Easter and the Prophets
We have suggested that Latter-day Saints might be said to accept certain traditions common to the whole Christian world more wholeheartedly and with less reservation than most Christians do inasmuch as they take as literal what the rest of the world accepts in a rather vague, symbolic, or sentimental sense. Easter furnishes as good an illustration as any of what we mean by this.
There are two aspects of Easter—a formal and a literal or, one might say, a ritual and a doctrinal. The formal aspect is that which everybody knows so well and to which we all subscribe. We all do certain things at Easter whatever we may think. The uncritical acceptance of ancient customs has precious little to do with any particular doctrine. The bands and fireworks at a political rally are not an expression of the multitude's irrepressible enthusiasm for the party's principles; they are rather the means employed to create a popular enthusiasm with the hopes of transferring some of that emotion to the cause of the party. In the same spirit, the Christian church, long after the Apostles, adopted the myriad Easter practices now found throughout the world. At the end of the sixth century, missionaries to Britain were impressed and disturbed by the great spring festival of the heathen natives of the island; they asked Gregory the Great what they should do about it, and in a famous letter he replied that they should let the people keep their darling festivities while turning the whole thing into a Christian celebration. Let them continue to slaughter their oxen and build their booths of green boughs, is Gregory's advice, only let it now be done not for the devil but in praise of God, "for," he writes, "it is absolutely certain that it is quite impossible to uproot everything at once from stubborn minds, since . . . it is necessary for them to aspire by degrees or steps, and not by leaps and bounds."1 Long before, Constantine the Great had followed the same policy in the East.
The equinoctial rites of the rebirth of nature have been celebrated throughout the world from the remotest antiquity. The rabbits, eggs, lights, and flowers of Easter were no more Christian in origin than Christmas trees and Yule logs. Yet in most parts of the world, these things were retained by Christians because of their extreme popularity and because they actually do express man's hope for a new and better life. The danger of embracing non-Christian practices was a real one, however, and did not go unnoticed.2 Clement of Alexandria warned the Christians against the marbles and paintings of heathen temples, not, he explained, because they were bad in themselves, but because to the minds of most people they were sure to appear so imposing as to be treasured for their own sakes, living as it were a life of their own and completely eclipsing the things of the spirit.3 When in the fourth century the church started taking over these things, St. Jerome expressed grave concern at what was happening.4 Since the Christmas and Easter rites of the Christians are the most imposing of all artistic and ritual complexes, it would be strange indeed if they did not quite overshadow the doctrinal concepts which first justified their introduction into the churches. Gregory's hope, as he clearly stated it, was that by making large concession to the popular will, the people might be swung gradually over into the Christian orbit. Yet, bearing in mind that the old customs were being retained precisely because the people were too stubborn to give them up, there certainly was great danger that the opposite would take place, and the established customs of a thousand years would prove of greater mass and charge than the new Christian teaching which, accordingly, would be sucked into the older orbit. This was exactly what happened.
Constantine considered as one of his greatest triumphs the christianizing of the great international festival of Mamre in Palestine. He retained the festival, but he christianized it thoroughly.5 Yet a pious Christian lady who visited the celebration a generation later reported that while the wonderful rites were in full swing, the Christian veneer had worn off, and the whole show had reverted to its primal paganism.6 At the same time, almost in the same year that this observation was made, John Chrysostom, the bishop of what claimed to be the oldest and greatest church in Christendom, that of Antioch, complained that everybody came to church at Easter and at Easter only, simply because it was the thing to do. For the rest of the year, he spoke to empty walls.7 Even at this early date, the formal aspect of Easter had completely overcome the doctrinal.
The only real justification for the Christian Easter is the proposition that the resurrection of Christ actually took place—not as a symbol, a myth, a hope, a tradition, or a dream, but as a real event. The Lord himself after the resurrection took the greatest care to impress the literalness of the event on the minds of all his followers. Having risen from the dead, Christ came to his disciples and found them confused, perplexed, incredulous. He "upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen" (Mark 16:14), and showed them in detail how the ancient prophets had actually predicted what had happened. He ordered them to feel him and see for themselves that he was not a spirit, but that the flesh had been resurrected; he ordered food to be brought and ate it in their presence, inviting them to dine with him. He told them that whenever they met after his departure they should continue to eat real bread and drink real wine to remind them that he had been with them in the flesh.
There was need to make this lesson perfectly clear, for men have always been reluctant to believe it. Matthew concludes his gospel with the report that "when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17). The Apostles had to rebuke members of the church who simply would not believe in the resurrection, and John noted with alarm that "many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" (2 John 7). "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead," writes Paul to the Corinthians, "how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12.)
