How does our faith appear to others
when we are so busy seeking proof?
Saint Augustine in “The City of God,” (circa 426 CE) argues that the account of creation in Genesis should not be taken as literal truth. He believed that Genesis should be interpreted in a spiritual or symbolic sense rather than a literal one. Augustine saw Genesis as a reflection of God’s spiritual power and wisdom. And thus, some would argue, began the ever-evolving process of trying to figure out what the stories are telling us.
March 19, 2023, was Laetare Sunday, also known as Rose Sunday, which is the Fourth Sunday of Lent. In many churches, this day serves as a brief interlude from the typically penitential nature of the season, allowing for a joyful anticipation of Easter and Christ’s Resurrection. The vestments in my Episcopal Church, were a cheerful rose color. So, too, the altar candles. Flowers once again appeared in the sanctuary. Sweet-scented incense filled the air, accompanied by the resonant sound of Sanctus bells.
The Gospel reading appointed for this day was from John’s account of Jesus healing a blind man. According to the story, Jesus restored the man’s sight, and the once-blind man came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. As I sat in the pew and listened, memories flooded back to me of my church’s Bible class many years ago, where we spent an entire Lenten season studying and debating this passage. Was it a literal event, a miraculous occurrence around which a story had evolved over decades before being recorded in its present form? Or was it a fictional story designed to make a point? Though we never resolved these questions, we concluded that it was a powerful and wonderful metaphor for spiritual awakening. The story invites and welcomes all who are on a spiritual journey of understanding. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” beautifully illuminates this story.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; / Was blind, but now I see.
Thank God for Augustine, I thought as I sat there in the pew listening. In not confining ourselves to a literal interpretation, there is so much more that can be understood about who Jesus was, not only for Christians everywhere but for all people of all religions and no religions.
Soon it will be Easter, and we will be celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. For all of us who are enthusiasts of the Shroud of Turin, whether we think it is real or not, it’s hard to separate this possible relic of Jesus from the Resurrection. Two examples, though there are many more, will serve to illustrate this.
- At the 2005 Dallas Shroud conference, an official representative of the Archdiocese of Turin, told the Associated Press and NBC News that the question before the conference was, “Is the Shroud proof of a resurrection or is it a medieval fake?”
- A website for The Sign From God Foundation Inc. states, “. . . the Shroud is physical evidence of Christ’s resurrection. . . . The Shroud is likely physical proof of the most extraordinary moment in human history.“
Proof? Have we not yet learned that people are going to believe what they are conditioned to believe, like accepting fictitious claims of stolen elections, doubting global warming, and denying evolution? We know all the reasons: cognitive bias, fear of change, distrust, religious beliefs and so forth. In John’s Gospel, in the chapter on the healing of the blind man, the Pharisees, religious leaders of the time, despite witnessing the miracle and hearing the testimony of the healed man, refused to believe in Jesus. What makes us think the Shroud will be different?
We are still far from proving the authenticity of the Shroud, much less what we might try to prove with it. We may never reach a definitive conclusion. Achieving certainty might be unattainable due to persistent hypothetical scenarios and conspiracy theories that will surely emerge. For example, imagine that, out of respect, the originally intended burial shroud was replaced with a clean one because it was so bloodstained. Could the Turin Shroud be the original cloth that was not left in the tomb? Or maybe the cloth now in Turin was a temporary cloth used at the foot of the cross while Jesus’ followers sought permission to bury him in a tomb. In either case, maybe, as Jesus’ covered body lay in the sun, a natural image formed on this cloth through an unknown process, akin to the Maillard reaction proposed by STURP’s Ray Rogers.
Another possibility is that the Shroud is indeed medieval. Dr. Michael Tite, who led the British Museum’s oversight role in the 1988 carbon dating process and later became an Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, stated in a 2016 BBC Radio interview:
I don’t believe it’s the Shroud but I think it is highly probable there was a body in there. It was the time of the Crusades. A very appropriate way of humiliating a Christian would be to crucify him, like Christ. I think that is a very real possibility. And then the cloth is put over the body and sort of bodily fluids resulting from the stress of a crucifixion react and cause this discolouration and ultimately a certain degree of decay in the Shroud.Tite, Michael. “The Turin Shroud.” Interview by Fergus Walsh. BBC, 20 March 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03lqvkb.
