If Jesus Christ Had Not Risen From the Dead . . .

Author: Gianni Valente


Gianni Valente

. . . faith would be futile. A lie. The faithful would <all> be idealists deceived. Witnesses to an absence. Ecclesiastics would be motivated <solely> by a thirst for power, that is, in hatred of the happiness of each and every man.

At Easter 1976 the French daily <Le Monde> put the following question to well known and less well known spokesmen for the country's Christian community: "What would happen to your faith if in some place in ancient Palestine an archeologist's pick should unearth the bones of Jesus of Nazareth?" The replies of many ordinary faithful who were asked this question reflected their embarrassment and distress. As did that of Jean Guitton. "If a find of that kind should really come to light, I would set down in my will: 'I have deceived and have deceived myself'," replied the French academic and friend of Paul VI.

In contrast, many priests and professional theologians shrugged off the <Le Monde> question. "It wouldn't distress me at all. My faith does not rely on a tomb either empty or filled," said one leading Catholic priest. Another replied that "the discovery of the skeleton of Jesus would strengthen my faith, which has to be entirely undemonstrable if it is to be such, and it would destroy the myth of the reanimation of a corpse". A respected Protestant theologian added: "It wouldn't prevent me from believing in the resurrection. Indeed such a find would unleash the faith, forcing it no longer to trust in the visible".

All Idealists

Nowadays, 20 years later, this idealistic conception of Christian faith prompted, perhaps, by reading the Gospel and by the search for its spiritual meanings, has become a commonplace even for cardinals in the running for the papacy and for respected biblical scholars who rail against the ordinary faithful for their "itch to see and touch the supernatural". Today idealism has triumphed—among the clergy and the committed laity particularly. The Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce described the situation as one in which "skeptics, incapable of recognizing the truth outside themselves, become idealists, they make it up". This is the literal opposite of the dynamic of Christian faith, which is a surrender to all that is real, to the force of attraction, discovered and acknowledged by the mind, of a present human reality.

Witnesses to an Absence

It might perhaps help the inward purity of an idealistically fabricated faith to find the bones of the allegedly Risen Christ. As the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann said: "If the resurrection were an historical fact, faith would become superfluous. What is decisive is not that Jesus came to life again but that he is <for you> the Risen One. The one who was crucified is alive again if you see him as such with the eyes of faith". This is faith as something invented to fill a gap, an absence. In an interview with <30Giorni> (August 1987) Monsignor Luigi Giussani said: "As Feuerbach puts it, the witnesses of modern Christianity seem to be 'witnesses to an absence'."

Visionary Mystics

In any case, according to that great "de-mystifier" Ernest Renan, the first idealists to mistake their regret for reality were the apostles. After the women visited the sepulchre on that Sunday morning almost 2,000 years ago "the strangest rumors", says Renan, "spread through the Christian community. The cry: 'He is risen!' ran in a flash among the disciples. Love saw to it that the cry was accepted with easy credence everywhere. What had happened? ... Oriental cities are silent after sunset. And the silence was also deep in people's hearts. The slightest sounds accidentally heard were interpreted according to everyone's expectations. Usually expectation creates its object. In those decisive hours a draught, a window that creaked, a casual murmur, settled mankind's beliefs for centuries. And when a breath was heard in the air they believed they heard noises. Some said they had heard the word, <shalom>: greetings, peace ...".

That, according to Renan, is how Christianity was born, in collective self-deception. Listening to bishops and theologians today one is tempted to agree with him. But was that really the way of it? Was it the disciples' love that created the myth of the resurrection? Or was it, instead, a real encounter with Jesus Christ risen in the flesh that gave birth to faith?

"Our own hope had been ..."

What a difference there is between Christians of today and the first disciples. Anything but "inward vision" and "eyes of faith". After the event on Calvary they had gone home and shut themselves in "for fear of the Jews". They were simply waiting for the night to pass so that most of them could get back to their working lives. The memory of those three years spent with that exceptional man would remain as an ache, a regret piercing everything they did. The disgraceful end of the thing, which—unless they denied their own hearts—could not but be true, would from then on take the relish out of every urge, make any enthusiasm impossible. But in the long run they would settle down.

