Chapter 3
Post-Vatican II Catholic Theology on the Resurrection

Pre-Vatican II Catholic Biblical Scholarship

By the beginning of the twentieth century Catholic biblical scholars like Marie-Joseph Lagrange and Alfred Loisy had taken up historical-critical studies like their Protestant counterparts, but these initiatives, not always without problems, fell victim to the repressive campaigns waged against modernism. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, for example, issued a series of decrees that asserted the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (1906), and the historical character of Genesis (1909), among other things.

While Catholic scriptural scholars continued to work in a critical way in this repressive climate, it was not until Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante Spiritu, in 1943 that they could do so more freely and openly. The Jesuit exegete Xavier Léon-Dufour, for example, who had begun reading Lagrange, Loisy, and Maurice Goguel in the early 1940s, recalled how the encyclical’s appearance several years later was fortunate “for his life as a churchman.”1

This more progressive official atmosphere inaugurated by the encyclical was reinforced by the 1948 letter of the Secretary of the Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard, modifying the earlier decrees of the Commission on the authorship of the Pentateuch and on Genesis, and in 1955 a similar letter freed scholars from the rest of the early decrees of the Commission. The pioneering efforts of Catholic biblical scholars and the positive climate from 1943 had allowed a generation of progressive Catholic students of the Bible to mature.2

In 1958, however, as Pius XII fell mortally ill, the Roman Congregation of Seminaries and Universities spoke out against A. Robert’s and A. Feuillet’s Introduction à la Bible. And in September of 1960 a young Jesuit scriptural scholar, Luis Alonso Schökel, wrote a twelve page article in Civilità cattolica called “Where is Catholic Exegesis Headed?” in which he noted how different the direction of the first part of the century had been from the time after Divino afflante Spiritu. It was answered by a 70-page broadside by Antonino Romeo, professor of Sacred Scripture at the Lateran University, who also worked at the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities. There had been no change in direction, Romeo asserted, and he went on to criticize the whole progressive wing of Catholic biblical scholars, naming M. Zerwick of the Biblical Institute, Jean Levie, and others, and adding Teilhard de Chardin for good measure. For Romeo, “a whole swarm of termites working away incessantly in the shadows, at Rome and in all parts of the world, forces one to take note of the execution of a massive plan, a buzzing about and gnawing away at the doctrines that form and nourish our Catholic faith,”3 a plan aimed at the substitution of a Christianity of “the new times” for the Christianity of the last nineteen centuries. Romeo’s attack was one of several similar preemptive moves by conservative forces in Rome on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, a battle that became fully engaged in regard to scriptural matters in the conciliar debates over the schema on revelation.4

These kinds of repressive tactics associated with earlier campaigns against modernism could not help but to provoke progressive reactions, and these struggles showed themselves openly in the Council. And sometimes these progressive reactions went too far and expressed themselves in what could be called excessive, ultra-progressive formulations.5 Rather remarkably, despite affairs like the controversy of 1960, Catholic biblical scholarship was less affected by these dynamics than Catholic theology. It remained for the most part “solidly centrist,” to use the words of Raymond Brown, that is, progressive yet not reacting to past repression by way of formulating radical positions. Catholic theology, on the other hand, even, or perhaps especially, when it was a matter of incorporating the results of historical-critical studies, was not always so balanced. Part of the reason for this difference can be found in the fact that despite the trials the Catholic exegetes had undergone, after Divino afflante Spiritu they had been allowed to work with a measure of official approval, and thus had a chance to work out some of the tensions caused by earlier repressions.6

Theologians for their part had endured their own long, dry period after the condemnation of modernism when standard fare was the neo-scholastic manuals, and which had continued in the controversy over the nouvelle théologie in the years following World War II. The theme of the resurrection had fared poorly in preconciliar times. It was looked upon as a matter of apologetics, a proof to guarantee what Jesus had said and done rather than something at the very heart of Christian faith, and it was reduced to a short scholion attached to the treatise on redemption.7 Therefore it is not surprising that something like F.X. Durrwell’s Resurrection, a work of biblical theology which appeared in 1950, found a ready reception, nor is it to be wondered at that with the new era ushered in by the Council we find a burst of exegetical and theological work on the resurrection in the 1960s and the early 1970s, for example, Pierre Benoit’s 1966, The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and Léon-Dufour’s 1971, Resurrection and the Message of Easter. This exegetical ferment did not go unnoticed in Rome, but instead of being met with repressive decrees, the exegetes were invited to hold a seminar under Vatican auspices in 1970, and display the fruits of their critical labors. Among those making presentations were B.M. Ahern, R.E. Brown, J. Dupont, A. Feuillet, J. Guitton, J. Kremer, M.-J. le Guillou, X. Léon-Dufour, and C.M. Martini, and the participants were addressed by Paul VI.8

Theologians of the resurrection would have profited from a similar non-confrontational venue. But there the assimilation of historical-critical studies in the theology of the resurrection went less smoothly. We can discern a split between the moderate theology of a Gerald O’Collins or a Raymond Brown in 1973, and the more radical presentations of Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx in 1974.

Gerald O’Collins and Raymond Brown

O’Collins in his 1973 The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (The Easter Jesus) makes use of recent biblical scholarship on the resurrection. He suggests, for example, that two authentic but separate traditions lie behind the Gospel resurrection narratives. One is the appearance of Jesus to Peter and the twelve, and the other the women visiting the empty tomb, and it is only gradually that these two traditions came together, first in Mark’s Gospel, then in Luke, and finally in fully integrated form in John.9 He also thinks it is more plausible, although “a minor point”10 that the first appearance took place in Galilee. But these kinds of exegetical speculations that we examined in Chapter 1 did not prevent him from seeing the importance of the empty tomb.

“On whatever grounds, may we then repudiate the authentic historicity of the empty-tomb tradition? In my opinion, this would amount to tampering seriously and unnecessarily with the early Christian witness to the resurrection. On the available evidence the substantial factuality of the empty-tomb tradition has much to be said for it and no convincing argument against it.”11

O’Collins was to go on and write a whole series of books and articles on the resurrection: What Are They Saying about the Resurrection? in 1978, Interpreting Jesus in 1983, and Jesus Risen in 1987, and contributed to and coedited The Resurrection, An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus in 1997. And in the course of considering many modern exegetical and theological opinions about the resurrection he maintained a sense of theological balance.

If we could call O’Collins a theologian well grounded in exegesis, then we could describe Raymond Brown as a scripture scholar well acquainted with the theological implications of his work as an exegete. In his 1973 The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus with a sureness of touch he summed up many of the exegetical issues surrounding the resurrection, and presented his hypothesis, as we saw in Chapter 1, that the first appearance of Jesus had taken place in Galilee, a theory he had felt free to speak about in Rome in 1970, and he described, as well, how a streamlined empty tomb narrative with no angelic message could have underlied Mark’s Gospel, with the two traditions of the appearances and the empty tomb slowly coming together. This position was much like the one presented by O’Collins that same year. But like O’Collins, these bold exegetical speculations did not make Brown doubt the historicity of the empty tomb. In regard to Joseph of Arimathea he wrote: “It is virtually certain that he was not a figment of Christian imagination, that he was remembered precisely because he had a prominent role in the burial of Jesus, and thus that there was someone who knew exactly where Jesus had been buried.”12 And in drawing his final conclusions of what exegesis has to say about the resurrection of Jesus, he wrote: “And so from a critical study of the biblical evidence I would judge that Christians can and indeed should continue to speak of a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Our earliest ancestors in the faith proclaimed a bodily resurrection in the sense that they did not think that Jesus’ body had corrupted in the tomb.”13 And there is nothing in what we have seen up until now that would force us to disagree with Brown’s conclusion. Quite the contrary. But 1974 saw two massive theological tomes that disagreed with O’Collins and Brown, and did so largely on exegetical grounds.