Until the cloth undergoes another round of radiocarbon dating, many and perhaps most people, particularly scientifically minded people, will continue to believe that it is of medieval origin. Stalwart researcher, Joe Marino has tirelessly anthologized, analyzed, and hypothesized in an effort to demonstrate that there might be reasons why the carbon dating of the Shroud is incorrect. While his work ideally should have prompted more study and investigation within the secular radiocarbon dating community, it has not. Unfortunately, his efforts have not significantly changed the overall perception.
Even if new radiocarbon dating studies were to determine the Shroud’s age as medieval or, hopefully, from an earlier time, a new wave of speculation concerning image formation and the carbon date of the Shroud has emerged within the field of Shroud studies. In essence, the theory suggests that radiation, occurring presumably just before or during the Resurrection, created the image and altered the radiocarbon date at the same time. For instance, as Robert Rucker tells us:
In following the evidence where it leads, we are led to the hypothesis that there was an extremely rapid intense burst of radiation from the body that caused the image. If neutrons were included in this burst of radiation, they would have shifted the carbon date in the forward direction, potentially explaining the 1988 carbon dating of the Shroud.RUCKER, R. A. (2020, SEPTEMBR 18). HOLISTIC SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERIES OF THE SHROUD OF TURIN. SHROUD RESEARCH NETWORK (ROBERT R. RUCKER PERSONAL WEBSITE) RETRIEVED FROM https://0201.nccdn.net/1_2/000/000/192/b90/holistic-solution-to-the-mysteries-of-the-shroud.pdf
I see two major problems.
Where did this extremely rapid intense burst of radiation come from? From the body says Rucker. But bodies don’t do this. At least we don’t think so. If they did, the Shroud might be thought of as an interesting but not so significant artifact proving nothing. Bodies don’t do this and nobody should think they do.
Robert Rucker, to his credit, emphasizes the importance of approaching research with a neutral mindset. He tells us this means that when studying the Shroud of Turin, one should not make assumptions about its authenticity as Jesus’ burial cloth, the existence of God, the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, or the possibility of the Shroud having experienced an event that defies our current understanding of physics. Essentially, researchers should keep an open mind and not be biased by preconceived beliefs.
But are we not talking about a body wrapped in a Shroud in a Jerusalem tomb which we know about from scripture? What if the scripture is not right? Rucker says we should make no assumptions that “Jesus’ resurrection may or may not be a real historical event.” Maybe the burial is not a real event, as well. Some scholars have argued that Jesus may not have been buried, or at least not in the manner traditionally described. John Dominic Crossan, a Christian, a former Roman Catholic priest, and a prominent biblical scholar and a former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, has suggested that Jesus’ body may have been left on the cross or thrown into a common grave, which was a common practice for crucified criminals in Roman times. He does not believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, believing instead that it was a spiritual event.
We need not go there, now. But we should understand from this, that the word “resurrection” means different things to different people. We can explore the widely accepted belief that Jesus was buried and later encountered alive by some of his followers. In a nutshell, this is the Resurrection, which Christians view as a miraculous event. To understand the additional details, we must draw on scripture, our imagination, and speculation. If bodies don’t typically emit an “extremely rapid, intense burst of radiation,” how did this occurrence take place? Was it an effect of the miraculous Resurrection, a step in the process, or a separate miracle that transpired just prior to the Resurrection? We can’t avoid supposing. Rucker’s guard rails don’t suffice.
