This piece first appeared in the Easter issue of On Fire, the magazine of the Salvation Army
The idea that the Crucifixion and the Resurrection might not have happened as presented in the Bible is not a new one. There are several best selling novels based on the idea of finding proof that Jesus did not rise from the dead, like finding a skeleton in a tomb, while many more present the idea that he somehow escaped crucifixion and lived to a ripe old age. There is even a major school of teaching in Islam that Judas was crucified instead of Jesus so he could make a getaway.
However, while it might not be too surprising that people outside the church might discount these events as a little too hard to swallow, I was lost for words when an ordained minister told me that he didn’t think that a physical resurrection was a necessary part of Christianity, that a spiritual resurrection was what was important and easier to swallow for modern people than a man rising from the dead. I have seen this idea in other places since, most notably from Bishop Spong.
After I had recovered from this realisation, this did get me thinking. What would it mean for Christianity if the crucifixion and resurrection were simply metaphors or occurred on a spiritual level, if Jesus did not physically die and come back from the dead? Can we have a Christian faith that does not believe this happened? Does it even really matter if it did happen or not, or is it just an inspiring story that we can take spiritual truth from?
I think that is very hard to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to the sceptical that Jesus existed, died and rose again in the same way that it is hard to prove that Socrates, or any such historically removed figure, was a real person. We have lots of circumstantial evidence that a man called Jesus Christ did exist and that he had followers who believed he was holy. There are mentions in Roman and Jewish histories that attest to this, but ultimately the bulk of our knowledge of who Jesus was comes from the Bible.
I can understand why those outside the church might not be willing to take this as reliable, but if we do believe the Gospels to be the recordings of Christ’s life then we are presented with some extraordinary claims that we need to decide to accept or reject. For me, it is when I look at the details of the stories that I am convinced. Any one who has ever tried to tell a complex lie knows that it is not in the surface stuff that you get caught out, it is in the little details. You can make claims that sound convincing, but when they are examined more closely they fall apart because the incidentals do not stand up.
But with the Gospels it is the major parts that are hardest to swallow. A man healing the sick and rising from the dead? Inconceivable! But, the little throwaway lines stand up remarkably well. An example of this is when Jesus is on the cross and his side is pierced, we are told that a mix of blood and water flows forth. Modern medicine tells us that, yes, this would occur if a man died under such circumstances. But, this is not trumpeted as proof in the Gospels that Jesus actually did die, just reported in a matter of fact way that makes it all the more convincing. It is these little touches that give it the ring of truth.
Perhaps the most convincing sign we have of the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection, though, is the dramatic change we see in the character and behaviour of the disciples. Leading up to the events of Passover we are presented with a picture of a fractious and undisciplined group. Whether it is disputes about money, or squabbles about precedence that end with some of the disciples running to their Mummy, they do not seem like the sort of people who are capable of going on to change the world.
After the crucifixion itself, we still aren’t filled with a great deal of confidence in their character. Jesus’s death is pivotal moment for this fledgling movement, but at a time when strong leadership is required more than ever, Jesus’ right hand man denies that he even knew Christ three times, and the rest of the apostles scatter. In a bit of an “in your face” to those who would seek to downplay the role of women in the early church, it is only the female disciples who are brave enough to wait around at Jesus’s tomb.
If the apostles, or the early Church were going to lie about the events of Jesus’ ministry, then what I know about human nature tells me that they would have presented themselves in a much better light. We might have gotten a Hollywood version of the story, with Peter organising his own Ocean’s Eleven to bust Jesus out of gaol along with all the treasure of the Great Temple! Instead, the candid revelations of their foibles and frailties inspire our trust and faith. If they are so honest about their failures, why would they not be about their triumphs?
But even though we get to know a fairly uninspiring bunch in the Gospels, as we read the Acts of the Apostles, and learn more about the history of the Early Church, we are confronted with a transformed group of people. Almost without exception, the apostles die martyrs’ deaths, executed in often horrible fashion as they refuse to renounce the name of Christ or stop spreading His message. The same Peter who denied his Lord became so committed that he refused to be executed the same way as Jesus, saying he wasn’t worthy, and was instead crucified upside down.
What could possible change people this much? The only explanation that makes sense to me is that they witnessed something so incredible that their lives could never be the same. Their remarkable transformation is a testament to the fact that something extraordinary happened in history, and it is this that convinces me that it is more than metaphor or parable. All the struggling and striving of the early Church is inspired by the assumptions when Jesus promised he would rise again he was telling the truth, that Death could not conquer him, but instead was itself conquered by the Son of God.
As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, without a resurrection the witness of the disciples is all for nothing. Their willingness to sacrifice themselves and their faith that Jesus was who he claimed to be are deluded. God’s promises are broken, and like a house built on a rotten foundation, everything else we take as articles of belief fall down. Without a crucifixion there is not atonement for our sins, without a resurrection there is no triumph over death or hope for eternal life.
Most importantly though, Jesus is revealed as a charlatan, another false prophet whose grandiose claims are proved false. The Gospel goes from being a beautiful story of faith and hope, to be just another tragedy where another self-deluded man suffers and dies for nothing. If we do not believe that these events really occurred, then there is no point believing the rest. It is not enough to see at as an inspiring story, it is either true and wonderful, or false and the greatest hoax ever perpetrated and a betrayal of people who deserved better.
However, my friend was right in saying that there is danger in seeing the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as merely historical events, remarkable but existing only in the past. The truth is that they stand as hinges on which the whole of creation turns, their significance reaching forward through the centuries and impacting on our lives in the here and now. On the Cross, Christ died as much for my sins as he did for Peter’s, and when he rose from the tomb he defeated my death as much as that of Moses.
Two thousand years is a long time, and it is easy to feel removed from the Gospel story. But, the impact of those events is still being felt today. When Jesus died and rose again it changed the world forever, and history took a different course. The challenge is to allow it to change us. The disciples were transformed by what happened in a provincial outpost of an empire that no longer exists. The miracle of Easter is that in a very different time and a very different world, we can be transformed too.