Hans Küng

Hans Küng in On Being a Christian says many admirable things about the resurrection. He asks, for example, how after Jesus was condemned and executed as a criminal, and his disciples, demoralized and dejected, could his followers have turned around and boldly proclaimed him as the risen Lord?14 What was needed was not some deduction on the part of the disciples, but some new experiences.15 These were experiences that took place “in broad daylight.”16 and they were not merely an expression of the disciples’ faith in him, but “experiences of him.”17

But this welcome assertion of the reality of the resurrection does not extend to the empty tomb. Küng tells us that Paul in First Corinthians never mentions it, and “could imagine the resurrection in the sense of being clothed with a new body already awaiting us in heaven”18 and so he might have assumed that Jesus’ body remained in the tomb. But even if Paul “could not imagine a resurrection without an empty tomb...”19 – which is more probable as we saw – “his resurrection faith rests neither on the empty tomb nor on certain events on Easter morning.” Küng goes on to tell us, “It is scarcely possible, therefore, to refute the assumption that the stories of the tomb as legendary elaborations of the message of the resurrection.”20 This is an exegetical judgment we hardly need to take as definitive. One need only note the difficulties the disciples would have had preaching the risen Jesus in Jerusalem while his body was in the tomb, a problem Küng recognizes but tries to downplay by suggesting the lapse between the burial and the preaching would have made the verification of the body difficult, or that the preaching, itself, would not have made a stir in Jerusalem.21 Küng realizes that “a number of influential exegetes even today” hold the empty tomb as “historically probable,” but he tells us that the empty tomb “cannot provide any proof of the resurrection.”22 It is certainly true that the empty tomb only tells us the body is missing, but given the resurrection appearances, and Jewish understanding of the resurrection as bodily, then the empty tomb becomes an integral part of the proclamation of the resurrection. Küng, however, will come to the conclusion that faith in the risen Christ, therefore, is independent of the empty tomb. It might have played a role once in the resurrection faith of the early church, but historical-critical studies and the natural sciences have rendered it suspect: “To maintain the identity God does not need the relics of Jesus’ earthly existence. We are not tied to physiological ideas of the resurrection. There can be identity of the person even without continuity between the earthly and the “heavenly,” “spiritual” body. Resurrection is not tied to the substratum – a priori constantly changing – or the elements of this particular body. The corporality of the resurrection does not require the tomb to be empty. God raises the person in a new, different, unimaginable “spiritual corporality.”23 But Küng’s exegetical arguments are not developed in any detail, nor are they particularly convincing, and just what conclusions of the natural sciences he has in mind is not spelled out here. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Küng’s view of the empty tomb, and more importantly of the bodily resurrection, is strongly conditioned by what he conceives as reasonable for people today. Yet Küng is asserting that while the resurrection is neither a historical event nor a miraculous one, it is somehow still a real event, but this kind of qualifying of the event tends to evacuate its reality. The empty tomb is not the assertion of a resuscitation of the body of Jesus – the Gospels, themselves, make that clear – so we are not left with a choice between a this worldly return of the body of Jesus and  Küng’s spiritual body which appears to have left all its corporeal aspects behind. The real issue is if there is a way to talk about the bodily resurrection of Jesus.24

Edward Schillebeeckx

Edward Schillebeeckx’s Jesus, an Experiment in Christology, also appeared in 1974, and here it is not only the empty tomb that is legendary but the resurrection appearances, themselves. Don’t imagine, Schillebeeckx tells us, that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances are what gave rise to the belief of the disciples that Jesus had risen. No. It was quite the opposite. “...(T)he resurrection kerygma was already present even before the tradition about the tomb and appearances had arisen. The Easter faith emerged independently of these two traditions.”25 In one stroke, then, Schillebeeckx has taken our traditional Catholic understanding of the resurrection and turned it upside down. It isn’t the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances that brought the disciples to the belief that Jesus had risen, but they already possessed that belief which they then eventually over a span of time filled out by creating the stories of the empty tomb and the appearances. In this way the fundamental issue of the historicity of these events is overturned: the empty tomb arose from pilgrimages to the tomb and liturgies celebrated there.26 The story of the women at the tomb is an aetiological cult legend,27 while Luke’s account of the resurrection appearances follows a Hellenistic rapture model.28 And we need not even worry about the body which may have been in the tomb during all this because “an eschatological, bodily resurrection, theologically speaking, has nothing to do, however, with a corpse.”29

This can only make us wonder what the content of this primordial Easter faith was, and unfortunately Schillebeeckx is not going to be particularly helpful in informing us. “Not the resurrection but some sort of gracious self-manifestation of the dead Jesus is what leads the disciples, prompted now by faith, to proclaim: ‘Jesus is back, he is alive’, or ‘He is risen’.”30 Notice that it is the dead Jesus who communicates to his disciples, not the resurrected Jesus who was dead and is now alive. For Mary of Magdala the death of Jesus had turned the new life she had found in him “into a problem, until there came to her the loving assurance that this life regained was stronger than death. This Jesus lived.”31 For the disciples their “spiritual contact with Jesus, ruptured by death, has been restored: they can once more address each other in intimate, personal terms, death notwithstanding. Death has not shattered living communication with Jesus: that is, he continues after his death to offer those who are his a fellowship belonging to and constituting life.”32 Indeed, Mary of Magdala may have helped convince the disciples “that the new orientation of living which this Jesus has brought about in their lives has not been rendered meaningless by his death – quite the opposite.”33 But we have to remember that all this happened with Jesus dead and gone, his body conceivably in the tomb and the resurrection appearances yet to be created. And really, we shouldn’t be too upset by this, Schillebeeckx implies, because, “There is not such a big difference between the way we are able, after Jesus’ death, to come to faith in the crucified-and-risen One and the way in which the disciples of Jesus arrived at the same faith.” If we are upset it is because, “Only we suffer from the crude and naive realism of what ‘appearances of Jesus’ came to be in the later tradition, through unfamiliarity with the distinctive character of the Jewish-biblical way of speaking.”34

The enormity of what Schillebeeckx is saying appears to have escaped him. It is as if he is so focused on his exegetical studies, and a genuine desire to make the resurrection understandable to contemporary people that he has forgotten what this would sound like to the Catholic community. Even from a historical point of view Schillebeeckx’s hypothesis labors under serious difficulties. N.T. Wright outlines some of them: Schillebeeckx’s understanding of Jewish ideas on resurrection, especially his failure to see that resurrection meant to the first Christians a bodily coming back to life.35 It is also hard to imagine why visitors to the occupied tomb of Jesus would turn around and create stories about an empty tomb.36 Then there is the question of the exegetical soundness of the whole idea of cultic visits to the tomb in the first place, the problem of what to do with the cases of Paul and James if everyone already believed in the resurrection before the stories of the appearances were created, and so forth. And what replaces the resurrection is much too vague. Schillebeeckx, himself, calls it “a process of repentance and conversion which is no longer possible to reconstruct on a historical basis.”37 We are left trying to imagine how such an experience would have grasped the demoralized disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus and transformed them into intrepid preachers of his resurrection.

The publication of Schillebeeckx’s book in 1974 set off a complex series of events. Already in 1975, in response to reactions to it, he had written two articles, one in Kultuurleven, and the other in Tijdschrift voor Theologie which were to become clarifications, not corrections, as he would have it, to the third Dutch edition, and the various translations based upon it, in the form of an additional few pages. He tells us that there are exegetical theologians who “give the impression that resurrection and belief in the resurrection are one and the same thing; in other words, that the resurrection was achieved not in the person of Jesus but only in the believing disciples, as it were.”38 This is something that Schillebeeckx tells us he disassociates himself from completely. But he goes on to say that it had become clear in his earlier analysis “that the resurrection kerygma preceded the completed accounts of ‘appearances of Jesus’, but that on the other hand the New Testament suggests an undeniably intrinsic connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the Christian, faith-inspired experiences at Easter, expressed in the model of ‘appearances’.”39 But actually this was not clear at all in the text. Schillebeeckx had given quite the opposite impression. He is clearly on the defensive when he concludes that “anyone who accepts the origin of this apostolic conviction as rooted in divine grace (and the New Testament affirmation of that divine origin was constantly stressed, earlier on, in the course of examining the ‘Jesus appearances’) stands on Christian ground. He cannot be dismissed as heretical; and then he can only be judged and, if necessary, criticized for his way of presenting the matter on a basis of historical-critical and anthropological arguments – but then as a brother in the same Christian faith.”40

These clarifications were not going to suffice. On October 20, 1976 the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith wrote to him with various objections, objections that appear to be based on this expanded third edition.

Schillebeeckx replied on April 13, 1977, and in 1978 sent to the Congregation his Interim Report to serve as further clarifications. In his April reply to the dossier of the Congregation he is pleased that his examiners recognize that he does not deny the personal and bodily resurrection of Jesus – referring to one of the additions that he had made in the third edition – and he admits that although he doesn’t want to say that his explanation of the resurrection appearances is the weakest part of the book, it is “scientifically the most hypothetical.”41 Interestingly he mentions the remarks of “one of the most competent” of his reviewers, A. Descamps who, unknown to Schillebeeckx at that time, likely had a hand in the writing of the dossier. He also concedes that “there is no need to deny visual elements in the paschal event. The centre point of my argument is merely to deny that such visual elements are the foundation of our faith in the resurrection (as is often heard in sermons, with the result that some of the faithful are offended and the dogma appears ridiculous).42 But what he seems to mean here is an over-physical view of the resurrection, and because readers had imagined that he was saying in his book “that faith in the resurrection is only a post-paschal interpretation of the pre-paschal life of Jesus,” he had added some five pages to the third Dutch edition.

