Easter reflection

To me, the most effective thing written about the Christian festival of Easter is this – Easter – by George Herbert in 1633. I am no poet, but I offer this reflection instead, originally written for the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine. There isn’t much Science-and-Religion in it; nevertheless, in that it concerns faith and doubt, it raises two of the key factors in the Christian response to science.

People sometimes tell me they find Easter especially difficult: their doubts prevent them from entering into the spirit of the festival. I have often found comfort myself in a piece of wisdom passed on to me: “Do not regret your doubts; they are a gift to you from God”. And I often add the simple observation that questions are good, because if Christianity is true it has nothing to fear from honest questions, and everything to gain.

Whatever else it is (and it is many things), Christianity is an intellectual position which is falsifiable. According to Paul it all depends on the question of the resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…” (1 Cor.15:17). If this thing didn’t happen, then we’re deluding ourselves, or, as Paul puts it: “we are of all people most to be pitied.” Clearly, the nub is exactly what happened in the resurrection (or didn’t happen). Christians have many ways of affirming the resurrection, and different ways of interpreting what it means, but they can often be boiled down to two common approaches, what might be called the subjective and objective approaches.

The subjective approach says the resurrection of Jesus was an event in the consciousness of the disciples but not something which happened to Jesus; he didn’t literally come back to life. In some way, perhaps through a corporate hallucination, the disciples’ faith became revived, and they interpreted that in pictorial terms where Jesus came back to life, and appeared to them. And before long people started telling a story about the tomb being empty too. In this case, the miracle of “resurrection” boils down to divine activity in the human spirit, pure metaphor in material terms while literal death remains. Many people find they can believe in this approach as a way of mollifying their doubts. I find myself wondering though, whether this is truly good news.

The second, objective approach, while being the traditional orthodox view, is much harder, because here the resurrection is a physical event happening to Jesus himself. But what kind of event? It couldn’t have been a “coming-back-to-life” because then we’d be talking about “resuscitation” rather than “resurrection”, and he’d die another day. And the Gospels, despite their lack of consistency on many things to do with the resurrection, are 100% together in pointing out that there was something peculiarly different about the risen Jesus: he could walk through walls, appear and disappear at will, sometimes he was recognisable, sometimes he wasn’t; there was a basic mystery about him. If any of this is to be believed then “resurrection” in objective terms must mean something more like transformation or transfiguration.

In fact, neither approach quite hits the mark. It’s difficult in our day and age to appreciate quite what’s at stake. Two thousand years ago “resurrection” was one of the key ideas of ancient apocalyptic literature – some of it made up of fantastic stories about the end of the world, and much of it written around the time of Jesus and Paul. An important component of these stories was the idea that the end of the world would be heralded by all sorts of fantastic events, including the dead coming back to life for judgement. “Resurrection” then, is loaded with a host of meanings which most of the modern-day questions and doubts miss altogether. Resurrection suggests far more than one man cheating death, and more even than one man being transformed; through Jesus it means that the end of the world has come upon us. It might appear that the world is going on very much as it did before Jesus, but the underlying reality is very different – we’re living on borrowed time, and our doubts and questions take on a new urgency.

Is this good news? You’ll have to judge for yourself, because in my own life as a Christian I’ve learned that it’s more important for me to keep searching for truth and asking questions than it is to be certain (rather like the mystified disciples in those early days). As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once put it: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own Sect or Church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.”