The Epistemological Underpinnings of the Resurrection

The Resurrection: Intra and Trans – Historical

The topic is the Resurrection of Christ as a historical fact and yet at the same time as the truth of faith, in fact, as the confirmation of everything Christ said and did.

There are two epistemological horizons at work in the topic: 1) that the Resurrection is an intramundane event that is perceived by the senses and reason, and yet 2) does not have meaning without the “obedience of faith” whereby “man freely commits his entire self to God.”[1] There are two levels of experience at work here: that of the senses and the abstractive work and judgement of the intellect crafting sets of propositions; and that of the act of faith “which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be  lived out. Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn. 14, 6).”[2]

The reason for this dual experience is that the reality involved, the Incarnate Logos, is Yahweh (I Am) – who transcends his creation in such fashion that if the being of the created cosmos ceased to be (because it was freely created), God the Creator would not be less; and now that it exists, He is not more (Being) – and fully man.[3]  Hence the “I” (I Am) of the man Jesus (of Nazareth) is not perceptible to cosmic experience and can be known (re-cognized) only by one who becomes like[4] Him. The scriptures are explicit in the Greek that the “life” which Jesus resurrects – zwh- and which He has come to bring us abundantly (Jn. 10, 10), subsumes within itself the cosmic “life” of bios and yuch which are perceptible. St. Thomas has rendered this metaphysically by attributing the Esse Personale of the Word to the man Jesus as his very own act of being: “The eternal esse of the son of God which is identified with the divine nature becomes the existence of the man inasmuch as the human nature is assumed by the Son of God into the unity of his person.”[5]  But that assumption found its completion in the death on the Cross. That death was a work “from the inside” where the “I” of the Logos who is total self-gift to the Father in the Trinity, “adopts the being of the man Jesus into his own being and speaks of it in terms of his own I: `For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me’ (Jn. 6, 38). In the Son’s obedience, where both wills become one in a single Yes to the will of the Father, communion takes place between human and divine being… between Creator and creature.”[6] Hence, the man Jesus – His Body – who is visible, touchable and who eats before them – has been transformed by the total self-gift of the divine “I” – to death. He would be visible, but not recognizable until a like self-gift took place in the beholder so as to be able to experience Him “from within.” Death and Resurrection were not “happenings” as cosmic events in the case Jesus Christ. As Newman said, “his passion was an action.”[7] To die for the eternal Logos is an active verb, and the totality of his Being would not be recognizable except that He be experienced “from within.”[8] And to rise, “while…an event that is determined according to time and place, nevertheless (…) transcends and stands above history. No one beheld the event in itself. No one could have been an eyewitness of the event…. no one was an eyewitness of the resurrection. No one could say how it had happened in its physical reality. Still less could the senses perceive the most interior essence of his passage to another life.”[9]   Therefore, to understand what was going on with the cosmic events of the empty tomb, the passing through the door, the eating in their presence, the sudden appearing and disappearing, one had to recognize the presence of the transcendent “I” who is – “lives” (zaw) – in a totally transcendent dimension but who is immersed in space and time, and who in a way “hangs out” for forty days prior to the Ascension, revealing nothing new, but confirming the truth of all that had previously taken place.

For example, Mary Magdalene (“Sir, if thou hast removed him, tell me where thou hast laid him and I will take him away,” Jn. 20, 15), the two disciples of Emmaus (“Stay with us,” Lk. 24, 29) and the seven apostles at Genesareth (“Cast the net to the right… They cast,” Jn. 21, 6). On all three occasions, they re-cognize that “It is the Lord,” Jn. 21, 7). In each case, the act of faith consisted in a generous self-giving (“I will take him away,” “stay with us,” “they cast”), and in so doing they go through a change of likeness to Him Who is self-gift to the Father for us. Historically, this self-giving constituted an ontological change accompanied by a change of name. Abram, by obedience, became Abraham; Jacob, likewise, became Israel; Miriam became “full of grace;” Simon became Peter; Saul became Paul. Faith as self-gift produced such an ontological transformation in the believer that there was a change of name.

This ontological change brings with it a unique kind of experience and consciousness distinct from the experience of the senses and conceptualization. It is the experience of the self in the process of being restored to the original state of imaging (and beyond) where one would re-cognize the divine Person because His likeness was experienced in one’s very self. This likeness to God is experienced and “cognized” such that re-cognition can occur on the occasion of the cosmic sightings. Hence,


“In this sense Christ’s resurrection is beyond the purely historical dimension. It is an event pertaining to the trans-historical sphere, and therefore eludes the criteria of simple human empirical observation. It is true that Jesus, after the resurrection, appeared to his disciples. He spoke to them, had dealings with them, and even ate with them. He invited Thomas to touch him in order to be sure of his identity. However, this real dimension of his entire humanity concealed another life [zwh] which was now his, and which withdrew him from the normality of ordinary earthly life and plunged him in mystery.”[10]


As a cosmic event which transcends the cosmos because it is God Himself immersed in time and history, the Resurrection “is the greatest event in the history of salvation, and indeed, … in the history of humanity” since it confirms the truth of every word and deed of Jesus Christ, as well as giving “definitive meaning to the world.” “The whole world revolves around the cross, but only in the resurrection does the cross reach its full significance of salvific event. The cross and resurrection constitute the one paschal mystery in which the history of the world is centered.”[11]

It might be appropriate to conclude that the consideration of the Resurrection as historical event and truth of faith mimics the consideration of faith and reason, which are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (FR Preface).

[1] Dei Verbum #5.

[2] Veritatis Splendor #88.

[3] This most radical of all distinctions (because every other possible distinction presupposes it, is called “the Christian Distinction.” See R. Sokolowski’s “The God of Faith and Reason,” UNDP (1982) 31-40.

[4] J. Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One, (1984) 25-27. “Thesis 3: Since the center of the person of Jesus is prayer, it is essential to participate in his prayer if we are to know and understand him. Let us begin here with a very general matter of epistemology. By nature, knowledge depends on a certain similarity between the knower and the known. The old axiom is that like is known by like. In matters of the mind and where persons are concerned, this means that knowledge calls for a certain degree of empathy, by which we enter, so to speak, into the person or intellectual reality concerned, become one with him or it, and thus become able to understand (intellegere = ab intus legere)… Therefore, if prayer was revealed to the central act of the person of Jesus and, indeed, that this person is constituted by the act of prayerit is only possible really to understand this person by entering into this act of prayer, by participating in it” (underline mine).

[5] S. Th. III, 17, ad 2: Ad secundum dicendum quod illued esse aeternum Filii Dei, quod est divina natura, fit esse hominis, inquantum humana natura assumitur a Filio Dei in unitatem personae.”

[6] J. Ratzinger, op. cit., 92.

[7] John Henry Newman, The Mental Sufferings of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

[8] It is significant that John Paul II makes the same remark to George Weigel: “They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside,” Witness to Hope, Harper Collins 1999) 7,

[9] John Paul II, “The Resurrection Is a Historical Event that Transcends History,” Jesus, Son and Savior, DSP (1996) 508.

[10] Ibid. 509.

[11] Ibid. 511-512.

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