In his Interim Report he responds to Descamps’ review in more detail. He realizes that despite his intention the first two Dutch editions of Jesus had given rise to misunderstandings, hence the “clarifications” he had made to the third edition, but he does admit that he gave the impression “that faith in the resurrection is separate by what is meant in the New Testament by ‘appearances’.”43 When Descamps says it is historically untenable to say that the appearances are later than belief in the resurrection, and that the resurrection is independent of them, Schillebeeckx asserts, “that is precisely my position.”44 While one can be excused for not having understood from the reading of Jesus, we could be inclined to take Schillebeeckx’ word for it except that, unfortunately, he continues his explanation, and says belief in the risen Jesus “cannot be founded on an empty tomb as such, nor as such on the visual elements which then may have been in ‘appearances’ of Jesus, but this negation need not of itself necessarily imply that both the tomb and the resurrection visions were not a historical reality.”45

“Jesus himself makes his disciples understand that he is the Living One. How?”46 Here he warns us not to be taken in by a naive answer: “It cannot be denied that there were certain Jews and Christians who compared the resurrection of the body with the resuscitation of a corpse. And the origin of the theme of the empty tomb or the theological significance which the evangelists attach to the historicity of the finding of the empty tomb is doubtless connected with this (cf. Mark 6.16 with 6.29!)”47 We can’t help but wonder how Schillebeeckx would have responded if in the place of the empty tomb in the preceding passage we substituted appearances so that it read: It cannot be denied that there were certain Jews and Christians who compared the resurrection of the body with the resuscitation of a corpse. And the origin of the theme of the appearances or the theological significance which the evangelists attach to the historicity of the appearances is doubtless connected with this. Would Schillebeeckx, before all the controversies erupted, have found this objectionable? Later he will say: “My intention here was to relieve this visual element of the deep dogmatic significance which some people attach to it, namely of being the foundation of the whole of the Christian faith.”48 Isn’t it fair to read appearances here, as well, for visual element?

What Schillebeeckx seems to be saying is that while he denies the resurrection stories are nothing more than post-Easter reflections of the disciples’ pre-Easter views, but instead are based on an objective event, and a corresponding conversion of the disciples, it is this event, ill-defined as it remains, which gave birth to both the empty tomb and the appearances, which therefore remain accidental to the dogma of the resurrection, itself. He still seems to fear that accepting the stories as Jesus bodily appearing to his disciples is equivalent to some crude view of the resuscitation of his corpse and to be avoided at all costs as an affront to modern sensibilities.

It is hard to avoid the impression that in these “clarifications” Schillebeeckx has not significantly shifted his fundamental view in which some ill-defined conversion of Peter and the disciples, triggered by an equally ill-defined experience of Jesus, was the primordial event that transformed the dispirited and demoralized followers of Jesus into bold apostles of the risen Lord, and only later did they, or their successors, fabricate suitable stories of the appearances of Jesus in various times and places. Schillebeeckx will still say in regard to the empty tomb, “In my interpretation, the philosophical and theological view that whether or not the tomb of Jesus was empty has no theological relevance plays a certain part. However, it seems to me irresponsible to conclude from the fact that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant for us that therefore the theme of the tomb had just as little relevance for the first Christians.”49 But it does not occur to him that if the first Christians had a certain view of the appearances and the empty tomb as causal factors in their belief in the resurrection, then we should be reluctant to tamper with their primordial witness lest we call into question the very historical credibility of the resurrection, itself.

The Congregation for the Defense of the Faith replied on July 6, 1978 and asked him to come to Rome. This encounter took place in December of 1979. At Rome his questioners were his fellow Dominican Albert Patfoort of the Angelicum, Jean Galot, S.J. who had publicly spoken against Schillebeeckx’s work before the meeting, and Descamps, now Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and it was Descamps who questioned Schillebeeckx about the resurrection. The conclusions of the Congregation were published on Nov. 20, 1980, but left the impression that a genuine accord had not been reached.

Gerald O’Collins in Interpreting Jesus advances incisive criticisms of Schillebeeckx’s position which can help us sum up what is at stake. “Schillebeeckx reduces these appearances to no more than verbal expressions of prior events (which he somewhat misleadingly calls ‘conversion visions’).”50 Schillebeeckx’s theory looks like this: “After Jesus’ death Peter and other disciples had a ‘concrete experience of forgiveness’, discussed this renewed offer of salvation, underwent a deep conversion, and concluded: ‘Jesus must therefore be alive... A dead man does not proffer forgiveness’. (p. 391)”51

But O’Collins replies: “What prompted the disciples to conclude from some renewed offer of forgiveness that Jesus was risen and alive?”52 Why not come to some other conclusion? “What is more, I find it hard to make sense of any ‘concrete experience of forgiveness’ which does not involve a personal encounter with the one who forgives me.” (p. 121) And if Easter has at its heart an experience of forgiveness, “we could surely expect to detect much fuller indications of this in the New Testament texts.”53

What drives Schillebeeckx’s interpretation? It is hard to be convinced it is the exegesis of the New Testament texts themselves, and O’Collins writes: “I strongly suspect that certain prior theological convictions control his interpretation of the New Testament texts which report the Easter appearances.”54 And he points to a footnote in Jesus in which Schillebeeckx admits that what he is doing in regard to the appearances “constitutes a break with a centuries-old hermeneutical tradition.”55 We might even add that Schillebeeckx’s view is a break with an understanding of the appearances that reaches back to the first witnesses of the resurrection, themselves. Schillebeeckx reasons that the appearances are not an object of Christian faith because we believe in the risen Christ, not the appearances. But as O’Collins points out, the appearances of Jesus “to the original witnesses proved the major means of first bringing about their Easter faith.”56 And while Schillebeeckx is correct in saying that “intermediate historical factors,” that is, that there is a human dimension in the reception of the Easter experience, O’Collins counters it is one thing to say that those factors are always present, and quite another to say that there is nothing but those factors present.57 What we need to protect at all cost is “the possibility of a trans-historical factor – the special intervention of the risen Christ from his state which lies beyond the normal limits of history.”58

Then there are Schillebeeckx’s ambiguous remarks on the role of faith in seeing the risen Jesus as if a bodily appearance is somehow opposed to faith, and we run the risk of emasculating faith if “we insist on grounding it in pseudo-empiricism.”59 This is an issue that lies at the heart of the post-Vatican II debates about the resurrection, and can be rephrased, Is a bodily resurrection somehow a later crude interpretation of the resurrection or intrinsic to it?

We can only marvel at the transformation of Catholic biblical studies from Descamps’ 1959 article which was exegetically bold enough to have him attacked as an agent of the new exegesis, to Schillebeeckx’ Jesus in 1974, and then the irony of the interrogation of Schillebeeckx by Descamps in the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith investigation. Unsurprisingly, the Congregation’s customary and unfair procedures had raised an uproar, but that should not obscure the most important question, which was whether Schillebeeckx’ exegesis actually clears the way for a more properly biblically founded theology of the resurrection which would also be more accessible to contemporary minds, or whether it becomes an obstacle to Catholic belief in the resurrection.

We can certainly wonder how and why Schillebeeckx ended up here, and what it has to do with the dynamic cycles of repression and reaction that we touched on before. Erik Borgman in his theological biography of Schillebeeckx , Edward Schillebeeckx: A Theologian in his History allows us to make some guesses while awaiting his second volume, which will perhaps shed more light on the matter. Schillebeeckx had been philosophically mentored by Dominicus DePeeter and his idea of an implicit intuition of being in our knowledge of things, which opened the door to a more dynamic philosophy than the reigning conceptualism of the scholastic manuals of philosophy and theology. But in 1942 DePeeter was censured by Rome for this approach as if it relativized traditional scholastic doctrine.60 Schillebeeckx’ own work was influenced by this crisis, and the larger one surrounding the nouvelle théologie. Borgman describes Schillebeeckx’ theological work from 1950 to the Second Vatican Council, “like a kettle with a lid which has been fastened down so that the pressure in it constantly increases.”61 The fundamental problem of the relationship of concepts to experience had been around since the time of modernism, and Schillebeeckx felt it had never been resolved. The fact the neoscholasticism acted like an all-embracing conceptualism, and therefore excluded other approaches, just exacerbated the situation. In 1952 Schillebeeckx used an approach similar to DePeeter’s philosophical one, but now transferred into a theological context in his “The Non-conceptual Element of Knowledge in our Knowledge of God According to Thomas Aquinas.”62 At the same time he was in favor of the worker-priest movement, and felt that priests should show people the way to God, “but this way goes toward God through the depths of man himself.”63 This kind of open Thomism and his recourse to history allowed him to go forward. In 1954 and 1955 the Netherlands had its own version of the nouvelle théologie condemnations in the aftermath of the investigations by Sebastian Tromp of the Roman Congregation of Seminaries, which led to the removal of a major seminary teacher, and the condemnation of the pastoral psychology initiatives of Anna Terruwe and Willem Duynstele.64

