ABCNews correspondent Elizabeth Vargas is the host of Resurrection, a 20/20 news special that asks: What really happened after Jesus' crucifixion? Vargas talked with Beliefnet about the show, which airs on Friday, May 20 at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT.
What led you to start working on this special?
I first got the idea to do this hour after the movie "The Passion of the Christ" came out. There was talk about the fact that it focused solely on the crucifixion and that only at the very end of the movie is there a fifteen-second, tantalizing hint at a resurrection. I remember reading in all the newspapers and listening to everybody debating about the fact that it's the resurrection that is so important and central to Christianity, not the crucifixion.
You've interviewed a range of Bible scholars. How did you choose them?
We very carefully selected the most respected scholars and leading theologians from the evangelical world, from the Jewish world to the Catholic world to even the liberal Christians--the Jesus seminar is represented as well. Even one of our Jewish scholars has studied the resurrection. I found it an interesting thing for a Jewish man to study and dedicate his life to, but that's what he's done. I'm very proud of the evangelicals who we have represented in this special. They were absolutely wonderful and brought the story to life.
How would you answer critics who would say it's insulting to believers--or just pointless--to "investigate" a matter of faith like Jesus' resurrection?
I asked every single person I interviewed this question: Is it disrespectful to even be talking about this? And every single person to a man a woman said absolutely not. It's wonderful to debate this and talk about this. What can be wrong with enlightening people and enriching the debate?
As a person who was raised Catholic and sat in Mass every Sunday and listened to homilies and scripture readings, I learned so much in doing this project. It's brought the whole story of Jesus' life, death and the story of his resurrection... it's all in Technicolor now where it was before in black and white.
I didn't know that for centuries historians could actually verify that there was this really dramatic change in the disciples' behavior and nobody can really explain that. And that nobody did argue that really the tomb was full, they all agreed the tomb was empty, even nonbelievers.
It's true that at the end of the day faith is a leap that you must make or not make. But I appreciate and really enjoy the intellectual investigation into everything.
Certain scholars' views were interesting-their views about how they understood Jesus' resurrection body walking through locked doors, etc. One of the scholars you interview, Fr. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, asked, "what do we know about the laws of nature?" Another scholar, Paul Maier, says that Jesus' body might have been almost in a different dimension-in our dimension, but also capable of doing things related to a different dimension. What did you think of that?
If you had to force me to pick my favorite part of the hour-and that would be hard-that would be one of the finalists. I found the whole discussion, especially with people who believed the resurrection was physical, fascinating.
If it was a physical resurrection, what happened? Did his wounds heal and did he push the stone out? And then why don't the disciples on the way to Emmaus recognize him? Why didn't Mary Magdalene immediately recognize him and why did he seem to vanish and disappear into thin air? How does that relate to the laws of physicality?
The difference is those who believe it was spiritual believe, as Father McBrien put it, you can't take a digital camera and get a picture of him. Those who believe it was physical believe you probably could.
Certainly the gospel stories, especially in the later gospels, go to great lengths to emphasize Jesus' physicality: his eating food, doubting Thomas-"put your fingers into my side and touch me."
The issue of "what would have showed up if you'd taken a digital photo of Jesus?" is interesting. What was the spectrum of beliefs about Jesus' resurrection and his body?
[First,] you have: the resurrection happened and it was physical.
Then you have: the resurrection happened and it was spiritual, that the body disappeared. The question I asked was, "Well, wait a minute. If it was a spiritual resurrection, where did the body go?" Because the tomb is still empty. I think they believe the body-it's hard, they don't really have an explanation for that. The body disappeared and the spirit was there. But those who believe it was a spiritual resurrection definitely believe it was a resurrection.
Then you have people like Bishop [John Shelby] Spong who believe the resurrection was a definite and empowering event, but it was also a visionary event.
The Jesus Seminar people go even further and say these were visions and dreams: the disciples, in their terrible grief for a leader that they felt so strongly about, felt they needed to bring him back to life somehow.
And then, of course, you have people that say there was no resurrection, but something happened and we don't know what it is; it's a mystery.
Getting back to people who believe in a spiritual, not physical, resurrection, what would that have entailed?
There are a lot of questions that people cannot answer. I mean, that's the heart of the matter. There isn't an easy answer for: Where did the body go if it was a spiritual resurrection?
Not even worrying about where the body went, what does "spiritual resurrection" mean to them?
That Jesus did, in fact, return. That he was appearing. That this wasn't hallucination, this wasn't a vision, this was an actual spirit in front of me.
It was a real thing, unlike, for example, what Karen King talks about when she says people have visions. Visions and dreams were very real in the first century. When people would [say,] "I dreamed of something last night," they would think they had really spoken to you.
Spiritual resurrection means I'm not looking up and imagining this or, in my grief, envisioning or hallucinating; there is something really in front of me.
And it may not be a touchable body or something you can photograph, but it is something real?
Precisely. Exactly. And it really is speaking to me. It's independent of me.
Whereas, if it's a hallucination or a vision, it's dependent, it's part of me.
It's very hard to boil down.
Why does this subject interest you?
We're talking about matters that go to the very heart of humanity. There are a lot of people who think the resurrection of Jesus is one of the single most important events in the history of humankind. It's endlessly fascinating to delve into what people believe and what we can independently study and verify outside of our faith.