This Sunday millions of Christians will raise their voices to share in the ancient Easter acclamation, "Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!"
But what if you don't believe in resurrection, or at least aren't sure? Perhaps you've been attending church for years but feel a little left out, even guilty, on Easter morning as you wonder whether Christ was really raised from the dead. Or maybe you don't often go to church but are willing to concede a "spiritual" meaning as you attend Easter service with your in-laws. Or perhaps you flat out think resurrection is fantasy, something that just couldn't happen.
If any of these conditions describes you, it turns out you're in good company, as there is a significant feature of each of the gospel stories about the first Easter morning that often gets left out of church services and sermons. Namely, when the heavenly messengers first announced the news of Jesus' resurrection, no one said, "Praise God" or "Hallelujah," let alone, "I knew it -- just like he said!" That's right -- not a single one of Jesus' disciples at first believed the report of his resurrection. In one story the women flee the tomb in terror and silence, and in another when the women do muster the courage to tell what they've seen the men dismiss their testimony as "a crazy story." In all four gospel accounts, it appears that the natural response to word of the resurrection is doubt, fear, and bewilderment.
I'd suggest two reasons. First, I suspect that the evangelists recognized that the resurrection is, quite literally, incredible -- that is, not believable. As Matt Rosano wrote earlier this week, resurrection isn't simply a claim that Jesus' body was resuscitated; it's the claim that God entered human history and created a new reality all together. Which, quite frankly, can be frightening. After all, if the dead don't stay dead, what can you count on? Resurrection, seen this way, breaks all the rules, and while most of us might admit that the old rules aren't perfect -- and sometimes are downright awful -- at least we know them. Further, resurrection inherently threatens the powers-that-be. Think about it: empires, then and now, exist by the fear that they can take away life. When one of their "victims" goes and comes back, well, the whole power-through-fear enterprise is suddenly suspect.
Second, I think we have glamorized -- and thereby misunderstood -- the nature of religious faith. While some religious leaders may thunder that perfect faith conquers all doubt, biblical authors believed that faith and doubt are actually woven closer together than we might imagine. Doubt, questions, even downright skepticism -- these aren't the opposite of faith, but an essential ingredient. Faith, after all, isn't knowledge; rather, faith is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews: 11:1).
Writing a half-century ago, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and a devout Roman Catholic, conceded that resurrection seemed like a fantasy, by its very nature almost too good to be true. For that very reason, Tolkien continued, he believed it must be true, as the story we live in needs a better ending than the one we've crafted. Similarly, W.H. Auden once penned, "Nothing can save us that is possible: / We who must die demand a miracle."
So perhaps all the questions common at this time of year about whether the resurrection really happened and how, while understandable, are nevertheless a bit misplaced. Perhaps the question instead might be, "Does this ending make sense to you? Does word of God's love overcoming hate, of life conquering death, give you hope?"
Whatever your answer, know that you are welcome at the Easter feast, where confidence and mystery, faith and doubt, are mingled together. After all, if the original disciples had a hard time taking it in, I don't think there's anything wrong with a few skeptics -- and maybe more than a few! -- gathering to hear and share in the story being told. And, who knows, when the worship leader cries out, "Christ is risen!" you may be surprised by how you respond.
PS: Here is a short video that a few friends and I put together to illustrate just how close resurrection doubt and resurrection faith can be.
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