20 April 2011

A summary of Easter

My aim here is to summarise the case for Easter and to give a rough appraisal of its meaning and importance for me as a Christian. This is not a complete exegesis, as when I started to write this it just longer and longer and longer; which I think goes someway to demonstrating why Easter is at the heart of Christianity. So what follows is a brief overview and as such I have had to omit much detail and nuanced arguments, so I admit from the start that this is incomplete and full of holes. There are then two main ways to look at this: one is to look at the holes and dismiss the whole discussion as fraudulent, the other is to gloss over the holes and accept everything on face value. I would hope that you do not adopt either of these simplistic views, but that you can read and assess the whole thing as it stands, both in substance and in what it lacks. I ought to say from the outset that this subject has been on my mind much over the last few months and to that end my main text (other than the various books that make up the compendium known as the Bible) has been N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I also followed this up with Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. Though I do not agree 100% with the conclusions of either, I think they are well worth following up for anyone who is serious about examining the ideas around Easter.

Each of these books deals with a different aspect of Easter. It’s not hard to tell from the titles that one relates to the crucifixion and the other to the resurrection. Yet in my readings of each of these, as well the biblical texts, it struck me that you can’t really have an Easter theology with considering both aspects. In my opinion, and this is all I am stating here, the crucifixion without the resurrection would leave us without hope, while the resurrection without the crucifixion leaves us unjustified. But for me, with the events of that particular weekend upon which the history of the world hinged, the doctrines of hope and justification are intimately entwined, like the weft and warp of the fabric of faith. Having one without the other leaves everything in pieces. However, I find that it is actually easier (accuse me of laziness, by all means!) to consider the resurrection before the crucifixion.

So then, we need to find out what happened over the course of the Easter weekend, some 2 centuries ago. As this was an historical event, we cannot rely on any notion of repeatable experiment, test groups or empirical measurement as would be the case if we wanted to employ a scientific scrutiny to the claims. It simply falls outside the scope of scientific investigation, so instead the most appropriate methodology to adopt is that of the historian. The best history is constructed by using the widest array of contemporary sources. The most obvious of these are the 4 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) though it may surprise some to hear that these are not in fact the earliest accounts we have of Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest (that I know of, anyway) is actually Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But here we have a snag. Was Paul an eyewitness to the death and resurrection of Jesus? Well, it seems that the answer is ‘no’ – so does that discount his testimony? We also have the problem of the apparent differences between the 4 gospels. Do inconsistencies in detail prove that the event did not take place?

To answer these questions, I think it helps to think in terms of journalism. Say, for example, an event happens for which there are various witnesses but which is not recorded by technology. i.e. there were a few people who saw it, but it wasn’t captured on CCTV or on a mobile phone. None of these people are professional journalists, but they describe what they saw to a several journalists. Is it likely that they would all report exactly the same thing? I think it’s pretty unlikely. If you pick up a copy each of the Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail and The Sun, do a side-by-side comparison of them and what you will find is this:

a) They will not all report on exactly the same set of stories; some will include articles that others leave out
b) On those articles relating to the same event, the reporting will be quite different.

There are a couple of more modern takes on this phenomenon of differences relating to the same event. One of these is known as “Wittgenstein’s poker.” If you haven’t heard of it, I don’t blame you. I only came across it for the first time a couple of years ago. There was a debate which took place at which several highly noted philosophers were having a discussion on the philosophy of science. On one side of the debate was Karl Popper. In the audience were Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. As the story goes, at some point during the evening, Popper said something that incensed Wittgenstein who grabbed a hot poker from the fire and brandished it at Popper, before storming out of the room. But later on, when asked to recount the details, no one could quite agree. In truth, the fact that there was so much disagreement about the fine details, in spite of a broad agreement on the core of the story, was testament to something extraordinary having happened.

More recently, there was a tv programme broadcast on terrestrial tv (though I admit I have struggled to find reference to it – if someone knows, please help me with this). What he did was to take a group of volunteers (who had volunteered for a different kind of experiment) and he set up a fake stabbing while they were out at lunch. From my memory, there were about 20 or so volunteers, one of whom was a ‘mole’ and had been asked to insert a red herring – with one of the aims of the experiment to find out how many of the other volunteers included this red herring into their testimony. Each of the volunteers were then subject to a police interrogation as to what happened. Everyone gave different accounts; some omitted some details, whilst others were influenced by the mole and reported seeing something which they did not see. So how does this influence our take on the gospel writers? Does the fact that people can report seeing something which they have not mean that the gospels must be wrong? Well, I don’t think so. The casting of doubt on something is very different from outright dismissal, and I would regard anyone as foolish who, on this count, is led to think that the gospel writers must have all been mistaken or were in cahoots with one another to make it up. Instead, what the programme showed was that after the interrogations, the police were able to piece together an accurate picture of what happened, corroborating various witness statements, weeding out the incorrect information and getting to the heart of the matter. And so it is, I believe, mirrored in the gospels, and with particular reference here to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, although the same holds for the rest of the gospel narratives. The fact that they have slight differences between them, but that from looking at them collectively, it is evident that there is a consistent narrative implies that they are reviewing a real, historical event. I read recently somewhere that the slightly confused language that they use was indicative of someone writing about what they can see, but which they don’t understand.

