Easter presents us with a problem: that which we celebrate and proclaim is often depicted in such a way that it stands as a roadblock to belief, not only to non-Christians, but also to a significant proportion of those who identify themselves as Christian.
As one compares the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, it is obvious that the Gospel writers have different and contradictory stories. In fact, the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 8, suggesting the story of a resurrection appearance of Jesus was added later. The author of the first Gospel seems not to know anything of a resurrected Jesus! If such stories were circulating in Mark’s church, he would certainly have included them.
Is the story of a resurrected Jesus necessary to Christian belief? Certainly something happened. Frightened disciples suddenly came out of hiding and began boldly preaching. This something was called ‘resurrection’. However, to describe resurrection as Jesus’ return from the dead is, I think, simplistic, and has the effect of trivialising the event; cutting across the essence of Jesus’ teaching, diluting it and even contradicting it.
I draw the analogy of a child receiving a big chocolate Easter egg, and excitedly biting into it only to find it disappointingly hollow. An Easter that is defined by a man returning from the dead can be exciting at first, but is ultimately hollow.
History is littered with resurrected heroes in the stories of a number of cultures. If Jesus did come back from the dead, it was nothing new. Whereas, I think, the real point of Easter is that God can act in a totally new way; in ways beyond expectation and never before even conceived of. This means that no situation is beyond hope; nothing is tied down. The story-telling device of a person’s return from the grave was a handy way for those first disciples to have related their own otherwise inexplicable experience; however, it sells God short by defining, and thereby constraining, an otherwise undefinable and unlimited divine capacity to create newness.
Secondly, you will ask why I think a belief in a resurrected body cuts across Jesus’ message. The core of Jesus’ teaching is found in the so-called ‘Great Paradox’: Those who would save their lives will lose them, while those who give up their lives will gain them.” To turn the story of Easter into a hope of beating death, as far too many preachers tend to do, is to focus on the natural, very human, but life-destroying, desire to live forever. This is the very thing Jesus said would cause us to lose our lives.
The third problem with resurrecting bodies is purely practical; it is essential unbelievable. Pascal said that faith takes us beyond what we can perceive about the world, BUT it is not contrary to the world. I have always believed that God does not act contrary to what God has created; i.e., God is consistent. Consistency is necessary, because without it, there is chaos. We might not understand what we perceive as miraculous, but we do know that it does not go against the created order; God will not break the laws of nature. When we ask people to believe that which is contrary to reality, namely a reality in which life ends and has always been designed to end, then we are asking people to believe in ‘flying pigs.’ Most intelligent people will go elsewhere to someone who makes more sense, so it is no wonder the church is dying.
What is Easter all about? Easter is the in-breaking of a new paradigm: a complete surprise, but once Easter stretches the human mind, there is no way it can return to the old paradigm. The essence of this new paradigm is that nothing is set in concrete; that at any moment, the apparent links between cause and effect, the obvious ‘truths’ by which we have guided our lives, even the dominance of death over our choices and our actions, may be overturned by something new breaking into our existence. (But, I remind you, not in contradiction to what God has already created.)
Easter is about there being no barrier to God’s love. It is about the possibility of goodness breaking into the world in a completely unsuspected and unpredictable way to change what humans believe to be an inevitable conclusion.
I don’t know what happened in the outer world on the first Easter, but in the inner world of experience, disciples had their lives changed: grief became joy, fear and cowardice became bold faith. If we simply appropriate and re-tell their stories, making a religious belief from them and drawing conclusions from them to ward off our natural fear of death, then we have lost the Easter faith; we are just passing on hollow chocolate. The real substance of Easter is to make it our story in the here and now, not just recalling something that we believe happened to Jesus, but living our lives as though we believe that nothing is impossible where love is concerned; living without concern for our own well-being, living as though we believe we are not trapped by the particular rules of cause and effect that our world applies to making its decisions, always open to surprise in the face of apparent impossibility.
Into the wide variety of crucifixions in our world: in the ethnic cleansing in Africa or the Balkans, in the oppression and subjugation of people in innumerable places in the world, in the hopeless poverty which is the lot of a significant portion of humanity, in the desecration of the environment that has sustained us, in the utter despair of individuals mired in addictions or depressions or family violence, comes the possibility of ‘resurrection’ through those in whom God is incarnated, who faithfully keep their gaze upon injustice and the pain, the oppression and all of the other life-sapping aspects of the human condition, and who respond in faith.
When an Easter event happens again, it won’t be the same, because, if it was, it wouldn’t be totally new. So ‘resurrection’, i.e. whatever the mystery it refers to, is not the Easter event itself; rather it is the possibility for God to surprise. We cannot know for certain what is going to happen next, and this is where the real power of the story lies; the real stuff! The future is completely, totally open, and cannot be put into anyone’s religious basket of goodies. No matter how hopeless any given situation, Easter tells us that hope reigns. Our task is to be, in faith, open to it happening in and through us.