We live in the late modern world, at least in developed nations. There are benefits to living in late modernity. We might debate that we have these benefits because of modernity, however. It is frequently assumed that the world is better because it is modern, that we have our technologies because of modernity, because of the Enlightenment break with the pre-modern Christian world. Perhaps but that way of thinking may be an example not only of what the Greeks called hubris (arrogance), which one sees on full display in most of the so-called “New Atheists,” but also of a logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after which therefore because of which). My favorite illustration of this fallacy is borrowed (with revisions) from a lecture given by Richard Cross c. 1993–95. Felix the cat, he said, is crossing the street and gets hit by a car. Afterward Elmer Fudd drives over Felix’s corpse. Now, someone seeing Elmer at that moment might conclude that Elmer is guilty of felinicide. The conclusion, however, does not follow. At worst Elmer is guilty of a certain callousness toward Felix’s corpse but he did not kill him. So it is with modernity. Yes, in the modern period we captured electricity, improved medicine, plumbing etc. Does it follow, however, that modernity, i.e., the complex of assumptions on which the Enlightenment rested, were necessary to these things? No. The great astronomical revolution (no pun intended) of the 16th century was not dependent upon the Enlightenment. The Romans were very good plumbers 1800 years before the Enlightenment. DaVinci (1452–1519) was theorizing about mechanical flight well before the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment movements were, however, quite good at marketing and propaganda and they succeeded in convincing most modern and late-modern folk that all the technological benefits we experience are due to the modern rejection of Christianity. Marketing, however, is not truth.
How is this relevant to Heidelberg Catechism question 45? It’s relevant because it, as it is working through the Apostles’ Creed and the accomplishment of redemption, it turns to the resurrection of Christ. The Christian faith presents a great number of difficulties to the autonomous late-modern mind. The Trinity (one God, three persons), the incarnation (one person, two natures), providence and evil, Adam’s federal headship of all humanity, free will, and hell just to name a few. The resurrection, however, is a particular problem because it confronts our closed, mechanical world in a very pointed way. The Christian faith claims that Jesus of Nazareth was dead by any reasonable standard. I am aware of some of the problems of speaking this way but it’s past time to recover this language. We have a right to expect people to be reasonable. If someone persistently refuses to stop at stop signs he will be arrested and prosecuted. Such behavior is illegal because it presents an unreasonable threat to public safety. Civil life depends on the expectation that others will act reasonably. No matter how many laws legislatures pass, they cannot pass a sufficient number of laws to cover every possible contingency. That is why the law speaks of things that may be expected of reasonable people, i.e., rational people in possession of their faculties. They may be expected to see a red, octagonal sign that says in bold white letters: STOP. They may be expected to interpret that as a command by duly elected and appointed civil officials that a driver must bring his vehicle to a complete stop. We were created in the image of God and one aspect that image is a “rational soul.” We know this because our catholic Christology asserts that Jesus has a “rational soul” (Chalcedon, 451 AD).
Thus, we not only say that Jesus was dead but that his body was placed in a tomb hewn out of stone and that tomb was closed by means of a great stone (Luke 23:53). Matthew writes:
And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb (Matt 27:59–61; ESV).
Not only was he dead, laid in tomb that was blocked with a stone but Pilate ordered that the tomb be sealed, thus making it a capital crime against Caesar to tamper with it and the tomb was guarded by highly trained soldiers, whose very lives were at stake should his body be stolen (Matt 27:65–66). After Jesus was raised (to which we will return) some of the guards, knowing their great jeopardy,
went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day (Matt 28:11–15.).
There was a cover-up, a conspiracy, not to steal Jesus’ body but to lie about what actually happened. Modernity tells us that resurrections cannot happen. How anyone can know such a thing with ontological certainty is beyond me. It seems to me that we are learning almost daily how vastly more complex the world is than we imagined it only a few years ago. Anyone who knows the history of science knows that today’s certainties are tomorrow’s laughingstock but, at the moment, folks are often dead certain that p must be the case or that q cannot be the case.
Here we are, more than two millennia after the fact, still insisting that Jesus of Nazareth was alive, that he was murdered, and that on the third day, he was raised from the dead. Indeed, the Apostle Paul says that if Christ has not has not been raised from the dead “we are, of all people, most to be pitied” because our entire faith rests on this historical claim (1 Cor 15:19).
So, with the Apostles and Christians in all places and ages we confess
45. What benefit do we receive from the “resurrection” of Christ?
First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, that He might make us partakers of the righteousness which He has obtained for us by His death. Secondly, by His power we are also now raised up to a new life. Thirdly, the resurrection of Christ is to us a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.
We confess that we do not live in a closed, mechanical universe nor do we live in a random universe. Yes, someone could say, “okay, resurrections happen. So what?” My question is: why must we take an insane person seriously? We should treat an insane person with grace, kindness, and charity but we’re not obligated to allow him to determine policy or teach us how to think. The Christian faith has never proposed to satisfy every odd or obstreperous objection. We do propose to say sinners made in God’s image, who have a rational souls, the resurrection is a fact. It happened and it changes everything in the same way the Exodus changed everything. It is one of those decisive historical acts the consequences of which cannot be ignored or waved off with appeals to chaos.
Next time: the first significance of Jesus’ resurrection.