Resurrection Redux

If someone in our days were indubitably to rise from the dead, the Archbishop of Canterbury would be the first to deny it.

-- Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773)

I am an inveterate collector of quotations, which I will squirrel away on my computer against the day when I can fetch them to make a point – in this instance, a remark from Philip Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, statesman, author and notable wit. Except that in this case I find myself unable to verify that he actually said it, nor can I remember where I came across it to begin with. I am sure I did not simply make it up, since I had never previously heard of Lord Chesterfield. However, now that I know a bit more about him, I can tell you this is exactly the sort of bon mot for which he is celebrated. So we will proceed on the assumption it is his, even if he said no such thing. Consider yourself duly warned.

And what is the point I wanted to make by trotting out this potentially spurious quotation from his lordship? Just this: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is one doctrinal point on which all professing Christians can agree, even if they don’t actually believe it (and there are plenty who don’t). But what would happen if someone rose from the dead now? I am not speaking here of Jesus returning once again from the dead, another doctrinal point of which all Christians can agree. I’m talking about someone else rising from the dead, perhaps in some obscure place and attested to by the same sort of ragtag bunch as those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. Would the Archbishop of Canterbury be the first to deny it?

As far as I know, the Roman Catholic Church is the only Christian denomination with a formal process for verifying miracles. It is used to examine candidates for sainthood, who must be credited with two bona fide miracles in order to be canonized. In fairness to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is an Anglican, he would have no access to such expertise. Therefore, he would not be in a position either to confirm or to deny a miraculous event he had not witnessed himself -- certainly not any latter-day resurrection of the dead.

I suspect Lord Chesterfield invoked the Archbishop of Canterbury because he was the highest religious authority in Britain at that time. In apostolic times, the religious authorities were the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem. They thought they had eliminated Jesus as a threat by having him crucified, only to be confronted by reports that he had risen from the dead. Their response was to order Jesus’ followers to stop preaching in his name. When that didn’t work, they threw them in jail, which didn’t work either. Nothing worked, and now this once obscure Jewish sect is the most powerful religious institution in the world

If someone nowadays were indubitably to rise from the dead, how would religious authorities react? Would the Catholic Church’s “Miracle Commission,” as it is called, spring into action to verify the occurrence? I doubt it. The verification process is geared toward run-of-the-mill miracles, like miraculous healings, not an event that might call into question the underpinnings of the church. Christ’s divinity is based on his having risen from the dead, a singular event in human history.* You can’t have just anybody rising from the dead without causing people to wonder whether the “only begotten Son of God” was really an only child. And if not, then what?

In the Episcopal Church that I grew up in, as well as in the Lutheran and United Methodist Churches, the liturgies proclaim the “Mystery of Faith” to be: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." The verb tenses would suggest actions that originated in the past and continue into the present, but the Christian Church is overwhelmingly about events that occurred in the past and that will happen in the future. In the meanwhile, the church authorities have been left in charge. Who says so? Why, the church authorities themselves. It is hard to imagine them relinquishing their authority to some nobody from nowhere who claims to have risen from the dead. I doubt they would even bother to deny it. For them, the event would simply never happen.

*Although Jesus' resurrection is regarded as a singular occurence, there were nine other events recorded in the Old and New Testaments in which seemingly dead people were restored to life. Jesus himself was responsible for several, and the Apostles Peter and Paul accounted for another two. In addition, the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha both brought people back to life.

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