The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. Acts of the Apostles 3.13-15
When St. Peter uttered the above words, he was not discussing a myth, but a historical event, parts of which he witnessed. This event, the Resurrection, was at the core of his and the nascent Church’s testimony. Therefore, the Church’s first philosophical opponents focused on the absurdity of the idea that one could rise from the dead. To reject the Church, they rejected her most important teaching.
Too much discussion about the Church today seems to completely forget that the Church claims herself to be founded by a historical figure who actually performed certain deeds. If the event of the Resurrection had not occurred, the Church would not have come into being. We forget just how concrete this history is, and some commentators do not always fully comprehend that this is how the Church understands herself when they criticize her. Their arguments fail to address the fact that the Church does not have some abstract theory as a foundation, instead addressing issues of secondary importance.
The Early Church Preached the Resurrection
In The Resurrection of the Son of God, Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N. T. Wright says that “early Christianity was, to the core, a ‘resurrection’ movement, with this standing at the centre, not the periphery of its vision.” A brief perusal of the New Testament leads inevitably to this view. To give only a few examples from the Acts of the Apostles, on Pentecost, the climax of Peter’s address is to announce that Jesus rose from the dead. Shortly thereafter, they preach again in Solomon’s Portico that Jesus was killed but then raised. The Jewish authorities question the Apostles because they announced Christ’s resurrection, and the Apostles repeat this message to the high priest. The core of the Apostles’ preaching in Acts is the Resurrection. Even when they are not recounting that specific story, they are announcing Christ’s triumph, which needs the events of Easter Sunday in order to make sense, considering that He was executed as a common criminal, apparently defeated.
Similarly, St. Paul takes the Resurrection for granted. For example, he identifies himself as being sent by Jesus who was raised from the dead. He describes what the resurrected body will be, and how being baptized into Christ’s death allows us to rise with Him. Furthermore, one should note that his epistles are some of the earliest Christian documents we still possess, being written only a couple decades after the Resurrection occurred. It is this event that was the immediate concern of Christians.
It is essential to note that in Acts and in the Epistles, the Apostles refer primarily to the Resurrection, and not the teachings of Jesus. They do not focus on, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. They do not tell people to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, or how to pray the Our Father. They do not recite the Beatitudes. They do sometimes describe the way a Christian should live, but it is rarely by explicitly citing the words of Jesus. This should give pause to those who say they, personally, happen to like most of what Jesus said, but think that He got misinterpreted a lot. The event of Easter has been the priority from the very beginning of the Church.
Furthermore, the Resurrection was understood to be a physical event, not a metaphor for some sort of afterlife or exaltation that was distorted. The Gospels emphasize, by His eating fish and Thomas putting his hand in His wounds, that Jesus was bodily raised. The Gospel of Matthew explains that Roman soldiers claimed that the Apostles stole the body in order to explain away the empty tomb, but why did anybody have to explain why the tomb was empty in the first place? Because, for whatever reason, it literally was.
Wright argues that the Resurrection best explains the emergence of the early Church. To give a brief summary of only a small part of a vast tome, he notes that although a general resurrection at the end of time was one of many concerns for Judaism, it was the “major concern” of early Christianity. Moreover, the multiplicity of Jewish ideas about just what resurrection entailed were crystallized very quickly into one Christian understanding that was, if not universally accepted, more than a little bit predominant. He also highlights that the idea of the resurrection is no longer something that will only happen at the end of time to all, but has been split in two: it has happened to one person within history, and will happen again at the end of history. Furthermore, the “necessary question” to ask is why anybody would consider Jesus to be the Messiah if He had been defeated by Israel’s enemies?
If the Resurrection actually occurred, it makes sense that Jewish conceptions of resurrection would be transformed and unified, as they now knew what it entailed. It would be the case that Jesus was not actually defeated, but vindicated by God as the Messiah. While this does not empirically prove the historicity of the Resurrection, it emphasizes how important it is to understand that Catholics believe in its historicity, and that the existence of the Church follows from that belief.
