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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why It is Reasonable

We celebrate the Easter Season in my church: fifty days of focus on the central event of Christian faith. Many place prefer the "one and done" approach, seeing Easter as a day in the year. With our culture's preference to "move on" it is probably considered bad form to be talking about Easter "after the day"--we prefer to anticipate things and celebrate early (hence, the eggstravanganza events on Good Friday or Saturday. And in one stunning case, the Friday before Holy Week!)

For me, it is nice to have a long time (forty days) to prepare and focus on repentance in anticipation of the Holy Three Days (Maundy/Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday). However, it is fitting that we have fifty days to ponder and consider the meaning of Easter. And in fifty days, the Great Feast of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit and 'birthday' of the church)

I want to consider a few questions, but the most pressing is, "is it reasonable to think Jesus rose from the dead?"

Our reasons for believing it, in the end, fall upon the reliability of witnesses; in this case, ancient witnesses, long since dead and unable to speak for themselves. There are four written sources about the events (the Gospels) and several others which refer to it (Letters and Apocalypse). Ironically, the accounts are inconsistent in places which lends credence to their veracity. In general, eye witness testimony should be a bit uneven. When four people recount the exact story it is usually an indication that there is collaboration. We may look at those 'uneven' spots in the testimony later in the days ahead.

Suffice to say that the human documents (setting aside the Christian claim of Divine Inspiration) attest a similar story. Jesus was crucified, something which He expected and even predicted, by the Roman authorities. Some disciples, mainly women, observed his death and his burial. They came back after the Sabbath (keeping faithful to the Law) and discovered an empty tomb and at some point messengers (men or angels) tell them Jesus is alive. Some disciples may also have come to see the empty tomb, or at least Peter did. At some point Jesus encountered Mary Magdalene (perhaps with others) and comforts her. Eventually Jesus appears to Peter and others. St. Paul, who had his own surprise encounter with Jesus, provides a ledger account of the individuals so blessed. the Gospels seem to choose incidents which serve as types of all the events, leaving us wondering as to all that went on in those days following Easter.

Now, many modern people assume that ancient folk are singularly ignorant and prone to believing things which are not true. In contrast, we moderns think we are much less likely to be led astray. There is much to say about that but here is my single response. Do you find that "simple" people bury the dead without understanding that the bodies will stay dead? There is no indications that the women went to the tomb to see if Jesus had risen, we are told that they bring the spices, etc. used for dead bodies. Here is the expectation that they had, dead Jesus will start stinking soon. Corpses were left in caves (burial chambers) to decompose. After the bones alone were left, they were gathered up and placed in an ossuary,or bone box.
(see this for a story about "James, Jesus' brother's ossuary)
Ancient people were very familiar with death. It was constantly present among them and there was no  sanitized medical care or funeral home. They were not naive about dead bodies and had plenty of experience burying corpses.

The Jewish belief at that time was similar to our own: that at the end of time God would raise the dead for the final judgment. What they expected would be the same thing we expect. Someday everyone will rise, but for now, dead is dead. There was NO EXPECTATION that anyone would rise and appear before that. NONE! In fact, had Jesus been a martyred prophet or holy man, his death would have been sad, but viewed as normal. Instead, the Christians thought Jesus was Messiah. This is a belief in something different, something which meant God's victory over the pagan/Gentile oppressors.

Jesus' death was not a problem in general, but it was in particular for the followers of Jesus who expected a different turn of events. False Messiahs were not uncommon. Jews were accustomed to judging by outcomes (prophets and Messiahs both). The failure of a man to come through labelled him a pseudo- or false prophet or Messiah. So Jesus death, however shocking, was a brutally concrete and real event which would have left no doubt that He was dead and gone. Remember it is women at the grave, people already in an outsider position. Perhaps their love for Him was bigger than Messianic hopes. And woman are not considered reliable witnesses at that time (recall the apostles blow them off) so no author would fabricate women as the source of eyewitness confirmation. (Any more than we would make up a story and claim a five year old is the key witness)

The risen state of Jesus on that morning was unexpected by everyone (except Jesus apparently). The belief in a general resurrection at the end of time did not include any early singular events. Hence, there is no reason to think the ancient folks were predisposed to think He would. The stories have eyewitness characterization (like a foot race and who won, or standing around crying, or a reference to a carelessly discarded face cloth rolled up in a corner by itself, or Jesus redirecting reactions toward more appropriate goals). The stories portray the disciples as clueless, afraid, shocked, and otherwise unimpressive (though consistently human). It sounds true, but it does not sound made-up.

The biggest reason most of us doubt the resurrection is because it has never happened before or since. Yet, the resurrection is unique, something which precludes happening over and over again. The uniqueness means that we cannot find a precedent or a later confirmation. It is like a snowstorm in July in Memphis. We would take note of such a thing because it was unexpected. And being unexpected it makes sense that it did not happen before or since.

The claims about Jesus were announced throughout the Empire by men who often met brutal deaths. The motivation for such a thing is hard to fathom. To lose everything in order to tell fake stories about a man who had died brutally as a false Messiah and to suffer deprivation and death in order to maintain the fallacy seems much less reasonable. There would have been no pay off, no TV appearances or book deals. Only long days and nights living a deprived life in order to move around telling people a remarkable story which you knew was not true and eventually being tortured and killed for the telling. (Just not a reasonable explanation to me) The reason why they did it is clearly they had an experience which made them brave in the face of all opposition. That courage is something which they self report in the Gospels that they did not have. They describe themselves as inept followers of Jesus, men of weak faith and little insight into Who He is and what He calls us to. The best reason for this radical transformation would seem to be that Jesus rose and He talked with them.

Did it happen? I believe so, but this is outside the realm of proof. However, making sense of all that transpired after the crucifixion, it seems the most reasonable explanation is the one which had universal ascent in the earliest Christian documents. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died and was buried, and on the third day He rose again (according to the Scriptures---which by the way no one had interpreted that way until Jesus explained it to them after the resurrection)

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