Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The resurrection: fact or fable?

Dear Leslie, 

My agnostic son is skeptical about Jesus rising from the dead and rising into heaven, because he said the only witnesses were the disciples. "Taking it on faith" is an answer that doesn't work for him. Any words of wisdom?


Dear Kate,

Thank you so much for your question. I would like to take a moment first to affirm your son for still caring enough to even consider such matters – unfortunately, the secular humanism that marks our times has led many young (and not-so-young) adults to dismiss matters of faith altogether. (However, skepticism about the reality of the resurrection is far from new, as will be addressed below). At least by being skeptical, your son shows that on some level, he still cares and is still searching for truth. In my experience and observation, people who sincerely seek the good, the true, and the beautiful will certainly find the God whose attributes these are, and who leads us step by step to the fullness of truth.

To address questions about Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven, I would first direct you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Growing up, I had so many questions about the faith that it seemed like no one could really answer to my satisfaction, so when I was finally introduced to the CCC, I felt like it had been written just for me! Really, it is addressed to all of us – lay people, priests, religious, and all men and women of good will who want to know why the Catholic Church teaches what it teaches on almost every subject. So let’s turn to the Catechism now to see what the Church says about Jesus’ resurrection:

I would really recommend reading the entire passage, but I’ll highlight a few key points here:
1.       The Resurrection of Jesus is both a historical and a transcendent event – in other words, it is both a historical reality and a matter of divine revelation and faith. It’s not just one or the other; it’s both.

2.       The empty tomb and the appearances of the risen one attest to the reality of the resurrection. The empty tomb “in itself it is not a direct proof of Resurrection; the absence of Christ's body from the tomb could be explained otherwise.494 Nonetheless the empty tomb was still an essential sign for all. Its discovery by the disciples was the first step toward recognizing the very fact of the Resurrection” (CCC 640).

And the appearances of the risen one do attest to the historicity of the event:

643 Given all these testimonies, Christ's Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as an historical fact. It is clear from the facts that the disciples' faith was drastically put to the test by their master's Passion and death on the cross, which he had foretold.503 The shock provoked by the Passion was so great that at least some of the disciples did not at once believe in the news of the Resurrection. Far from showing us a community seized by a mystical exaltation, the Gospels present us with disciples demoralized ("looking sad"504) and frightened. For they had not believed the holy women returning from the tomb and had regarded their words as an "idle tale".505 When Jesus reveals himself to the Eleven on Easter evening, "he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen."506

You see, Kate, your son is not the only one who was a little skeptical about the reality of the resurrection.

644 Even when faced with the reality of the risen Jesus the disciples are still doubtful, so impossible did the thing seem: they thought they were seeing a ghost. "In their joy they were still disbelieving and still wondering."507 Thomas will also experience the test of doubt and St. Matthew relates that during the risen Lord's last appearance in Galilee "some doubted."508 Therefore the hypothesis that the Resurrection was produced by the apostles' faith (or credulity) will not hold up. On the contrary their faith in the Resurrection was born, under the action of divine grace, from their direct experience of the reality of the risen Jesus.

The other question that comes up when we consider the matter of the resurrection, or any other matter concerning Jesus performing miracles or doing other supernatural acts, is this: Who do we say Jesus is? C.S. Lewis posed the question in the form of a now-famous trilemma: is Jesus a liar, a lunatic, or Lord? In other words, when Jesus was on earth throwing out such claims as being the Son of God and the fulfillment of all of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, a person would have to conclude that he was lying, crazy, or telling the truth – and thus is, indeed, Lord. This whole idea of liking Jesus’ example without believing in his divinity because  he seemed to be a nice guy with some good, peace-loving hippy ideas is pretty much thrown out the window with this type of reasoning.

May I also recommend to you two of my favorite encyclical letters of soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul II? Perhaps you and/or your son will get something out of them – I know I did.

The first is Fides et Ratio (On the Relationship between Faith and Reason):

And the second is Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth):

Lastly, do not forget the power of prayer, as evidenced through the example of St. Monica, that faithful wife and mother whose persevering prayers and example of faith brought about the near-death conversion of her husband and a St. Paul-like conversion in her wayward son, Augustine (who later became a great bishop and doctor of the Church):

I hope this has been helpful, Kate. Be assured of my prayers for you, your son, and your whole family.

Peace and all good,


  1. Thanks so much for your thorough answer and the reference to articles. I felt comforted in that my son is no different than the disciples who were disbelieving themselves. My son is a Doubting Thomas and hopefully will have his own conversion one day. God bless you on your blog.

  2. I think you're terrific, Leslie! I'm your first official follower, too...woohoo!

  3. Thought provoking and thoughtful throughout.