Easter is celebrated around the world especially by the world’s two billion who profess a faith in Christ. But the central and most important issue in Christianity is the historical event of the resurrection. Belief or unbelief rests on this single, crucial question. If it did not happen, Christians are of all people the most to be pitied, as one of the founders of the faith claimed.
Easter celebrates the physical return to the body and human life of a man who died one of the most cruel deaths imaginable nearly 2000 years ago. The finality of death of the body is a universal experience. The belief that one person out of the 108 billion or so who ever lived escaped this fate tests rationality. That one person in the history of homo sapiens rose from the dead and still lives is a difficult belief to sustain, especially in our secular and scientific age.
That’s what makes it remarkable that even in a nation and world whose intellectual leadership is dominated by a worldview that rejects almost anything that can’t be proven by empirical study about 2.3 billion of the 7.8 billion alive today still hold to a belief system that is completely dependent on this one black swan event.
It is true that a significant and growing percentage of those who identify as Christian may be ambivalent about the resurrection or even reject it outright. From an orthodox Christian viewpoint, Christianity without the resurrection has lost its meaning. Those who subscribe to a faith without the resurrection have retained the bathwater but tossed out the baby. St. Paul put it powerfully:
“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
We are to be pitied because we have committed to a belief system that asks much of us but one that is without foundation. We live our lives with the expectation that death is not the destroyer that it appears to be, but is merely a facade, a thin wall, a passageway that leads to a life beyond this and one that will not again end in death. But we are miserably fooled. We are Vladimir and Estragon endlessly talking nonsense while waiting for Godot as in Samuel Beckett’s play. But Godot never comes.
Paul said those who reject the physical resurrection of the man from Nazareth are to be pitied. However, today it is those who believe it actually happened who seem to be pitied by much of the world. Belief in such an anomaly is considered irrational, unscientific, and uneducated. The fact that some otherwise seemingly educated and intelligent people, even scientists, philosophers or writers, can say publicly that they believe this as a fact of history strikes a great and growing crowd as absurd and even tragic. Certainly confounding. Heads are shaking.
In my now seventy years of belief and unbelief, the question of the resurrection is crucial. It is the cutting edge. It is the foundation of a whole system of ideas, beliefs and perspectives that determine my thoughts and actions. There is only one belief, more a feeling and sense, that runs deeper and that is my strong sense in the idea of goodness, or the Good.
I consider myself a reasonably rational and analytical thinker. Whether you agree with the ideas I have been exploring in the Top Down or Bottom Up series on science, I think you’d have to agree at least that I raise some reasonable questions. Truth matters to me more than anything else. I’ve always said that I would follow the evidence where it leads and if it leads away from my belief in God, his goodness and the resurrection that follows from that, then I would embrace that evidence.
So, if you accept for a moment that I am a rational and reasonably intelligent thinker, you might ask how I could possibly accept the idea that is so bizarre, so counterintuitive and so contrary to normal human experience? And one that violates the laws of nature that are known to be immutable?
First, a couple of comments on those assumptions. Immutable laws? Not what a growing number of scientists think. John Wheeler said:
“There is no law except the law that says there is no law.”
Counterintuitive? Bizarre? Like quantum mechanics isn’t counterintuitive? That particles aren’t particles but really fields existing across the universe carrying only probabilities? That these fields/particles are entangled and operate as one across the vast expanse of spacetime? Like believing that 95% of our universe is invisible, immeasurable and beyond any known science? That the amazing, remarkable, endlessly complex miraculous thing like life jumped from inanimate stuff all on its own and by complete accident? That our universe and all the unbelievably fine-tuned laws popped into existence for no good reason from some mysterious thing called a quantum vacuum? That space and time just began all on their own one day, just apparently because it felt like it?
The fact is, we all believe some pretty bizarre stuff. But, if you are a logical, rational and intellectually honest person, as I’m sure you are, you believe that you believe what you do based on good reasons. Warranted belief, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga would have it.
What then is the warrant for my belief in the physical resurrection of that one man all those years ago? One part is historical, the other is philosophical and/or theological.
