ON THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST FROM THE DEAD
The history of the Life of Christ upon earth closes with a Miracle as great as that of its inception. It may be said that the one casts light upon the other. If He was what the Gospels represent Him, He must have been born of a pure Virgin, without sin, and He must have risen from the Dead. If the story of His Birth be true, we can believe that of His Resurrection; if that of His Resurrection be true, we can believe that of His Birth. In the nature of things, the latter was incapable of strict historical proof; and, in the nature of things, His Resurrection demanded and was capable of the fullest historical evidence. If such exists, the keystone is given to the arch; the miraculous Birth becomes almost a necessary postulate, and Jesus is the Christ in the full sense of the Gospels. And yet we mark, as another parallel point between the account of the miraculous Birth and that of the Resurrection, the utter absence of details as regards these events themselves. If this circumstance may be taken as indirect evidence that they were not legendary, it also imposes on us the duty of observing the reverent silence so well-befitting the case, and not intruding beyond the path which the Evangelic narrative has opened to us.
That path is sufficiently narrow, and in some respects difficult; not, indeed, as to the great event itself, nor as to its leading features, but as to the more minute details. And here, again, our difficulties arise, not so much from any actual disagreement, as from the absence of actual identity. Much of this is owning to the great compression in the various narratives, due partly to the character of the event narrated, partly to the incomplete information possessed by the narrators – of whom only one was strictly an eyewitness, but chiefly to this, that to the different narrators the central point of interest lay in one or the other aspect of the circumstances connected with the Resurrection. Not only St. Matthew, but also St. Luke, so compresses the narrative that ‘the distinction of points of time’ is almost effaced. St. Luke seems to crowd into the Easter Evening what himself tells us occupied forty days. His is, so to speak, the pre-eminently Jerusalem account of the evidence of the Resurrection; that of St. Matthew the pre-eminently Galilean account of it. Yet each implies and corroborates the facts of the other. In general we ought to remember, that the Evangelists, and afterwards St. Paul, are not so much concerned to narrate the whole history of the Resurrection as to furnish the evidence for it. And here what is distinctive in each is also characteristic of his special view-point. St. Matthew describes the impression of the full evidence of that Easter morning on friend and foe, and then hurries us from the Jerusalem stained with Christ’s Blood back to the sweet Lake and the blessed Mount where first He spake. It is, as if he longed to realise the Risen Christ in the scenes where he had learned to know Him. St. Mark, who is much more brief, gives not only a mere summary, but, if one might use the expression, tells it as from the bosom of the Jerusalem family, from the house of his mother Mary. St. Luke seems to have made most full inquiry as to all the facts of the Resurrection, and his narrative might almost be inscribed: ‘Easter Day in Jerusalem.’ St. John paints such scenes – during the whole forty days, whether in Jerusalem or Galilee – as were most significant and teachful of this threefold lesson of his Gospels: that Jesus was the Christ, that He was the Son of God, and that, believing, we have life in His Name. Lastly, St. Paul – as one born out of due time – produces the testimony of the principal witnesses to the fact, in a kind of ascending climax. And this the more effectively, that he is evidently aware of the difficulties and the import of the question, and has taken pains to make himself acquainted with all the facts of the case.
The question is of such importance, alike in itself and as regards this whole history, that a discussion, however brief and even imperfect, preliminary to the consideration of the Evangelic narrations, seems necessary.
What thoughts concerning the Dead Christ filled the minds of Joseph of Arimathæa, of Nicodemus, and of the other disciples of Jesus, as well as of the Apostles and of the pious women? They believed Him to be dead, and they did not expect Him to rise again from the dead – at least, in our accepted sense of it. Of this there is abundant evidence from the moment of His Death, in the burial spices brought by Nicodemus, in those prepared by the women (both of which were intended as against corruption), in the sorrow of the women at the empty tomb, in their supposition that the Body had been removed, in the perplexity and bearing of the Apostle, in the doubts of so many, and indeed in the express statement: ‘For as yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.’ And the notice in St. Matthew’s Gospel, that the Sanhedrists had taken precautions against His Body being stolen, so as to give the appearance of fulfilment to His prediction that He would rise again after three days – that, therefore, they knew of such a prediction, and took it in the literal sense – would give only more emphasis to the opposite bearing of the disciples and their manifest non-expectancy of a literal Resurrection. What the disciples expected, perhaps wished, was not Christ’s return in glorified corporeity, but His Second Coming in glory into His Kingdom.
