The resurrection of Christ from the dead is reported by the four Gospels, taught in the Epistles, believed throughout Christendom, and celebrated on every |Lord's Day,| as an historical fact, as the crowning miracle and divine seal of his whole work, as the foundation of the hopes of believers, as the pledge of their own future resurrection. It is represented in the New Testament both as an act of the Almighty Father who raised his Son from the dead, and as an act of Christ himself, who had the power to lay down his life and to take it again. The ascension was the proper conclusion of the resurrection: the risen life of our Lord, who is |the Resurrection and the Life,| could not end in another death on earth, but must continue in eternal glory in heaven. Hence St. Paul says, |Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death no more hath dominion over him. For the death that he died he died unto sin once: but the life that he liveth, he liveth unto God.|
The Christian church rests on the resurrection of its Founder. Without this fact the church could never have been born, or if born, it would soon have died a natural death. The miracle of the resurrection and the existence of Christianity are so closely connected that they must stand or fall together. If Christ was raised from the dead, then all his other miracles are sure, and our faith is impregnable; if he was not raised, he died in vain and our faith is vain. It was only his resurrection that made his death available for our atonement, justification and salvation; without the resurrection, his death would be the grave of our hopes; we should be still unredeemed and under the power of our sins. A gospel of a dead Saviour would be a contradiction and wretched delusion. This is the reasoning of St. Paul, and its force is irresistible.
The resurrection of Christ is therefore emphatically a test question upon which depends the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion. It is either the greatest miracle or the greatest delusion which history records.
Christ had predicted both his crucifixion and his resurrection, but the former was a stumbling-block to the disciples, the latter a mystery which they could not understand till after the event. They no doubt expected that he would soon establish his Messianic kingdom on earth. Hence their utter disappointment and downheartedness after the crucifixion. The treason of one of their own number, the triumph of the hierarchy, the fickleness of the people, the death and burial of the beloved Master, had in a few hours rudely blasted their Messianic hopes and exposed them to the contempt and ridicule of their enemies. For two days they were trembling on the brink of despair. But on the third day, behold, the same disciples underwent a complete revolution from despondency to hope, from timidity to courage, from doubt to faith, and began to proclaim the gospel of the resurrection in the face of an unbelieving world and at the peril of their lives. This revolution was not isolated, but general among them; it was not the result of an easy credulity, but brought about in spite of doubt and hesitation; it was not superficial and momentary, but radical and lasting; it affected, not only the apostles, but the whole history of the world. It reached even the leader of the persecution, Saul of Tarsus one of the clearest and strongest intellects, and converted him into the most devoted and faithful champion of this very gospel to the hour of his martyrdom.
This is a fact patent to every reader of the closing chapters of the Gospels, and is freely admitted even by the most advanced skeptics.
The question now rises whether this inner revolution in the, life of the disciples, with its incalculable effects upon the fortunes of mankind, can be rationally explained without a corresponding outward revolution in the history of Christ; in other words, whether the professed faith of the disciples in the risen Christ was true and real, or a hypocritical lie, or an honest self-delusion.
There are four possible theories which have been tried again and again, and defended with as much learning and ingenuity as can be summoned to their aid. Historical questions are not like mathematical problems. No argument in favor of the resurrection will avail with those critics who start with the philosophical assumption that miracles are impossible, and still less with those who deny not only the resurrection of the body, but even the immortality of the soul. But facts are stubborn, and if a critical hypothesis can be proven to be psychologically and historically impossible and unreasonable, the result is fatal to the philosophy which underlies the critical hypothesis. It is not the business of the historian to construct a history from preconceived notions and to adjust it to his own liking, but to reproduce it from the best evidence and to let it speak for itself.
1. The Historical view, presented by the Gospels and believed in the Christian church of every denomination and sect. The resurrection of Christ was an actual though miraculous event, in harmony with his previous history and character, and in fulfilment of his own prediction. It was a re-animation of the dead body of Jesus by a return of his soul from the spirit-world, and a rising of body and soul from the grave to a new life, which after repeated manifestations to believers during a short period of forty days entered into glory by the ascension to heaven. The object of the manifestations was not only to convince the apostles personally of the resurrection, but to make them witnesses of the resurrection and heralds of salvation to all the world.