Such events would have only increased the pressure Schillebeeckx felt, and by 1963 at the height of the Council this pressure appears to have caused Schillebeeckx to come to a decision to do theology in a different way, a way that included as one of its vital components the use of the historical-critical method applied to the New Testament.65 The question of secularization, stimulated by J.A.T. Robinson’s 1963 Honest to God, also played a role. This combination of the historical-critical method, and a concern about how God works in and through the secular world, might have provided the wider context for his analysis of the resurrection. Indeed, at the beginning of his Interim Report he tells us how the renewal of theology before the Council had been focused on a return to the sources, but now it has “crossed a new and even critical threshold.”66 Theology has two sources: the Jewish-Christian movement, and contemporary experience. It is not a matter of applying biblical traditions to our present situation. “On the contrary, we have become increasingly aware that no one is in a position to rediscover precisely what the message of the gospel now means to us, except in relation to our present situation.”67

Küng and Schillebeeckx certainly departed significantly from the centrist position represented by O’Collins and Brown, and the climate generated by these kinds of ultra-progressive views of the resurrection diffused into other areas of Christian thought where a rejection of a bodily resurrection, or at least the empty tomb, found acceptance no longer as the conclusion of exegetical work, but because it appeared more congruent with other agendas. Let’s look at some examples.

Willigis Jäger

Willigis Jäger, a German Benedictine monk and Zen master, in the course of a thorough-going reinterpretation of Christian doctrine and mystical experience into Buddhist categories in which the formulas of the faith need to be broken open to reach the kernels inside, found no need to pause when he arrived at the resurrection. “What would happen,” he asks, “if we could prove historically that Jesus’ bones had been recovered? Would Christianity then be just a bad joke?”68 He interprets the resurrection in the way we would expect. It has nothing to do with whether Jesus rose or not. “It is an experience that we can have: that our deepest essence is divine, and hence cannot die.”69 Therefore, “If the bones of Jesus were to be found today and it could be proven that he had rotted in his grave, my faith in Jesus would not change in the least.”70

Diarmuid O’Murchu

For Diarmuid O’Murchu – a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order – it is the new cosmology rather than Buddhism that serves as the universal interpretive principle. While orthodox theologians find disturbing questions like whether God has an independent existence, things like this don’t trouble “quantum” theologians who will not really be bothered by whether the resurrection took place or not. “Whether or not there was an empty tomb, whether or not anybody actually saw the Risen Jesus, is not of primary significance. If through modern archaeological research we were to rediscover the remains of Jesus, thus establishing that he never rose physically from the grave, that discovery would not undermine the faith of a genuine believer. It would create immense doubt and confusion for millions who follow a dogmatic creed rather than a spirituality of the heart. (It could also be a catalyst for a profound conversion experience.)

The fact that “(t)heologians in general and guardians of orthodox religion will find the above comments quite disturbing; some will consider them to be blatantly heretical,”71 does not appear to have slowed him down.

Michael Morwood

Michael Morwood, a former missionary of the Sacred Heart in Australia, tells us that theology is only as good as the cosmology that shaped it, and therefore our theological understanding of things like original sin and the incarnation is quite mistaken. The great theologians of the past simply didn’t have the knowledge of the universe we have today. When it comes to our traditional understanding of the resurrection, therefore, we need to take the admittedly big step and say, “I just don’t believe it anymore.”72

Uta Ranke-Heinemenn

Uta Ranke-Heinemenn in Putting Away Childish Things gives us a dismissive and at the same time superficial account of why we need not bother ourselves about the empty tomb. It is a legend, she tells us, because Paul says nothing about it, and therefore as far as he is concerned, “ doesn’t exist. Thus, it also means nothing to him.” And, since he doesn’t mention it, that proves “it never existed and hence the accounts of it must not have arisen until later.”73 Thus in one stroke Paul’s silence, despite the many things he is silent about concerning the life of Jesus and the occasional nature of his letters, is turned into proof positive that the empty tomb had no significance for him. In fact, “...Christians have misunderstood the resurrection of Christ pretty much from the very beginning.”74 If we are in need of more proof, “a brief look” at the stories of Easter morning “is enough to classify all the evangelists as pious tellers of fairy tales.”75 So much for our exertions examining the texts. It is as if Ranke-Heinemenn is so convinced of her position she cannot work up the energy to demonstrate it.

Cletus Wessels

The Dominican Cletus Wessels in Jesus in the New Universe Story also uses the new cosmology as his yardstick when considering the resurrection. The story of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, he tells us, “seems unlikely”76 because Christians didn’t have influential patrons. Therefore he inclines towards the opinion that the body of Jesus was left on the cross, or buried in a shallow grave. These options don’t distress him because he realized “it would not in any fundamental way weaken the reality of the resurrection.”77 But he doesn’t seem to take into account how these ways of disposing of the body of Jesus if they were true would effect the credibility of the Gospel resurrection narratives, so he assumes a burial in a shallow common grave and tries to imagine how we arrived by the mid-70s AD at the Gospel resurrection stories. As Wessels was reflecting on this matter he had before him a painting of Jesus laid in a tomb – one of a series of paintings depicting the stations of the cross – that shows a circle of women around the shrouded body, and this painting inspired in him an insight about the nature of the resurrection. We can put aside the fact that the picture goes against the actual Gospel stories in which the women never surrounded the shrouded body of Jesus, and put aside, as well, the thought that if Jesus was buried in a common grave there would be no shrouded body to gather around, and ask just what Wessels’ inspiration was. “But then something happened! In the midst of their mourning, the women became aware of the presence of the living Jesus around them and within them. Was this a trance, that altered state of consciousness, which was, and is, a common experience among many cultures? Was it a dream, or was it a visual appearance of the living Jesus? No one knows! But whatever this experience of the risen Jesus involved, it had a profound impact on these women and on the entire Jesus community.”78 Are we to imagine that it didn’t matter to the women that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb or, in this case, in the ground? Wessels imagines a similar scenario, this time involving the male disciples on the Sea of Galilee. “While the disciples talked and grieved on the shores of the lake, they experienced the presence of the living Jesus around and within themselves. They were confused. Was this a trance, or a dream, or was it a visual appearance of the living Jesus? Was it faith newly transformed and renewed? No one knows...”79 And this may have taken place over the course of years, but in response to these scenarios, Wessels will say, “Was the resurrection real? Of course, but that does not mean we have a scientific explanation for it. Instead, narratives tell the tale of something very different from the mere resuscitation of a dead man, and the question of how the resurrection is real is ultimately not resolvable in ordinary human categories. My suggestion is that people persuaded by contemporary cosmology and astrophysics need to interpret what happened at the resurrection in the light of our new world view.”80 But the historical nature of the resurrection has already been undermined, and its status as an object of faith ignored, yet somehow we are to imagine that the new cosmology will come to the rescue.

Rosemary Reuther

When we reach what could be called the outer fringe of ultra-progressive views on the resurrection, the resurrection, itself, disappears. For Rosemary Reuther in Sexism and God Talk there is no immortality of the soul, for when we die we dissolve back “into the cosmic matrix of matter/ energy”81 which is what is everlasting. Therefore, a fortiori, we can be excused from drawing the conclusion that we certainly don’t need to be concerned about the resurrection of our bodies.

John Dominic Crossan

For John Dominic Crossan, a former Servite priest, the scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus takes the place of faith.82 And his reconstruction of the resurrection is not “about the origins of Christian faith but about the origins of Christian authority,”83 e.g., the rivalry for leadership in the early Church is expressed in the different stories about Peter, and in John’s Gospel, the beloved disciple running to the tomb.84

Thomas Sheehan

In 1984 Thomas Sheehan wrote a review of Hans Küng’s Eternal Life, a book that in regard to the resurrection followed closely in the footsteps of his On Being a Christian. Its title was “Revolution in the Church”, and its first line read: “The dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology, by Catholics themselves, is by now a fait accompli.”85 For Sheehan, a graduate from Fordham University and a professor of philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago, the review was really more an announcement of his own views on the state of the church than it was an analysis of Küng’s book. Some Catholic scholars like Küng had had their wrists slapped by the church while others were circumspect. “But the fact remains,” Sheehan writes, “that a new and revolutionary approach dominates Catholic theology today, even if the folk religion of most practicing Catholics still lives on the prerevolutionary fare...”86 The biblical scholars and theologians in the advance guard of this revolution form what Sheehan calls the “liberal consensus” and includes “Rudolf Schnackenburg, Raymond E. Brown, Roland Murphy, Pierre Benoît, John P. Meier, J.A. Fitzmyer, David M. Stanley, Rudolf Pesch, Walter Kasper, David Tracy, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng...” While they may disagree among themselves, “(m)any of the conclusions of the ‘liberal consensus’ conflicts sharply with traditional Catholic doctrine.”87 Among the doctrines no longer believed, according to Sheehan, are to be found Jesus’ own belief in his own divinity, any knowledge on his part on the virginity of his mother, and his ordination of priests and consecration of bishops, etc.

