Don't Believe in the Resurrection?
The poet Rumi suggests that we live with a deep secret that sometimes we know…then not…and then know again. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one such secret. One moment I think I grasp how the deep reality underlying the resurrection story allows me to lean into the mystery of God, and then in the next moment, the story appears so unlikely that my trust in it evaporates into thin air.
The Resurrection is the Christian gold standard. Somewhere in the bylaws of being a Christian it states that if you don’t fully believe in the resurrection then your membership is officially revoked. Perhaps your faith journey has led you to the point of believing that Jesus was perhaps the greatest prophet of all times, but because you haven’t embraced the resurrection, you assume there is no place for you in Christianity.
Many of us who believe choose to quietly shut the door on this difficult precept of the faith, deciding to simply “accept it on faith.” That strategy worked better in another time and place than it does today.
Faith questions aren’t meant to be ignored or tolerated. They shouldn’t be treated like an awkward relative you can’t reason with, or some life situation that you’ve put in the “too hard to deal with pile.” Faith questions are spiritual nudges, challenging us to cast out into deeper spiritual waters.
Perhaps the best way to approach the question of the resurrection is to ask: “How do I make sense of the resurrection?” as opposed to, “Did the resurrection actually happen?”
It’s a gentler way of re-opening the doubt door. Our job as believers is not to figure out the how or when of the resurrection, but the what. What is the resurrection about?
The biblical accounts of the empty tomb are imagination grabbers. The empty tomb stories make us speculate about all sorts of things: what happened to the guards, how could anyone roll the heavy stone away from the entrance, or why were the burial cloths so neatly arranged. These questions distract us from the what of the resurrection story. What the gospels do tell us is that there is no actual description of Jesus being raised from the dead. There were no witnesses. None of the gospels attempt to explain exactly how the tomb became empty.
The gospels do tell us things that make the empty tomb story sound plausible. One example: the fact that the empty tomb was discovered by women. Women were some of the least likely of witnesses in the patriarchal culture of the day. To quote Josephus, "But let not the testimony of women be admitted on account of the levity and boldness of their sex (219)." If the story was a complete fabrication it would have made more sense for the gospel writers to present more credible witnesses to the empty tomb – perhaps a centurion, or Joseph of Arimathea, who not only owned the tomb but was a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps someone from Herod’s court.
My favorite empty tomb story is in the Gospel of Matthew (28:13). The story goes that the chief priests gave a large sum of money to the guards, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep.’ And if this gets to the ears of the governor, we will satisfy [him] and keep you out of trouble.”
It eludes me how the chief priests figured they could explain away the guards’ sleeping on the job and being outwitted by a handful of fishermen.
Tomb stories can take us off course when we are trying to fathom the resurrection. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus the Christ is bookended by two astonishing stories – the empty tomb and the ascension into heaven. It is in the often-overlooked middle ground where the resurrection makes sense to me.
Jesus had no successor. His was not the kind of movement which could simply replace its leader and move on. If he died, the movement would seem destined to die with him. But the movement continued to live because in some way, shape, or form, which we will never fully understand, the transformed Christ continued to exist.
There are a great many Easter appearances reported in the Bible that attest to this. But perhaps the most significant sign of the accuracy of these accounts is the staggering transformation we find in the apostles. They pivoted from grief to joy, from fear to bravery. This group that argued, even at the last supper, about who was the greatest among them (Lk 22:24), who fled in fear during the crucifixion, and then hid out together after the fact, coalesced into a flourishing community with a perilous mission. They became spellbinding preachers and healers of the sick.
In their own telling, they attributed this dramatic change to the encounters they had with the crucified Jesus who was now alive in God.
The recorded encounters with Christ were wide-ranging. They happened to individuals and to groups of people – indoors and outdoors – at the tomb, in the upper room in Jerusalem, at an inn outside of the city, on a mountain, and at the seashore.
Sometimes Christ was immediately recognized, and other times not. He called people by name, ate with them, passed through doors, conversed at table, walked along the road, and cooked breakfast on the seashore. Christ instructed them just as he had done when he walked among them as Jesus of Nazareth. Across the board he charged people with a mission: He told Mary of Magdala to “go and tell” (Jn 20:17). He taught scripture on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:27). He told Peter to “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). He told the disciples: “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation” (Mk 16:15).
Alive as the Christ, he continued to make a profound impact upon his followers, and many new disciples joined them, taking his message to all of the known world. Their belief in him knew no bounds. He was the path to God. His Spirit was God’s Spirit. His feelings were God’s feelings.
To believe in the resurrection is to accept this assessment of him and to be open to the experience of his Spirit, still alive in the world, and alive in each of us today.