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Out of simple intellectual curiosity, I began to read some books written by atheist authors – Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, among others – scientific minds that have determined "with certainty" that God does not exist. I did not notice it then, but those readings were seeds sown by the enemy in a field that turned out to be more fertile than I would have anticipated. Close to Christmas, I decided to give myself freedom from my duties as Chair of Toys for the Forgotten, a charity founded to deliver toys and other gifts to children whose addresses neither Santa nor Baby Jesus had in their directory. Those frustrations, and many others, led me to question God's existence. Over time, abundant in my dull parish, I began to identify with the theory of evolution and the consequent denial of a Creator, smart or not. With my unconscious help, Satan won the battle!
It was in those days that I began to challenge my well-established convictions. I went from being an advocate of the dogmas of my faith to a moral relativist. I stopped seeing Catholic Christianity as a cause worthy of being defended and made it an academic position. Suddenly, I found evolutionary explanations for all fundamental aspects of human biology and behavior. Gradually, I replaced my religious foundations with the humanist philosophy expressed by the authors of my readings. Being a member of the black race, I was saddened to think that having freed ourselves from our slave masters, we decided to adopt a similar one. For now, I found myself holding the position that the universe could be born without divine intervention. More seriously, I concluded that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ could not have occurred, because when a person dies – so I held – he does so forever. Despite my fledgling atheism, I never had doubts about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. From a purely historical point of view, my theological studies showed sufficient evidence of a Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. The Romans accused him of sedition and crucified him. Faced with my growing uncertainty, I decided to request an interview with my superior, Bishop José Manuel Valladares, to have him nominate someone to take over my responsibilities at the charity I manage, and raise the possibility of giving up the priesthood. Without my knowing it, I was following Satan's instructions to the letter. Ahhhhh, I forgot to tell you that I am a Catholic priest ordained at the Holy See more than ten years ago.
Bishop Valladares was a man of low stature, advanced baldness, and incipient obesity. The highlight of his appearance was the pink cheeks and bear that gave him an appearance that caused one mentally to replace his imposing bishop's attire with a St. Nicholas costume.
− Domingo Luis – he gave me an incredulous look as I entered – I understand that you want to resign as Chair of the TF. Do you remember why we founded it?
− Yes, of course, I do. We started it because for St. Nicholas and Baby Jesus, the addresses of poor kids, were non-existent. We heard the lamentations of those kids who studied and well-behaved the entire year, full of expectations for the Christmas gifts they wanted. Sadly, they found out that Santa and Baby Jesus bypassed their homes to deliver the toys to the houses of rich kids, no matter how badly they ran the year. At that time, I remember you and I driving a pick-up truck throughout poor neighborhoods delivering the toys we collected during the entire year. I am very fond of those times, Monsignor.
− Do you think the devil liked your job at the foundation? Did Satan approve it? Is he sad or happy about your resignation? Then, ask the same questions but replacing Satan with God. Think about it! I believe the devil is behind your decision to abandon a mission you decided worthwhile, my son. Did you give any consideration as to who will lead Toys for the Forgotten? Think about the hundreds of children that will go without a gift this coming Christmas.
− This is one point I wanted to make, Monsignor; I am not concerned about it. Millions of children worldwide will not get a gift this Christmas, with or without our foundation. It isn't my fault. Our all-powerful God, if he does exist, is the one who should take care of it.
I was surprised to hear me utter those words. For more than seven years, I worked diligently to get toys, clothing, and many other things to children who St. Nicholas and Baby Jesus forgot. They ignored their letters, their addresses bypassed. My mind always tried to understand the feelings of those children. How to explain something that I found difficult to understand. I was disappointed at a God who could be so cruel to kids who desperately tried to please him to end up envying those undeserving kids who got everything they asked and more, simply because they can afford it.
− What we are doing, my son, is no different from the work of the sparrow trying to extinguish the forest fire with the drop of water it carries in its peak. It could not make it alone, but it was trying; it was doing its part. We cannot penetrate the mind of God, much less understand it. Whether you stay or not, TF will continue. We will not abandon those kids! Leaving that aside for a moment, is it true that you have doubts about the foundation of our faith? Do you no longer believe in the resurrection of our Lord and some other things?
− Lately, I had severe doubts in that regard, and I feel that I must be honest with myself and with you, Monsignor.