At the heart of Küng’s book is “a deconstructive analysis of the Biblical data behind the Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead... It seems, too, that he leaves the corpse of Jesus corrupted by physical death in whatever tomb it may now occupy.”88 Sheehan goes on to say that the next historical event after the crucifixion “is not Jesus’ emergence from his tomb, but the birth of the disciples’ faith in him.”89 And Sheehan’s readers would have been excused for not realizing that here Sheehan is presenting the nucleus of his own ideas on the resurrection that were soon to emerge in more developed form. But Küng doesn’t really go far enough. Something is missing, and in the liberal consensus, as well. The real question is what distinctive gift does Catholicism have to offer the world, and the usual answer of a supernatural revelation is deeply defective, whether it takes the classic view that scripture must be interpreted by tradition and ultimately by the hierarchy, and even if one espouses the quasi-protestant view of the liberal consensus in which revelation becomes a personal experience, for in the first case “the infallible interpreters of revelation must first interpret revelation as constituting them infallible,”90 and in the second case, “only from within faith can the believer know that there has been a revelation and what has been revealed.”91 So the liberal consensus has not really escaped from circular reasoning, and beyond the scientific gains it has made, “its major achievement has been to rediscover the ineluctability of this hermeneutical circle of revelation and faith.”92 This rediscovery in Sheehan’s mind brings the church to the “end of Catholicism.”93 Not surprisingly, and probably not against the author’s intention, the review touched off an uproar, and what Sheehan really had in mind became clear two years later with the appearance of his own The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. The revolution in the church was not so much that of the liberal consensus, which failed to take the final and decisive step, but Sheehan’s own, which we will look at in a moment.

Raymond Brown in his 1985 Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine found no pleasure in the fact that he was named by Sheehan as a member of the “liberal consensus.” He didn’t find it accurate, either. He wondered how Sheehan could have lumped him and other centrist biblical scholars and theologians, men who had been appointed to the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Pontifical Theological Commission, together with Küng and Schillebeeckx whose work they had subjected to critical review. These men, Brown felt, would reject the Christology and ecclesiology Sheehan attributed to them, including Sheehan’s views on the resurrection. Brown finds in Sheehan’s review of Küng a tendency that “to set up straw men easily knocked down is not likely to enlighten readers as to the true state of Catholic NT exegesis which is centrist rather than liberal, and is not destructive of Catholic dogma.”94 But why do ultra-liberals like Sheehan, and ultra-conservatives, as well, misunderstand the true position of Catholic exegesis? It is because, Brown surmises, they try to fit what the exegetes are writing into their own preconceptions, and miss “the deeper novelty” of Catholic exegesis which finds a certain continuity and development between what happened in the life of Jesus and how the early church thought about it after the resurrection. “Often liberal ideas have been shaped by theologians whose primary source of reflection is not exegesis, but philosophy or sociology, or by theologians who have consciously or unconsciously chosen a radical, rather than a centrist, exegesis. My personal criticism of both Küng and Schillebeeckx, for instance, is that they have read biblical studies with a bias favoring the most radical conclusions.”95 Brown’s sympathy goes out to the Catholic non-professionals who feel caught between the so-called liberal consensus “and a return to an indefensible and suffocating conservatism.”96 He distinguishes between a fundamentalistic conservatism which cannot distinguish between content and the various forms it might take, and therefore tries to repress new forms, and a genuine conservatism.97

We might add that there is a genuine progressivism which tries to be open to the best in contemporary scholarship and culture, but that ought to be distinguished from what could be called an ultra-progressivism that is so concerned to be in harmony with the latest forms of expression, it looses sight of the content of the faith.

We can see how Sheehan’s own revolution in the church comes out in The First Coming. The resurrection stories, Sheehan tells us, “contradict one another aggregiously,” which is one of the reasons why he will come to the conclusion that they “are not historical accounts but religious myths,”98 myths, the meaning of which Sheehan is going to help us unravel. While the tomb of Jesus, he writes, was probably found empty, and the appearance stories “are relatively late-arriving legends” appearing in Matthew and Luke around 85 A.D., “and in final analysis are not essential to Christian faith,”99 then how did belief in the resurrection come about? Simon, after the death of Jesus, had gone to Capernaum, and there he had a “revelatory experience”100 which may have been nothing more than a reflection “on the life and message” of Jesus.101 And Sheehan tries to imagine what the content of that message might have been: “Jesus was soon to return in glory to usher in God’s kingdom!”102 After this experience Peter told his fellow disciples about it, and that was it. No appearances, no need to wonder whether the tomb was empty or not, and therefore, no resurrection leading to an appearance to Simon so that Simon can come to faith in the risen Lord. Rather, Simon’s revelatory experience comes first and is later formulated as the resurrection of Jesus, but this experience could be, and probably was, expressed in other ways among the first Christians.103

But what of Paul’s list in First Corinthians? Doesn’t its early date and its list of appearances contradict such a view? Unfortunately, Sheehan’s interpretation of this passage is governed by his “Simon’s revelation” theory. Paul is not really talking about historical events. He couldn’t be because all we can get back to is Simon’s experience. This is a curiously circular form of reasoning that would have been news to Paul, and obscures the historical impact of what he is saying. In contrast to this kind of historical agnosticism, however, Sheehan goes ahead and attempts to reconstruct “the innermost secret of the original Easter experience,” that is, Simon’s real denial of Jesus had been in confusing Jesus with God’s kingdom, and his Easter experience was the rediscovery of the truth that the kingdom was still a reality even after the death of Jesus. But Simon and the first Christians couldn’t hold on to that message, so they began to focus, not on “Jesus’ way of living but on Jesus, himself.”104 Thus ultimately Simon continued to deny Jesus by creating Christianity. Thus, he abandoned Jesus and fled from Jerusalem and went to Galilee where he had his experience of the kingdom as still a reality despite the death of Jesus, but then betrayed that experience by focusing on Jesus again instead of the kingdom. For this he puts his life on the line and helps found Christianity, albeit a fundamentally misguided one.

Sheehan shows an extensive acquaintance with the works of Catholic exegetes and theologians on the resurrection, with Schillebeeckx’s Jesus, for example, playing a role in Sheehan’s formulation of Simon’s conversion experience,105 as does Schillebeeckx’s idea that there could have been primitive Christian communities like the hypothetical Q community in which there was no mention of the resurrection immediately after Jesus’ death. Sheehan comments: “Thus Schillebeeckx raises the question “whether for some Jewish Christians the resurrection was not a ‘second thought,’ which proved the best way to make explicit an earlier spontaneous experience”; and Schillebeeckx holds that “the reality denoted by ‘Easter experience’ is independent both of the traditions centred around the Jerusalem tomb and of that of the appearances (which in my view already presuppose the Easter faith).”106 But Sheehan is going one step farther than Schillebeeckx because he declares the actual event underlying Simon’s conversion to be unknowable, and therefore he need not concern himself with the additions Schillebeeckx made to his Jesus book or the clarifications he gave in his Interim Report.107 Sheehan goes on in this vein, but we need not follow him save for noting his conclusion: “The meaning of Jesus is that Jesus himself no longer matters.”108 And when he writes: “We remain, fundamentally, an act of questioning to which there is no answer,”109 we can surely ask whether this is the conclusion of the dispassionate application of the historical-critical method to the resurrection texts, or is it, rather, a perception Sheehan came to on other grounds which colored his reading of this historical-critical literature and the resurrection accounts, themselves?