Truth compels us to admit that there are serious difficulties in harmonizing the accounts of the evangelists, and in forming a consistent conception of the nature of Christ's, resurrection-body, hovering as it were between heaven and earth, and oscillating for forty days between a natural and a supernatural state of the body clothed with flesh and blood and bearing the wound-prints, and yet so spiritual as to appear and disappear through closed doors and to ascend visibly to heaven. But these difficulties are not so great as those which are created by a denial of the fact itself. The former can be measurably solved, the latter cannot. We, do not know all the details and circumstances which might enable us to clearly trace the order of events. But among all the variations the great central fact of the resurrection itself and its principal features |stand out all the more sure.| The period of the forty days is in the nature of the case the most mysterious in the life of Christ, and transcends all ordinary Christian experience. The Christophanies resemble in some respect, the theophanies of the Old Testament, which were granted only to few believers, yet for the general benefit. At all events the fact of the resurrection furnishes the only key for the solution of the psychological problem of the sudden, radical, and permanent change in the mind and conduct of the disciples; it is the necessary link in the chain which connects their history before and after that event. Their faith in the resurrection was too clear, too strong, too steady, too effective to be explained in any other way. They showed the strength and boldness of their conviction by soon returning to Jerusalem, the post of danger, and founding there, in the very face of the hostile Sanhedrin, the mother-church of Christendom.
2. The Theory of Fraud. The apostles stole and hid the body of Jesus, and deceived the world.
This infamous lie carries its refutation on its face: for if the Roman soldiers who watched the grave at the express request of the priests and Pharisees, were asleep, they could not see the thieves, nor would they have proclaimed their military crime; if they, or only some of them, were awake, they would have prevented the theft. As to the, disciples, they were too timid and desponding at the time to venture on such a daring act, and too honest to cheat the world. And finally a self-invented falsehood could not give them the courage and constancy of faith for the proclamation of the resurrection at the peril of their lives. The whole theory is a wicked absurdity, an insult to the common sense and honor of mankind.
3. The Swoon-Theory. The physical life of Jesus was not extinct, but only exhausted, and was restored by the tender care of his friends and disciples, or (as some absurdly add) by his own medical skill; and after a brief period he quietly died a natural death.
Josephus, Valerius Maximus, psychological and medical authorities have been searched and appealed to for examples of such apparent resurrections from a trance or asphyxy, especially on the third day, which is supposed to be a critical turning-point for life or putrefaction.
But besides insuperable physical difficulties -- as the wounds and loss of blood from the very heart pierced by the spear of the Roman soldier -- this theory utterly fails to account for the moral effect. A brief sickly existence of Jesus in need of medical care, and terminating in his natural death and final burial, without even the glory of martyrdom which attended the crucifixion, far from restoring the faith of the apostles, would have only in the end deepened their gloom and driven them to utter despair.
4. The Vision-Theory. Christ rose merely in the imagination of his friends, who mistook a subjective vision or dream for actual reality, and were thereby encouraged to proclaim their faith in the resurrection at the risk of death. Their wish was father to the belief, their belief was father to the fact, and the belief, once started, spread with the power of a religious epidemic from person to person and from place to place. The Christian society wrought the miracle by its intense love for Christ. Accordingly the resurrection does not belong to the history of Christ at all, but to the inner life of his disciples. It is merely the embodiment of their reviving faith.
This hypothesis was invented by a heathen adversary in the second century and soon buried out of sight, but rose to new life in the nineteenth, and spread with epidemical rapidity among skeptical critics in Germany, France, Holland and England.
The advocates of this hypothesis appeal first and chiefly to the vision of St. Paul on the way to Damascus, which occurred several years later, and is nevertheless put on a level with the former appearances to the older apostles (1 Cor.15:8); next to supposed analogies in the history of religious enthusiasm and mysticism, such as the individual visions of St. Francis of Assisi, the Maid of Orleans, St. Theresa (who believed that she had seen Jesus in person with the eyes of the soul more distinctly than she could have seen him with the eyes of the body), Swedenborg, even Mohammed, and the collective visions of the Montanists in Asia Minor, the Camisards in France, the spectral resurrections of the martyred Thomas à Becket of Canterbury and Savonarola of Florence in the excited imagination of their admirers, and the apparitions of the Immaculate Virgin at Lourdes.