There is also the question of evidence. Rucker assumes and/or believes that the image is a discoloration in a very thin layer, resulting from a change in the carbon atoms’ electron bonds within the cellulose, a conclusion shared at one time by a consensus of STURP members. However, Ray Rogers, STURP’s lead chemist, later proposed that the image was formed by a selective chemical change to a coating on the fibers. Other STURP members have put forth alternative possibilities as well. Walter McCrone, who may or may not have been an actual member of STURP (though the distinction seems not to be crucial), claimed to have found paint through his microscopic examination of particles pulled from the Shroud with sticky tape. McCrone’s findings continue to generate interest and discussion. I may doubt McCrone, as I do, but many people will believe McCrone. For more information on McCrone, see “Good Science, Bad Science, and the Shroud of Turin” by Joel Bernstein, Global Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at New York University Abu Dhabi and former Barry and Carol Kaye Professor of Applied Science at Ben-Gurion University.
I sincerely value Rucker’s work. He’s forthright and strives to tackle all facets of the matter. Though his research may seem akin to a Rubik’s cube for me, it remains captivating and pleasurable. Yet, I am not persuaded. It may be unjust for me to judge, as I am not a scientist. Nevertheless, I believe I possess adequate knowledge to discern that this is not genuine science. It has been called pseudo-science and made up science by some. Maybe its the science of miracles and is therefore beyond comprehension. It’s possible that my own preconceptions and conditioning are preventing me from embracing his ideas fully.
Rucker is not the only one proposing radiation. John Jackson, a Colorado physicist, has proposed a hypothesis suggesting that the image on the shroud was formed as Jesus’ body underwent a miraculous transformation. It emitted a burst of radiation which interacted with the linen cloth, causing the formation of the image on the Shroud of Turin. This hypothesis attempts to provide a scientific explanation for the formation of the image on the Shroud of Turin while incorporating the belief in the miraculous nature of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Mark Antonacci, another Shroud of Turin researcher and author, proposes a hypothesis known as the “Historically Consistent Method.” Antonacci suggests that the image was created through a process involving a burst of radiant energy, which he links to the moment of Jesus’ Resurrection. Like John Jackson’s hypothesis, Antonacci’s proposal attempts to reconcile scientific observations with the belief in the miraculous nature of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Rucker, Jackson, and Antonacci, with their individual hypotheses, appear to be making a series of distinctions without much of a difference. The adoption of radiation in various forms, which is not well understood by the general public, seems to have captivated the imagination of Shroud enthusiasts. This focus on radiation has obscured other possibilities, much like a fog that blurs everything else from view.
The “Sign from God” movement is a well-meaning group with a primary goal of Christian evangelization, which is commendable. However, I became concerned when I read their mission statement, which states, “If, as we believe it is, the image seen on the Shroud is in fact a full body front and back image of the crucified Christ created during the nanosecond before his resurrection.” The mention of a “nanosecond” seems to imply a connection to radiation. But where did this belief originate? Could it be a conclusion in search of a premise or one drawn from the nebulous realm of miracle science, if there is such a thing.
I very much doubt that Christianity could endure a paradigm shift from reliance on faith to reliance on proof. The iconic hymn by John Newton, the 18th-century ex-slave trader turned abolitionist, tells of a profound spiritual journey, where a life filled with remorse is transformed into joy through the promise of forgiveness. We could consider it a form of resurrection, if we are bold enough to play with the meaning of the word. Should we, at the risk of confusing the words faith and grace a bit, now alter his hymn and remove the essence of journeys of finding faith deep within and from personal relationships with God?
Amazing proof! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; / Was blind, but now I know.
Christianity is a faith-based religion because it emphasizes the importance of belief in and trust in God and the teachings of the Bible, particularly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith is a central concept in Christianity, as it wants followers to put their trust in God’s promises and guidance without necessarily having tangible or empirical proof. One of the core beliefs in Christianity is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which signifies his triumph over death and the promise of eternal life for believers. By embracing faith, Christians develop a personal relationship with God and rely on spiritual convictions rather than on observable evidence. Through faith, Christians are able to find meaning, purpose, and hope in their beliefs, including the Resurrection, despite the absence of concrete proof.
With proof, it’s no religion at all.
