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The Resurrection:
How We Know
It's True

by William H. Shannon

The Resurrection is central to the Christian's faith. Yet what does it mean? How are we to understand Catholic tradition and the evidence handed on to us in Scripture? In this Update we'll examine those questions and discuss how, through the eyes of faith, Christians know that the Resurrection is true.

The Resurrection did not mean that Jesus' mortal life had been prolonged. His life after Resurrection was totally different from the life he had lived for more than three decades among his family, friends and followers. That is the intriguing puzzle that the Resurrection stories make evident to us. Clearly, after the Resurrection, he was the same Jesus they had known and followed: They recognized his voice, they touched him, they shared meals with him. The Gospels very definitely emphasize the physical character of his appearances.

Yet, equally, the Gospels make clear that there was something bewilderingly different about the risen Jesus. He was no longer subject to the limitations that mortality places upon us (and indeed placed on him, too, before his resurrection). Once risen, he could be present to his friends, without their recognizing him. He could enter rooms where the doors were shut. He could appear suddenly and just as suddenly disappear, as he did with the two disciples with whom he broke bread at Emmaus.

In reflecting on the various appearances of Jesus, it is worth our while to ask the question: To whom did the risen Jesus appear? Or to put the question another way: To whom might we expect him to appear?

Certainly he had a wonderful opportunity to dispel all doubts about the truth of his resurrection. Thus, he could have appeared in Pilate's palace, perhaps when Pilate and his wife were having breakfast. That would have set the whole Roman world a-wondering. Pilate's wife could have said to her husband afterwards, "I told you to have nothing to do with this man."


Or Jesus might have suddenly turned up at a meeting of the Sanhedrin and forced them by the pure evidence of his presence to accept the fact that a man whom they knew for certain had died was now, inexplicably but beyond any shadow of a doubt, alive.

Another possibility would have been even more dramatic: He could have had his followers organize a procession, like they had done on Palm Sunday. He could have ridden into Jerusalem, mounted this time not on a lowly donkey, but on a great horse—the kind of horse that today could win the Kentucky Derby—and greet people as he rode triumphantly through the city. Yes, these are the kinds of appearances that would have silenced all doubt.

An even better idea: Why didn't he appear to Tiberius Caesar in Rome? He could have ordered the emperor to proclaim the gospel throughout the empire. This would have meant that the empire would have become Christian some 300 years before the time of Constantine. Think of how much easier things would have been all around, if Jesus had done this. All those bloody martyrdoms would have been spared. Peter would not have had to die upside down on a cross. Paul wouldn't have had to have his head chopped off at the Tre Fontane outside the city of Rome. Ignatius of Antioch and Perpetua and Felicity and Agnes and Cecilia and so many others would not have been thrown to wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum.

Appearances only to those chosen

Writers of textbooks defending the faith would have been spared a great deal of unnecessary labor, if Jesus had only done things in such reasonable and sensible ways. It would have made getting people to accept Jesus and his message a breeze, a pushover. Nonbelievers would be overwhelmed by the evidence. They would be compelled to become believers or be charged with the rankest insincerity.

Yet these are precisely the kinds of things that Jesus did not do. He appeared to no one except those who were disposed to believe. He appeared only to his chosen disciples. There is an intriguing statement in the 10th chapter of Acts of the Apostles that calls for serious reflection, if we are to understand the meaning of the Resurrection and the meaning of accepting the Resurrection.

In Acts 10 Peter goes to Caesarea, to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius, who was interested in hearing more about Jesus. Peter preaches what was clearly the proclamation of the early disciples of Jesus: "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him." Peter then proceeds to clarify, for Cornelius and for us, the important role of the disciples of Jesus. He says: "We are witnesses to all he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:38-41).

There is the real clincher! God allowed him to appear, "not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses and who shared meals with him after he rose from the dead." Evidently God allowed the risen Jesus to be seen only by those who were linked to him by some bond of love and friendship. Those who didn't know him and those who opposed him during his mortal life simply never got to see him as the Risen One.