Nobody will deny that subjective fancies and impressions are often mistaken for objective realities. But, with the exception of the case of St. Paul -- which we shall consider in its proper place, and which turns out to be, even according to the admission of the leaders of skeptical criticism, a powerful argument against the mythical or visionary theory -- these supposed analogies are entirely irrelevant; for, not to speak of other differences, they were isolated and passing phenomena which left no mark on history; while the faith in the resurrection of Christ has revolutionized the whole world. It must therefore be treated on its own merits as an altogether unique case.
(a) The first insuperable argument against the visionary nature, and in favor of the objective reality, of the resurrection is the empty tomb of Christ. If he did not rise, his body must either have been removed, or remained in the tomb. If removed by the disciples, they were guilty of a deliberate falsehood in preaching the resurrection, and then the vision-hypothesis gives way to the exploded theory of fraud. If removed by the enemies, then these enemies had the best evidence against the resurrection, and would not have failed to produce it and thus to expose the baselessness of the vision. The same is true, of course, if the body had remained in the tomb. The murderers of Christ would certainly not have missed such an opportunity to destroy the very foundation of the hated sect.
To escape this difficulty, Strauss removes the origin of the illusion away off to Galilee, whether the disciples fled; but this does not help the matter, for they returned in a few weeks to Jerusalem, where we find them all assembled on the day of Pentecost.
This argument is fatal even to the highest form of the vision hypothesis, which admits a spiritual manifestation of Christ from heaven, but denies the resurrection of his body.
(b) If Christ did not really rise, then the words which he spoke to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples of Emmaus, to doubting Thomas, to Peter on the lake of Tiberias, to all the disciples on Mount Olivet, were likewise pious fictions. But who can believe that words of such dignity and majesty, so befitting the solemn moment of the departure to the throne of glory, as the commandment to preach the gospel to every creature, to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the promise to be with his disciples alway to the end of the world -- a promise abundantly verified in the daily experience of the church -- could proceed from dreamy and self-deluded enthusiasts or crazy fanatics any more than the Sermon on the Mount or the Sacerdotal Prayer! And who, with any spark of historical sense, can suppose that Jesus never instituted baptism, which has been performed in his name ever since the day of Pentecost, and which, like the celebration of the Lord's Supper, bears testimony to him every day as the sunlight does to the sun!
(c) If the visions of the resurrection were the product of an excited imagination, it is unaccountable that they should suddenly have ceased on the fortieth day (Acts 1:15), and not have occurred to any of the disciples afterwards, with the single exception of Paul, who expressly represents his vision of Christ as |the last.| Even on the day of Pentecost Christ did not appear to them, but, according to his promise, |the other Paraclete| descended upon them; and Stephen saw Christ in heaven, not on earth.
(d) The chief objection to the vision-hypothesis is its intrinsic impossibility. It makes the most exorbitant claim upon our credulity. It requires us to believe that many persons, singly and collectively, at different times, and in different places, from Jerusalem to Damascus, had the same vision and dreamed the same dream; that the women at the open sepulchre early in the morning, Peter and John soon afterwards, the two disciples journeying to Emmaus on the afternoon of the resurrection day, the assembled apostles on the evening in the absence of Thomas, and again on the next Lord's Day in the presence of the skeptical Thomas, seven apostles at the lake of Tiberias, on one occasion five hundred brethren at once most of whom were still alive when Paul reported the fact, then James, the brother of the Lord, who formerly did not believe in him, again all the apostles on Mount Olivet at the ascension, and at last the clearheaded, strong-minded persecutor on the way to Damascus -- that all these men and women on these different occasions vainly imagined they saw and heard the self-same Jesus in bodily shape and form; and that they were by this baseless vision raised all at once from the deepest gloom in which the crucifixion of their Lord had left them, to the boldest faith and strongest hope which impelled them to proclaim the gospel of the resurrection from Jerusalem to Rome to the end of their lives! And this illusion of the early disciples created the greatest revolution not only in their own views and conduct, but among Jews and Gentiles and in the subsequent history of mankind! This illusion, we are expected to believe by these unbelievers, gave birth to the most real and most mighty of all facts, the Christian Church which has lasted these eighteen hundred years and is now spread all over the civilized world, embracing more members than ever and exercising more moral power than all the kingdoms and all other religions combined!
