Still Surprised by Easter
I grew up in a “low church” tradition. Our church calendar noted special days for revival services and potlucks, not the names of saints and liturgical seasons. We had choir cantatas and programs for the children at Christmas and Easter, and these were important events within the life of the congregation. But they were not really occasions for systematic and sustained reflection on the meaning of the events that are so central to Christian faith.
During graduate school I attended a church which paid more attention to the seasons of Advent and Lent, and I found my faith enriched by observing them. Even now—though once again I attend a church that doesn’t follow the liturgical year—I usually make an effort to incorporate something distinctive into my personal practice of faith during Advent and Lent to join with those in Christian traditions which recognize these periods corporately.
Whatever its origin, Lent has come to be the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter (excluding Sundays) during which believers more intentionally focus on the death and resurrection of Christ by engaging in distinctive practices—often fasting or other abstention. Since I’m not bound to any particular expression of this by my own tradition, I’ve interpreted it loosely. Some years I’ve given up something for Lent, e.g., ice cream, coffee, television. Abstaining from these caused enough of a disruption to the regular pattern of my life (yes, I’m afraid each of them occupies a relatively prominent place for me) that my thoughts would consistently be attuned with the reality of self-denial. Other years, instead of subtracting something from my normal schedule, I’ve added an exercise or discipline. One year it was the memorization of Psalm 51, David’s penitential song. The daily recitation of it over the period of Lent developed a habit of regretting my own sinfulness and rejoicing in the mercy of God.
This year I decided to read a book for Lent. That might not seem like much of a sacrifice for an academic type who reads books for a living. But I decided that both the length and content of the book qualified its reading as a legitimate Lenten practice. At about 800 pages of detailed and technical argument, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God proved to be a weighty undertaking. Sometimes the 20 pages per day flew past when Wright unpacked the context of an otherwise familiar scriptural passage to reveal the hidden depth and sophistication of the author’s thinking about resurrection. Other days, though, it was work to plow through the massive amounts of historical detail Wright used to substantiate his thesis.
There are several important points about the resurrection I’ve taken away from this reading. One is the overwhelming case for the reliability of the New Testament accounts—that their authors really believed that Jesus had risen bodily from the grave. Wright’s approach to the documents is not a naïve “the Bible says it, that settles it” kind of method. He is completely aware of and engages the difficulties and puzzles presented by the different accounts (e.g., how many and which women went to the tomb? When did Jesus appear to them?). But he shows conclusively (at least to my mind) that modern attempts to claim that the authors themselves were only putting forth accounts of a sort of spiritual resurrection are seriously off target. Far and away, the most reasonable explanation for the writings of the early generations of Christians was that they believed that Jesus had died and then came back to life, never more to die again.
Secondly, I was struck by the development in thinking about resurrection in general throughout the Old Testament and into the first century. The Hebrew people of old seemed not to have a hope for personal resurrection. They would “sleep” with their ancestors and hope to see the continuance of the family line (through which God’s covenant with Israel would be kept). When resurrection language was used (think of Ezekiel and the dry bones), it was a metaphor for the national restoration of Israel. Only later did prophets like Daniel start speaking as though the metaphor might also have a literal application to the bodily resurrection of individuals.
By New Testament times, the Pharisees—but not the Sadducees—maintained that righteous individuals would be resurrected at the end of times. The Christian writers continued this literal interpretation of bodily resurrection for individuals. But because Christ’s resurrection seemed to inaugurate the “end of times” (though not yet bringing about its completion), there was a new metaphorical sense of the resurrection: individuals who align themselves with Christ and his kingdom could experience the new resurrection life here and now.
Finally, Wright counteracts the argument that stories of Christ’s resurrection were just wish-fulfillment by showing that the story definitely did not turn out as expected. If the first followers of Jesus had understood his death to be the vicarious suffering and substitutionary atonement for our sins, they would have solemnly but gratefully celebrated during the crucifixion (or maybe they would have cheered?). If they had understood that he was going to resurrect from the grave on the third day, they would have been waiting outside the tomb on Sunday morning counting down the minutes. As it was, they scattered. Things looked like they were playing out for Jesus and his followers as they had for other would-be messiahs: after causing a commotion, they were put to death and their revolutions failed (see Gamaliel’s account of Theudas and Judas the Galilean in Acts 5). Even after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas lamented (to incognito Jesus) that they had all hoped Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel (Luke 24). And of course Saul the Pharisee persecuted the Christian sect for continuing to believe in their failed messiah—there were no dead messiahs; then everything changed at his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus wasn’t dead! What Paul was expecting to happen to everyone at the end of time had already happened to Jesus. Jesus was the first-fruits of the resurrection and the time had come to extend God’s blessing to all people.
We now take for granted an understanding of this Christian story that was largely worked out by Paul and later theologians. Even though the Gospels were composed after Paul’s letters, they were concerned to tell the story itself in all its strangeness as it had been preserved by the first generation of Christians. And what we find in the stories themselves is the shock and wonder and surprise that the resurrection caused. We today are conditioned to read the stories in light of the developed theology (don’t the disciples sometimes seem daft in their inability to read the signs and see what is really going on?). But it took quite some time for the followers of Christ to sort out the Easter events so they could incorporate them into the grand narrative about God and his plans for the world.
I’m not claiming that later theologizing about these events somehow misrepresented them, just that theology tells a different kind of story. It is our attempt to make sense of what happened. Just like scientists who must incorporate new surprising data into theories they thought were perfectly good explanations, the early Christian theologians had to rethink some of the accepted theological explanations (like, the messiah wasn’t going to establish a political kingdom) in light of the surprising death and resurrection of Jesus.
Does the resurrection still surprise us today? We who work constantly at the intersection of science and faith might have a sort of propensity to rationalize away the miraculous. Our critics talk often about the slippery slope we’re on when we point out natural processes that explain some aspects of reality once thought to require special divine intervention. Once we start doing that, won’t we end up denying the resurrection too? Honestly, it would be a lot easier in our culture to say that Jesus was a just great moral teacher who taught us how to live. We might try to treat the resurrection stories as just some anomalous results mistakenly obtained from an experiment that was not controlled well enough. That would put us comfortably on the road to some watered down spirituality where God is kept safely cordoned off from the natural world that science investigates.
But intellectual honesty forces us to look carefully at the data again. When we do, we can’t just dismiss the fact that the first Christians believed in the real resurrection of Jesus strongly enough to give their lives for it. We can’t hide behind modern polemics masquerading as scholarship which claim to give a better more enlightened explanation of the Easter events. We can’t discount the reality of the resurrection life experienced by countless Christians over the centuries.
Still, God does not seem to be in the business of compelling people to believe if they are determined not to. Some will continue to see the data “as” constituting some other kind of story. It takes the eyes of faith to see the data as a confirmation of the Good News. But this is not blind faith that believes despite the evidence. Wright’s book convinces me that we who continue to believe and trust that Jesus is risen indeed, need not commit intellectual suicide in doing so.
And so we too might still be surprised by God’s dramatic entrance into the natural order of things at Easter, by God’s provision for the abundant life now, and by God’s promise to transform the present world at the final resurrection—including our bodies—into an everlasting kingdom of peace, joy, and righteousness for all who recognize Jesus as Lord.
Thanks be to God.