Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. Today that seems odd and perhaps even unfamiliar to many Christians since in commercial terms it is a total failure. When I was a kid, some people sent Easter cards, but now that people don’t even send Christmas cards anymore—at least not many—Easter has been reduced to what it was in the beginning, a religious celebration.
Christianity began with Easter, or rather with belief in the resurrection: that’s why it is so central. The whole liturgical calendar vibrates to a forty-day preparation called Lent and a fifty day post-Easter period called Eastertide between Easter Sunday and the feast of Pentecost–which nobody pays much attention to outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
But start it did, with the news that Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming his human enemies on the one hand—conspiratorial Jews and corrupt Romans—and on the other (at a theological stretch) the powers of sin and darkness that brought death into the world and ensured the devil’s grip on humanity.
The gospels don’t say or promise any of this; the demi-apostle Paul does. But then, without Paul’s first century Easter Sale (Big Savings?) Christianity would have died out in a generation.
For about 1700 years, more or less, most Christians believed that Jesus rose physically from the dead–and so would they. More specifically, they would have learned to say that because Jesus rose from the dead, so could they (1 Cor. 15.13).
But by the eighteenth century, a number of theologians began to follow the lead of certain German philosophers and decided that it probably didn’t happen. There were three reasons. The invariability of nature’s laws, used to prove God, can’t be selectively overridden to prove doctrine (Spinoza), and more pragmatically, no one has ever seen a resurrection (Hume), and finally, the texts themselves seemed sketchy, contradictory, even legendary (Semler). Science, archaeology, and literary studies did their bit to fill in the information needed to show how the world did come about; that it was much older than the Bible made it; that many of the stories thought to be revealed were crude, analogous to other stories, and full of impossibilities and contradictions; that the worldview of scripture was a picture of its distant time and was destined to get more and more implausible as time marched on, as it has.
In the end, Christian theology was left not so much with an empty tomb but an empty story and millions of believers who clung to literal acceptance of the original Easter faith, and a hope for their own immortality. It was left as well with thousands of under-educated priests and pastors who believed it right along with them or kept very quiet if they didn’t. During the same period, an educated elite (including a church and theological elite) became increasingly skeptical that the Bible was anything but a tissue of myth and bad history. This elite focused especially on two ‘pivotal’ myths: the story of creation and the story of the resurrection—thematic bookends that, if discredited would eo ipso discredit everything in between—or most of it.
The response of Christian theology (whose theology? which theology?) was confused. It ranged from joyous to cautious to reactionary. In Tuebingen. Marburg and Heidelberg students laughed when their professors read the resurrection stories to them in jeering falsettos.
Deconstruction began then. In the British universities junior lecturers, in contact with Continental theology, politely accepted the German verdict and then reverently accepted their Church’s official rejection of it (F.D.A. Major, at Oxford, could still be tried for heresy for denying the bodily resurrection in the twentieth century); in New England, the Transcendentalists and Unitarians at Harvard went further by asking for the doctrine of the church to be rewritten along pantheistic lines, while in the conservative sectors of the former southern colonies and in bleak Scotland back on the Isles, a new form of apologetics (which by 1911 would be known as ‘fundamentalism’) was fashioned to reject the newfangled nonsense and get back to Scripture truth.
The fruit of this confusion gave us liberal theology, mainstream Christianity, and extreme protestant pieties of various shades and intensities. Liberal theology gave us a resurrection that never happened but a resurrection story that does—somehow—mean just the same thing. Mainstream Christianity gave us the laissez faire option of believing what we want to believe, only not too loudly, and with the approval of conscience. And the evangelicals gave us the defensive wars against science and reason that, unfortunately, infect our public discourse, ethical decisions, and educational planning to this day—largely if not exclusively in the United States. The last of these fruits should be sufficient proof of the danger of believing something that should no longer be believed in a literal way, since if it is true that good boys go to heaven, and heaven is our home, what is the point of peace on earth, learning science, or taking care of the planet?
In this din, scholarship can scarcely matter. The human being is a hopeful believing animal—something St Paul knew in the 1st century and P. T. Barnum in the nineteenth, and every snake-oil-selling evangelist of the twentieth. Christianity as a middlin Pilgrim has traveled the road from literalism to myth to a post-Christian world in which myth no longer has the power to transfix and transform. Science, whatever else it is, is radically anti-mythical in its processes, though it sometimes speaks as though knowledge and discovery have something like the power—the fascination–that myth once exercised towards the human imagination and human will. But whatever else science knows it knows that nature abhors a resurrection.
