We are getting to that time of year when media articles will begin to spring up raising questions about Easter. A while back at this time, when The Bulletin magazine still existed, the cover story of was, “Did Jesus Exist?” You may recall an ABC television special several years ago on the Dead Sea scrolls, in which theologian, Barbara Thierring, put forward some ideas that had arisen from her study of these important documents. Included among them was the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross and, of course, wasn’t raised from the dead either.
Though believers may not give much credence to such ideas, what if future discoveries were to prove the sceptics right? What if some bones were found with Jesus’ DNA, proving Jesus did not die and rise in the way that the Bible tells us? Could we say, “So what!” or would our faith fall in a heap?
Does Christianity depend on the death & resurrection of Jesus?
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, tells the story of the Master who gave his teaching in parables, to which his disciples listened with pleasure, but also with occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper. The Master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, “You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and the Truth is a story.”
Like this Master, and like Jesus, the Gospel writers used stories to bring us closer to the Truth. I wonder if we’re missing the point of the Easter story if its truth for us hinges on its historicity. Perhaps we can legitimately say to those who put forward alternate theories to explain the events of Holy Week, “So what!”
Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but a new creation” (6:15). In 1st Corinthians 15:12-17, Paul proclaims resurrection as the essential element of our faith; in Galations he says it is the ‘New Creation.’ Perhaps then, for Paul, the two terms, resurrection and New Creation, are synonymous. Paul, a transformed Saul, experienced the ‘New Creation’ of which he wrote. He experienced the death of his Old Being (Saul) and was resurrected as a New Being (Paul).
Theologian, Paul Tillich wrote, “If I were to sum up the Christian message in two words, I would say with Paul: it is the message of a New Creation.” Paul wrote in the second letter to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in union with Christ, he is a new being; the old state of things has passed away; there is a new state of things.” (5:17)
Tillich went on to say, “Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality, which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who, for this reason and just for this reason, is called the Christ…”
As one studies human religious history from the very earliest times, it seems people of all times and all cultures have been aware of a reality that transcends the physical reality. Our experience of this invisible reality comes with the sense that it is at the very foundation of the seen reality.
Humans have referred to this reality in many ways, including the use of the idea of G-O-D, but it is so invisible that it eludes description. G-O-D is but a word symbol – an idea – but the reality of which we speak is beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond every category of though. As one ancient Hindu writing puts it, “No word from a human tongue has ever soiled it with a name.” The best that we can do is to evoke an awareness, even an experience, of this invisible realm through our worship, our symbols and, importantly, through our stories.
The goal of our human spiritual journey is to bridge the gap between our physical reality of time and space and finite life, in order to see and participate in the invisible reality beyond time and space and finitude. Participation in this invisible reality, the foundation of life, is that of which Paul spoke when he talked of the New Creation or the New Being.
We all live in the old state of things, but the promise of Christianity is the participation in the new state of things. We have known ourselves in our old being. Have we also experienced something of a New Being in ourselves?
Though we cannot describe this new state fully, Paul helps us by saying what it is not: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but a New Creation.” In other words, it matters not whether one is Jew or gentile; only whether or not one participates in the New Reality. No religion, as such, produces the New Being. Hence, religious rites, such as circumcision for the Jews, or baptism or communion for the Christians, do not matter; only the New Creation. At the bottom line, no religion, no religious belief, including belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, matters one whit.
But Paul is saying that there is something that does matter; something that judges our religions and us. There is a New Creation, and we are asked to participate in it.
The Easter faith we proclaim did not arise because Jesus died and was raised. It arose because Jesus led people into an experience of the New Creation. In his life he bridged the gulf and experienced the invisible reality that supports all life. He brought his disciples, through his teaching and his example, to the border of the New Creation. For some of them, his death broke down the final barrier; they experienced new life, and the way they lived was radically changed.
The experience of something new and wonderful, springing to life from their fear and sorrow, was an experience of what came to be called ‘resurrection.’ As Tillich said, resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow; eternity is created out of every moment of time.
So we can say to Barbara Theirring and all of those who would challenge the Easter story, “So what!” Jesus’ resurrection may not be historical fact, but to question it is to ask the wrong question. The fact is that people have experienced, and still experience, the New Creation. Jesus’ death and resurrection is a story that contains and proclaims this experience. It is a story that evokes in us the Truth, and makes us aware that our lives are not ultimately grounded in the physical realm, but in the invisible, infinite reality that we call the Realm of God.
The message of Christianity is not the Christian religion with all of its trappings and beliefs, but a message of the New Reality. A new state of being has appeared. Accept it, enter into it, let is grab you, and shout Halleluiah.
The link below will take you to a short talk by Jonathan Haidt, an expert in social psychology and religion, who explains this phenomenon perhaps a bit more clearly than I can: