To read more from Daniel, visit his blog: Sic Et Non.
I’m sometimes assured by critics of Christianity and of the Restoration that ancient people believed in the resurrection of Jesus only because they didn’t know Science. We moderns, by contrast, know that, when you’re dead, you’re dead.
This has always seemed a very odd objection to me. Scientific training isn’t required to know about death. And it’s not as if ancient people were unaware of it.
“If a man die,” asks the Old Testament’s Job 14:14, “shall he live again?”
Men and women had already been dying before Copernicus, Newton, and Kepler. In fact, given our modern propensity to die in sanitized hospitals and to turn the care of the bodies of the deceased over to professional morticians and to the personnel at manicured cemeteries, we’re arguably less directly connected with the dead than our ancient ancestors were. In antiquity, death commonly occurred at home, where families themselves typically managed the final arrangements for their loved ones. Sometimes, it occurred at close quarters, in battle. Not in the manner of a computer game, by means of drones and cruise missiles, or via munitions dropped from the sky.
When Jesus rose from the dead, even his own apostles—to whom, according to the New Testament the Savior himself had given multiple prophecies about his impending resurrection—didn’t simply respond “Well, of course! Didn’t everybody see this coming?” Quite the contrary: When, in the gospel of Luke, the women bore the ultimately joyous news of Christ’s empty tomb to the surviving apostles, “their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (24:11). And this news was at the very heart of the message borne by early Christian missionaries, not because it was ho-hum and routine, but because it was so spectacularly and hopefully new. “O death, where is thy sting?” exulted the apostle Paul at 1 Corinthians 15:55. “O grave, where is thy victory?”
In this context, I point to what is often called the pseudo-Clementine literature, which probably dates (at least, in the form that we have it) to the first half of the 300s AD. It survives in two very closely related forms, the “Clementine Recognitions” and the “Clementine Homilies.” They are attributed—falsely—to St. Clement of Rome, who lived in the late first century and whose story they purport to tell. (According to tradition, this Clement eventually becomes the second or third person to succeed the apostle Peter as the bishop of Rome, and he is recognized among Catholics therefore as Pope Clement I.)
The “Recognitions” and the “Homilies”—a “homily” is a kind of sermon—represent a kind of religious romance or novel, telling the story of how Clement came to be Peter’s traveling companion and containing large chunks of what purport to be the apostle’s sermons and teachings. (Actually, they’re tracts advocating a particular form of Jewish Christianity or Ebionitism. Notwithstanding that fact, though, they provide a fascinating window into a certain strain of Christian attitudes and thinking in the early fourth century.)
Clement—I’ll call him that, because it’s how he’s identified in the documents, even though, strictly speaking, he should be called “Pseudo-Clement”—identifies himself as having been born in Rome. However, he says, from an early age “the bent of my mind held me bound as with chains of anxiety and sorrow.” It “constantly led me to think of my condition of mortality, and to discuss such questions as these: Whether there be for me any life after death, or whether I am to be wholly annihilated: whether I did not exist before I was born, and whether there shall be no remembrance of this life after death, and so the boundlessness of time shall consign all things to oblivion and silence; so that not only we shall cease to be, but there shall be no remembrance that we have ever been.”
It’s not difficult at this point to be reminded of the 1964 Latter-day Saint film “Man’s Search for Happiness,” which poses the fundamental questions “Who am I? How did I come to be? Time. Where does it take me? Towards death? And then what? Where did I come from?” Such issues are genuinely timeless. In the early twentieth century, the Spanish academic, essayist, and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote eloquently, passionately, and sometimes agonizingly about the question of death in his classic 1912 work “Del sentimiento trágico de la vida” (“The Tragic Sense of Life”).
Clement “was pining away wonderfully through excess of grief.” “Becoming pale, I wasted away.” Later in his life, he could feel gratitude for this deep anxiety because it led him to the truth of Christianity. At the time, though, it was agonizing. And he desperately sought a way to escape his psychic pain.
So, he begins to frequent the schools of the philosophers, hoping to find persuasive arguments that would allay his concern about death. But he is quickly disappointed. “Nought else did I see than the setting up and the knocking down of doctrines, and strifes, and seeking for victory, and the arts of syllogisms, and the skill of assumptions; and sometimes one opinion prevailed,—as, for example, that the soul is immortal, and sometimes that it is mortal. If, therefore, at any time the doctrine prevailed that it is immortal, I was glad; and when the doctrine prevailed that it is mortal, I was grieved. And again, I was the more disheartened because I could not establish either doctrine to my satisfaction.” “This only I understood, that opinions and definitions of things were accounted true or false, not in accordance with their nature and the truth of the arguments, but in proportion to the talents of those who supported them.” “Wherefore I groaned from the depth of my soul. For neither was I able to establish anything, nor could I shake off the consideration of such things, though . . . I wished it.”