But if they regarded Him as really dead and not to rise again in the literal sense, this had evidently no practical effect, not only on their former feelings towards Him, but even on their faith in Him as the promised Messiah. This appears from the conduct of Joseph and Nicodemus, from the language of the women, and from the whole bearing of the Apostles and disciples. All this must have been very different, if they had regarded the Death of Christ, even on the Cross, as having given the lie to His Messianic Claims. On the contrary, the impression left on our minds is, that, although they deeply grieved over the loss of their Master, and the seeming triumph of His foes, yet His Death came to them not unexpectedly, but rather as of internal necessity and as the fulfilment of His often repeated prediction. Nor can we wonder at this, since He had, ever since the Transfiguration, laboured, against all their resistance and reluctance, to impress on them the act of His Betrayal and Death. He had, indeed – although by no means so frequently or clearly – also referred to His Resurrection. But of this they might, according to their Jewish ideas, form a very different conception from that of a literal Resurrection of that Crucified Body in a glorified state, and yet capable of such terrestrial intercourse as the Risen Christ held with them. And if it be objected that, in such case, Christ must have clearly taught them all this, it is sufficient to answer, that there was no need for such clear teaching on the point at that time; that the event itself would soon and best teach them; that it would have been impossible really to teach it, except by the event; and that any attempt at it would have involved a far fuller communication on this mysterious subject than, to judge from what is told us in Scripture, it was the purpose of Christ to impart in our present state of faith and expectancy. Accordingly, from their point of view, the prediction of Christ might have referred to the continuance of His Work, to his Vindication, or to some apparition of Him, whether from heaven or on earth – such as that of the saints in Jerusalem after the Resurrection, or that of Elijah in Jewish belief – but especially to His return in glory; certainly, not to the Resurrection as it actually took place. The fact itself would be quite foreign to Jewish ideas, which embraced the continuance of the soul after death and the final resurrection of the body, but not a state of spiritual corporeity, far less, under conditions such as those described in the Gospels. Elijah, who is so constantly introduced in Jewish tradition, is never represented as sharing in meals or offering his body for touch; nay, the Angels who visited Abraham are represented as only making show of, not really, eating. Clearly, the Apostles had not learned the Resurrection of Christ either from the Scriptures – and this proves that the narrative of it was not intended as a fulfilment of previous expectancy – nor yet from the predictions of Christ to that effect; although without the one, and especially without the other, the empty grave would scarcely have wrought in them the assured conviction of the Resurrection of Christ.
This brings us to the real question in hand. Since the Apostles and others evidently believed Him to be dead, and expected not His Resurrection, and since the fact of His Death was not to them a formidable, if any, objection to His Messianic Character – such as might have induced them to invent or imagine a Resurrection – how are we to account for the history of the Resurrection with all its details in all the four Gospels and by St. Paul? The details, or ‘signs’ are clearly intended as evidences to all of the reality of the Resurrection, without which it would not have been believed; and their multiplication and variety must, therefore, be considered as indicating what otherwise would have been not only numerous but insuperable difficulties. similarly, the language of St. Paul implies a careful and searching inquiry on his part; the more rational, that, besides intrinsic difficulties and Jewish preconceptions against it, the objections to the fact must have been so often and coarsely obtruded on him, whether in disputation or by the jibes of the Greek scholars and students who derided his preaching.
