Was the Resurrection Real?
As we celebrate Easter, we should also be reminded of, and confronted by, St. Paul’s stark claim in First Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Three verses later, Paul re-emphasized it: “And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins.”
Thus, if we believe that Paul was an inerrant explicator of the Christian faith, we must accept that the Resurrection is not just important for Christianity but essential for it. Without it, Paul argues, none of the rest of Jesus’ story matters in any ultimate sense – not Jesus’ teachings, not the Beatitudes, not the two Great Commandments, not His miracles… nothing. All those things might be instructive, might be valuable, might be praiseworthy – but they aren’t worth worshipping, and (most importantly to Paul) aren’t the means towards salvation.
On the other hand, I know this is a stumbling block for many who are tentatively struggling to embrace Christianity, but who are skeptical of the more miraculous of its claims. Many people raised in secular cultures find themselves nonetheless drawn to the Beatitudes, to the idea of service to others, to the Great Commandments, and to a mystical-spiritual union with The Holy. But the more “supernatural” are the events described, the less these people believe them, and the more they fight against making the final commitment to the faith.
I’ve heard plenty of people theorize that the Resurrection was either a story concocted by the Disciples in order to keep Jesus’ important teachings alive, or, more often, that it was a somewhat metaphorical way for the Disciples to explain their feeling that Jesus “remained with them” even after his death.
To which Paul, if he were still alive, would answer: “Rubbish. If Jesus were not resurrected, then neither will any of us lesser mortals be, and our hope for salvation and eternal life is gone.”
As all four Gospels emphasize the empty tomb (although what most scholars consider the original version of Mark stopped there rather than describing Jesus’ actual re-appearance), Paul certainly can justify his claim not just theologically but historically: This is what all the apostles agree was what really occurred; this escape from the dead was what renewed their own faith after the Crucifixion crushed their earthly hopes.
Furthermore, Paul met many of the original Eleven and was able to judge their sincerity and faith in person. He saw, firsthand, the evidence of lives transformed by an experience they shared that to those not there was almost unfathomable.
Speaking of which, those lives themselves were a testament to something extraordinary. It is hardly original to say, but still important to repeat to the skeptics who have yet to fully puzzle this all out, the following: If those Disciples were merely speaking metaphorically about some sort of gauzy, feel-good, “we-sensed-his-presence” sort of experience, they would not have been likely to devote the rest of their lives, at considerable danger to their very lives, to the cause of proclaiming that their teacher actually was God Incarnate.