− I'll ask you a few questions. If I can't convince you of what happened in Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago, I'll agree with you that you must leave our religion. The resurrection, my son, is the most important foundation of our church. Without a risen Christ, Christianity would not exist. Do you agree?
− Yes, I do.
− All right, let me ask you a question. Do you think Pontius Pilate judged, flogged, and then crucified Jesus of Nazareth?
− Yes, Monsignor, I believe it. There is a lot of historical evidence to which these facts attest.
− Let me refresh your knowledge, recounting the events that occurred after his death, and I want you to stop me when there's something in my story that you don't believe or have doubts about its occurrence. I want to move you back to those moments to remind you of the story you learned when you were a kid and then at the seminary. I hope to find out where the intersection is at which our paths separate. Do you agree?
− Of course, Monsignor. I desire to align my present thoughts with the divine will if there is such a thing.
− All right, let's get started. While the body of Our Lord was still on the cross, suffering the indescribable pains of crucifixion, two prominent members of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, asked Pilate for permission to bury the body. Immediately after death, a couple of soldiers lowered Jesus from the cross. Instead of throwing it at the pigs in the mass grave, or the eternal flames of Jerusalem's garbage burner, they placed him on his relatives' arms. Visualize it now, Domingo Luis; he lies on his mother's lap with his arms outstretched, palms up, as if asking for an explanation for what happened. Even though he understood the reasons, he never justified why his Almighty Father could not find another way to wash away the world's sins. Can you see it?
− Yes, Monsignor. It saddens me to remember those moments, but I can imagine.
− Now, they brought the body to the tomb that Joseph of Arimathea prepared for himself. Mary Magdalene, the Apostle John, and other women close to Jesus, accompanied Jesus' corpse until they placed him where he will rest for the time established in the rituals. They must hurry because the Sabbath is coming, and that day is sacred to the Jews. All activity, except religious, is prohibited by the authorities. Representatives of Caiaphas and Pilate closed the tomb by employing a wheel-shaped rock that sealed the entrance to prevent anyone from entering or leaving. The authorities, religious and civilian, suspicious of each other, placed guards in front of the tomb to prevent anyone from doing something that could interrupt the process of burial and caring for the corpse. Remember that there were rumors, based on the Old Testament, that Jesus would resurrect. Neither the Jews nor the Romans would like to see that happen. Everything all right so far?
− Yes, Monsignor, everything you’re telling me is what I remember from my studies.
− Okay, let's move on. On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and other women friends of the rabbi head to the tomb to wash the body and anoint it with scented oils, as required by customs and traditions. Along the way, they met a group of soldiers, those guarding the tomb, who came running towards the city, with expressions of terror on their faces, as if something was pursuing them. These naïve women didn't understand what happened and rushed to the tomb. When they got there, they found the tomb open and empty. My dear Domingo Luis, the empty tomb is one of the strongest proofs that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Do you agree?
− Yes, of course, I do; however, those who do not believe it have ventured two main theories: one, that someone stole Jesus' body because the soldiers guarding the tomb fell asleep, or that the women and disciples mistook Jesus' resting place. What can you tell me about this?
− The first speculation has little basis because neither the Jews nor the Romans had reasons to steal the body of Christ. On the other hand, the apostles were too cowardly to face the Roman guards, who were guarding the tomb to prevent such a thing from happening; remember that the penalty for allowing it was death. And, frankly, who can believe that 24 soldiers fell asleep at the same time. As for the second, the women who found the empty tomb had witnessed it when they buried it; they knew where Joseph of Arimathea tomb was. Even if they had gone to the wrong grave, the Sanhedrin members would have shown the body extracted from the correct tomb to discredit those who were spreading the rumor of the resurrection. Despite the authorities' best efforts, they did not find the corpse. They offered rewards to those who could provide information about the whereabouts of Jesus' body, without results. Moreover, the body's garments were in the tomb, properly placed, which rules out the possibility that it was the work of tomb robbers. The women declared that an angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead.
− There it seems that we have a problem because the credibility of women wasn’t very high.
− Yes, you're right about it! At first, the Apostles did not believe the story told by Mary Magdalene and the other women. And yet, the testimony of women is additional proof of the gospels' truthfulness in terms of historical trials. In an invented story, Jews would never have introduced a woman as the protagonist of the event. In those times, the courts did not even accept women's testimonies. They were second-rate citizens in biblical times.
