I spent Easter in Omaha. The Great Vigil liturgy at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral was transcendent, with the music of Vittoria, Palestrina, and Byrd providing exquisite accents to contemporary plainsong. But it’s the beginning that always hits me in the gut. My heart beat faster with each urgent declamation of the Exsultet, the ancient hymn sung after the procession of the paschal candle that culminates: “This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.”
The Resurrection. It’s the central truth around which the Christian faith turns. And when I went home after the service while savoring a glass of bourbon filled to a decidedly post-Lenten level, I chuckled over a Nebraska memory. Some years ago I spent a spring evening at the University of Nebraska engaging a fallen-away Fundamentalist in a debate: Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised of the dead?
There’s no doubt that the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as giving reasons. Aside from the disputed ending of Mark, the gospels give eyewitness testimony to the risen Lord. So to a great degree the question is whether this evidence counts for anything. That evening in Lincoln, Nebraska, the skeptical former Fundamentalist argued that the scriptural accounts are untrustworthy.
One argument he made drew attention to the diversity of resurrection accounts that portray Jesus differently. Reliable testimony, he suggested, requires agreement.
But is that right? Imagine that you are on a jury and all the witnesses provide identical accounts. Wouldn’t you become suspicious? It’s not normal for people to observe and remember events in the same way, especially not unexpected and traumatic events. Moreover, as we know, the gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in the case of the Gospel of Luke by someone who admits that he relies on the testimony of others. Given the passage of time, it becomes even more unlikely that the accounts would match up nicely.
An analogy might help. Imagine that there was a lynching in a small town in Georgia in 1920. Now imagine that some forty or fifty years later town leaders and their now grown children feel compelled to write about the event, one fraught with intense emotions and painful memories. Imagine further that their accounts agree in detail, emotional tone, and sequence of events. Remarkable! Indeed so remarkable that a reasonable person would begin to suspect that communal mythology has come to replace actual memories, creating a false and perhaps reassuring harmony. Thus, it seems to me that the overall harmony rather than detailed agreement between the gospels makes it more rather than less reasonable to believe their testimony.
Another argument the ex-Fundamentalist made that night concerned the obvious partisanship of the New Testament. Yes, that’s quite true, but does zeal and conviction undercut testimony?
Here another analogy helps. Imagine that you want to know about the Game of the Century (which for the uninitiated refers to the epic struggle between Nebraska and Oklahoma in 1971 that featured a brilliant punt return by Johnny Rogers and, of course, the ultimate triumph of the Cornhuskers). You visit an older couple. The husband was and remains a rabid fan who has attended every home game since 1963. His wife has little interest in football, though she went to the Game of the Century because, as a newlywed she had yet to figure out how to absent herself.
Now I ask you: Whose account is more likely to be accurate? Yes, the husband may embellish, and his memory may be gilt with nostalgia. But in all likelihood he paid close attention, and his passion for football keeps his memories alive. His wife? True enough, she’s dispassionate and in a sense more “objective.” But that counts against her testimony, for she’s far less likely to have brought her mental powers fully to bear upon the game—and far less likely to sustain in her memory what she experienced.
The same goes for the writers of the gospels. Their passionate belief in the resurrection of Jesus does not necessarily count against the value of their testimony. On the contrary, in many ways we rightly trust a committed, living memory much more than an uncommitted and dispassionate memory.
Thus I think it’s reasonable to say that Christians have scriptural reasons for believing in the resurrection. A skeptic might judge these reasons insufficient (and on this point I’m inclined agree). Few believe simply because of the direct testimony of the New Testament. But that doesn’t mean that the gospels provide empty or inconsequential reasons for an Easter faith.
There are more powerful, indirect reasons in favor of belief in the resurrection, ones that stem from the fact that, as I pointed out above, the Easter affirmation plays a central role in the Christian faith. As St. Paul put it: If Christ is not risen, your faith is vain (1 Cor. 15:17). In view of this centrality, our broader reasons for believing in the truth of Christianity in general support our belief in the resurrection in particular.
Some are like the travelers on the road to Emmaus. They are struck by the way in which the death and resurrection of Jesus throw a striking light upon puzzling passages in the Old Testament. Others feel the transformative power of Christian teaching, or encounter the remarkable and enduring substance of the Church and her sacramental life, or find the witness of the saints inspiring. In each case and countless others, the evidence suggests that there’s something to Christianity, and thus, insofar as one understands the logic of Christian affirmations, to the resurrection as well.
Of course, many think that the something is best understood as a sociological need for institutions, or a psychological need for belonging, or a credulous instinct that has evolutionary value, and so forth. None of the evidence in favor of the resurrection compels us in the way that a scientific experiment might. But, again, that’s not the point. What’s reasonable need not be so certain or self-evident that it generates a strong consensus.
In fact, a strong consensus is rare, not common. Consider politics. Should we say that our greatest challenge is income inequality or lack of economic opportunity? Climate change or stagnant growth? Indeed, people cannot even agree about whether or not an unborn child is a person. Should we be surprised, then, that the evidence in favor of Christianity is interpreted in many different ways, sometimes as reasons in favor, and at other times as reasons against?
No, of course not. Given the profoundly personal and consequential character of Christian faith—eternal life!—it’s absurd to imagine that its central affirmation, the resurrection, can be supported a cool, objective, widely shared consensus. Or more precisely: it’s a cynical debater’s trick to conjure such a possibility, and then call Christians irrational for failing to secure it.
As I sipped my bourbon in the late hours of that most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead, I found my warm recollections of debate drifting toward a cooler state of self-observation. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “Jesus may not have risen from the dead, and my faith may be empty.” Unlike square circles, that’s a real possibility. Fair enough, it conceded to the debater in my mind. “But,” I replied, “it’s very foolish indeed to think that what might be false cannot be true.”
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.