An Easter message: Hocus Pocus?
by C-N President J. Randall O’Brien
While breaking the bread for communion, Medieval priests chanted in Latin, “Hoc est corpus” (“this is the body.”) Confused churchgoers referred to the phrase as “hocus pocus.” Ever since then, though perhaps much sooner, clergy talk has had an image problem.
Comes Easter week. How to communicate clearly the Gospel of Jesus Christ to modern humankind? No easy task, this one.
Cliches fail. Years ago the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals were preparing to play each other in football for only the second time ever. One of the coaches predicted, “It will be a typical Browns-Bengals game.” I suppose one might explain Easter as, “a typical resurrection event.”
Is Holy Week only hocus pocus? How might an intelligent person believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Others have said, “For those who believe no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe no explanation is possible.” Perhaps so, but I choose to believe otherwise.
The model of friends walking together, reflecting honestly in search of truth, offers an inviting path for pilgrims seeking understanding. Shall we stroll?
“If Christianity is not true,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “it is of no importance whatsoever; if it is true it is of infinite importance. What it cannot be,” he contended, “is moderately important.” Might we not add to this the heart of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ? It is here that the case is decided.
Voltaire said, “If you’re going to converse with me, define your terms.” Of course. What we do not mean by resurrection is “a living on in memory,“ in the sense of a “spiritual resurrection.” Nor do we mean a resuscitation, or return to life from death with the same physical body, only to die again in time. Rather, what we mean by resurrection is a literal, historical, raising from the dead of the God-man, Jesus the Christ, transformed in body, never again to die. The principle of analogy fails. The event is unique.
Do explanations of the alleged resurrection apart from the supernatural or miraculous prove persuasive? The Swoon Theory contends Jesus was not really dead, but had only swooned or fainted. The Fraud Theory claims the disciples stole the body of Jesus. The Mistake Theory holds the women went to the wrong tomb. The Vision Theory argues for mass hallucinations. The Wild Dog Theory claims the body of Christ was eaten by wild dogs. The Rotted Body Theory posits the body rotted away. Each of these natural explanations has been sufficiently debunked. Each fails to convince.
From a purely logical standpoint the resurrection is not impossible. That is to say, it is logically possible. Aristotle argued, “The potentiality of opposites is the same.” This means if it is possible for a thing to exist, the opposite is also true. For instance, if it is possible that it might rain, it is possible that it might not. If it is possible that God exists, it is possible that God does not exist. If it is possible that Jesus was not raised from the dead, it is possible that He was. Logically, the resurrection is possible.
But if the resurrection is possible, is it logically probable? Resuscitation from the dead is certainly possible within three minutes of death and occurs daily. Time need only be extended to three days. Even so, resuscitation differs from resurrection. How might we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
First, the written record telling of the event dates back to within two decades of the epoch, which is historically priceless. Second, more than 500 eye-witnesses, over a period of 40 days, testified to seeing Jesus alive after the crucifixion and burial. Third, the radical changes in the lives of the witnesses (Peter, James, Saul/Paul) along with their willingness to be martyred for their testimonies---and, indeed, they were martyred---offers compelling evidence for the veracity of their claims. Fourth, the astounding centrality of the witness of women in a fabricated story is utterly nonsensical in a world where women were forbade to speak in public. Why forge a story centering around the testimony of a gender unable to legally testify? Fifth, the worship of the Jewish followers of Jesus changed from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, from Saturday to Sunday. Something catastrophic must have occurred on Sunday for this to transpire. Sixth, the personal experiences of millions of persons from the first century until today testify of a personal experience with the risen, living Christ.
Faith is based upon probabilities. Were faith to conform completely to objective sense perception, reason, and scientifically verifiable beliefs, it would be knowledge, rather than faith. On the other hand, belief without any basis at all, would be delusion. Faith falls somewhere in between knowledge and delusion. So how can an intelligent person believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Not by blind faith; nor by verifiable, scientific evidence; but by a reasoned faith.
Epistemology (the study of methods of knowing) posits there are three ways of knowing anything: reason, testimony of others, and personal experience. Based upon either of these individually, or two or more collectively, the resurrection of Jesus Christ begs to be embraced.
The Gallup Organization conducted a poll to determine, “Why people believe in God.” The survey discovered four reasons: (1) Authoritarian (parents, pastor, or authority figure said so.) (2) Rational (thinking it through) (3) Utilitarian (safer to believe than not), and (4) Empirical ( personal, spiritual experience). The dominant reason for belief in God was empirical, or personal experience.
At the end of the day, neither belief in God, nor the resurrection of Jesus Christ, can be proven or disproven. Either case is possible. Probability is a different matter. Possibility says, “maybe;” probability says, “likely.” In the end, reason can only carry us so far. When it comes to faith, an appropriate gap remains between knowledge and delusion, a gap which can only be bridged by a leap. Both leaping and not leaping involve risk.
Hopefully, this Easter when we hear that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life,” we will take the lover’s leap. May our leap take us over the hocus pocus, into the arms of God and the risen Christ.