Here comes another Easter weekend. So what?
Chocolate eggs, downy ducklings, and fluffy bunnies—nice enough, but hardly the haul we get at Christmas…or even our birthdays.
As for the religious part, why the big deal about a belief that Jesus Christ died and then became alive again? Lots of weird, “X-file” things happen in the world. Isn’t this just one more?
Here’s the thing. The world’s most popular religion, the world’s largest social movement, the world’s most believed Theory of Everything depends on one question, Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?
As a historian and teacher of world religions, I’m impressed by the stark jeopardy of this question. Christianity in its historic, traditional form depends entirely on believing the highly unlikely assertion that the Supreme Being raised Jesus from the dead three days after his death.
And this question matters a lot, whether or not you’re a Christian.
Why? Because it’s the single most important issue in human history, besides which the invention of fire or the wheel, or the development of modern medicine, or the discovery of extra-terrestrial civilizations all pale by comparison.
For if we can know whether Jesus rose from the dead, then the claims of the Christian religion are very likely true. God became this particular human being, taught and showed us the very meaning of our existence, and provided us the way to enjoy…eternal life.
If we could know that Jesus rose from the dead, then that would be the single greatest fact there is.
Secondly, however, if we could know that Jesus did not rise from the dead, then that would be the single greatest fact there is. For that would mean that the world’s greatest religion is founded on a fundamental error.
It would also mean that vast reaches of civilization are off-target as well. Some of the greatest art works in history—cathedrals, paintings, novels, songs, poems, plays—all would retain their beauty, but now they would lose their basic reference to reality.
And major political programs, economic theories, educational methods, social welfare arrangements—these, too, would totter without their foundations in Christian conviction.
Finally, however, if we cannot know one way or the other whether Jesus rose from the dead, then that would be the single greatest fact there is.
For that would mean that the all of the answers that Christianity has rendered to the most important questions of the human venture—What is ultimately real? What is the highest good we can hope for? What is wrong with us, and the world? How can we best fix what’s wrong?—cannot be known with any confidence. At least, such answers can be relied upon no more than any other speculation about these things.
The audacious Christian claim has been that in a world of competing concepts of what is true, good, and beautiful, Jesus of Nazareth has been the single teacher vindicated by a miracle by God himself: “This is my Son, listen to Him.” And how was Jesus vindicated? By God raising him—uniquely in history—from the dead.
Despite our Canadian familiarity with this story, it remains a very strange story indeed. No wonder so many thoughtful people find it incredible. Who would possibly make up such an odd tale? Who would be convinced by it?
Yet this weirdness—a Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi who was executed by authorities in a remote region of the ancient Roman Empire, who left no writings, and was succeeded only by a rag-tag group of followers—this weirdness has resulted in the massive fact of the Christian religion. Every other world religion, I daresay, looks far more sensible by comparison.
So what in the world happened back then to launch this utterly improbable enterprise known as Christianity?
It’s worth asking, at least once a year.
[If this line of inquiry intrigues you, I sustain it at more length in my new book here.]