Next, the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, the oldest texts to survive after the time of the Apostles, show the spreading and deepening of the anti-resurrection trend in the church. Two charges are constantly brought against church members by the Apostolic Fathers: 1) that they are ashamed of the crucifixion, and 2) that they deny the resurrection. "I know that Christ had a body after the resurrection," cried Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, "and I believe that he still has."8 (We may note in passing that there is no thought here of a "mystic" body.) Ignatius pleads with the Trallians to believe that Christ "really and truly was born, and he ate and drank, and he was really and actually sentenced under Pontius Pilate, and was actually crucified and died. . . . And that he really and truly was raised from the dead. . . . But if as certain atheists, that is, non-believers, say, he only appeared to have suffered . . . why am I going to fight beasts?" 9 In the longer version Ignatius rebukes those who do not believe in the resurrection; others that say God cannot be known; others that think Christ was unbegotten; others who claim that the Holy Ghost is not a reality; and others who say that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are the same.10
The sorrows and alarms of the Apostolic Fathers were followed by the perplexities of the doctors. Most of the early doctors of the church were ardent Hellenists or Neoplatonists, and there was no place in such schools of thought for a God who contaminates himself by contact with the physical or limits himself by taking the form of a man. "We are stunned with the greatest amazement," wrote Origen, perhaps the most influential of all Christian philosophers next to Augustine himself, "that this the most eminent of all natures, putting off its state of majesty, should become a man. . . . It is utterly beyond human comprehension that the Word of the Father . . . should be thought of as confined within that man who appeared in Judea. But that the Wisdom of God should have entered the womb of a woman, and been born a baby, and cried and wailed just like other crying babies, and then suffered death and said that his soul was sorrowful unto death, and been led off to the most undignified of all deaths . . . seeing such things the human intellect is stopped in its tracks, so stunned with amazement that it knows not where to turn. . . . It is far beyond our powers to explain. I suppose it even goes beyond the capacity of the holy Apostles; nay, it is quite possible that the explanation of this sacrament is beyond the powers of all the celestial beings." Not only does Origen not know what to think about the Lord's physical presence on earth; he does not even know what to believe about it, and in his explanations is careful to specify that he is presenting only his "suspicions rather than any manifest affirmations."11 And so he speculates on the resurrection of the flesh: only the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost can live without bodies, he tells us, "because it is right and proper to think of the Trinity alone as existing incorporeally." But then he considers that if one thing can live without a body, others can too, and if others, why not all? "That being the case, bodies will be dispensed with in eternity, there being no need for them. . . . To be subject to Christ is to be subject to God, and to be subject to God is to have no need of a body."12 Commenting on this, St. Jerome writes a century and a half later: "If all things, as this order of reasoning compels us to believe, shall live without body, the whole universe of corporeal things shall be consumed, and return again to that nothing out of which it was created."13
Note the vanity of the schoolmen in Origen's remarks: What he cannot conceive of because of his limited experience must necessarily be beyond the grasp of Apostles, angels, and all celestial beings! It is this sublime confidence in the adequacy of one's own knowledge and the finality of one's own experience that makes the resurrection of the flesh the principal thorn in the incorporeal minds of the schoolmen. According to St. Augustine, the resurrection of the flesh is the one thing that the pagans cannot take, it is the one thing with which the philosophers have no patience, and is above all the one thing that distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian.14 Since it is the one doctrine that makes Christians Christians, it is alarming to learn from St. Augustine that in his day "in nothing is there so much conflict and controversy among Christians themselves as on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh." "On no other matter," he writes, "do they disagree so vehemently, so obstinately, so resolutely, or so contentiously as on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh. For as far as the immortality of the soul is concerned many a pagan philosopher too has argued about that and bequeathed us vast heaps of writings to the effect that the soul is immortal. But when it comes to the resurrection of the flesh they won't argue, but dismiss it out of hand as impossible, and that on the grounds that it is impossible for this earthly flesh to aspire to heaven."15
I cannot resist noting here that the objection of the pagans to the resurrection is not a physical or a biological but a philosophical one, and it is the very same objection which the Christian world today makes against the Latter-day Saint conception of God: that there can be nothing of a bodily nature in the celestial. Yet the resurrected Christ was God. Is it any wonder that the Christians could never agree among themselves on this, the central doctrine of their religion? The doctors of the later church only touch lightly upon this theme, and with obvious embarrassment. St. Augustine had far more to say on the subject than any other father of the church; he speculates that the body may become spirit in the sense of acquiring unlimited mobility, but he is not sure;16 he does not know exactly how to take the doctrine, very popular in his day, that the resurrection was a resurrection of the spirit (anima) only,17 and again, he says he would like to know how he is to think of a "spiritual body" such as ours will be after the resurrection, but he does not know how, and would be glad to find someone who could teach him.18 This was exactly the puzzled and hesitant attitude of Augustine's great eastern counterpart, Origen.
It was those teachings that were not common to the schools and not discoverable by the use of reason that set Christianity off from the rest of the world. As Clement says, if these things could have been discovered by human wit, there would have been no need for Christ to come to earth in person, and on the other hand, if human philosophy cannot discover them, then human philosophy has precious little to contribute to the study of the gospel.19 The unique value of Christianity lies in those things which would never in a million years occur to men if left to themselves. Its moral and social teachings are by no means unique; as we have said before, the pagans laughed at idols as loudly as any Christian apologist; we have just quoted Augustine as saying that the pagan philosophers wrote reams on the immortality of the soul; the apologists love to point out at great length that the concept of one God, far from being a Christian contribution to knowledge, was clearly set forth in the writings of poets and sages who lived long before Christ.
