Book review: Why the Resurrection Matters by Carl Olson

“Good Friday,” the poet WH Auden once said, “is easy to accept: what scandalises us is Easter. Modern man finds a happy ending, a final victory of Love over the Prince of this World very hard to swallow.” In his new book, subtitled Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead, Carl Olson, the editor-in-chief of Catholic World Report, acknowledges this tendency of our postmodern society but only to insist that the preference is not only nihilistic but irrational.

A work of deft apologetics, the book revisits both the evidence for the Resurrection and various objections to it to argue that “Christianity without a risen Christ – truly alive and with a real, glorified body – is an essentially empty, even false belief system.”

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, we should have only an ahistorical, non-dogmatic pseudo-Christianity. As it is, faithful Christians know with reasonable certainty that Our Lord did rise from the dead, and this certainty profoundly animates all that we know about God and about ourselves in relation to God. As Olson rightly insists, the question whether we have proper grounds for this faithful knowledge could not be more consequential: “It really is an all-or-nothing proposition.”

Since parrying objections to the faith is of the essence of apologetics, Olson has wisely chosen to structure the book around a series of questions likely to be posed by those either dubious or dismissive of the Resurrection, which he answers with learned aplomb.

Accordingly, to the question why we should think Christ anything more than a wise teacher, he responds by observing that “Jesus presented himself as the Son of the Father, possessing the authority of God himself. This is evident in all four Gospels, but especially in the fourth Gospel, where Jesus speaks at great length and in profound detail about his unique relationship with the Father, culminating in his claim: ‘I and the Father are one’ – a statement which enraged the religious leaders of the time, who sought to stone him because of it.” And it has exercised sceptics ever since. Olson also cites the Roman historian Tacitus, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls to remind readers that the historicity of the New Testament is corroborated by redoubtable non-Christian sources.

Moreover, the number of copies made of the New Testament from the 2nd to the 16th centuries confirms the respect with which this evidence was received by the world after Christ’s Resurrection. While we have, on average, 20 copies of the works of ancient historians such as Tacitus and Thucydides, we have 5,700 full or partial copies of the New Testament. To argue that the evidence for the New Testament is spurious is necessarily to impugn the judgment of centuries of critical readers.

Olson sees more self-referential pathology than creditable historical analysis in the objections of those who are dismissive of the Resurrection. Thus, atheists regard Our Lord and Saviour as a concoction of zealotry; socialists as a proto-Marxist; and liberal Protestants as someone whose greatest claim to fame was that he went about doing good. On this last travesty, Olson is one with Ronald Knox, fully aware that Christ did not so much do good as perform miracles, and the Resurrection was his signature miracle, making all things new.

Olson is at his best when confuting those like the liberal Protestant theologian John Selby Spong, who claims that the Resurrection must mean something other than that Christ rose from the dead. For Spong, since the Resurrection found in the New Testament and celebrated by Christians worldwide for more than 2,000 years cannot be squared with our technologically advanced, scientific society, it is necessary for obliging liberal theologians to disabuse “fundamentalist” Christians of outmoded views and to offer instead a more plausible “spiritual” definition of Christ’s greatest miracle. And thus, as Olson argues, “Spong and like-minded thinkers … shred and reassemble the New Testament in Frankenstein-like fashion, creating a monster that is part pseudo-spirituality, part slavish scientism”.

Throughout this admirably argued and consistently instructive book, Olson never loses sight of why understanding the Resurrection is so vital.

“Secular humanism simply does not satisfy hungry souls and searching hearts,” he writes. Nor does it tell us anything reliable about Christ, or his Resurrection. When it comes to the atheists who command so much respect in our uncritical culture, Olson is unsparing. “There is nothing to see here,” says the smirking atheist – whether of the 17th century or the 21st century – in front of the empty tomb. “Move along: don’t loiter!” He is correct: there is nothing to see in the empty tomb. But the atheist completely misses the pesky fly in his bland secular soup. Why is there nothing there? And why is the Church still here?

Edward Short is an author whose most recent book is Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews (Gracewing).

This article first appeared in the June 10 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here