The Romans discredited it, the Jews denied it and the Gnostics couldn’t stomach it. For more than 20 centuries the Church has been fighting off the throngs of heretics who deny much or all of the Symbol of Faith, but there are few truths that exasperate the world more than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On the third day He rose again according to the Scripture s
The eyewitness accounts relayed in the New Testament are clear: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The Gospel of John recounts two events in chapter 20. After excitedly sharing the story of her journey to and from the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene exclaims to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Immediately following John explains what happened to the disciples. “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’.”
Luke, of course, shares the same story of the woman visiting the tomb in chapter 24, verses 5-6, and later in the Acts of the Apostles (13:29-33) we are offered a summary of the Resurrection experience.
Paul, too, gives accounts of the Resurrection but goes even further in explaining its significance. “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died* in Christ have perished…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…* For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:16-18, 20-22).
Unfortunately, the eyewitness accounts of those who were there and believed were not enough to convince everyone of the truth of the Good News. As time worn on there were larger and larger groups of people who could not accept that not only had God made Himself into man so that man could become more like Him, but also that God would allow Himself to be crucified, to die and to rise again three days later.
Chief among the deniers and disbelievers was a sect generally known as Gnostics. These were groups of people who could not accept that matter (the created world including the human body) was something to be celebrated. To them all matter was evil and that the sooner they escaped the corruption of their bodies, the sooner they could become pure spirit. They also believed that not everyone could ascend to this spiritual realm because special knowledge had to be imparted on you to achieve such heights.
One specific example of how Gnostic thinking filtered into the Christian world came in the form of the heresy called Docetism. The title “docetist” is derived from a Greek word which means “to seem”. Simply put, the docetists believed that Jesus only appeared to have a human body because God could not have taken on the limitations of humanity and remained God at the same time. St. Ignatius of Antioch worked against this heresy and it was condemned in the year 110. Saints Irenaeus and Tertullian attacked Gnosticism more broadly and it is generally accepted that the bulk of this heretical thinking was stamped out by the third century.
All of this information can be tough to wade through. But it’s important because this heresy has been passed to our modern world with the recent interest in such writings as the so-called gospels of Judas and Thomas. More specifically, Gnostic thinking has filtered into the conscious and sub-conscious of our society through the host of materialist philosophies that sprouted in Western Europe and America in the post-enlightenment period. These theories — most notably in Marxism and its various off-shoots — promote the idea that the only truth that exists is that which is empirically verifiable, or, that that which can be observed. Therefore, any revelation, especially such dogmas of faith as the Incarnation and Resurrection, are not believable because there is no scientific evidence of them.
We look for the resurrection of the dead
The sad part about these ideas and the people who espouse them is that, while they seek to hallow the human and all of his endeavors, they don’t understand how much they actually devalue the person. This can be explained most readily by considering the Icon of the Resurrection. The predominant visual expression of the resurrection in the East is Jesus’ descent into Hades. While His figure is shown with the rays of glorious light, Jesus is depicted as raising Adam and Eve (and all those who came before Jesus) from the depths of hell. The point of this depiction is that if Jesus does not come in the flesh, if He does not suffer and die, if He does not rise, then He cannot reclaim us from our human death.
Suppose an unbeliever asks: ‘Who is this that is crucified? Who is this that has risen and is trampling on the head of that old man?’ Do you not [O man], teach him from the Icons, saying: ‘This crucified man is the Son of God, Who was crucified to take away the sins of the world. This man that has risen is He Who raised up with Himself Adam, the forefather of the world, who fell through disobedience. He is trampling on Hades, which held Adam for so many years bound in unbreakable fetters and bars in the nethermost regions’? In this way you gradually bring him to the knowledge of God (“Demonstrative Discourse Concerning the Holy and Precious Icons,” §10, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XCV, cols. 325D).
Springtime of evangelization
As you can see, modern man is not much different than the ancient one. Today, we live in a world that doubts everything about religion and tradition, especially the Resurrection. But because of the Resurrection we know for sure what the Early Church Fathers (St. Irenaeus, St. Gregory of Nyssa and others) knew: that man is the image of God. These priest-theologians explain this in terms of our sovereign dignity and lordship over the world, and find it in man’s spiritual nature, soul, mind, intellect, in his reason, freedom, or inner determination. Sometimes we are identified with the ability to know God, communicate with Him, share in the divine being of Christ, or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But these things are only possible in and through the Resurrection.
So the next time you come into contact with someone who does not understand, remind them of what the eminent theologian Vladimir Lossky once wrote: that the “perfection of man does not consist in that which assimilates him to the whole of creation, but that in which distinguishes him from the created order and assimilates him to his Creator” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church , p. 114).
Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. Alleluia!