Now that we have established how the Resurrection has always been at the core of the Church’s belief, and that the Resurrection must be understood as occurring as a historical event if one is to understand the Catholic faith, we can take a look at how certain arguments against the Church fail to hit the mark.
Firstly, one frequently hears people talk as if they believe religion to be a primitive form of science that has been made obsolete by new empirical studies of the world. Long ago, people did not know how to explain how they came to exist, so they gave the credit to something they named “God.” However, now that we have the scientific method, we will be able to solve all of these mysteries.
Or maybe neurologists can trace the “religious experience” to certain areas of the brain that are active when a person prays. Religion is just a neurological event, you see.
Some say, for instance, that religion’s value lies in its power to give some people a sense of purpose to their lives and build community, and that even if it is untrue, it is socially useful because it provides a moral code. (Others say that religion is unworthy of anyone’s allegiance because of the violence committed in its name.)
The problem is that these takes on religion and others like them completely ignore that Christianity responds to historical events, as if it was developed in a vacuum. As the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies,
Religion in the abstract does not actually exist, and almost no one (apart from politicians) would profess any allegiance to it … Christians, for instance, are not, properly speaking, believers in religion; rather, they believe that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his church as its Lord. This is a claim at once historical and spiritual.
In discussing a religion, we must not fail to understand what events might prompt people to build, for example, a community and moral code, and whether these events continue to have any significance. As Pope Benedict XVI says in his encyclical Deus caritas est (God is Love), “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The first Christians experienced an event, the Resurrection, that transformed their own lives and the world itself. This is from where their faith came, not social utility, or an attempt to develop a primitive “science.” This is the central claim that the Church’s critics must address, not irrelevant genealogies of faith.
Now, even if one accepts that the Resurrection occurred, there are still further questions to be addressed. The various schisms and heresies that have sown division in the Church are proof enough of that. One might argue that even if the Resurrection is true, it does not means that the Catholic vision of reality is similarly true, so its implications need to be further fleshed out. However, for my present purposes, one cannot reject Christianity honestly without addressing the historicity and significance of the Resurrection. Explain why the early Church’s testimony was false, or why the Resurrection is of no significance to our lives, but do not ignore it.
The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil is actually a good argument against the existence of God, unlike those above. However, I feel that it is frequently used against Christianity in a way that fails to understand why Christianity came to be in the first place. The problem, as it is frequently phrased, is why a perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God would allow evil to occur.
This phrasing of the argument works best, I believe, against a type of Deism that imagines a god to have merely created the world and then stepped away from it. Christianity, however, is founded on belief in the Resurrection, which is a response to this problem. God did not stay apart from His suffering people, but instead responded to evil. He suffered with us and broke the bonds of death, showing us that death will have no dominion over Him (and us), and that He will wipe away every tear. Because of the Resurrection, we can hope to experience evil no more.
Now, this may not necessarily be the answer we want. We want to know why we still must suffer. I would hesitate to give this answer, especially in its rather terse phrasing above, to one who has just lost a child, as it can seem so radically insufficient. This situation requires a different way of responding.
However, in a more theoretical discussion, I would question whether the atheist who simply cites grotesque evils actually understands the nature of the faith against which he rails. Does he understand that the problem of suffering is not simply an embarrassing question that the Church ignores, and that a response to it is in fact at the crux of her teaching? There are indeed other responses to the problem of evil, but these do not have to be the foundation of our apologetics. Instead of justifying why God allows suffering, which is never satisfying, we take joy in proclaiming its defeat.
Too often we have arguments in which one or both sides fail to comprehend what the other side actually believes. Much of the discourse about the Church does not seem to understand why the Church exists in the first place, and what her core claims are. Therefore, sometimes we need to take a step back until everybody knows just what is at stake: the salvation promised in the historical event of the Resurrection. As Pope St. John Paul II said, remember that we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.
Further Reading: Tsunami and Theodicy: Myanmar by David Bentley Hart