the other hand, are always on the lookout for reports that some archeological find (a grave, say, preferably littered with ancient bones) will establish that the tomb of Jesus was not empty — as if DNA is to the point, as if the tomb’s emptiness was decisive. Perennially lost in such argument is the simple truth that the resurrection was not resuscitation.

What then? The angel in the Gospel of Mark (16:6) is remembered as saying simply, “He is risen.’’ Mark was composed in about 70 AD. Here is the earliest written assertion, from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (15:3-8), dating to about 55 AD (recall that Jesus died in about 30 AD): “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 [Peter] and secondly to the Twelve. 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.’’ This clear, written statement probably repeats much earlier oral accounts of an experience had — not by Jesus, but by followers of Jesus.

But if a camera’s recording is irrelevant to such appearances, what do they refer to? It trivializes what Paul means when he says “appeared’’ to reduce it to mere apparitions. There are apparitions in Virgil’s “Aeneid,’’ and in all kinds of ancient narratives. Revived cadavers are irrelevant. No, Paul is declaring that believers were enabled all at once to grasp that the abandoned Jesus was ultimately exalted by the one he called Father. That is what believers saw. Paul does not say how it happened.

The death of Jesus was not the end of the story. Indeed, with the death of Jesus, the human story is transformed, with death perceived now as entry into the ultimate reality — who is called God. Human destiny, therefore, is not nothingness, but meaning. As God creates ex nihilo in the beginning, so God creates at the end. Alpha and Omega. Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was not a suspension of the laws of nature, but a fulfillment of them — a personal event without being physiological, a real happening without being “historical.’’ Christian faith is not in “after life,’’ but in eternal life, which is beyond categories of time. “Life,’’ as Jesus himself said, “life to the full.’’ To be fully alive is to be aware of being held here and now in what does not die, and in what does not drop what it holds. God. Resurrection is the word Christians have for this awareness. And why should it not have ignited the ancient world?

James Carroll’s columns appear regularly in the Globe.