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Preaching the Resurrection

03 December 2018

Gerald O’Collins explores Augustine's thinking on resurrection

Preaching the Resurrection

More than a quarter of a century ago I began the research that eventually led to my Saint Augustine on the Resurrection of Christ (Oxford University Press, 2017). Over those years I kept watching for ways in which Augustine instructed and inspired church congregations and other audiences to accept and practise fully the message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

To a large extent, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul and other scriptural sources fed Augustine’s treatment of the resurrection. He spent much of his time interpreting and explaining the relevant texts of Sacred Scripture. Throughout he aimed at supporting belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is nothing less than the very heart of Christian faith and identity.

Augustine showed himself sensitive to objections that persist today. What, for instance, are we to make of the differences between the Gospel stories? Did three women find Jesus’ tomb open and empty on the third day (Mark)? Or only two (Matthew)? Or Mary Magdalene alone (John)? Where did the risen Jesus first meet his disciples? In Jerusalem or in Galilee? But Augustine knew that difficulties over such secondary details are relatively insignificant compared with the central challenge: is a bodily resurrection from the dead possible? In his time, as is the case today, many sophisticated thinkers simply ruled out the very possibility of such a resurrection.


The Importance of Creation

A robust faith in God as Creator proved essential for the case being developed. The God who made all things from nothing, Augustine insisted, will not lack the means when it comes to the work of the resurrection. Here Augustine, over and over again, showed his sense of wonder at the marvellous things we meet in the created world. He waxed eloquent about one common but extraordinary beautiful thing we can take for granted — the growth of babies in the wombs of mothers. In fact, Augustine showed himself more astonished by the miracle of birth (as the coming into existence of a person who did not previously exist) than he was by the miracle of resurrection (as the restoration of a person who had existed to the new existence of resurrection).

Many people today may not share Augustine’s astonishment at the marvellous universe in which we live. Yet there are also many who find themselves amazed at what modern astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine — including the development of babies in the womb — have revealed about the workings of nature. Astonishment at the wonders of God’s creation can predispose them to accept the Christian belief in the new creation that is Christ’s resurrection and will be ours.


The Case from History

If nature makes resurrection believable, so too does human history. Augustine argues from the visible effect or what people of his generation could see for themselves (almost the whole of Roman society accepting the resurrection of Jesus) to the only adequate cause for this historical fact: the victory of Christ over death. Since the original witnesses to that resurrection were very few and ill equipped, the success of their message about Christ’s resurrection cannot be explained on merely human grounds. God must have worked in and through these unpromising witnesses and convinced people of the truth of their message.

Augustine argued that the human resources of the first disciples cannot explain the highly successful propagation of their Easter message. Here we need to add something to Augustine’s argument. The fate of Jesus himself had created problems that, humanly speaking, were unsurmountable. The public of his day understood crucifixion as the death of a criminal who, banished from God’s presence, had died cursed by God and in the company of the irreligious (Galatians 3: 13; Hebrews 13: 12-13). To honour anyone who had perished in that way was an awful and profound scandal (1 Corinthians 1: 23). We cannot explain either how the original disciples themselves came to believe in such a person as their risen Lord and Saviour or how their proclamation of him enjoyed such striking success unless Jesus had been truly raised from the dead.

Thus, Augustine’s argument from observable effects in the history of Christianity to their only adequate and plausible cause (the resurrection) needs to incorporate the shocking nature of what they proclaimed. God had raised to glorious, eternal life someone who had died as a criminal rejected by the religious authorities of his time and apparently cursed by God as a blasphemer. What the crucifixion was commonly understood to mean made the message of Christ’s resurrection extraordinarily implausible. Despite it seeming to be simply unbelievable, the message about God vindicating and raising the dead Jesus had become widely accepted, and this success can by explained only through the message being true and supported by God.

