THE BLOG
04/22/2014 08:51 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

What Is the Point of Easter?

It's come and it's gone. But I believe Easter is hugely significant for all of us, whatever we do or don't believe. And it's not what will have been proclaimed from the pulpits this past weekend.

Easter is not about one person dying and rising from the dead. If you probe what the early followers of Jesus really believed, it was not about him. It was about them.

The reason that Christianity is important to the world -- more important now than ever -- is because of the Easter idea. I say this as someone who is not a conventional Christian, and, depending on your definition, perhaps not a Christian at all.

Saint Paul, and the early members of the Jesus movement, believed something incredibly modern -- that Church history from about 150 AD onward has helped to bury. They believed it was possible for every man and woman to heighten their individuality, to transform their personality and acquire a wonderful inner life, which would benefit everyone around them. This was part mystical, part philosophical, part rational, and extremely emotional too.

In the first century after Christ's death, it was all about the transformation of the individual.

Paul had many ideas, but the most central of them was "burial with Christ," the death of the old self, and the emergence from the darkness of death to the glorious light of the new self. This was a message of individualism, but within the context of a community, a secret club, if you like, but one that held the template for the future of all humanity. The Roman governor Pliny reported that the Jesus movement were seen chanting at dawn, calling on Jesus, as if he were a God, and being initiated into a new life by swearing oaths of allegiance. This is corroborated in Paul's "Ephesian speech" which quotes a snatch of an early Christian hymn:
Awake, you who are sleeping,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ shall be your light.

As light dawned on a new day, so this marked, for the new Christian, the dawn of a higher consciousness. Symbolically, the individual believer was buried with Jesus, and rose with him. The gift of the Spirit of Christ then enabled the new man or woman to break through to a new life of unprecedented significance and value.

This was revolutionary. No religion had ever proclaimed anything as far-reaching. It was both individualistic, and highly social. Christ, said Paul, was the "head" of all believers, but they were the "body" -- the participants on earth -- of the divine purpose. And Paul developed a theory of comparative advantage that did not re-surface until eighteen centuries later, with the economist David Ricardo. "One of you," Paul wrote, "has this gift, another that, a third another; if these work together harmoniously like the members of a human body, a spiritual wholeness results, which can then be permeated by the Christ." In other words, though all believers are part of God and his divine purpose, their individuality and distinctiveness is heightened. And the Christ-presence, through the believers, is going to permeate the planet and transform human life and society.

The traditional Jewish belief was that God created the world and then left it to operate on eternal natural laws. But Jesus and Paul believed something quite different. God was trying to change personality and the nature of the world, operating through the followers of Jesus.

Paul anticipated many of the findings -- or perhaps myths -- of modern psychology. He was the first person to state clearly that individuals could undergo psychic transformation, to reach a new and superior level of consciousness, which itself depended not on striving, but on acceptance of the grace, the spirit, the gift, of the universe. He did this far more economically than Jung or Maslow -- in just seven words: "no longer I, but Christ in me." A more useful and happier person became whole, came to have integrity and purpose, not through his or her own efforts, but through surrender to the divine thread of life. But this was not passive surrender, it was surrender in order to achieve miracles not yet dreamt of. It was surrender that leads to a new type of human -- and a new civilization.

A person's existence could therefore transcend death, just as Jesus had at Easter. He or she immediately entered immortality, the new realm governed by different values, in tune with the deepest purpose of "life, the universe, and everything" (to borrow Douglas Adams' phrase, and make him turn in his grave). The believer might -- would -- die, but he or she had already escaped the gravity and futility of human life. Anything done in Christ would never die, would become a never-ending cascade of higher consciousness and achievement that made human life meaningful and cumulatively powerful. That created God's purpose on earth:

"For if he who will die knows himself that he will die -- even if he spends many years in this life, it comes to this: Why do not consider yourself as risen already?"

In entering the light of Christ, the new person had heightened individuality and purpose. Yet this was based on the security and grace of God, not on egotism. And what was it all for?

It was all about love -- not wishy-washy, sentimental, or romantic love -- though that would follow in due course, some 1500 years later. No, it was about stretching the self to work with God, within God, to make the individual the best, most powerful, and most ethical person that he or she could possibly be. In modern language, to realise the full potential of the person. But to do so within the knowledge that the universe is based on love -- and due to the death and rising again of Christ, and his many agents, the universe would become based on love, on concern to develop the potential of every person in the world, to make them happier and more useful, to reduce their suffering; to bring them fully on board the train of love.

Phew! Perhaps nobody has ever made such ridiculous and high-flown claims as Jesus and Paul did. And many would say -- look where it got them. Being crucified is just about the worst fate imaginable, and multiple shipwrecks and summary execution are not much better. But the strange thing is this -- on the whole, it has worked. Civilization today is infinitely better than it was under the Romans. The love train has not yet reached its final destination. But it is on the way. Perhaps, therefore, far from being at the end of its journey, Christianity -- and all its secular and religious derivations -- is just moving into a higher gear, picking up speed on the way to a total transformation of human life. At least, that is what I would like to believe, even if I'm not sure I do.

What has been achieved, and what might still be, is all about Easter.

Some of the ideas here were derived from, or heightened by, Andrew Welburn's superb book "The Beginnings of Christianity." Andrew is a Fellow of New College, Oxford University.