By way of summary of the post-Vatican II debates on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection we can adopt Brown’s sentiments: “I think I have a reasonably good grasp of what the best-known NT exegetes propose in reference to the virginal conception of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, the divinity of Jesus Christ, Christ’s founding the church and instituting the sacraments, the position of Peter in reference to the later papacy, etc. In no instance do most Catholic historical-critical exegetes contradict Catholic dogma properly understood. I do not mean that there is not an occasional Catholic NT exegete, for instance, who denies the virginal conception or the bodily resurrection. I judge, however, that this is a minority view, to be traced not to historical-critical exegesis as such but to one person’s practice of that exegesis – a practice that I regard as incorrect. I do not mean that there are not Catholic systematic theologians who deny church dogmas, citing historical-critical exegesis as support for their position. In such instances, however, one must be very careful to ascertain whether they cite Catholic exegetes and cite them correctly.”110

More precisely in regard to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, Brown will write: “personally, I would judge that the bodily resurrection is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium, and that, while there may be debate about the nature of the transformed resurrected body, Catholic teaching does not permit one to maintain that the body of Jesus corrupted in the tomb.”111 To this passage he adds a footnote that should be taken as a cautionary note when reading works that have an almost casually dismissive tone about the empty tomb. “Please note how carefully I phrase this in terms of non-corruption. I hope that my writings show that I have no simplistic understanding of the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection. On the other hand I have little tolerance for “brave” assertions by theologians, e.g., “My faith would not be shaken if they found the skeleton of Jesus in a tomb in Palestine.” More to the point is whether such a discovery would have shaken the faith of the apostolic preachers upon whom Christianity depends. Let me state boldly: there is no evidence whatsoever that any in the NT who considered themselves Christians thought that Jesus’ body could still be moldering in the grave.”112

Catholic engagement in historical-critical scholarship and the use of such research within Catholic theology is not, as we have seen, without serious problems. In two sweeping images Luke Timothy Johnson gives us a way to look at some of the wider implications of these problems. First, he likens Catholic engagement with the historical-critical method to the story of immigration to America. First-generation immigrants are enthusiastic about their new country, but firmly rooted in their old one. The second generation wants to forget about the old country and be more American than the Americans. The third generation has lost much of the old language and culture of their grandparents and begins to wonder “whether they have not lost as much as they gained.”113

The first generation of Catholic scholars to finally enter the land of historical-critical studies were still firmly rooted theologically. The second generation was absorbed in the life of this new land, and the temptation they faced was an “uncritical acceptance of the dominant historical-critical paradigm...”114 Then came the third generation that begins to wonder about the price that has been paid.

As members of the first generation Johnson mentions Barnabas Ahern, Bruce Vawter, Jean Daniélou and Yves Congar, among others. In the second generation we find Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, John Meier and John Dominic Crossan, while in the third are people like Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Margaret Mitchell and Harold Attridge and Johnson, himself.

The second generation has borne the brunt of the burden of how to assimilate the historical-critical method within Catholic thought, and has come up with very different solutions with a Crossan on one side and a Brown on the other. What is at stake is just how the historical-critical method is used. Are we going to use it “in order to better understand the original voice” of the Scriptures, as Johnson puts it, or are we going to engage in historical reconstruction, a reconstruction, in fact, whose practitioners can’t agree among themselves and which is unable to feed the life of faith and yet claims it is the only truly scientific way to know about Jesus?

This difference in generations can perhaps be illustrated by the diverse reactions that John Meier and Johnson had to Schillebeeckx’s Jesus. While Meier had reservations about the exegetes that Schillebeeckx had chosen, he was enthusiastic about what the book was trying to do. “Perhaps for the first time in Catholic theology, we have in Schillebeeckx’s Jesus a genuine integration of the quest for the historical Jesus into a systematic Christology. Whatever its failures, this is the book’s claim to lasting fame. In the future, no Catholic Christology can turn the clock back to the pre-Schillebeeckx era and still hope to be taken seriously.”115 What he would think about Schillebeeckx’s ideas on the resurrection is another matter because in his own massive and moderate A Marginal Jew he avoids treating of the resurrection, claiming it does not fall under a historian’s competence. Johnson, very much a third generation scholar, said of Jesus and Schillebeeckx’s subsequent volume, Christ, “the results were so ambiguous and unsatisfactory that Schillebeeckx issued a third volume that attempted to clean up the mess...”116

In his second image Johnson describes the difference between a lost city that has been laboriously reconstructed by archaeologists and a living city whose inhabitants have a “deep, intimate, non-systematic, comprehensive, practical” knowledge, a connatural knowledge of it.117 The historical-critical method is a kind of literary archaeology whose value we have seen, but “(i)n the best of circumstances, such an exercise would be difficult and hazardous. It can go seriously awry when biblical diggers, like archaeologists who are tempted to extrapolate a lost culture on the basis of a few shards, are overconfident in their capacity to detect layers, assign traditions, and imagine the communities that produced them.”118

If this literary archaeology by a serious epistemological misunderstanding would come to reign supreme in the Christian world of faith, then Christians would be made to feel that instead of the living city, they were compelled to dwell in the ruins of the excavated one, waiting to be told what to believe about Jesus.119

The Debate Over the Intermediate State

The debates we have been examining about the resurrection of Jesus found their counterparts in theological discussions about the nature of our own resurrections. Traditional doctrine long had it that at death the immortal soul, now separated from the body, enjoyed the vision of God, or suffered the loss of it, and the resurrection of the body had to wait until the final judgment at the end of time. Therefore, there was an intermediate state in which the soul lived on without the body until the time of judgment.

Gisbert Greshake

But in the aftermath of the Council this separation of body and soul seemed too dualistic both in regard to the unity of human beings expressed in the Scriptures, as well as found in modern thought. Why not say that our human unity is preserved in death, and therefore our resurrection takes place at the time of our death? Hints of such an approach appeared right after the Council in the Dutch Catechism120 and were expressed in a theory in which the whole person is raised at the moment of death, that is, there is a “resurrection in death,” by Gisbert Greshake in 1969. But since our bodies continue to lie in their graves, Greshake must advance another view of the body beyond the common-sense one. “Matter will be perfected, not in itself or by itself, but rather in ‘the other,’ namely, in the spirit, or the person.”121  “Matter as such (as atom, molecule, organ...) cannot be perfected... This being so, then if human freedom is finalised in death, the body, the world and the history of this freedom are permanently preserved in the definitive concrete form which that freedom has taken.”122

Elsewhere Greshake tells us that many Christians believe more in the immortality of the soul than in the resurrection of the body, but “(r)eal perfection and completion lie in resurrection of the body. Does this mean the actual resuscitation of dead bodies and the opening of graves? Surely not.”123 But his alternative to a resuscitation remains rather vague. Our personalities and the world are not totally separable. We hope not in the immortality of the soul “but for the renewed life of the person indelibly stamped by his interaction with the world.”124 What this could mean when it is a question of resurrection in death, besides the immortal soul without the body, is unclear.

C. Pozo, already at the 1970 Vatican-sponsored seminar on the resurrection, critiqued the resurrection in death which he connected with Joseph Ratzinger’s early work. “The new tendency to place the Resurrection at the moment of death loses this aspect of bodily continuity. The paradox is that, while it begins by affirming man’s indissoluble unity, it goes on to propose the profound division inherent in the person’s definitive abandonment of the body. Furthermore, if the Resurrection is placed at the moment of death, it becomes spiritualized. In other words, in the effort to eliminate the eschatology of souls by explaining the next life in terms of Resurrection, what is really endangered is the true Christian idea of Resurrection, which is replaced with a mere continuation of the “ego”.”125

Joseph Ratzinger

In 1977, Joseph Ratzinger in his Eschatology subjected both the idea of a resurrection at the time of death and the context from which it had emerged to a series of well-targeted criticisms. It had become popular, he felt, to imagine that speaking of the soul was unbiblical. Instead, the idea of the “absolute indivisibility”126 of the human being was the message found in the scriptures and happily confirmed by modern anthropology. His own position was sharply opposed to what he saw as a post-conciliar consensus in which “a resurrection in death and a consequent rejection of the concept of the soul had made considerable inroads.”127 Was a theory like Greshake’s, he asked, really about some corporeal resurrection, or was it simply a camouflaged way to talk about the immortality of the soul because wasn’t what actually perdured after death in such a theory what had traditionally been called the soul? Did this view of the resurrection actually do justice to the church’s teaching of the resurrection on the last day, and “in the self-same flesh in which we live, exist, and move,” as the Council of Toledo in 675 had put it?128

But what is most striking in Ratzinger’s analysis, and important for our work to come in Chapter 4, is his assertion that while the church took ideas about body and soul from the Greeks, it had transformed them in a long process that found “its final and definitive form only in the work of Thomas Aquinas.”129 He is saying this not because he is some dyed-in-the-wool Thomist – he is not because his own training and theological inclinations were elsewhere – but because he realized that the view of the soul that is found in Thomas is “a product of Christian faith.”  Thomas working within the nurturing atmosphere of faith had fused Aristotle and Plato together to create a philosophical doctrine of the relationship between body and soul that would be in harmony with Christian doctrine. This Thomistic view, Ratzinger thought, meant that the soul as the form of the body could never leave behind its relationship with matter, as Greshake’s theory appears to make it do.130 And Thomas’ view allows us to make a distinction between matter as a “physiological unit” and “bodiliness” because “the material elements from out of which human physiology is constructed receive their character of being ‘body’ only in virtue of being organized and formed by the expressive power of the soul.”131 This was a view of the relationship between body and soul that had been adumbrated in Origen but found its full expression in Thomas: “The individual atoms and molecules do not as such add up to the human being. The identity of the living body does not depend upon them, but upon the fact that matter is drawn into the soul’s power of expression. Just as the soul is defined in terms of matter, so the living body is wholly defined by reference to the soul. The soul builds itself a living body, a self-identical living body, as its corporeal expression. And since the living body belongs so inseparably to the being of man, the identity of that body is defined not in terms of matter but in terms of soul.”132

Ratzinger goes on to criticize Thomas’ use of the Aristotelian notion of prime matter in which the soul directly informs prime matter so that “between the living body and the corpse there lies a chasm of prime matter”133 which creates a lack of identity between the two. This will lead him to say, “the simple repristinization of a thoroughgoing Thomism is not the way we seek” but his “central ideas remain a signpost for us to follow.”134 This is an issue we will return to in Chapter 4.

