Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb (1440-1442)
Is the resurrection of Jesus a myth or a miracle? Did Jesus really die and then come back to life never to die again? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became fashionable in certain theological circles to talk about the resurrection of Jesus as an example Christian mythology – a fiction created by believing disciples to celebrate their fallen hero.
Myths about dying-and-rising gods were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. They calmed both the fear of dying and the fear of crop failure, which are really the same fear, because crops failure leads to hunger, famine, and death.
Tammuz, the Babylonian god of vegetation and harvest, was wildly popular in the ancient world. He had the misfortune of falling in love with Ishtar, the fickle goddess of love and fertility. And just as sure as crops die every year, their relationship led to his death. Tammuz descended to the underworld. Devastated, Ishtar mourned him pitifully. The worshipers of Tammuz followed Ishtar’s example and took part in a mourning ritual each fall after the harvest ended. Ishtar managed to go to the underworld and secure his release on the condition that he return to the dark abode six months of every year. For the Babylonians this myth was comforting. It explained the cycle of seasons, giving them assurance that spring would come every year. The Bible even mentions Tammuz in the book of Ezekiel (8:14-15).
Tammuz wasn’t the only dying-and-rising god. There was the Egyptian god Osiris, the Roman god Adonis, and the Canaanite god Baal, who makes frequent appearances in the Old Testament. These are just a few of many dying-and-rising gods in the ancient world.
But the story of Jesus’s resurrection is different. For one thing, there’s no story of the resurrection anywhere in the New Testament. The canonical Gospels give details of Jesus’s trial, execution, and death. Sometimes the details are so vivid they make us uncomfortable. After Jesus was buried there are stories of the empty tomb and Jesus’s postmortem appearances to the disciples and to others. But what transpired inside the tomb remains a mystery. There’s no account anywhere in the Bible about what happened inside the tomb. There is no story of the resurrection event itself. If it’s mythology, it’s mythology without a myth! The New Testament doesn’t present the resurrection of Jesus as a story to be told and retold, but as a fact to be believed.
Before his death Jesus predicted his resurrection. He said, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2:18-21). On another occasion Jesus said, “Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus used these metaphors to teach a literal truth about his resurrection. Skeptical theologians turn the literal truth of the resurrection into a metaphor.
St. Paul believed in the resurrection. In fact, he said Christianity is bunk without it: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).
Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is the main tenant of our faith, the lynchpin of all we believe. Read through the book of Acts and you’ll find that it’s the central theme of all the apostles’ teaching. It’s what roughly a billion people on the planet believe. It’s what the church has believed for two thousand years. It’s what Christian martyrs believed and gave their lives for. It’s what I believe. The resurrection of Jesus is a miracle, not a myth.