It was Karl Holl who noted that an unanswerable argument for the historicity of Christ is to be found in the strangeness of his teachings. What he taught was not at all familiar doctrine but, to use Holl's own expression, "a slap in the face" to all the teachers of the time, Greek and Jew alike. 20 The teaching that amazed and dumbfounded his own disciples could hardly have been familiar doctrine anywhere. From this emerge two obvious conclusions. The first is that Jesus actually lived—a man standing out in sharp relief against a totally hostile social environment, for without such a leader no group of men could have come together, formed a society, and propounded a doctrine that ran counter to all their own teaching, upbringing, and experience, both individual and collective. The second is that since Jesus was not a product of his time, is not to be explained in terms of his background, and cannot have got his ideas from a society to which they were utterly strange and obnoxious, he must have obtained his perfect conviction from personal experience. For the present, what can we do but accept his own version of the thing? He really had seen the Father; he really had seen Lucifer fall from heaven; he really did speak with Moses and Elias on the mount; he really did receive the ministrations of angels in the desert, and there he really did discourse with Satan; he really was before Abraham's day; and he was really resurrected.
The resurrection is the heart of the Christian teaching: "If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. . . . If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Corinthians 15:14, 19).
There is nothing paradoxical about the resurrection. There is nothing paradoxical about a flying machine, once one has seen one in operation. But seeing the thing operate, over and above all theoretical considerations of whether it should operate or not, is the ultimate and only test. When falls of meteorites were reported in the eighteenth century, the learned members of the French Academy argued with perfect and unanswerable logic that such a thing simply could not be. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said regarding a meteorite that fell in Connecticut in 1807, "I could more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven."21 Logically, there was no answer to the natural philosophers. We still don't know where meteorites come from. But where the eighteenth-century scientists fell down was exactly where Origen failed. He was convinced that what he could not reason out was beyond reason; they were convinced that what their science had not officially noted simply did not exist, and that what could not be scientifically explained—by them—was necessarily impossible. But even with the fullest scientific information at hand such a conclusion is not warranted. Every scientist knows that the drawing board and the equation do not have the final word, no matter how accurate and exhaustive the work on them may be. There is only one way to know whether the thing will fly or not.
Once the fall of meteorites was proved by witnesses in 1803, the Academy promptly shifted from complete denial to complete acceptance, and all acted as if they had never questioned such a thing for a moment. So it was with the resurrection. In a moment, Thomas changed from doubt to assurance so perfect that he was astonished and humiliated at ever having doubted anything so obvious. No matter how wildly improbable or paradoxical or utterly impossible a thing may seem to the cleverest people on earth, only by witness and not by reason, theory, or speculation may its truth be ultimately established, whether the truth be scientific or religious. "This is the testimony . . . which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him . . . and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father" (D&C 76:22—23). Compare this testimony of modern prophets with that of the ancients: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; . . . That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you." (1 John 1:1, 3.) After all, it is the testimony of the prophets that gives us the real Easter.
1. Gregorius Magnus, Epistle 76, lxxvi, in PL 77:1215—16.
2. See editor's note on the above, ibid.
3. Clement of Alexandria, Cohortatio ad Gentes, in PG 8:153, 157, 160.
4. Jerome, Epistle 128, in PL 22:1099.
5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History II, 4, in PG 67:944; Eusebius, De Vita Constantini III, 51—53, in PG 20:1116B, 1112.
6. Silva Aquitana or Egeria, Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta XX, 8.
7. John Chrysostom, in PG 49:363—65; 51:143—45; 56:257, 263; 57:384ff; 64:461—62, 623—25, 629.
8. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 3, in PG 5:709.
9. Ibid., Epistle to the Trallians 9, in PG 5:681.
10. Ibid., 9, in PG 5:681. (Other codices: F, O, U, V.)
11. Origen, Peri Archon II, 6, 2, in PG 11:210.
12. Ibid., II, 3, in PG 11:188—91.
13. Ibid.; Jerome is summarizing, not defending, the doctrine.
14. Augustine, Questiones ex Utroque mixtim 114, in PL 35:23, 45; Sermon 109, 2 in PL 39:1961; Dialogus Questionum LXV, Question 27, in PL 40:743; De Civitate Dei xiii, 19, in PL 41:392—93; De Trinitate IV, 17, 23, in PL 42:903.
15. Ibid., Ennaratio in Psalmum 88, in PL 37:1134.
16. Ibid., Epistle 147, 19—21 (Class III), in PL 33:618—19.
17. Ibid., Epistle 164, 3, in PL 33:712, cf. 38:944; 39:1614, 1628.
18. Ibid., Epistle 147, 19—21, in PL 33:618.
19. Clement of Alexandria, Cohortatio Ad Gentes XI, in PG 8:229. See above, Chapter 10.
20. Karl Holl, "Urchristentum und Religionsgeschichte," Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie 2 (1924): 403.
21. Fletcher Watson, Between the Planets (Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1945), 172-73; reprinted (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 147.