− I can accept that, Monsignor, but is there anything to corroborate that the tomb was found empty?
− Of course, there is! The Jews and the Romans denouncing that the apostles stole the body to justify the resurrection story, coupled with the unsuccessful attempts to locate the corpse, corroborates the tomb's found empty.
− All right, I understand, but that doesn't prove that Jesus came back from the dead.
− That's true! I'll give you another good reason; the empty grave does not prove it as the only evidence. But if we accompany this fact with the many documented apparitions of Jesus Christ to various people and entities, it is fully demonstrated that the resurrection occurred. He was seen alive after death. That's what's important. Biblical history tells us that he first appeared to Mary Magdalene and other women, which is not surprising because Jesus Christ always had great respect for women, and I think that is why He chose them to show himself for the first time. Contrary to their desires, the evangelists had no choice but to report what happened, the way it happened, even if they considered it a humiliating event.
− Yes, but even that may have been a women’s lie, which, according to Josephus, a first-century historian, were so mentally deficient that nobody believed what they said.
− That's right! However, consider the following: How difficult would it be for Roman torturers to extract accurate information from the apostles or the other followers of Jesus, including the women who discovered the empty tomb? The Romans were experts in the field. No one could resist the tortures inflicted on their victims when they wanted to reveal something. But more importantly, we must take into account the participation of the apostles. The fact that these men, who until then behaved like a band of cowards, suddenly became brave and courageous characters deserve an explanation. Soon, thanks to the resurrection, they became emotional and obsessed men of faith. When Jesus' arrest and subsequent crucifixion occurred, the apostles ran to hide in the basements of family and friends in Jerusalem, terrified because they would possibly be the next crucified. Something happened that transformed them from cowards to brave preachers. Anyone who understands how human nature works knows that people don't change as radically, except when something of enormous influence happens. In this case, his teacher and leader rose from the dead. I remind you that he first appeared to Mary Magdalene. He then appeared to two of his followers and shared a meal with them. His next appearance was to a Greek Church's congregation. Later, he showed himself to his brother James, and then to the apostles gathered in the hall where the last dinner took place. His manifestation was so incredible that one of the apostles, Thomas, did not believe he was Jesus and asked him to prove it, which he did. He then showed himself to his disciples on the Sea of Galilee's shores, where he shared a breakfast of roasted fish and then did so again on the Mount of Olives. He made his most dramatic apparition before some 500 people, "many of whom are still alive," according to the Apostle Paul's testimony in his letter to the Corinthians, where he essentially challenged those who doubted to contact those people and verify the truthfulness of the apparition and, consequently, the resurrection.
− However, Monsignor, some believe that these apparitions of Jesus Christ were hallucinations caused by the impact of his crucifixion.
− These assumptions show us the desperation of those who want to deny the historicity of the resurrection. I'll give you an example: A boat with several people on board shipwrecks. One of them yells that a ship is coming. All the others look toward the spot indicated by the one who alerted them and saw nothing. The person that yelled is hallucinating. But if they hear and see the ship approaching, they're going to be saved. This example contradicts those who threw into the air the idea that these apparitions were nothing but hallucinations, which is not sustainable because hallucinations are individual phenomena. Small and large groups witnessed the resurrected Jesus. Everyone saw the same risen Christ, and some, like Thomas, even touched him, while others saw him eat. Another evidence against the theory of hallucinations is that they ceased after Jesus ascended to heaven.
− You mentioned James, brother of Jesus. Why is there no talk of this in our studies or our practices?
− I hope you understand that our teachings about the Virgin Mary affirm her virginity; therefore, even though the biblical texts mention them, we must try to cover up the presence of these brothers and sisters to preserve Mary's purity. The case of James is of great historical and anecdotal value. While Jesus was alive, James did not believe he was the Son of God. After the apparition, the skeptic becomes a believer, quickly ascends the ranks of the new Christian movement, and becomes the undisputed leader of Jerusalem's churches. This change in James occurs because Jesus appears to him. Imagine for a moment James’ reaction when he saw his brother alive and well. Finally, the Lord's brother is stoned to death for insisting on the truthfulness of the resurrection and his faith.
− I find it incredible that I have forgotten all this and sacrificed my beliefs for the sake of theories lacking the same historical value.