Hence, the question to be faced is this: Considering their previous state of mind and the absence of any motive, how are we to account for the change of mind on the part of the disciples in regard to the Resurrection? There can at least be no question, that they came to believe, and with the most absolute certitude, in the Resurrection as an historical fact; nor yet, that it formed the basis and substances of all their preaching of the Kingdom; nor yet, that St. Paul, up to his conversion a bitter enemy of Christ, was fully persuaded of it; not – to go a step back – that Jesus Himself expected it. Indeed, the world would not have been converted to a dead Jewish Christ, however His intimate disciples might have continued to love His memory. But they preached everywhere, first and foremost, the Resurrection from the dead! In the language of St. Paul: ‘If Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also is vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God . . . ye are yet in your sins.’ We must here dismiss what probably underlies the chief objection to the Resurrection: its miraculous character. The objection to Miracles, as such, proceeds on that false Supernaturalism, which traces a Miracle to the immediate fiat of the Almighty without any intervening links; and, as already shown, it involves a vicious petitio principii. But, after all, the Miraculous is only the to us unprecedented and unrecognisable – a very narrow basis on which to refuse historical investigation. And the historian has to account for the undoubted fact, that the Resurrection was the fundamental personal conviction of the Apostles and disciples, the basis of their preaching, and the final support of their martyrdom. What explanation then can be offered of it?
The ‘Vision-hypothesis’ is not much improved, if we regard the supposed vision as the result of reflection – that the disciples, convinced that the Messiah could not remain dead (and this again is contrary to fact) had wrought themselves first into a persuasion that He must rise, and then into visions of the Risen 23 One. Nor yet would it commend itself more to our mind, if were to assume that these visions had been directly sent from God Himself, to attest the fact that Christ lived. For, we have here to deal with a series of facts that cannot be so explained, such as the showing them His Sacred Wounds; the offer touch them; the command to handle Him, so as to convince themselves of His real corporeity; the eating with the disciples; the appearance by the Lake of Galilee, and others. Besides, the ‘Vision-hypothesis’ has to account for the events of the Easter-morning, and especially for the empty tomb from which the great stone had been rolled, and in which the very cerements of death were seen by those who entered it. In fact, such a narrative as that recorded by St. Luke seems almost designed to render the ‘Vision-hypothesis’ impossible. We are expressly told, that the appearance of the Risen Christ, so far from meeting their anticipations, had affrighted them, and that they had thought it spectral, on which Christ had reassured them, and bidden them handle Him, for ‘a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye behold Me having.’ Lastly, who removed the Body of Christ from the tomb? Six weeks afterwards, Peter preached the Resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem. If Christ’s enemies had removed the Body, they could easily have silenced Peter; if His friends, they would have been guilty of such fraud, as not even Strauss deems possible in the circumstances. The theories of deception, delusion, and vision being thus impossible, and the à priori objection to the fact, as involving a Miracle, being a petitio principii, the historical student is shut up to the simple acceptance of the narrative. To this conclusion the unpreparedness of the disciples, their previous opinions, their new testimony unto martyrdom, the foundation of the Christian Church, the testimony of so many, singly and in company, and the series of recorded manifestations during forty days, and in such different circumstances, where mistake was impossible, had already pointed with unerring certainty. 28 And even if slight discrepancies, nay, some not strictly historical details, which might have been the outcome of earliest tradition in the Apostolic Church, could be shown in those accounts which were not of eyewitnesses, it would assuredly not invalidate the great fact itself, which may unhesitatingly be pronounced that best established in history. At the same time we would carefully guard ourselves against the admission that those hypothetical flaws really exist in the narratives. On the contrary, we believe them capable of the most satisfactory arrangement, unless under the strain of hyper-criticism.
The importance of all this cannot be adequately expressed in words. A dead Christ might have been a Teacher and Wonder-worker, and remembered and loved as such. But only a Risen and Living Christ could be the Saviour, the Life, and the Life-Giver, and as such preached to all men. And of this most blessed truth we have the fullest and most unquestionable evidence. We can, therefore, implicitly yield ourselves to the impression of these narratives, and, still more, to the realisation of that most sacred and blessed fact. This is the foundation of the Church, the inscription on the banner of her armies, the strength and comfort of every Christian heart, and the grand hope of humanity:
‘The Lord is risen indeed.’