What does resurrection mean, anyway. Crossan had a different meaning than I imagine Rucker or many Shroud enthusiasts. And it’s possible that I do too. Personal definitions alone are not enough, nor are the simplistic, brightly colored illustrations from Sunday School classes during our childhood; those showing Jesus walking out of a cave-like entrance, bathed in light, all neat and dressed in bright clean robes. A deeper and more nuanced comprehension of the Resurrection may be necessary to better grasp its reality.
A well-respected Catholic priest, who is a fervent skeptic of the Shroud of Turin and serves as the pastor of a large New York parish church, expressed it somewhat like this:
In fact, in my mind, I don’t think the Resurrection happened in the tomb at all. Jesus was buried in a tomb, and indeed the tomb was empty on Easter. But in my mind, Christ awoke and rose to his knees and then to his feet in the garden near Mary Magdalene. Why not?– as remembered
Hans Küng was a prominent, albeit controversial, Catholic theologian and priest who garnered respect from scholars and laypeople across various Christian traditions. He served as a Professor of Dogmatic and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Tubingen and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. Küng held honorary degrees from multiple universities and had lectured at numerous campuses around the world. In his 1976 bestseller, “On Being A Christian,” now still in print and still popular, he explained that the resurrection of Jesus, according to the New Testament, is an act of God and cannot be considered an historical event. It’s beyond the scope of historical or scientific methods to verify or study it, as these disciplines don’t account for the reality of God. The resurrection is a matter of faith, not something that can be proven through history or science.
The image at the top of this posting is from the Facebook page of the Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Called, “On the Way to Emmaus,” it is a hauntingly beautiful painting by Janet Brooks-Gerloff. It depicts Cleopas and another disciple walking away, their faces hidden. Their despair is palpable – their heads hung low, their shoulders slumped in defeat, and their dark clothing draped their bodies like a shroud. The loss of hope is seen in their posture. The painting captures the aftermath of the crucifixion, and the disciples’ grief at the loss of Jesus, in whom they had placed all their faith. Yet, even in this dark moment, Jesus walks alongside them, barely discernible but unmistakably comforting. The abstractions of the painting leave room for multiple interpretations, inviting us to contemplate the spiritual and/or tangible nature of the risen Christ and prompting us to wonder what we really mean when we say Resurrection?
Resurrection? Personal definitions are not enough. Without a common definition we can’t prove anything, not even with the Shroud, and not even if we could prove the Shroud is real.
I am currently rereading “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by N.T. Wright, a distinguished Anglican theologian and former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. The 5-star, 848-page book delves into the historical, theological, and philosophical dimensions of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection. Wright investigates the historical context of Greco-Roman, Jewish, and early Christian beliefs surrounding the subject of resurrection, scrutinizes the biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, and argues for its historical plausibility and importance to the Christian faith. Or, as Wright puts it:
- “What precisely happened at Easter?
- “What did the early Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead?
- “What can be said today about this belief?”
N.T. Wright does not argue for a strictly literal reading of the New Testament. Instead, he advocates for understanding the historical and cultural contexts in which the texts were written. Wright emphasizes the importance of interpreting the texts within their Jewish and early Christian contexts, recognizing that the biblical authors used various literary genres, figures of speech, and symbolism.
While Wright does believe in the historical reliability of many New Testament events, such as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he also acknowledges the presence of metaphorical and symbolic language throughout the text. He encourages readers to approach the New Testament with a nuanced and informed understanding, appreciating the complexities and subtleties of the text, rather than insisting on a strictly literal interpretation.
In 2006, a survey examining American Christians’ beliefs revealed that roughly one-third of American Catholics and mainline Protestants found it difficult to accept the idea of a physical resurrection. When presented with the statement, “Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead,” only two-thirds of Mainline Protestants and Catholics expressed strong agreement. In comparison, Evangelical Christians displayed a somewhat higher level of agreement, with four out of five respondents strongly concurring. The Portraits of American Life Study (PALS), conducted by Michael O. Emerson from Rice University and David H. Sikkink from the University of Notre Dame, received funding from their respective institutions and the Lilly Endowment Fund.