All the Gospel accounts of the Passion of Jesus are strewn with the symptoms of this painful but realistic awareness. The two pilgrims on the road to Emmaus are the image of the general state of mind: "Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free; two whole days have now gone by since it all happened" (Luke 24, 21).

John's Grasp of the Signs

His closest friends, the twelve and the women who had been nearest to Jesus, were uncertain and bewildered when <faced with the first signs> that morning. A resurrection was farthest from their minds. Mary Magdalene returned from the sepulchre and told them that she had encountered him alive "but they did not believe her when they heard her say that he was alive and that she had seen him" (Mark 16, 11).

John, the beloved disciple, was the only one for whom <the sight of the small signs>—the empty sepulchre and the bindings on the ground—was enough to grasp what had happened ("He saw and he believed", John 20, 8).

Others prove to be doubtful even before the reality of Him who appears: "When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated" (Matthew 28, 17).

An Unexpected Event

They could hardly have acted any differently given that the resurrection of Him whom they had met and acknowledged as the Messiah was the last thing that the Jews might expect or conceive. "Scandal for the Jews, folly for the pagans."

As Karl Schubert, the Viennese Catholic and great historian of the Jews, was to write: "The last thing that a Jew expected of the Messiah was that he should suffer, die and then come to life again. The last thing they expected in Messianic times was a cross and an empty tomb in the middle of history". For all pious Jews, children of Israel's long awaiting, including those who followed Jesus, the glorious advent of the Messiah was expected in the last, eschatological days, and death—but even less so the resurrection of the person—were not heralded for him. The resurrection of the body was to be a collective event, all the dead would rise to undergo a last judgment. As Joachim Jeremias, the well known German Protestant exegete and Bultmann opponent stressed: "The early Christian annunciation of the resurrection of Jesus, with a time interval separating it from the universal resurrection of all the dead, represents an absolute novelty for Judaism. Indeed, not only for Judaism but for the entire history of religions .

Sure Signs

It was not expectation that created faith, nor did an absence give rise to the <idea> of the Risen Christ. If one keeps to the facts, to the signs, one sees that there is a sole reasonable explanation for the unprecedented, unexpected, unforeseeable message made by that small group of Jews who were at first stunned, frightened and then resigned. For such an effect there has to be an adequate cause.

Something unforeseen and unforeseeable happened after the failure of Calvary. Just when everything was over, when every energy was paralyzed, an unimagined and unimaginable event happened independently of the will of the disciples, something recognized and verified by them.

In his <De civitate Dei> (22, 6, 1), Saint Augustine stresses that the dynamic of Christian faith is exactly the opposite of the dynamic of religious sentiment: "Illa ilium amando esse deum credidit; ista istrum Deum esse credendo amavit" (Rome, because she loved Romulus, believed him a god; but the Church, because she recognized Jesus Christ to be God, loved him). It was not the love of men the inevitable idealization of an absence -that made Jesus of Nazareth God. It was the recognition of Him as truly alive, <through sure signs> (miracles, the fulfilment of prophecies, the evidence of his presence that their senses sensed), that stirred the love of his disciples anew.

In the Face of Persecution by the World

In the same way today love for Jesus Christ is gratuitously stirred without idealizing—Churchmen call it culture—the desert and emptiness that is advancing in the Church. "There is a great upheaval at this time in the world and in the Church, and what is at stake is faith. I find myself repeating that obscure phrase of Jesus' in the Gospel of Saint Luke: 'When the Son of Man returns will he still find faith on earth?' I read at times the Gospel of the end of the world and realize that some of the signs of the end are emerging now. Are we close to the end? We shall never know. We must be ever ready. But everything may yet last for a long time." (Pope Paul VI to Jean Guitton, September 8, 1977). Saint Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch martyred in Rome at about the year 110, wrote: "Now that Our Lord Jesus Christ has returned to the Father <he manifests himself more>. Faced with persecution by the world, Christianity does not rely on the words of human wisdom but on the strength of God".

This article was taken from the No. 5, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.