The vision-hypothesis, instead of getting rid of the miracle, only shifts it from fact to fiction; it makes an empty delusion more powerful than the truth, or turns all history itself at last into a delusion. Before we can reason the resurrection of Christ out of history we must reason the apostles and Christianity itself out of existence. We must either admit the miracle, or frankly confess that we stand here before an inexplicable mystery.
Remarkable Concessions. -- The ablest advocates of the vision-theory are driven against their wish and will to admit some unexplained objective reality in the visions of the risen or ascended Christ.
Dr. Baur, of Tübingen (d.1860), the master-critic among sceptical church historians, and the corypheus of the Tübingen school, came at last to the conclusion (as stated in the revised edition of his Church History of the First Three Centuries, published shortly before his death, 1860) that |nothing but the miracle of the resurrection could disperse the doubts which threatened to drive faith itself into the eternal night of death (Nur das Wunder der Auferstehung konnte die Zweifel zerstreuen, welche den Glauben selbst in die ewige Nacht des Todes verstossen zu müssen schienen).|Geschichte der christlichen Kirche, I.39. It is true he adds that the nature of the resurrection itself lies outside of historical investigation (|Was die Auferstehung an sich ist, liegt ausserhalb des Kreises der geschichtlichen Untersuchung|), but also, that |for the faith of the disciples the resurrection of Jesus became the most solid and most irrefutable certainty. In this faith only Christianity gained a firm foothold of its historical development. (In diesem Glauben hat erst das Christenthum den festen Grund seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung gewonnen.) What history requires as the necessary prerequisite of all that follows is not so much the fact of the resurrection itself [?] as the faith in that fact. In whatever light we may consider the resurrection of Jesus, whether as an actual objective miracle or as a subjective psychological one (als ein objectiv geschehenes Wunder, oder als ein subjectiv psychologisches), even granting the possibility of such a miracle, no psychological analysis can penetrate the inner spiritual process by which in the consciousness of the disciples their unbelief at the death of Jesus was transformed into a belief of his resurrection .... We must rest satisfied with this, that for them the resurrection of Christ was a fact of their consciousness, and had for them all the reality of an historical event.| (Ibid., pp.39, 40.) Baur's remarkable conclusion concerning the conversion of St. Paul (ibid., pp.44, 45) we shall consider in its proper place.
Dr. Ewald, of Göttingen (d.1874), the great orientalist and historian of Israel, antagonistic to Baur, his equal in profound scholarship and bold, independent, often arbitrary criticism, but superior in religious sympathy with the genius of the Bible, discusses the resurrection of Christ in his History of the Apostolic Age (Gesch. des Volkes Israel, vol. VI.52 sqq.), instead of his Life of Christ, and resolves it into a purely spiritual, though long continued manifestation from heaven. Nevertheless he makes the strong statement (p.69) that |nothing is historically more certain than that Christ rose from the dead and appeared to his own, and that this their vision was the beginning of their new higher faith and of an their Christian labors.| |Nichts steht geschichtlich fester,| he says, |als dass Christus aus den Todten auferstanden den Seinigen wiederschien und dass dieses ihr wiedersehen der anfang ihres neuen höhern glaubens und alles ihres Christlichen wirkens selbst war. Es ist aber ebenso gewiss dass sie ihn nicht wie einen gewöhnlichen menschen oder wie einen aus dem grabe aufsteigenden schatten oder gespenst wie die sage von solchen meldet, sondern wie den einzigen Sohn Gottes, wie ein durchaus schon übermächtiges und übermenschliches wesen wiedersahen und sich bei späteren zurückerinnerungen nichts anderes denken konnten als dass jeder welcher ihn wiederzusehen gewürdigt sei auch sogleich unmittelbar seine einzige göttliche würde erkannt und seitdem felsenfest