The Historical Reality of the Resurrection

There is an important difference between religious respect and religious relativism. The former demands a charitable attitude that acknowledges the movement of God in every human heart; the latter shrugs its shoulders and says that every religion is really the same. Showing respect gives dignity to the believer; religious relativism is patronizing.

The New Atheist movement, allegedly unbiased because those involved don’t believe in any religion (which is the worst bias off all,) argue other religions should all get along with one another because there’s no way to say that one religion is more valid than another. Essentially, we should see our religious beliefs as our opinion and we should respect other people’s opinions, just like we might differ on tastes in movies and food.

Should people of different faiths find ways to charitably live with each other? Of course. And since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has been a world leader in gathering people of different faiths together and has been one of the strongest  advocates for religious freedom in every continent. But we don’t do that because we think what we believe is just our opinion. We do it because of our love for all humanity, no matter what they believe. We do it because of our faith, not in spite of it.

Though we share many things in common with other beliefs, we also acknowledge important differences. Those differences help us define our faith. And at the heart of Christianity is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

This historical event makes Christianity unique among other world religions. With the exception of Judaism, the many of the doctrines and stories of other faiths have come from private revelations. An angel spoke to Muhammad (Islam.) One also spoke to Joseph Smith (Mormonism.) And though private revelations are a part of our Deposit of Faith, the historical reality of how God revealed Himself to the world is what they are grounded on. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

Those who are Jewish acknowledge that Jesus existed and, though he taught many good things, He was not God—He did not rise from the dead. Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet, but also say He was not God—He did not rise from the dead. There are many core values and beliefs that Christians share with Jews and Muslims, and the Catholic Church teaches that we all pray to the same God, though we have a different understanding of Him. But that’s not to say that one religion is the same as another.

There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. There was an historical event that has to be accounted for. This is more than a parable or a fictitious story. History records that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by Rome and then the body disappeared. His believers claimed to have seen Him risen from the dead, and almost all of those were tortured and killed because of their belief.

Alternatives for the resurrection don’t make sense. Was the body stolen by His followers? Unlikely Rome would let that slide without more crucifixions. Perhaps Jesus didn’t die, just fainted? This is known as the “swoon” theory and is even more unlikely than the “stolen” one. It seems impossible that a man who underwent such torture could wake up, roll away the stone himself, and then… overcome Roman guards?

And what of the martyrdom of His followers, who underwent painful deaths vowing that Christ had risen? If you were lying about something like that, at what point do break? None of them did.

In the wake of the resurrection, Christianity was persecuted by sects of Judaism and Romans. If either of these two groups could have produced the body of Jesus that would have ended the argument. But they didn’t. They couldn’t.

Because there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

No matter how much we might agree with people of other faiths or people of good will, we believe that it is a fact that Jesus Christ, Son of God, rose from the dead. That defines who we are. And it divides us from other beliefs.

Jesus Christ either rose from the dead or He didn’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion that we can “agree to disagree” on. To raise the stakes even higher: it means that Christianity is either right, or it is wrong.

There is a reason why Easter is the highest holy feast of the Church. Everything in human history led to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and everything has followed from it since. It was the moment that made us who we are. This was the moment that revealed the depths of God’s love for us. This was the moment that made salvation possible. Sin and death were conquered. The Church perpetually participates in this moment at every Mass. The Sacraments all flow from this event.

So if we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I think it happened, but maybe it didn’t,” then Christianity is replaced with, “Jesus was a good teacher who taught us to love each other.”

The Jews would agree with this. The Muslims would agree with this. Even the atheists would agree with this. There is a lot of pressure for those who follow Christ make that the “Good News” and to stop focusing on the divisive issue of the resurrection.

But there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

The Good News of Jesus Christ was not just to love each other. It was also about how much God loves us and what He did to save us from our sin. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that through Him we might be saved” (John 3:16-17.) Jesus Christ, second person of the Trinity, Word of God made flesh, came to die for our sins. “For this is proof of God’s love for us: that Christ died for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8.) And as we say at Mass, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory!”

The historical reality of the empty tomb points to another truth: Jesus will come again in glory. And at that time, there will be no “opinions” about God. We will know Him as He is.

For now, however, we only know Him partially. We know Him by what He has revealed. We know Him by what He has done. Some would claim because we don’t fully know Him then we don’t know Him at all—but that is absurd. It would be like suggesting a couple who are engaged don’t know anything about each other because they’re not married yet.

Let us unite in Christian charity with people of other faiths or those who have no faith at all. Let us work together for the common good to build a civilization of love. But let us not forget there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem, and that Christ will come again. Let us not be afraid to tell others this “Good News,” and engage in respectful dialogue about what we believe.

For what we believe isn’t just a matter of faith, it’s a matter of fact. And if it’s not, then it’s not worthy to believe in at all.