Paper Keys II: The Myth of the Madmen

Anne Muggeridge, again analyzing one of the myths of the demythologizing modernists, gives the theologian George Tyrrell enough rope to hang himself. Tyrrell, like the later Rudolf Bultmann, believed that an historical resurrection from the dead was impossible. 

I don’t know why not. If I believe that God made the universe, and sustains it at every moment by his creative will, it seems absurd to deny that He could raise Christ from the dead. But Tyrrell seeks to relocate the Resurrection from the bulky world of history to the pleasant land of the psyche. 

Yes, the events of Easter were real, he says, but what kind of real are we talking about?

Were they determined from without or within; did they belong to that series of regular sequences which exists for all, or to that which exists for one alone?  Did they reveal what we call the external world, or the spirit and faith of the beholder? . . .What they saw was a vision, the spontaneous self-embodiment, in familiar apocalyptic imagery, of their faith in His spiritual triumph and resurrection, in the transcendental and eternal order – a vision that was externalized by the very intensity of their faith, that seemed something given from outside; a vision that was purposive and symbolic of a reality which, though inwardly apprehended, was in no sense subjective; a vision that was divine, just because the faith that produced it was divine.

Muggeridge replies, “It is easier to believe in a physical resurrection than in this extraordinary manufacture.” The upshot: the Resurrection was their work, not God’s. Their faith (Mandrake the Magician gestures hypnotically) was so strong, it produced the reality.

“You have always had the power to raise your friend from the dead,” says Glinda the Good Witch of the North. “Just tap your shoes three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Rome.’”

What is there to grasp, in Tyrrell’s lofty ideations? Was not Jesus the Word incarnate? Why should the resurrection of the Word incarnate be so daintily disincarnate? Does not the Jewish religion affirm both of God’s transcendence and his intimacy, his working of wonders for a chosen people, within history, by means of perfectly tangible things – water, fire, the Ark of the Covenant, trumpets, manna, quail, bread, oil, even frogs and locusts? Isn’t that precisely what “modernist” Greeks of that time found so scandalous about Judaism?

At least Tyrrell granted that the apostles were not liars but mad – hard-bitten men of various temperaments, not given to credulity (Jesus reproaches them constantly for their little faith), seeing the Lord in various places, at various times, and in encounters that, unlike the haze of dreams, never lost their force, but were, though surprising and unexpected, as real and solid as stone. 

Says Peter, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pt. 1:16). John declares “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” (1 Jn. 1:1)

      Sun in an Empty Room by Edward Hopper (1963)

There dwells in the words of the apostles the blessed calm of certainty. They do not indulge the fancy to shore up a fading dream; they do not fight to keep their minds in the fold.

John writes with disarming simplicity: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” (1 Jn. 4:9). 

The writer to the Hebrews, with a vista spanning the centuries, says without the hitch of argument, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.” (Heb. 1:1-2) 

Even the fiery Paul, whenever he is relieved of the need to keep his easily distracted converts focused on the truth rather than on fancies, writes with sublime freedom: “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.” (Rom. 6:8-9)

If this is madness, it’s of a kind the world had never seen, does not see, and never will see. Its fruits are courage, patience, sweetness, beauty, theological wisdom of surpassing grandeur, the willingness to suffer gladly and to die, and a power that transformed the world.

The historian should assume that, when we’re dealing solely with human agency, things utterly unique should never be posited. 

It’s true that there was only one Socrates sentenced to death by his enemies on a trumped-up charge. But there is nothing in that history that we cannot encounter elsewhere. There have been wise men before, and vindictive enemies, and angry or suborned juries. 

There was only one Napoleon; but there have been all too many men like Napoleon.

Islam spread with fire and sword; so have other movements. 

There is nothing in history like Easter and its work. There is nothing within a million miles of it.

How paltry and flimsy, then, are the cunningly devised fables of later modernists, who go beyond the credulity of Tyrrell, and say that the apostles suddenly were enlightened by a new and fully human way of life, so they preached a resurrection to the masses, while understanding by that word the dawn of an age of especial niceness. 

If they’d only adopted our expedient of advertising the new way by a colored ribbon, perhaps they would not have had to go to the scaffold, confessing to the end the Christ they had not seen.


Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.