In May, 1979 a statement by the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, still led by Franjo Seper, on certain questions on eschatology expressed the traditional doctrine in response to new theories and the unrest they could cause among the faithful. The resurrection of the dead, it emphasized, deals with the whole human being, and between death and resurrection the church affirms “the continuity and independent existence of the spiritual element in man after death,”135 which can be called the soul. In commenting on this document, Ratzinger mentions the kind of dynamics we have been seeing. A crisis concerning the reception of the historical-critical method began at the time of Divino afflante Spiritu and burst out into the open after the Second Vatican Council. In the field of eschatology long-prepared questions took on the “force of elementary powers” and tossed tradition aside. It is remarkable how quickly this happened, “that within a year of the Council the Dutch Catechism had already put the doctrine of the immortality of the soul behind it, substituting in its place a remarkably obscure anthropology of resurrection-by-stages.”136 That such a change could happen so rapidly “must surely arouse astonishment,” and Ratzinger suggests that what allowed this was “a basic change in relationship to tradition.”137 We might add it was also a reaction to the repressive neoscholasticism and its use of Thomas as an instrument of that repression. In short, it was a change that had deep emotional roots as well as conceptual ones. The traditional teaching of the church on body and soul must therefore appear “meaningless and suspect.” This suspicion became amalgamated with an anti-Hellenic syndrome, a skepticism about ontology, and a “fear, reaching almost panic proportions, of any accusation of dualism.”138 Therefore it was a relatively easy step to create a theory that obeyed these modern imperatives and placed our resurrection at the moment of death. But doesn’t such a theory contain the seeds of its own destruction? After death what remains? If it is not the body, must it not be something that has virtually the same qualities that were formerly attributed to the soul?

When Ratzinger wrote an Afterword to the English edition of Eschatology in 1987 he noticed some movement in the controversy with Greshake, for example, modifying his position about the value of the notion of the soul.139 Ratzinger commented: “As this debate proceeds, it becomes ever clearer that the true function of the idea of the soul’s immortality is to preserve a real hold on that of the resurrection of the flesh. The thesis of resurrection in death dematerializes the resurrection.”140

Peter Phan

In 1992, The International Theological Commission issued its own document on eschatology which expanded on the views of the 1979 work of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith. This new document rejected the theory of resurrection in death, affirmed the existence of an intermediate state between death and final judgment, and said that what perdured during this time could justly be called the soul. These assertions of the Commission were met with hermeneutical demurrers on the part of some theologians. The Commission’s assertion, for example, following patristic and conciliar sources, that there is an identity between our bodies in this life and our resurrected ones called forth these reflections of Peter Phan: “At the very least, of course, it must be said that these sources maintain the reality of the risen body, but it is not yet decided a priori what counts for the reality of the body. What makes the body real? Blood and bones? Matter-energy? The individual’s history of self-determination in and through the body? Can and should a distinction be drawn between body and bodiliness?”141 At the end of this passage Phan places a footnote which cites Ratzinger’s approval of a distinction between the body as a physical reality and bodiliness. While it can hardly be said that Phan is overly impressed with Ratzinger’s evaluation of the idea of resurrection and death, or the intermediate state,142 it is here perhaps in the distinction between the physiological body and bodiliness that the various parties of the debate might find a common ground. No one is asserting that the resurrection body is a resuscitated body physiologically identical to the one a person possessed in this life. But the crux of the matter lies in what sense we can say that the resurrection body is still a genuine body.

Karl Rahner

Phan’s task of arguing it is still possible to hold to the doctrine of resurrection in death in place of the intermediate state is made more credible when he can call to his aid the theological reflections of one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, Karl Rahner.

Karl Rahner’s essay, “The Intermediate State” however, is somewhat puzzling. His intention, he tells us, is not to deny the intermediate state, but to maintain that one is not manifestly a heretic to say, “that the single and total perfection of man in “body” and “soul” takes place immediately after death.”143 In a bit of fancy hermeneutical footwork he advances the possibility that the whole idea of the intermediate state could be nothing more than an intellectual framework that contains what the church has taught about life after death, but in itself is not necessarily part of it.

In making his main points, he notes what he sees as the “considerable intellectual difficulties”144 that the doctrine of the intermediate state raises. How, for example, are we to conceive time for the soul after death? But more to our purpose is his objection that if the soul by its very nature is the form of the body, then “can the soul lose something with which it is identical, without itself ceasing to exist?”145 Before, Rahner had tried to deal with this problem by posing a cosmic relationship between the soul even after death and matter, but now it seems to him that the problem could be solved in one stroke by admitting that the soul and the body were really perfected together at death.

But immediately we arrive at the kind of fundamental questions about the nature of the body and soul which we saw with Ratzinger and elsewhere, for Rahner writes: “Indeed, probably no metaphysically thinking theologian would continue to maintain today (for either philosophical or theological reasons) that the identity of the glorified body and the earthly body is only ensured if some material fragment of the earthly body is found again in the glorified body.”146 After insisting on this point, he then comes to the conclusion: “For us, identity consists, now and in the future, of the identity of the free, spiritual subject, which we call ‘the soul’. That is why even empirical experience of the corpse in the grave can no longer provide an argument for there having been no ‘resurrection’.”147 Yet we can wonder if he has not jumped too quickly from one statement to the other as if there could not be a third alternative, and we can also wonder how such a disjunction affects our view of Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb. (Rahner’s own essay on Jesus’ resurrection in this same volume of Theological Investigations does not clarify his stance on the empty tomb.) It is as if Rahner is reacting against “a naively empirical view of the corpse in the grave”148 and is insisting on a view of the soul and the body in which it is inconceivable that the soul could ever be separated from the body, but this leaves us trying to cope with our commonsense conviction that the body is, indeed, left behind at the time of death, and with the conviction of the early church that the body of Jesus after his resurrection was no longer in the grave. When he writes: “The traditional scholastic doctrine about the anima as forma in se subsistens, which can then also exist as separata, is, in its own sense, not directly affected by this. That is to say, it can remain correct and meaningful, provided that it is no longer intended to mean more than that through his death man is not destroyed, but arrives at perfection,”149 we are left with the impression that he has come to this conclusion because of his conviction that the soul cannot exist as separated from the body, and we are allowed to maintain the old language and the intermediate state as long as we see that the intermediate state “contains a little harmless mythology.”150

His “strenuous efforts” in this essay and his fear that he may have used “too heavy an artillery” against the intermediate state seems to have been called forth by the difficulties that Rahner saw modern people confronting when faced with the intermediate state, but his efforts do not really seem to resolve the matter. There is no way to escape the need to clarify the fundamental notions of body and soul which are being employed.

In his essay, “The Body in the Order of Salvation,” he looks at the relationship between body and soul in more detail. Instead of saying that we are built up out of body and soul, we should say more precisely we are composed of spirit and materia prima, or first matter, or “what one might translate as empty otherness.”151 And he makes a very important point. What we call the body is already spirit and matter. We therefore in a certain way see the soul when we see the body. The body, he goes on to say, “is the outgoing of the spirit itself into the emptiness of space and time which we call “first matter” ...”152 “(I)t is the spirit which has uttered itself inwards into the otherness, the other form of being of materia prima, of space and time, of determination from without inwards.”153 These are certainly not self-explanatory remarks, and we will return to the question of first, or prime, matter later.154

What do Catholics believe about the resurrection? It would be interesting to find out whether they have changed their beliefs under the impact of people like Küng or Schillebeeckx or Greshake, or whether they are closer to Brown’s centrist position. In a 2005 survey conducted by William D’Antonio, James Davidson, Mary Gautier and Dean Hoge, Catholics rated at the top of the list of things very important about their faith, helping the poor (84%) and belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. (84%). And in response to the question, “Can you be a good Christian without this?” the lowest score (23%) indicating the most indispensable aspect of faith, went to “without believing that Jesus physically rose from the dead.” This score was identical to that of a previous survey in 1999, and these results cut across differences in age and theological education.155

Are we to imagine that Catholics believe in some crude and naive resuscitated body and are in dire need to bring them into line with current theological speculations, or could we not see in the results of this survey a genuine faith in the bodily resurrection, nourished by the reading of the resurrection stories and the teaching of the church? What if the Catholic faithful are right in believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? We have finally arrived at our task in Chapter 4 which is to try to fathom what the bodily resurrection of Jesus could mean.