During Lent, a few years ago, Ellen Painter Dollar, who writes frequently for Christianity Today, Sojourners, Patheos, and Episcopal Cafe, wrote a thought-provoking article called “Why We Need the Resurrection.” It appears on the website of St. James’ Episcopal Church of West Hartford, Connecticut. It reads, in part:
But the resurrection is a hard sell. It looks an awful lot like wishful thinking. Dead bodies don’t just up and walk around, asking for breakfast and appearing in locked rooms. What really happened that Sunday morning?
Of course, we can’t know for sure, but theologians have spent centuries taking a stab. Some say that the disciples experienced some kind of prolonged shared vision—not a hallucination that existed only in their minds, but a vision tangible enough, real enough, for disparate people to agree on what they were seeing and hearing. They saw and interacted with something real that looked and walked and talked like Jesus, that was Jesus, but was something other than Jesus’s cells and organs and protoplasm resuscitated from the grave. The resurrected Jesus’s body didn’t behave the way bodies usually do—take the locked room appearance, for example, or that he appeared to different people in different places around the same time. Scholars point out that when Paul defends the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he links his own experience of seeing a powerful vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus with the first disciples’ post-resurrection sightings, implying that he thinks they had the same sort of vision that he had, rather than an interaction with an actual dead body that was no longer dead.
Other theologians have said, no, it’s not that complicated. The resurrected Jesus was not some kind of vision. Jesus’s body was dead and lying in a grave, and then it was alive. Thomas put his hands into the wounds, after all. The resurrected Jesus ate, walked, and talked. Why would a vision need to eat? Anglican theologian N.T. Wright argues that Paul knows how to write about a less tangible, more metaphorical resurrection, such as when he writes about believers gaining a new life as a result of baptism. When he writes about the resurrected Jesus, Wright says, Paul is not being metaphorical; he is describing what happened. Paul contrasts the buried Jesus with the living Jesus, implying that they are one and the same.
So was the resurrection a literal resuscitation or some kind of vision? Theologian Marcus Borg argued that it doesn’t matter that we know exactly what happened. He rejects a literal resurrection of Jesus’s dead body, but also hesitates to say that something “mystical” or “spiritual” happened, because in our scientifically oriented culture, calling something purely “spiritual” tends to diminish its meaning. He says something clearly remarkable happened in the resurrection, whatever the mechanism. He also says it’s clear that the disciples experienced Jesus as alive in a concrete, transformative way. Borg wrote,
The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s loose in the world. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.
That’s pretty much where I come down on the resurrection too. Something clearly happened that transformed a bunch of bumbling, dejected disciples into people of steady conviction willing to travel the world preaching good news, and die for it if necessary. I don’t need to know exactly what happened, or understand exactly how it happened, to allow myself to be transformed by the resurrection.
Pope John Paul II showed great interest in the Shroud of Turin and expressed his thoughts on it on multiple occasions. In 1998, during a visit to Turin, Italy, where the Shroud is housed, he gave a speech about the mysterious relic. The Pope did not claim the Shroud to be the authentic burial cloth of Jesus Christ but referred to it as a “mirror of the Gospel” and an “icon of the suffering of the innocent in every age.”
He emphasized the importance of the Shroud as a powerful reminder of Christ’s suffering and the need for believers to reflect on the Passion of Christ. Pope John Paul II encouraged further scientific research on the Shroud, stating that it should be approached with openness and respect. He believed that the Shroud could inspire faith and devotion, regardless of whether it was proven to be the authentic burial cloth of Jesus.
That’s enough for me. As someone who has believed in and advocated for the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin for nearly two decades, I have come to realize that most scientific research on the subject is inconclusive. The inherent nature of Shroud science might be responsible for this, as it often cuts the process short, prematurely shifting from scrutiny to advocacy. I am not prepared to declare that the Shroud is not the authentic burial cloth of Christ, not quite yet. I still entertain the possibility of its genuineness, but I now understand that the scientific evidence may never be definitive.
I certainly don’t believe we can ever use the Shroud to prove the Resurrection, an event whose precise nature remains elusive.
How does our faith appear to others
when we are so busy seeking proof?