Sense and Nonsense: Resurrection

In Acts 10, Peter tells Cornelius that “they killed Him [Christ] by hanging Him to a tree; yet three days afterward 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.” On reading this passage, the obvious question is, how come? Why not reveal Him to everyone? It doesn’t seem democratic. On witnessing the event, wouldn’t anyone immediately believe? Isn’t this what God wanted? Did God make a tactical mistake of strategy?

We are not to doubt the wisdom of divine providence. But we can and ought to ask questions about what we are told. Scripture, among other things, is designed to make us think. Every element of the previous passage from Acts, of course, bears scrutiny—Why the killing? Why the Cross? Why the resurrection? Why three days? Why the being seen? Why by “certain” witness? Why chosen? Why beforehand? Surely, God could have chosen a less complicated, more effective way of presenting Himself to mankind.

If we think long enough about the resurrection, we begin to see its logic. The principal objection to the truth of the resurrection is that it is precisely what we would want, if we could have it. The objection is not, therefore, that it is not a good idea, but that it is impossible even for God to realize. Looking back on the event, Christians rejoice in the logic that what they are, body and soul, will continue. They are neither pure spirits nor simply temporal.

The apostles’ initial reaction to the resurrection was surprise and skepticism. But through the testimony of a few men from that time, we can affirm that, while we cannot figure out how it happened, it did happen. It happened when the Man who hung on the Cross was, after three days, raised to life by God. The apostles give few explanations; rather, they tell us what they saw.

St. Paul affirms that without this event, our faith is in vain. How blunt this statement is! The resurrection is not believable to most unthinking people; it is hard even if we have thought about it. Again, what is curious about it, what gives even the greatest doubter or skeptic pause, is its curious conformity to what we might want if we could have it. People do not reject the resurrection because they have come up with something better; that would be impossible. The scientists who propose that we freeze ourselves so that in a century we can be thawed, repaired, and set loose on the world are suggesting what would, in effect, be an imitation resurrection—a monster. The ideas of reincarnation or eternal return are hardly better. If we keep coming back as turtles or philosophers, it simply means that we are not really ourselves, or that everyone is, eventually, us. The genius of the resurrection is that what remains, finally, is precisely us. We are indeed created to be, and remain, ourselves.

Someone told me recently that if you see a family with a deformed or retarded child, you can assume that the family is either Catholic, Mormon, or Pentecostal; otherwise, the child would have been aborted. Sadly, this overlooks the truth that all children, including those aborted, are created, from conception, for resurrection. The aborted children, we can say, will meet their killers—if their killers manage to repent and receive the grace of salvation. What is behind such abortions is the “desire,” fostered by pseudoscience, to produce only the “perfect” child. We even talk of “ordering” your own child according to specifications from a genetic lab. The efforts to improve human begetting would be laughable, were they not so lethal. The point is that all of this effort to produce perfect children, and only to let those live who have “useful” lives, is a parody on the resurrection of the body. From its beginning, this truth proposed that we shall indeed exist in the perfection in which we were conceived by the Godhead, in the word made flesh in us.

In the end, God only chose a few witnesses to the resurrection of Christ. What He had to say to everyone—to the democracy, as it were—was that each human being will be resurrected, but we can still choose not to believe in the resurrection. We must choose to save our souls so that our resurrection is to life and not to punishment for our deeds. We can reject what we are meant to be, even in our resurrection. God will resurrect each of us, but we still must choose Him. This even He cannot change.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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