− My dear Domingo Luis, most dramatic of all is that the apostles remained hidden throughout the drama of Jesus Christ's passion and death for fear of running the same fate as their Master. However, that band of cowards now goes out to celebrate its leader's resurrection without fear of dying. Except for John, all of them died horrible deaths as martyrs without recanting their stories about Jesus' resurrection. There is no precedent in historical records where so many have succumbed without opposing such tragic deaths by a lie, by an invented story. Having seen the risen Christ, Peter and the other Apostles came out of their hiding places to preach the Resurrection of Jesus Christ without any fear of what might happen to them. They stopped hiding because they recognized the truth. Finally, they found that God the Father validated his son's claims, whose supposed profanities earned him a humiliating death. The risen Jesus was indeed the Son of God who came to wash away the world's sins.
− Of course, from that moment on, the new church overflows and grows beyond any prediction.
− Right! James, Peter, and the other Apostles were effective missionaries because people could realize that these men firmly believed in what they were preaching; they witnessed the resurrection. Thanks to these testimonies' sincerity, the church of Christianity's beginnings grew exponentially, expanding to Rome and beyond. Like the 500 described by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, these living witnesses told the story to friends and family; it is impossible to determine how many individuals became aware of the fact. The truth is that more than 2000 years passed, and even now, those encounters with the risen Christ continue to change lives. Mother Church asks you, again, to discuss the facts so that your faith may be re-born. Not blind faith, without historical foundations, but a belief based on the demonstration of events that occurred and impacted the generation that lived then in such a way that after 2000 years, the message still endures.
− Largely thanks to the proselytizing techniques of the Apostle Paul. Is it not true?
− Paul's conversion is further evidence of the truthfulness of the resurrection. The change that occurred in Paul's life is unparalleled in biblical stories. Saul of Tarsus was an aggressive persecutor of the members of the nascent church. On his way to Damascus, where he had to arrest and possibly execute Christians, Jesus Christ appeared to him. Jesus asked him, "Why do you persecute my people so hard?" Immediately after, Paul became one of the most fervent missionaries of Christianity. Five times he was cruelly whipped, three times savagely beat, almost drowned in three shipwrecks, was stoned, spent years of extreme poverty, enduring the scorn of his enemies. Finally, Emperor Nero beheaded him because the Apostle refused to disown his faith in Jesus. What can cause a person of Paul's background to submit to such torture? To defend a lie? It is much more believable to infer that both Paul and the other Apostles were willing to make these extraordinary sacrifices because they witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; therefore, all the promises he made in life, including the Promised Kingdom, would become a reality. All these apostles, and followers of Christ, sacrificed themselves because they were sure that Jesus' Resurrection was a historical fact, not an invented story. Tradition tells us that ten of the apostles died as martyrs, as did Paul. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Christians, died in Roman circuses and prisons to defend their beliefs. In the centuries to come, thousands more died because they also believed that the resurrection occurred even though they did not witness it. Even today, in countries hostile to Christianity, thousands of Christians are persecuted because their faith tells them that Jesus came back from the dead.
− Do you have a reason to detail those events?
− Of course! Everything I have told you had the intention to make you accept the historicity of the biblical account. With some variants, the four gospels included in the New Testament describe the same events. To attest to the happenings' veracity, the characters selected to deal with Jesus' funeral arrangements were prominent members of the Sanhedrin. An invented story would not have chosen two members of the court that condemned him to die to be responsible for his burial.
− Your arguments are compelling, Monsignor. I believe that the evidence leads us to conclude the reality of the resurrection. I admit I was wrong. I will never again doubt the divinity of Jesus Christ, nor his resurrection.
− I'm glad your knowledge of your faith foundations is back, Father. God bless you, son!
At the end of the interview, I withdrew from the imposing episcopal building and headed to a nearby restaurant for a bite to eat and continue to reflect on everything Monsignor, and I talked about. Occupying first place in my mind, the thousands of toys I would deliver in the days before Christmas. In total abstraction, I began to cross the street without realizing the monstrous truck whose driver, obviously possessed by an unhappy Satan who did not like my interview outcome, accelerated towards me to make sure of my death. At the moment of impact, I heard a booming voice announcing to me, "You cannot break the promise you made. Your soul belongs to me, and I am taking it."