It has been out of fashion for some time but in Carl Olson’s Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? Questions and Answers about the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus we have an example of the return of old-style apologetics.
In the past, the Catholic faith had a plethora of robust defenders who took up their pen to explore, elucidate and express what Catholics believe. In addition, back then there was a more rigorous catechetical formation for many educated Catholics; the malaise of the 1960s & 70s had not yet struck. It is only in recent years that a new generation of Catholic apologists has emerged.
From within this framework, Olson’s book now comes, dealing with one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity: the Resurrection. To paraphrase St. Paul, if Christ has not risen from the dead, indeed conquered death itself, then our faith is in vain. It is fitting, therefore, that Olson tackles objections to this belief. These objections have a long pedigree; even in the pages of the Gospel, we find a conspiracy hatched to ‘cover-up’ the missing body of the Crucified. From Apostolic times, the fundamental attack by Gnostic and other heretical sects has always been on the Incarnation in general and on the Resurrection in particular. The enemies of Christianity, whether from within it or from without, have always understood that the Incarnation and the Resurrection are the central Christian tenets and, therefore, if demolished, that all else falls as well.
What is clear in Olson’s book is that the same old -and tired- arguments are constantly recycled anew down the centuries. What Olson and his fellow apologists must do today is to reply to these arguments and counter them. Even if the accusations are antiquated and stale, the counter arguments need to be relevant and fresh.
Olson has done his research. He knows the classic Catholic texts, both ancient and modern, from the Magisterium and elsewhere; he also has a good grasp of the more orthodox voices from Evangelical Protestantism. This is not surprising given his earlier formation. As befits the editor of a Catholic news site (Catholic World Report), he is more than aware of the latest atheistic challenges to Christian beliefs, as well as those coming from unorthodox Christian fellow travellers. Not only does he know who these writers are, and their positions, he is well able to demolish them. This is because, as with all the best apologists, he sees the bigger picture: 2,000 years of it. What is apparent is the limited, narrow, even faddish, element existing in the thought of Christianity’s detractors and the outré thinkers that influence them. As old as the hills is the temptation to remake Christianity in the image of the Zeitgeist – to conform to the spirit of the times rather than acknowledging that those times flow to an end point when their meaning will be revealed by the Author of time itself.
The format of the book is straightforward: ten chapters with titles such as The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Contradictions and Conspiracies, Methodology or Gospel Truth? Each chapter poses a number of questions; answers follow. The questions are familiar, and resurface with depressing regularity. Olson deals with them clearly, concisely and concretely. Often his arguments flow from the inherent weakness in materialist or New Age propositions. He exploits gaps in logic with a certain elan. In fact, there is a passion about Olson’s response that is heart-warming. There is also rapidity as, in chapter after chapter, the heterodox and the heretical are speedily despatched. It is obvious, more often than not, that the Resurrection’s detractors are clutching at straws – or, if you prefer, building their houses on intellectual sand that, with one vigorous breath of Truth, comes clattering down.
One senses that Olson enjoys his role. The danger for an apologist is to lurch into polemic, and its nasty brother: vitriol. Olson never ‘plays the man’ but instead considers the arguments in play in today’s debates. This adds strength to his writings, and is a reminder to us all that there is nothing less edifying than watching a Christian writer descend to bitter attack that may win a debate but lose an audience, and sometimes even one’s own supporters. Present here, instead, is a learned man who wears his learning lightly, but who, nevertheless, is writing in the full knowledge that he is entering into the fray of often cantankerous contemporary debate. Given the increasingly anti-Christian atmosphere all around us, taking up the Sword of Truth requires more than just erudition: it calls for courage.
This volume follows Olson’s earlier work on The Da Vinci Code. But, whereas that defense was against a novel with little more than a cartoon version of Christianity, this work deals with a much more solid opposition. Olson’s opponents here are modern writers and thinkers that, for better or worse, have shaped theological, philosophical, and even political discussions in the Western World.
For our benefit, Olson trawls through the many ‘theories’ out to prove the Resurrection never happened. Some are nothing more than the ‘conspiracy theory’ beloved of Dan Brown et al. through to the wildly imaginative such as the Hallucination theory – a theory that is based on very little and, as he shows, one that needs a certain degree of self-imposed hallucination to believe in from the outset. There is an air of intellectual superiority as he goes about his task. A refreshing stance in these days when so many have forgotten that a Catholic Apologist is not here to ‘apologise’ for anything, but simply to point to the truth, because if our faith is not true then what is it?
Speaking of truth, at times, the whole thing is reminiscent of a court of law. The exhibits are displayed; the evidence is called; the witnesses are cross-examined; and we, the jury, are left to return the verdict. And, it is as thrilling as any courtroom drama – theologically that is. The witnesses for the defence on one side: saints, prelates, and popes from the last 2000 years, and, alongside them many orthodox Christian writers from outside the Catholic Church. Facing them for the prosecution is a ragbag of accusers who lack any coherent philosophy other than a willingness to degrade or distort Christian belief. They are a curious mix of the historically speculative, the philosophically rationalist and the theologically eccentric ranging from those enamored with Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’ thesis through to those drowning in the pseudo-intellectual soup of New Age pantheism.
This book’s accessible theology is something that any High School student could benefit from reading. In fact, it is to that audience that it should be made most available since it is during adolescence when intellectual curiosity is often combined with naivety as the seeds of later theological rottenness are sown.
Naivety is not something of which Olson could be accused when it comes to reading the forces, and the real agenda behind them, in what seems to be merely theological debate. And whereas the temptation is to look at such discourse and what it reveals of the state of the world and its lack of belief only to curse it, Olson does nothing of the sort. He dialogues with it, robustly at times, but dialogue nonetheless. This demands a special gift: perseverance. One can only hope that this book, coming at the start of Olson’s career as a popular apologist, is not his last.
On closing Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? it is as if the trial has concluded; and, with the prosecution having done its worst and Olson his best, one hears the verdict ring out across the court: case dismissed!