The discerning power of faith

Now this could mean that the risen Jesus just never got around to see anyone except his close followers. Perhaps getting to others would have required more time and maybe he didn't have that kind of time. But I think there is more than that in this text from Acts: It was not just that these people didn't see him, as if it just happened that their paths and his never managed to cross. It wasn't as if he carefully avoided others and only visited friends. No, it was something deeper: Peter is not simply saying that these people did not see him. He is clearly implying—at least this is what I think—that they could not see him.

Let me make this very concrete. Recall the Easter Sunday night meeting of Jesus with his disciples, when he appeared to them in the upper room. Suppose that a member of the Sanhedrin or an officer in Pilate's court had been able to sneak into the room unobserved. Jesus appears. Would they have seen him? Reflect a moment. What do you think? I think they would not have seen Jesus. That is clearly—to my mind at least—the meaning of Peter's words: He appeared not to all the people, but only to us who had been chosen to be witnesses.

Strangely I was unable to find, in Scripture commentaries, any explanation of these curious words of Peter: that Jesus was not seen by all the people, but only by chosen witnesses. So I went to St. Thomas Aquinas and found, sure enough, he does discuss this matter, in his great work Summa Theologica (III, q. 55, art. 2, ad 1).

Though he does not discuss my theoretical question about a member of the Sanhedrin being in the upper room, he does say that it was only Jesus' disciples who recognized him as risen. And they were able to do so because of "the discerning power of faith." That's my translation of a Latin term that is difficult to translate. They were able to witness to the Resurrection, St. Thomas says, because after his death they saw him alive, "oculata fide." Oculus is the Latin word for "eye." Oculata fide means "faith that has eyes."

Perhaps it is something like the "third eye" spoken of in Eastern religions. Anyway, I have translated it as "the discerning power of faith." The disciples may have lost hope in Jesus after he died, but they never lost their love for him and their faith in him. And it was this love and faith that gave them the discerning eye that enabled them to recognize him, when others could not.

The Resurrection: An experience of faith

The point which I am trying to lead up to is the realization that seeing the risen Jesus was not an experience of empirical data; it was an experience of faith. For the very best that empirical experience might have achieved was an experience of resuscitation, not resurrection. Think of Lazarus in John's Gospel (Jn 11:1-45). He was mortal and he died. He was resuscitated and therefore was living again, but even after his resuscitation he was still mortal. Hence people could see him before and after because in both cases he was mortal. Lazarus was as much a subject of empirical data after his resuscitation as before his death.

The mortal Jesus—the Jesus before his death—could, like the mortal Lazarus, have been experienced as a fact of empirical data; the risen Jesus, however, could only be experienced by faith. For resurrection is not returning from the dead. It is a leap beyond death to an entirely different kind of existence. Such a leap cannot be empirically verified.

St. Thomas Aquinas discusses another interesting question. He asks whether or not Jesus should have lived continually with his disciples after the Resurrection. His answer is no. He says that Jesus should have been with them a sufficient number of times so that they would be sure that it really was he. But he should not have been with them constantly, because, if he had, they might have erroneously concluded that he had come back to the same life he had lived before. There is, you see, always that element of the Resurrection that cannot be explained: Jesus is no longer as he was, he is still who he was. He is the same Jesus (he even carries the wounds of his passion on his body), yet he is inexplicably different.

This means, therefore, that the Resurrection cannot be proved. This is not to deny that it is perfectly reasonable to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Clearly there is good evidence that God did so. And for me the evidence is overwhelming. But it is still something I believe. It is a matter of faith, reasonable faith I am convinced. It makes a great deal of sense for us to share the faith of the first disciples.

But I don't think I can prove the Resurrection to someone who would not be open to such a faith experience. Forty years ago I wrote a book in which I quite confidently said that I could prove the Resurrection to anyone who had an open mind. For saying that and a number of other things in that book, I would be most happy to forget that I ever wrote it.

What happened when Jesus was raised from the dead? It is noteworthy that none of the Gospels attempt to describe the Resurrection. They do describe the crucifixion, for that is something that humans did to Jesus and as such it is a part of human history and therefore capable of being verified empirically. The Resurrection, on the other hand, is something that God did and therefore not a part of human history in the same sense. It is something that truly happened, but it is a trans-historical event, that is, a divine intervention into human history, and therefore an event that the historian as historian can neither prove or nor disprove.