Now let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. What if it was a metaphor or, worse, an elaborate fabrication? Do you think the gospels would have continued to be copied and passed on by the contemporaries of the early Christian movement if they had known it was false? It strikes me as quite unreasonable that one would suppose this. There were enough eye-witnesses around at the time who would have been able to quash this early movement, known as The Way had its basis been historically and accurately incorrect. Without the historical reality of the resurrection, the task of explaining the origins of Christianity becomes very difficult.

One of the most obvious objections to the resurrection is the simple observation, known throughout history, that dead people don’t rise up from the dead. While to some it may appear that Christians are therefore going against common sense, this fact is in fact crucial: dead people, on the whole, don’t rise from the dead. That’s what makes the resurrection such an important event. The falsehood in this argument is one of induction, which the philosopher of science Karl Popper has opposed. He argued that simply because every adult swan you may observe is white cannot logically rule out the possibility that there is at least one black swan in the world. Applying that here, just because everyone you observe dying is not resurrected does not mean you can a priori discount the possibility of the resurrection by inductance. As Conan Doyle put it, via the mouth of Sherlock Holmes: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The sticking point here on which Christians and atheists disagree is the definition of impossible. To the atheist, the possibility of resurrection is ruled out from the very beginning and so they immediately start to look elsewhere for their explanations of the rise of Christianity and its belief in the resurrection (if they can be bothered to think that far). However, if we are open-minded to admit the possibility of Jesus having been resurrected then the evidence we are presented with gives good reason to believe that this one-off event was an historical reality.

Are you still with me? If you disagree with me but have kept on reading then I tip my hat to you.

Something this extraordinary then merits further discussion. What does it mean? The Jewish hope, and hence the Christian hope too, is for all to be resurrected. The thing that caught the first century Jews off guard was that it was expected to happen to everyone at once at the end of time. It was not meant to happen to one person before all else. But then this is exactly what John says in Revelation when he calls Jesus “the firstborn from among the dead.” There is a popular myth the surrounds and pervades Christianity that the ultimate hope for the future is to live in heaven. No matter how often you hear this, it is not what is actually what the Bible says. (I hope to be writing a short series on this if and when I eventually finish my series on morality). If you disagree, go find the references and send them over to me. Rather, the hope is of a resurrection en masse and that in new, incorruptible bodies we will inhabit the new earth. So in order to understand what his resurrection meant, we must look back at what his death meant. Of course, for a complete argument, we would need to then go back further and give an account as to his life. But that I do not have space for that here.

We then switch our focus onto to the crucifixion, which need some preliminary remarks. First of all, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one. So even though Jesus was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities, the punishment for that was stoning (cf. The death of Stephen in Acts). Rather, it was the political aspect of Jesus’ following was more likely the reason for why he was executed. Yet we should not confuse the reason for why he was executed with the purpose of his dying. This tends to be another sticking point at which many people find Christianity unpalatable. But then who said the truth was ever easy to accept? As a Christian, I believe that God is just (in the legal sense of the word); that is, his judgement is fair and he cannot be unjust. It also very true to say that God is loving. The fundamental problem of mankind is what the Bible refers to as ‘sin.’ Now this has become a pejorative term these days, though I do not use it as such. It is the state of separation of mankind from God. Therefore, you sin because you are a sinner; not the other way around. Yet because God is just, it would against its nature (to use a non-gender specific pronoun) to, as many suggest, merely let it slide. To forgive without sacrifice. This is what Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace.” Rather, a debt is owed, but God, in his love, chose to take that debt upon himself through the sacrifice of Jesus as a substitute for the whole of mankind.

To many Christians, the idea of God’s punishment is for us to be separated from his love; in other words to be completely separated from him. What makes this different from the separation of sin is that while we are sinners we are loved from afar. There is no intimate relationship, it is only one-sided from God to us. But its desire is to restore that relationship. But if we reject the evidence of God’s love as manifest through the ultimate sacrifice and continue in a state of self-deifying pride then what each of us deserves (as is only just) is for God to abandon us. I don’t subscribe to the notion of fire and brimstone being literal, but rather that there is no worse state to be in that that of being unloved. And when Jesus was on his crucifix, he was unloved by God. Not only had he been rejected by his people (the Jews), convicted as a criminal (by the Romans) and disowned by those closest to him (the disciples) but he was rejected by God in our place. So Jesus’ death was far more than a simple, if brutal execution. It was God abandoning itself.

We do not and, I believe, cannot know what happened on the silent Saturday. There are some early writings which suggest that Jesus preached to the dead, though I am not convinced of this. What we do know, as the best available historical evidence shows, is that on the Sunday morning he was resurrected with a new body which was still physical, bore the wounds which he had inflicted and yet was incorruptible – a resurrection body which each of us has set aside for us. So his death was not final, we are not without hope. By his dying we were justified and by his rising again we are given the hope of the future. That’s what I understand as the core message of Easter.

No comments:

Post a Comment