By FRANK O'HARA, Ph.D
I am going to suggest that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was an irreversible "gymnastic" conquest of the forces of katabolism, ie biological destruction. According to this theory the Passion of Jesus served as a physical and psychological catharsis or purification of the organism, in which the principle of death and decay was destroyed. Jesus therefore rose from the tomb immortal and incorruptible.
The factual evidence to support this theory is very slight. The Gospel record of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus gives us few details of his physical state during the time he spent in the tomb. But there is another record which has come into prominence during this century and which is of a surprisingly scientific kind. I refer to the Shroud of Turin, venerated as the winding-sheet in which the Body of Jesus was wrapped for burial.
The shroud is unique among relics, for when it first began to attract the notice of intellectuals its authenticity was strongly attacked by Catholic priests and defended by agnostics in the French Academy. The history of the dispute can be read in any one of a number of works on the subject and I shall not recapitulate it here.* Neither shall I describe in detail the imprints on the shroud, or repeat the strong evidence that the man who was laid in the shroud was Jesus Christ.
The shroud seems to show that Jesus was medically dead when he was laid in the tomb. It appears that rigor mortis had set in, apparently at once. Even more conclusive for some experts is the evidence of postmortem bleeding, an exudation of serous fluid with clotted blood in the middle. Haematologists assure us that this is quite different from the stains left by blood which flowed during the life of the victim.
This interpretation has been challenged by John Reban, who claims that the victim was alive when laid in the shroud. The question of medical death is not strictly relevant to the theory I am proposing. The death of Jesus has a symbolic value in *See for instance "The Man in the Shroud" by Peter M. Rinaldi, SDB. (Sidgwick A Jackson, 1974,12.60). Christian theology. It is the supreme sacrifice, by which mankind was dedicated to God in Christ, sanctified in principle according to the literal meaning of the word sacrifice ie sacrum facere, to make holy or sacred. It is possible that, as Reban suggests, theological and not medical death would suffice for this. It is also difficult to see how medical death can be reconciled in modern terms with the complete absence of corruption. But what is important Thbm the practical point of view is the conquest of the principle of death and decay, the achievement of immortal and incorruptible life. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Jesus was dead in the technical or medical sense. I am going to suggest that during the 30 or so hours which he spent in the tomb he returned to life.
First, let us examine the state of Jesus's body at the time of burial, on the double assumplion that the shroud definitely belonged to Jesus and that the imprints reflect the state of his body when buried. No bones were broken. The nails through the hands passed through the Destot space where the hand joins the wrist. The single nail which fixed the feet went through the second metatarsal space, immediately under Lisfranc's joint. The loss of blood was comparatively small. The spear which pierced the side of Jesus went between the fifth and sixth ribs. There is a dispute as to whether it entered the right praecordia of the heart or missed both heart and aorta affecting only the lungs.
The scourging was done with the flagrum, not the flagellum. The flagrum consisted of long, thin thongs with weighted ends, which left deep bruises in the form of dumb-bells over most of the body. The crown or rather cap of thorns would seem to have pierced veins and arteries, without greatly tearing their walls. The face had received a variety of modifications to the skin, from blows and perhaps scourging: bruises, excoriations, contusions and open wounds. There are other wounds on the back and shoulders apparently caused by the carrying of the Cross.
It is clear that no ordinary man would have recovered very quickly from this treatment, much less achieved immortality by undergoing it. But Jesus was not an ordinary man. The dignity with which he addressed Pilate after he had been scourged and crowned with thorns shows this. (1 am assuming that this dialogue, however much it has had to be reconstructed, has some basis in fact; the onus is on the critical scholar to prove the opposite if he can). I shall come presently to the psychological factors involved in my theory. These carry by far the most weight. I shall first mention two very slight indications that there may be a physical basis for the theory.
The body of Jesus was wrapped in the burial linen along with preservative spices, a mixture of myrrh and medicinal aloes. Thus the means were present for preventing the beginnings of decay while the recuperative forces of the organism went to work. Some of the direct stains on the shroud were caused, it seems, when blood already clotted on the body was redissolved and transferred to the cloth. This could have been the beginning of the physical process of recovery. All this amounts to very little and, as I have said, I place the major weight of the theory on psychological considerations.
It should be mentioned that the photographically negative stains on the shroud may have been formed by vaporography or by oxidation, and that neither of these processes involves decomposition. According to the first theory, the urea from febrile sweat formed ammoniac vapour, which reacted with the aloes and sensitized the cloth. The theory of oxidation obtained some support from experiments carried out by Dr Judica.
come now to the psychological factors involved in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. I do not wish to isolate these factors from the unique work which God performed in the incarnation of his son, from the unique genetic composition of Jesus and its connection with His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. There is a lot of evidence in the Gospels that Jesus foretold his death and resurrection. Some critical scholars have argued that he may have expected to be vindicated on the Cross itself. But a more balanced view of the Gospel evidence is that, in the final months at least, the dominant conviction of His life was that he would die and on the third day rise again.