daran geglaubt habe. Als den ächten König und Sohn Gottes hatten ihn aber die Zwölfe und andre schon im leben zu erkennen gelernt: der unterschied ist nur der dass sie ihn jetzt auch nach seiner rein göttlichen seite und damit auch als den über den tod siegreichen erkannt zu haben sich erinnerten. Zwischen jenem gemeinen schauen des irdischen Christus wie er ihnen sowohl bekannt war und diesem höhern tieferregten entzückten schauen des himmlischen ist also dock ein innerer zusammenhang, so dass sie ihn auch jetzt in diesen ersten tagen und wochen nach seinem tode nie als den himmlischen Messias geschauet hätten wenn sie ihn nicht schon vorher als den irdischen so wohl gekannt hätten.|
Dr. Keim, of Zürich (d. at Giessen, 1879), an independent pupil of Baur, and author of the most elaborate and valuable Life of Christ which the liberal critical school has produced, after giving every possible advantage to the mythical view of the resurrection, confesses that it is, after all, a mere hypothesis and fails to explain the main point. He says (Geschichte Jesu von Nazara, III.600): |Nach allen diesen Ueberlegungen wird man zugestehen müssen, dass auch die neuerdings beliebt gewordene Theorie nur eine Hypothese ist, welche Einiges erklärt, die Hauptsache nicht erklärt, ja im Ganzen und Grossen das geschichtlich Bezeugte schiefen und hinfälligen Gesichtspunkten unterstellt. Misslingt aber gleichmässig der Versuch, die überlieferte Aufs Auferstehungsgeschichte festzuhalten, wie das Unternehmen, mit Hilfe der paulinischen Visionen eine natürliche Erklärung des Geschehenen aufzubauen, so bleibt für die Geschichte zunächst kein Weg übrig als der des Eingeständnisses, dass die Sagenhaftigkeit der redseligen Geschichte und die dunkle Kürze der glaubwürdigen Geschichte es nicht gestattet, über die räthselhaften Ausgange des Lebens Jesu, so wichtig sie an und für sich und in der Einwirkung auf die Weltgeschichte gewesen sind, ein sicheres unumstössliches Resultat zu geben. Für die Geschichte, sofern sie nur mit benannten evidenten Zahlen und mit Reihen greifbarer anerkannter Ursachen und Wirkungen rechnet, existirt als das Thatsächliche und Zweifellose lediglich der feste Glaube der Apostel, dass Jesus auferstanden, und die ungeheure Wirkung dieses Glaubens, die Christianisirung der Menschheit. On p.601 he expresses the conviction that |it was the crucified and living Christ who, not as the risen one, but rather as the divinely glorified one (als der wenn nicht Auferstandene, so doch vielmehr himmlisch Verherrlichte), gave visions to his disciples and revealed himself to his society.| In his last word on the great problem, Keim, in view of the exhaustion and failure of the natural explanations, comes to the conclusion, that we must either, with Dr. Baur, humbly confess our ignorance, or return to the faith of the apostles who |have seen the Lord| (John 20:25). See the third and last edition of his abridged Geschichte Jesu, Zürich, 1875, p.362.
Dr. Schenkel, of Heidelberg, who in his Charakterbild Jesu (third ed.1864, pp.231 sqq.) had adopted the vision-theory in its higher form as a purely spiritual, though real manifestation from heaven, confesses in his latest work, Das Christusbild der Apostel (1879, p.18), his inability to solve the problem of the resurrection of Christ, and says: |Niemals wird es der Forschung gelingen, das Räthsel des Auferstehungsglaubens zu ergründen. Nichts aber steht fester in der Geschichte als die Thatsache dieses Glaubens; auf ihm beruht die Stiftung der christlichen Gemeinschaft ... Der Visionshypothese, welche die Christuserscheinungen der Jünger aus Sinnestäuschungen erklären will, die in einer Steigerung des 'Gemüths und Nervenlebens' ihre physische und darum auch psychische Ursache hatten,... steht vor allem die Grundfarbe der Stimmung in den Jüngern, namentlich in Petrus, im Wege: die tiefe Trauer, das gesunkene Selbstvertrauen, die nagende Gewissenspein, der verlorne Lebensmuth. Wie soll aus einer solchen Stimmung das verklärte Bild des Auferstandenen hervorgehen, mit dieser unverwüstlichen Sicherheit und unzerstörbaren Freudigkeit, durch welche der Auferstehungsglaube die Christengemeinde in allen Stürmen und Verfolgungen aufrecht zu erhalten vermochte?|