The Resurrection: A Historical Event and an Affirmation of Faith

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 25 January 1989, the Holy Father discounts attempts to explain away the literal, physical resurrection of Christ, the focus of preaching in the early Church.

Today we reflect on the crowning truth of our faith in Jesus Christ. It is a truth documented by the New Testament, and was a matter of supreme importance in the faith and life of the first Christian communities. It was transmitted by tradition as a fundamental element of the faith. It was never neglected by true Christians, and today it is examined in depth, studied and preached as an essential part of the paschal mystery, together with the cross. It is, in short, the truth of Christ's resurrection. The Apostle's Creed tells us: "The third day he rose again from the dead." The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed adds: "On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures."

It is a dogma of the Christian faith, based upon a fact that historically took place and was verified. We shall seek to investigate "with minds bowed down," the mystery expressed by the dogma and contained in the fact, by beginning with an examination of the biblical texts which attest it.

The oldest written testimony to Christ's resurrection is in the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (about Easter, AD 57). Paul writes: "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" (1 Cor 15:3-8).

As is obvious, the Apostle speaks here of the living tradition of the resurrection, which had come to his knowledge after his conversion on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:3-18). When he went to Jerusalem he met the Apostle Peter and also James, as Paul states in the Letter to the Galatians (1:18 f.). Now he mentions them as the two principal witnesses of the risen Christ.

In the text cited, St. Paul not only speaks of the resurrection as having taken place on the third day "in accordance with the Scriptures" (a biblical reference which already touches the theological dimension of the fact), but at the same time he has recourse to eye-witnesses, to those to whom Christ appeared personally. It is a sign, among others, that the faith of the first community of believers, expressed by Paul in the Letter to the Corinthians, was based on the testimony of specific individuals, known to the Christians, and most of them still living in their midst. These "witnesses to Christ's resurrection" (cf. Acts 1:22) are first of all the twelve apostles, but not only those. Paul speaks even of more than five hundred persons to whom Jesus appeared at one time, besides appearing to Peter, James, and all the apostles.

In the face of this Pauline text, those hypotheses are untenable which seek in different ways to interpret Christ's resurrection by abstracting it from the physical order in such a way as not to recognize it as a historical fact. Such, for example, is the hypothesis that the resurrection was merely a kind of interpretation of Christ's state after his death (a state of life, and not of death). Again, another interpretation reduces the resurrection to the influence which Christ, after his death, did not cease to exercise on his disciples and indeed resumed with new and irresistible power. These hypotheses seem to imply a prejudicial opposition to the reality of the resurrection, which was considered solely as the "product" of the situation, that is to say, of the Jerusalem community. Neither the interpretation nor the prejudice is supported by the facts. St. Paul, on the contrary, in the text quoted has recourse to eyewitnesses of the fact. His conviction about Christ's resurrection is therefore based on a fact of experience. It is linked to that argument from the facts which was chosen and followed by the apostles precisely in that first community of Jerusalem. The apostles chose Matthias, one of Jesus' most constant disciples, to make up the number of the "Twelve" which had remained incomplete because of the betrayal and death of Judas Iscariot. They required as a condition that the candidate to be chosen should not only have accompanied them during the time of Jesus' teaching and activity, but above all, that he should be a "witness to his resurrection" through the experience of the events during the days preceding the moment when Christ—as they say—"was taken up from us" (Acts 1:22).

The resurrection cannot therefore be presented as a "product" of the first Christian community, that of Jerusalem, as is done by a certain brand of New Testament criticism which has scant respect for historical data. The truth about the resurrection is not a product of the faith of the apostles or of the other disciples before or after the Pasch. Rather, the texts show that the "prepaschal" faith of Christ's followers was subjected to the extreme test of their Master's passion and death on the cross. He himself had foretold this test, especially in his words to Simon Peter on the threshold of the tragic events of Jerusalem: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail" (Lk 22:31-32). The shock occasioned by Christ's passion and death was so great that the disciples (at least some of them) did not initially believe the news of his resurrection. The proof of that is found in each Gospel. In particular Luke informs us that when the women "on returning from the tomb, told all this (about the empty tomb) to the eleven and to all the rest...these words seemed to them an idle tale; and they did not believe them" (Lk 24:9-11).

After all, the hypothesis that the resurrection is a "product" of the apostles' faith is refuted by what happened when the risen Christ stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace to you!" In fact, "they supposed that they saw a spirit." On that occasion Jesus himself had to overcome their doubts and fear and convince them that "it was really he." "Touch me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have." Since they were "still incredulous and were amazed," Jesus asked them to give him something to eat and "he ate it in front of them" (cf. Lk 24:36-43).

Moreover, the episode of Thomas is well known. He was not with the other apostles when Jesus came to them the first time, entering the upper room through the closed doors (cf. Jn 20:19). When the other disciples told Thomas, "We have seen the Lord," he was amazed and incredulous and replied, "Unless I see in his hand the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." After eight days Jesus came again to the upper room, to satisfy the demand of "doubting" Thomas and said to him, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not be faithless, but believing." When Thomas professed his faith with the words, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn 20:24-29).

The exhortation to believe without demanding to see what is hidden in the mystery of God and of Christ is always valid. However, Thomas's difficulty in admitting the resurrection without having personally experienced the presence of the living Jesus, and then his yielding in the presence of the proofs offered to him by Jesus himself, confirm the evidence of the Gospels concerning the reluctance of the apostles and disciples to admit the resurrection. The hypothesis that the resurrection is a "product" of the faith (or of the credulity) of the apostles is therefore illogical. On the contrary, their faith in the resurrection comes—under the action of divine grace—from the direct experience of the reality of the risen Christ.

It is Jesus himself who, after the resurrection, got in contact with the disciples in order to give them a sense of the reality and to dispel the opinion (or fear) that it was a question of a "ghost" and that they were therefore victims of an illusion. Jesus established direct relations with them, precisely through touch. Thus it was in the case of Thomas, which we have just mentioned, and also in the meeting described in Luke's Gospel, when Jesus said to the startled disciples: "Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have" (24:39). He invited them to verify that the risen body in which he came to them was the very same that was tortured and crucified. At the same time, however, that body possessed new properties. It had "become spiritual" and "glorified," and therefore no longer subject to the usual limitations of material beings and of a human body. Jesus entered the upper room despite the fact that the doors were shut; he appeared and disappeared, etc. At the same time, however, that body was authentic and real. The proof of Christ's resurrection is in his material identity.

The meeting on the road to Emmaus, recorded in Luke's Gospel, is an event which shows in a particularly evident way that the conviction about the resurrection matured in the disciples' awareness precisely through contact with the risen Christ (cf. Lk 24:15-21). At the beginning of the journey, those two followers of Jesus were "sad and downcast" by the memory of what had happened to their Master on the day of the crucifixion. They did not conceal their disappointment on seeing the collapse of their hope in him as the liberating Messiah. ("We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.") Yet they later experienced a total transformation when it became clear to them that the stranger with whom they had been speaking was the very same Christ as before, and they realized that he was therefore risen. From the whole narrative it is clear that the certainty of Jesus' resurrection had made them, as it were, new men. Not only had they reacquired faith in Christ, but they were also ready to bear witness to the truth about his resurrection.

All these converging elements of the Gospel text prove the fact of the resurrection which was the foundation of the apostles' faith, and of the witness which, as we shall see in the coming reflections, was at the center of their preaching.