“DO YOU believe in infant baptism?” the earnest young man asks the Roman Catholic priest. “Believe in it? I’ve actually seen it,” he replies.
Yes, I know: it’s an old joke. But, like all good jokes, there is a deeper truth to dissect. The earnest young man wants a theological justification. The priest counters with an expression of fact — and perhaps also with the faint suggestion that when something can be seen to make a difference, then recognising that difference is itself an expression of belief.
Likewise, asked “Do you believe in the resurrection?”, I also want to say something like: “Believe it? I’ve seen it.” Christian belief in the resurrection is not some bloodless intellectual assent to an incredible event of the distant past.
As it happens, I am not a sceptic about the resurrection. But, none the less, I cannot go along with those who make the assent to its historicity the sine qua non of Christian witness. Belief in the resurrection is not some bizarre initiation ceremony in which you demonstrate your group loyalty by doing something apparently ridiculous — as if it were the intellectual equivalent of an initiation into some university fraternity house.
Enough of all that: I believe in the resurrection because I have seen it and experienced it in my own life. It is the death of the old self and the rebirth of a new self which is at the very heart of the Christian drama.
This new self is reborn not under its own steam, but reborn from above; reborn from beyond the limitations of our selfish and narrow imaginations. Just as baptism represents the drowning of the old and the first breath of the new, so, too, does the resurrection, on which baptism is modelled.
This is why the hallmark of this new resurrected life is that, after the death of the old self, our new life is experienced as the most extraordinary gift. Whereas the old self made itself the centre of the universe, the new life of the resurrection is a life that trusts in the promise of joy that exists beyond the diminishing confines of self-absorption — which (as St Paul explains) is sin, which is death.
We escape from this tomb not by trusting in our own power (and certainly not in our own power to evade death), but in the promise of God. This is why a life of thanksgiving is the real way of believing in the resurrection. Forget all those desiccated arguments about historical-critical certainty. We have something greater to proclaim. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Thanks be to God.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.