One of the most influential books in my life I read just out of high school. Who Moved the Stone was written by a hard-bitten journalist who set out to prove that the resurrection was a fraud. Frank Morison considered all the possible explanations and explored their likelihood. He confronted the counter evidence. All someone had to do was produce the body of the crucified man and the game his followers were running would be over. Their claims of the risen man are well documented by history. But were those claims true? Morison concluded that because many of them were tortured and killed for their false claims, it was hard to believe that not a single one squealed and revealed where they hid the body. Peter, one of the leaders of this apparently insane group, was crucified upside down claiming he was not worthy to die in the same way as his master. Why would all those involved in this most significant of all conspiracies not recant and tell the truth? They were dispersed across the known world, running and hiding for a blatant and ridiculous lie. Someone would have cracked.
The highly regarded contemporary historian and theologian N. T. Wright has expanded considerably on the evidence that Morison provided. One of the compelling pieces to me was the fact that women were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that time. Their testimony was not considered valid in the courts of the day. Yet, they were the first witnesses to the resurrection and much of the story is told in their accounts. Anyone concocting a story they expected to be believed at that time would never have considered having the key facts come through the mouths of women. It smacks of historical truth.
We have ways in our scientific age of evaluating historical claims. These include the recency of major accounts, the motivations of those stating the facts, the cultural milieu, the credibility of those who have accepted the accounts. We don’t doubt the historicity of Julius Ceasar nor much of what is claimed he did and said and accomplished. But, the risen Christ is so great an anomaly, such a unique event, with such extraordinary implications that extraordinary proof is required. Does the historical proof measure up to that? In my view it does, in yours maybe not. But perhaps it would not for me, but for the philosophical/theological reasons for my warranted belief.
I “enjoy” reading the Medium publication called “Deconversion.” I say enjoy because as an orthodox Christian believer some of the more thoughtful pieces challenge my beliefs, which I consider a good if uncomfortable thing. But others just make me sad. For example a recent one claimed that it became possible for him to reject the faith he grew up in and loved by putting on a totally different belief system and trying it out. In other words, by honestly considering the physicalist beliefs that the world just popped into existence with all its laws, with all its beauty and ugliness, without purpose or intention he found that such an explanation was more credible to him than his previous beliefs. He felt the facts warranted them. Even more than that, he found it consoling. As a result, he concluded more or less that anyone who retains their Christian faith has not really tried on the alternatives.
I disagree. Doubt, as T. S. Eliot put it, is a sign of faith. It is certainly a part of faith and it seems that is true of any thinking person regardless of their belief system. Certainly reading some of the reflections of those claiming atheism shows many express doubts even while holding to their basic beliefs. Others admit that the doubts leave them without any firm convictions and claim agnosticism, often with a leaning in one direction or another.
I doubt, and doubt all the time. I continually try on and evaluate other belief systems. I am absolutely fascinated by how humans have pondered and attempted to answer the most profound questions we can ask. Throughout history and today. But one thing keeps coming back to me: goodness.
It is more of a sense, a feeling, a deep experience down to the depths of my soul rather than a rational thought or idea. I feel it in the air, I hear it in the sounds of the mocking birds in the tree outside the patio where I am writing. I feel it in the music of the great composers. I see it in the art and architecture — not so much of today as of the past. There is a rock bottom goodness to the world as I experience it.
It is more of a sense, a feeling, a deep experience down to the depths of my soul rather than a rational thought or idea. I feel it in the air, I hear it in the sounds of the mocking birds in the tree outside the patio where I am writing. I feel it in the music of the great composers. I see it in the art and architecture — not so much of today as of the past. There is a rock bottom goodness to the world as I experience it. Is it all good? Hell, no. But even though the universe shows evidence to me of being hacked, as I recently expressed, the evil and ugliness so obvious and obnoxious has never been able to overcome the ground of goodness that is the foundation.
I said earlier in this post that there is only one thing more foundational to my personal faith than the resurrection, and that is this sense of goodness in the world. That sense of goodness also provides warrant for my rational evaluation of the historicity of this remarkable event. When I read others such as David Hume with his view of a universe gone horribly wrong and read the philosophies of many writing on Medium, I see a clear difference in perspective. For a great many, the horrors and ugliness of the world blankets out any vestiges of goodness. I understand that. But I want very much for them to see and feel as I do that while the corruption and violence is so painfully evident, the underlying goodness remains.
If it does, one must ask: why? Wherefrom? An accidental universe evolving without design, intention, purpose or meaning cannot possibly provide an answer. The resurrection does.
Happy Easter, dear readers.