(1) Léon-Dufour, p. x..

(2) Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection, p. 4.

(3) Fitzmyer, “A Recent...”, p. 434.

(4) For an account of the American side of this struggle we can turn to Gerald Fogarty’s American Catholic Biblical Scholarship, especially Chapter 13, and the attacks launched against progressive American biblical scholars by Joseph Fenton, and Egido Vagnozzi.

(5) For an account of the psychological dynamics of this hidden drama, see my The Church, the Council and the Unconscious.

(6) See Brown, Biblical Exegesis, p. 14.

(7) Osborne, p. 8.

(8) Published in Dhanis.

(9) O’Collins, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, p. 29, 30.

(10) Ibid., p. 36.

(11) Ibid., p. 38-9.

(12) Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection, p. 113-114.

(13) Ibid., p. 127.

(14) Küng, On Being a Christian p. 344.

(15) Ibid., p. 373.

(16) Ibid., p. 374.

(17) Ibid., p. 375.

(18) Ibid., p. 363.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Ibid., p. 364.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Ibid., p. 366.

(24) O’Collins, Jesus Risen, p. 86 ff.

(25) Schillebeeckx, Jesus, p. 333-334. There is a similar line of reasoning in the Dominican Jacques Pohier’s 1977 Quand je dis dieu when he tells us that the witnesses to the resurrection did not believe in the risen Jesus because they encountered him as risen, but that it was their belief in Jesus that made them believe in the risen Jesus, and to say that he was risen. (p. 200) Pohier was to have his own trouble with the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith.

(26) Ibid., p. 331-332.

(27) Ibid., p. 336.

(28) Ibid., p. 340.

(29) Ibid., p. 704 note 45.

(30) Ibid., p. 351.

(31) Ibid., p. 344.

(32) Ibid., p. 345.

(33) Ibid., p. 345.

(34) Ibid., p. 346.

(35) Wright, p. 703.

(36) ) Ibid., p. 702, note 48.

(37) Schillebeeckx, p. 387 and Wright, p. 704.

(38) Schillebeeckx, Jesus, p. 644.

(39) Ibid., p. 645.

(40) ) Ibid., p. 649-650.

(41) Hebblethwaite, p. 147..

(42) Ibid., p. 148. Descamps in his review of Schillebeeckx’s Jesus puts his finger on the problem. Schillebeeckx’s reversal of the relationship between the stories of the tomb and the appearances and the resurrection belief of the disciples is, to his mind, an “audacious novelty” which is “untenable.” (p. 218) “It appears to us not to be doubted that the experiences of the presence of the resurrected one have preceded chronologically the elaboration and the proclamation of the paschal kerygma.” (p. 218) While Descamps holds that Schillebeeckx’s position is not incompatible with faith, since Schillebeeckx admits a supernatural experience that revealed to the disciples that Jesus had risen, this theory, Descamps feels, can from a historical point of view have repercussions on the way we think about the realities of faith, and the average reader, rightly or wrongly, can end up with the impression that the edifice of faith is not built on firm foundations, but rests “on the head of a pin.” (p. 219)

(43) Schillebeeckx, Interim Report p. 74.

(44) Ibid., p. 75.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Ibid., p. 76.

(47) Ibid.

(48) Ibid., p. 82.

(49) ) Ibid., p. 86-7.

(50) O’Collins, Interpreting Jesus p. 120.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Ibid., p. 121.

(53) Ibid.

(54) Ibid., p. 124.

(55) Ibid. p. 123. Schillebeeckx, Jesus, p. 710, note 119.

(56) O’Collins, Interpreting Jesus, p. 123.

(57) Ibid.

(58) Ibid.

(59) Ibid. p. 124.

(60) Borgman, p. 54.

(61) Ibid., p. 121.

(62) Ibid., p. 132.

(63) Ibid.

(64) Ibid. p. 151.

(65) Ibid., p. 196.

(66) Schillebeeckx, Interim Report, p. 3.

(67) Ibid.

(68) Jäger, p. 240.

(69) Ibid., p. 241.

(70) Ibid.

(71) O’Murchu, p. 114.

(72) Morwood, p. 84.

(73) Uta Ranke-Heinemenn, Putting Away Childish Things, p. 131.

(74) Ibid., p. 134.

(75) Ibid., p. 135.

(76) Cletus Wessels, Jesus in the New Universe Story, p. 87.

(77) Ibid.

(78) Ibid., p. 88.

(79) Ibid., p. 89.

(80) Ibid., p. 89.

(81) Reuther, Sexism and God Talk, p. 257. Reuther in a letter to Thomas Merton advances a subjective view of the resurrection in which the disciples after the death of Jesus turned “the denouement itself into salvation” by starting “a seminal idea (about creation and an historical kairos) that continually lights up reality in new ways.” Cited in O’Collins. Jesus Risen, p. 104.

(82) Crossan, Historical Jesus, p. 426.

(83) Crossan, “ The Passion,” p. 123.

(84) For an incisive analysis of Crossan’s position see William Lane Craig, “John Dominic Crossan on the Resurrection;” on Crossan’s use of Morton Smith’s Secret Gospel of Mark, see Carlson.

(85) Sheehan, “Revolution in the Church,” p. 1.

(86) Ibid.

(87) Ibid., p. 3.

(88) Ibid., p. 4.

(89) Ibid.

(90) Ibid., p. 7.

(91) Ibid.

(92) Ibid.

(93) Ibid.

(94) Brown, Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine, p. 61.

(95) Ibid., p. 63.

(96) Ibid., p. 64.

(97) Ibid., p. 2.

(98) Sheehan, The First Coming, p. 97.

(99) Ibid., p. 98.

(100) Ibid., p. 104.

(101) Ibid., p. 119.

(102) Ibid., p. 105.

(103) Ibid., p. 106.

(104) Ibid., p. 125.

(105) Ibid., p. 257 note 20.

(106) Ibid., p. 258-259 note 21.

(107) Ibid.

(108) Ibid., p. 171.

(109) Ibid., p. 172.

(110) Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection, p. 18.

(111) Ibid., p. 38.

(112) Ibid., p. 38, note 29.

(113) Johnson, p. 11.

(114) Ibid., p. 12.

(115) Meier, p. 45.

(116) Johnson, The Future, p. 127 note 12.

(117) ) Ibid., p. 123.

(118) ) Ibid., p. 126.

(119) Arraj, Can Christians Still Believe? Ch. 4.

(120) Ratzinger, p. 108.

(121) cited in Prusak, p. 83. Bernard Prusak gives a good summary of this discussion of the intermediate state.

(122) Ratzinger, p. 108-9.

(123) Greshake, p. 17.

(124) Ibid., p. 18.

(125) Pozo, p. 521.

(126) Ratzinger, p. 106.

(127) Ibid., p. 261.

(128) Ibid., p. 135.

(129) Ibid., p. 148.

(130) Ibid., p. 179.

(131) Ibid.

(132) Ibid.

(133) Ibid., p. 180.

(134) Ibid., p. 181.

(135) Ibid., p. 245.

(136) Ibid., p. 248.

(137) Ibid., p. 249.

(138) Ibid., p. 250.

(139) Ibid., p. 266.

(140) Ibid., p. 267.

(141) Phan, p. 55, p. 5 and 6 of web version.

(142) Ibid., note 68.

(143) Rahner, “The Intermediate State,” p. 115.

(144) Ibid., p. 118.

(145) Ibid., p. 119.

(146) Ibid., p. 120.

(147) Ibid.

(148) Ibid., p. 123.

(149) Ibid., p. 121.

(150) Ibid., p. 123.

(151) Rahner, “The Body in the Order of Salvation,” p. 83.

(152) Ibid., p. 85.

(153) Ibid., p. 86.

(154) Rahner’s vocabulary can give us pause when, for example, he speaks of how matter is in a certain way “solidified” spirit, (Hominization, p. 92), or how the essential characteristic of matter is concretely expressed as “absolute space.” (Spirit in the World, p. 346) Therefore, when Michael Barnes in “The Evolution of the Soul from Matter and the Role of Science in Karl Rahner’s Theology” (Horizons, 21/1 (1994) p. 85-104) suggests that Rahner thinks that energetic matter is able to “ascend through an evolutionary process to self-consciousness” (p. 86) or can transcend itself to become spirit (p. 94), we can have trouble in deciding whether such a view comes from Rahner or from the author. One thing is sure, and that is, such a view that blurs the distinction between matter and spirit would have vast repercussions on how we understand the idea of a bodily resurrection.

(155) Hoge, p. 11.


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