For most people choosing a favourite religious holiday is a simple business now. Christmas—even if the circumstances of Jesus conception are tied up in mythology—a sky god impregnating an earth virgin—the actual birth and most of the life of Jesus doesn’t require imagination, or doesn’t require an excursion into the ‘supernatural’ as atheists like to call the imagination. It is impossible to celebrate the virginal conception of Jesus, and no feast day is given to it (nota bene: the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary’s conception). But it is not hard to commemorate with love and feeling the birth of poor child, cut off from family by rumours and gossip, endangered by the jealousy of rich men, who has to be born in a shabby animal crèche and laid in a feeding trough. Even if it didn’t happen that way—or at all—it is a good story.
The Easter story, on the contrary, is drenched in human tears, wrapped in deceit and formulated without passion and conviction. It does not seem to be believed even by its writers. It is a story spread by peasants and told to salve the disappointment of a messianic cult that believed their day had come when it hadn’t. By the time it gets written into the gospels, all that remains is that the tellers of the tale were women, mainly, and that for some reason (as they told it) Jesus did not choose to appear to many people except his followers and a couple of paradigmatic doubters (Luke 24.13f). By the time Paul re-writes it, it five hundred people ‘at one time’, and even (later) Paul himself see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15.6-7).
The canonical life of the miraculously-appearing post-Resurrection Jesus ends with that story, just as it begins with the empty tomb, and might have ended there except for the literary designs of the gospel writers and their later editors.
Wrapped in deceit? Well, maybe that is saying too much. People who spread rumours may not wish to deceive anyone. They are just repeating what they heard. The notion that the spread of the resurrection story is an example of mass hysteria is a tired but well-established genre in rationalist gospel criticism. But it probably isn’t a good example. It is merely a literary outcropping of human nature: our desire to impress and entertain and console sometimes trumps our need to refrain from exaggeration. But the conflicting details and inconsistencies of the gospel accounts are most easily explained as individual writers trying to bring unruly traditions (stories) under control without being able to consult a master template. There probably never was one. Just the women.
Once Paul began to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus as a play in two acts, the second being a caravan to heaven for all that believeth, it was impossible to recreate the circumstances under which the resurrection story came about. The original conditions had disappeared and even Paul seems ignorant of or deliberately silent about them. The new situation is that people were flocking to Christianity because it had become a salvation drama—a cult of believers–based loosely on a rumor of poorly remembered details from (perhaps) twenty years before. Paul does not waste time repeating those rumours. He has his own details.
The resurrection story is not a good story. It is an afterthought, an appendix; in dramatic terms, an anticlimax. Even as a kid I always preferred Good Friday in Holy Week, because I understood that this is something that happens to us all. Good Friday is solemn; Easter seemed contrived. Besides, whatever its sources and analogues, the Passion is a powerfully written tale. The Easter Story is vacant of emotion and conviction as it is told in the Gospels. An empty tomb; some frightened women; an appearance here, there, now you see him, now you don’t. It is better in symbolic and liturgical form; but as a narrative it simply reflects the defensive and apologetic reasons for its composition. But not the story of the Passion: Good Friday is a superb story.
I do not think Easter symbolizes anything: not new hope, new beginnings, the importance of starting over—none of that. In fact, in almost all historical religions, that is what the New Year celebration is all about, a holiday that Christianity more or less unsuccessfully tried to relocate to Pentecost.
Easter without belief in a resurrection, as Paul importantly wagers, is nothing: it is a vain, futile and useless holiday. For those people who still celebrate it, hide eggs, go to Church, buy new clothes (does anyone?) and eat ham (as my family always did), I wish you nothing but the best.
But the ancient proclamation, Resurrexit, Resurrexit sicut dixit ALLELUIA, belongs to another century, not even the last one, and not to ours.
Having written the body of this little essay, it occurred to me that I should say something about the trend in atheist and conservative Christian circles to debate “the resurrection of Jesus” in public.
Almost everyone with any reputation in this area has had a try. Even I have had more than my share of invitations to speak “against” the resurrection, and I have always refused to do it. Why? There are three reasons:
First, because the discussion is over and has been over for many Christians for two generations or longer. Debating the resurrection of Jesus is neither a debate about history nor about the Bible. It is an intellectual sideshow on the fringes of knowledge that tries to answer questions that no serious scholars are asking any longer.
Second, such debates normally (having forced myself to stay awake through several, both live and on video) are displays of ignorance butting its head against ignorance—skeptics who have just learned that the resurrection tales are inconsistent, against apologists who say the inconsistencies can be explained. Assuming our cognitive domain has limited capacity there is no room in it for that.
And finally this: what I have argued here is that the story of Easter is no longer of any importance. But that does not mean is has never been without importance. Lots of stories in human history have come and gone; we happen to be living through the passing of one. It will die by attrition not by debate. It ceases to hold our imagination—no one will fire a bullet to kill it with a perfect, fallacy free argument. I am for letting history take its life and extract its meaning because history knows how to kill things. Otherwise, like Orwell firing aimlessly at the elephant with the wrong weapon, we simply become part of a sickening spectacle that increases the mammoth’s agonizing suffering as it dies.