What the Resurrection is and what it isn’t

By Ryan Mayer

Director of Office of Catholic Identity Formation & Assessment,

Archdiocese of San Francisco

Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is the central Christian claim and principal Christian celebration. It can be easy to overly sentimentalize the stark and unnerving reality of the Resurrection, reducing its significance to the spiritual or even to a metaphor about the newness of life that emerges in the spring. But without Easter, without the Resurrection, there would be no Christianity. As St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith … and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14,17). Here are a few things to know about what the Resurrection is and what it isn’t.


Jesus did not simply return to his former bodily state and way of life as did Lazarus or the widow’s son (Jn 11 & Lk 7:11-17). His resurrection body, though still a real body, and still the same body that suffered and died, is a glorified body. He was not merely raised to life again but raised to a new life. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Christ’s resurrection was not a return to earthly life, as was the case with the raisings from the dead that he had performed before Easter. … Christ’s resurrection is essentially different. … At Jesus’ resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state.” (CCC 646).


As we profess each Sunday in the Nicene Creed, Jesus was a real man with a real body who really died. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Christ’s death was a real death in that it put an end to his earthly human existence. … To the benefit of every man, Jesus Christ tasted death” (CCC 627 & 629). Just as his death was a real human death, Jesus’ resurrection was a real, physical resurrection. It was not a myth, wasn’t metaphorical (whatever that might mean), nor was it merely “spiritual.” Jesus explicitly said his resurrection was not merely spiritual, reassuring the disciples that he was not a ghost, saying, “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Lk 24:39-40).He even ate a meal with them! We can visit the tombs of many important historical figures. We know where the tombs of the Buddha and Muhammed are. We even know where Jesus’ tomb is. There’s only one difference. Jesus’ tomb is empty. “The first element we encounter in the framework of the Easter events is the empty tomb. … Its discovery by the disciples was the first step toward recognizing the very fact of the Resurrection” (CCC 640).


Stained glass window of the Resurrection at St. Paul Church, San Francisco. Photo by Dennis Callahan/Archdiocese of San Francisco

Jesus’ resurrection was not a myth. It is not a metaphor. It happened. The catechism explains, “Christ’s resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as an historical fact” (CCC 643). The sincerity of the apostles’ belief in the risen Lord is undeniable. How else to explain their behavior? One day they were scattered and afraid, denying they even knew Jesus (Mt 26:74); three days later they were willing to die horrific deaths in his name. How to explain this change? According to them it was because they had seen and touched the risen Lord. People do not die for metaphors. See also CCC 641 & 642; 1 Cor 15:4-8; Acts 1:22.


Without the Resurrection, Jesus was just another teacher who was eventually rejected and killed. Jesus’ moral teaching might still be valuable if he had not really been raised from the dead, but it’s ultimately not what was revolutionary about him. The real revolution is that while Jesus died for us, he wasn’t done with us yet. He rose — really rose — from the dead, destroying death and pulling us up with him to a more glorious place than even that of our first parents in the garden. There would be no Christianity without the Resurrection. “The resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the paschal mystery along with the cross” (CCC 638).


The resurrection of Jesus is only the beginning. His resurrection gives us a glimpse of what awaits the faithful. “Christ’s resurrection – and the risen Christ himself – is the principle and source of our future resurrection. … Christ, ‘the first-born from the dead’ (Col 1:18), is the principle of our own resurrection, even now by the justification of our souls (cf. Rom 6:4), and one day by the new life he will impart to our bodies” (CCC 655 & 658).


Everything is different now! The reality of the Resurrection should change us as it completely changed the course of history and transformed the disciples from a fearful and disconnected band of confused followers into resurrection-proclaiming martyrs. Jesus still lives! The same risen Jesus into whose holy wounds Thomas put his finger is the same Jesus we encounter in the holy Eucharist at Mass. Come to meet and touch him as did the disciples on that first Easter. Will you let him transform your life? Everything is different now. Alleluia, alleluia!