The shroud confirms that Jesus had a magnificent physique. This is already clear from his conduct during his trial, after the scourging. Moreover Pilate, who must have been a shrewd judge of men, was surprised to hear that he was already dead. .1 have mentioned already that, even if the shroud confirms death (in some sense) it shows no sign of irreparable damage to the organism. For practical purposes, then, in the design of God, Jesus may be considered to have been in a deep coma, a coma into which he entered with the dominating conviction that it was' not the end. I should mention that there are some indications from the ' shroud that death may have been caused by spasms and slow asphyxiation caused by immobilization.
We can visualize Jesus, prepared for his ordeal by a life of physical rigour spent partly in desert fasts and night vigils on the hillsides; meeting the final revulsion by an agony in which his sweat became like drops of blood, as St Luke the physician tells us; undergoing the atrocious torture of crucifixion and its accompaniments but mastering his sufferings as the Gospel accounts indicate; finally feeling the darkness of death close in upon him. At that moment, His whole life and destiny were at stake. Despair gripped his spirit, and he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you deserted mc? These words form the opening sentence of the 22nd Psalm. This psalm concludes on a note of triumph. It contains the statement that all the nations of the world will bow down before the Lord. The Gospels show that Jesus was very familiar with the psalms and quoted them freely. It seems that his very cry to God in despair brought his mind back to the thought of his eventual triumph. His conviction of his destiny,.which normally had the clarity of vision, reasserted itself. He rallied his Sinking spirits and, with all the energy of his being, cried out, "Father, into thy hands I commend my
That cry caused the tough centurion to exclaim, "This was indeed a son of God!" This was the most beautiful moment of history, the moment that is fixed for ever in the Mass. Jesus commended his spirit into'the hands of his father. He knew that it was safe in those loving hands, and his trust was not disappointed. This tremendous act of loving confidence carried him through the jaws of death itself. Dominating his consciousness at this moment was the conviction that he would rise again. He died in the fulness of that conviction, and on the strength of that conviction he rose from the dead on the third day.
It is impossible to say exactly what happened in the darkness of the tomb. Perhaps there is a slight hint for us in the serenity of the face depicted on the negative of the Shroud of Turin, dead but not defeated, bruised and battered but secretly triumphant. I would suggest that the dying conviction of Jesus remained deep in his mind to emerge at the appointed time as surely as if he had only slept. He had trusted his Father, and his Father repaid that trust. He had gambled with His life and won. He had tried the impossible and succeeded' better, perhaps, than he knew and in a way in which he may not have expected to succeed. He emerged from the tomb, immortal and incorruptible.
I do not expect that this theory can be proved. The progress of science may throw some light on it or refute it, but is not likely to prove its truth. It is offered for the consideration of the specialists, who may very well reject it out of hand. As far as I know, no doctor has seen a patient recover after rigor mortis had set in. But no doctor has had the privilege of examining a patient endowed as Jesus was with the Hypostatic Union and the Beatific Vision. Besides, the photographic evidence does not distinguish clearly between rigor mortis and muscular cramp caused by several hours on the Cross.
I wish to mention a secondary point connected with the resurrection and to indicate some consequences of this theory. The powers of the Risen Christ remain rather obscure because we do not know the limits, if any, of the power of mind over matter, nor can we see a clear line where matter ends and spirit begins. It is clear that the unique powers of Jesus remained with him and were greatly enhanced. It was presumably by means of these powers that he ascended out of sight of the Apostles. There his human history ends. He is now to be found in the suffering neighbour, in table fellowship, and in the enemy's brutal sneer.
One consequence of this theory is to refute entirely that cult of suffering which has been such a bad feature of much Christian piety. The sufferings of Jesus had a definite physical purpose, namely the purification of the organism and the attainment of immortal life. (Note the aptness, in this connection, of John 16:21). It is true that our suffering may benefit our fellow men enormously even if it destroys us individually, but the cult of suffering for its own sake is morbid and mistaken, The passion remains Jesus's greatest manifestation of love towards man. (Perhaps we for our part crucified him in order to prove to ourselves that we loved him). He loved us better than some theologians will allow, for he gave his soul to death amid total darkness, trusting to his Father to vindicate his sacrifice, (As St Paul told us, this was first and foremost the Father's own sacrifice; cf.Romans 8:32). He loved us to better purpose than the rationalist will allow, for by dying he achieved not only fame but personal fulfilment as well. It was no masochistic urge which bade him pin himself to the Cross, but obediential love; and by dying and rising again He showed us who and what he was, Ile also destroyed death in principle, and ensured that death would be simply one episode in the total life of a true believer, not an end but a beginning, not a plunge into endless night but the dawn of a new and brighter day.