He begins to wonder what the point of torturing himself is, if, at death, we cease to exist. Why try to be good if everything ends in nothingness? Why discipline either the soul or the body? Shouldn’t we simply indulge ourselves freely? But if life continues after we die, might we not then risk divine displeasure and judgment?
Maybe, he thinks, he should go to Egypt and consult there with someone who claims to be able to summon the dead. He will pretend that he has a specific practical question to ask, but his real purpose will be to find out whether the dead survive at all. If the spirit of a dead person can actually be made to appear before him, he will know for certain: “Seeing it with my very eyes, I may have a self-sufficient and fit assurance, from the very fact of its appearing, that it exists; and never again shall the uncertain words of hearing be able to overturn the things which the eyes have made their own.”
Confiding his plan to a philosopher friend of his, though, he is persuaded not to resort to spiritualism. Many religions consider such necromancy a sin, and what if they’re right? Will he not offend God by engaging in such wickedness?
However, just when he is about to surrender to hopeless despair, he begins to hear about a remarkable teacher in the remote Roman province of Judea, who (we soon realize) is no other than Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, a short while later, he is told about a preacher of the doctrines of this Jesus, who turns out, in fact, to be an apostle: “There is one here who not only is acquainted with Him, but is also of that country, a Hebrew, by name Barnabas, who says that he himself is one of His disciples.”
Upon hearing Barnabas, Clement is immediately impressed. Not simply because the apostle speaks “simply and without preparation” and doesn’t resort to the sophistical and sophisticated arguments of the philosophers with whom Clement is all too well acquainted. What really impresses Clement is that Barnabas speaks as a witness. And he appeals to other witnesses for support: “Truly I perceived that there was nothing of dialectic artifice in the man, but that he expounded with simplicity, and without any craft of speech, such things as he had heard from the Son of God, or had seen. For he did not confirm his assertions by the force of arguments, but produced, from the people who stood round about him, many witnesses of the sayings and marvels which he related.”
To Clement’s disgust and indignation, though, “those who thought themselves learned or philosophic began to laugh at the man, and to flout him, and to throw out for him the grappling-hooks of syllogisms, like strong arms.” In mockery, they put irrelevant questions to him, hoping to distract him, embarrass him, and trip him up. For example, one supposedly clever fellow demands to know why a tiny gnat has wings and six feet, while a huge elephant has no wings and only four feet. But Barnabas proceeds, ignoring the derision and the attempts to interrupt him, and “boldly pursue(s) the subject which he had set before him.” “We have it in charge,” he tells his audience, “to declare to you the words and the wondrous works of Him who hath sent us, and to confirm the truth of what we speak, not by artfully devised arguments, but by witnesses produced from amongst yourselves. For I recognise many standing in the midst of you whom I remember to have heard along with us the things which we have heard, and to have seen what we have seen.” “We have a commission only to tell you the words and the wondrous doings of Him who sent us; and instead of logical demonstration, we present to you many witnesses from amongst yourselves who stand by, whose faces I remember. . . . . These sufficient testimonies it is left to your choice to submit to, or to disbelieve.”
The apostle’s answer infuriates the crowd who had gathered to ridicule him. “When he had thus spoken, all, as with one consent, with rude voice raised a shout of derision, to put him to shame, and to silence him, crying out that he was a barbarian and a madman.” He was, they said, a foreigner, and he spoke their language poorly.
Some who have served Latter-day Saint missions may recall street meetings that went similarly, as well as, perhaps, imperfectly mastered missionary languages.
Seeing such mockery, Clement is seized with what he himself terms “righteous indignation.”
“When I saw matters going on in this way, being filled, I know not whence, with a certain zeal, and inflamed with religious enthusiasm, I could not keep silence, but cried out with all boldness.” God is hiding his will from you, he told them, because you’re unworthy of the truth. “For when you see that preachers of the will of God have come amongst you, because their speech makes no show of knowledge of the grammatical art, but in simple and unpolished language they set before you the divine commands, so that all who hear may be able to follow and to understand the things that are spoken, you deride the ministers and messengers of your salvation, not knowing that it is the condemnation of you who think yourselves skillful and eloquent, that rustic and barbarous men have the knowledge of the truth; whereas, when it has come to you, it is not even received as a guest, while, if your intemperance and lust did not oppose, it ought to have been a citizen and a native. Thus you are convicted of not being friends of truth and philosophers, but followers of boasting and vain speakers.”
At this Easter season, our faith is sustained not by clever arguments, but by witnesses, ancient and modern, who testify to the resurrection of the Son of God. Not least among them are Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon:
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-24)
“All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection,” testified the Prophet Joseph, “provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it.”
Truly, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”