God's actions are not the subject of a historian's study. Historians can study only what humans do, not what God does. They may believe or disbelieve the Resurrection. But when they make that choice, they have moved out of their field of expertise. They have left the discipline of history.

God's intervention

The reality of God's intervention, which we know by faith, is expressed in the words of the angels to the women: "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here" (Mt 28:5-6). These words have echoed down the corridors of history and have changed that history's course. The only words comparable to them are the words of another divine intervention, the words spoken by God in the beginning: "Let us make the man and the woman in our own image and likeness." These words of Genesis spoke of Creation (see Gn 1:26-27).

The angels' words to the women at the grave speak of a New Creation. They speak of an Event that has no past or future, only a present. Every other event that has happened in the human story takes place at a particular time and then is swallowed up in a cavernous past. Things happen and then pass into history. They happen just once, never "once and for all." Even if the effects of an event continue for a long time, the event itself does not. It is lost in history's past.

But this is not true of the Easter event. The Resurrection of Jesus is a "once and for all" event. It is the "Event that Lives Forever." It belongs not to the past, but is an ever-present reality. It is the one event that is contemporary with every age of history. It is not strictly correct to say what the angels said: "Jesus has been raised," if "has been raised" puts the event in the past. It is not that I want to criticize the statement in the Gospel. (Far be it from me to want to be critical of angels!) It is rather that when we use verbs, they have to have tense: They have to be past, present or future. We simply have no words that could adequately express the fact that this Event, which happened at a certain point in history, actually takes Jesus out of history into a new kind of life.

It was indeed a "New Creation," immeasurable by time, because it was not a "coming back" from the dead. It was a going beyond death. It was not a coming back to mortal existence (as was true for Lazarus). It was nothing less than Jesus' entrance into the life of God. The Risen One can never die. He is totally in God who is all life. Jesus entered into an entirely new kind of existence: an immortal existence that robbed the grave of its victim, not temporarily, but forever.

Those four words spoken at a grave by the angels—"he has been raised"—are words that sent a shock through humanity, indeed, a shock through the entire universe. The impossible had happened: Life had been born out of the grave.

A new message was given to humanity. The human story is no longer birth, life, death, corruption. It has become birth, life, death and eternal life. The message of the Resurrection is that the body matters. These beat-up old bodies of ours—with our bad hearts, our poor eyesight and hearing, our arthritic joints and all the other maladies we carry around—these beat-up bodies are going to be transformed. They're going to be glorified. For CHRIST HAS RISEN! CHRIST HAS RISEN!

Easter is not just a happy ending to Jesus' story. It is a radical new beginning for him and for the human race. The grave was no terminal event for him. And because of him, it will never be such for us either. Easter means that what is mortal becomes what is eternal. Eternal life for Jesus and for all of humanity was born in the grave. Easter is the gateway into the new paradise.

Jesus risen from the dead is the new Adam. He is also, in Paul's words, "the first-born of many brothers and sisters" (Rom. 8:29). We are those brothers and sisters. For us, therefore, Easter speaks of the process, already begun in our Baptism, of our entering into eternal life. Easter is indeed the story that lives forever.

We Are the Body of Christ

We are one with the risen Jesus. Paul tells us: "We who are many are one body" (1 Cor. 10:17). Even more explicitly he says: "Now, you are the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12: 27). In the Resurrection Christ's body was remade and it became the icon of the remaking of our humanity.

This intimate union with Christ, whereby we form one body with him, might be expressed in this way: At Christmas God became human, at Easter God became humanity. At Christmas God took a body from Mary; at Easter God took a body from humanity, from us. We need continually to remind ourselves that we are the body of Christ. Perhaps when we give the sign of peace at Mass, we could think to ourselves, when we greet the person next to us: "You are the body of Christ." Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea, on occasion at least, actually to say that to people when we give the sign of peace: "the body of Christ." Or, "you are the body of Christ." We must remember, too, to say it to ourselves: "We are the body of Christ!"

This is our Easter joy: We are all daughters and sons of the Resurrection. He is ever in our midst. We are the body of Christ!


William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, is a free-lance writer. Msgr. Shannon is professor emeritus of history at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York, and founder of the International Thomas Merton Society. His many books include Thomas Merton's Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation and Exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church (both by St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Next: Eucharist—Sign and Source of Christian Unity by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.


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