How many accessible works of Catholic apologetics can you name that focus on the resurrection of Christ?
Chances are your list is quite short. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my recent book “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Ignatius Press–Augustine Institute, 2016). One of the main goals of the book was to provide nontechnical but substantive answers to a wide range of questions about and arguments against the Christian belief that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the grave. Here are a few things I think are noteworthy about this topic.
There are very few recent books by Catholics defending the Resurrection. However, the fine Jesuit theologian Father Gerald O’Collins has written and edited several books on the topic, and I refer to his books many times. One great insight from Father O’Collins is that the Christian belief in the Resurrection is intimately connected to the Christian belief that God is Trinitarian and personal. He notes how often the apostle Paul “takes the Resurrection of Jesus (together with ours) as the specifically Christian way of presenting God.” He also notes that to “be wrong about the Resurrection is to ‘misrepresent’ God essentially, since Paul defines God as the God of resurrection (1 Cor 15:15).” This is a reminder of how the distinctively Christian beliefs in God as Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection are intimately connected.
Many of the best books about the Resurrection in recent years have been written by evangelical or Anglican scholars, such as William Lane Craig, Michael Licona and N.T. Wright, or evangelicals, such as Craig Keener, Craig Evans and Ben Witherington III. Catholics need not, of course, agree with everything written by these authors to appreciate the rigor of their research and argumentation.
The internet is, in many ways, way behind the curve. While you can find plenty of sites run by atheists and skeptics claiming that Jesus didn’t exist or that there is no evidence for the Resurrection, there are few (if any) reputable historians who will deny that Jesus existed, or who will dismiss the many difficult questions posed by the textual and historical data. Bart Ehrman, who is both a prolific New Testament scholar and an agnostic, recently wrote a book, “Did Jesus Exist?”, that takes on “mythicists” — those who deny that Jesus was a real, historical figure. Ehrman compares such skeptics to Holocaust deniers. He notes that few of these mythicists have any training “in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field,” and he claims that no mythicists teach New Testament or early Christianity at “any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.”
The importance of chronology cannot be overstated. Some skeptics tend to talk about the events following the death of Christ as if they happened in a sort of vague vacuum — as if we have no idea when certain things happened. That’s not really the case, even if exact dates aren’t possible. So, for instance, Peter and the other apostles began proclaiming the Resurrection within a few weeks of Jesus’ death. If Jesus had still been dead, why didn’t someone produce the body? And whatever would have inspired the previously frightened and hiding apostles to suddenly be bold and unwavering in their witness?
Details are always important, but we shouldn’t overlook the forest for the trees. Some skeptical scholars fixate — to the point of neurotic obsession — on supposedly conflicting details within the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. But there are three key facts that the early Christians all agreed upon, even in the face of opposition and persecution: the tomb that held Jesus was empty; Jesus appeared at various times to the apostles and other disciples; and the Church grew based primarily on its declaration that, as Peter stated: “God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses. Exalted at the right hand of God, he received the promise of the holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth, as you [both] see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33). Those three facts are reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see Nos. 638-658). There is, in fact, plenty of compelling arguments for the Resurrection.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.