Augustine’s argument from a demonstrable effect to the resurrection being the only adequate cause that can account for this effect has continued in modern times. Some have argued, for instance, from the spread of Christianity compared with that of other religious movements


Resurrection and the Spread of Christianity

After a short public career, which at most lasted only three or four years, Jesus was abandoned by nearly all his close followers, crucified as a messianic pretender, and apparently rejected by God (Mark 15: 34), whom he had confidently proclaimed as ‘Abba’ or ‘Father dear’. Yet within a few years the reform movement which he had led within Judaism spread explosively to become a world religion. How can we plausibly account for this phenomenon? We might point to certain historical reasons which helped the spread of Christianity: for instance, the rise of the Roman Empire that enabled relatively easy communication around the first-century, Mediterranean world. Add too that slaves, women, and many in the working classes found no other religious option more attractive than Christianity.

Nevertheless, what do things look like if we compare Jesus with other religious founders? A number of this-worldly factors which explain the propagation of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam by the Gautama (died about 483 BC), Confucius (died 478 BC), and Muhammad (died 632 AD), respectively, do not apply to Christianity. In the case of these three founders, time was on their side. Gautama passed most of his long life teaching the way of enlightenment. The Chinese sage Confucius also spent years spreading his wisdom and attracting disciples, until he died and was buried with great pomp outside Kufow. A wealthy wife and military victories helped Muhammad to gather followers and propagate his teaching and practice. As the recognized prophet of Arabia, he died in Medina and was buried there.

In these three very notable cases, we can point to causes which furthered the spread, respectively of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam: the long careers of the founders, financial and other resources, and success in battle. In the case of Christianity, the founder enjoyed none of these advantages. His public career was extremely short; he lacked military and financial support, and his life ended in humiliating failure and a disgraceful death on a cross. After all that, the subsequent propagation of the message of universal salvation in his name remains an enigmatic puzzle, unless we admit a cause (the resurrection) adequate to account for the effect.


The Hunger and Eyes of the Heart

Augustine draws on creation and Christian history to support the truth of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But he also appealed to the desires of the human heart. He began one sermon on Easter Monday (preached in 412 or 413 AD) by remarking that ‘you all want to live happy lives. But what is it that will really make you happy?’ It is eternal life with the risen Christ that will give us the true and lasting happiness for which we long. Our hunger for happiness raises the question, which faith in the resurrection answers.

In presenting the value and truth of Christ’s resurrection, Augustine did not neglect the Holy Spirit. Apropos of Romans 5: 5 (where Paul speaks of the ‘love of God poured into our hearts through the Spirit’), Augustine firmly declared in his Letter 140: the love infused by the Spirit is also ‘the light of the heart.’ This light makes possible ‘an inner gazing of the heart’ by which believers see the risen Lord. In a sermon from 396 or 397 AD, Augustine observed: ‘we didn’t see him hanging on the cross, nor observe him rising from the tomb. We hold this by faith; we behold it with the eyes of the heart’ (Sermon 263). Augustine recognized that Easter faith goes beyond evidence from creation and history to the enlightening love conferred by the Holy Spirit. At the end, belief in the risen Christ is a matter of a Spirit-prompted ‘seeing with the heart’, a seeing and knowing that is born from loving.


Updating Augustine and Others

Over many years Augustine preached and wrote eloquently about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In doing the research needed for the composition of Saint Augustine on the Resurrection of Christ, there were hundreds of pages for me to read and reflect on. What emerged seems as pertinent and valuable as it was many centuries ago.

Augustine recognized how wonder at the constant marvels of creation, such as the birth of children, predisposes us to believe in the new creation of resurrection. Likewise, he endorsed the argument from effects (like the spread against all odds of Christianity) to the only plausible cause (the resurrection of Jesus). He appreciated how the human hunger for full and lasting happiness opens us up, through the eternal witness of the Holy Spirit, to hear the Easter message. He knew, above all, that the love and light infused by the Spirit operate in and through the deep connection between knowing and loving. It is ‘with the eyes of our heart’ that we can ‘gaze’ upon the crucified and risen Jesus.

Augustine’s preaching of Christ’s resurrection still offers much of value. But, here and there, it needs to be updated and enhanced — for instance, by the marvels discovered by modern science. The same is true of other great students and preachers of the resurrection, like St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and Karl Rahner in the twentieth. We will be blessed if we retrieve what they wrote and develop it, in suitable ways, through modern history, science, and psychology.


The author or co-author of sixty-seven books, Gerald O’Connor has received numerous honorary doctorates and other awards. In 2006 he was created a Companion of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AC), the highest civil honour granted through the Australian government.

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