The tradition of viewing Easter as the end of disbelief can be traced back to the New Testament itself, to the Gospel of John, where Thomas, being absent when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, expresses skepticism, only to be confronted by the physical risen Jesus himself. The message of these stories, readers of this Gospel are told, is for those who come along later and do not have the benefit of such physical encounters – it is even more blessed to not see and yet believe.
Yet there is another strand, much more neglected, that also goes back to the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that the disciples travel to Galilee, and when they encounter Jesus we are told that they worshipped him, “but some doubted“. This does not seem to simply be a variation on the Thomas story, not only because the setting is different (Galilee rather than Jerusalem) but also because it happens “when they saw him” rather than “because he had not seen him”.
If we look more closely, we’ll see that the element that leaves room for doubt and at times even acknowledges doubt as a reality or a real possibility predominatesin the New Testament:
- Paul describes his own experience as in the same category as that of other apostles, which would suggest that they were all visionary in nature (in 1 Corinthians 15, our earliest account of resurrection appearances; see too Acts’ accounts of Paul’s Damascus Road experience).
- Mark, our earliest Gospel, ends abruptly with no resurrection appearances at all.
- Matthew says some doubted, as we’ve already noted.
- Luke and John, written some 50 years after the fact, are the first to introduce a physical element to the encounter with Jesus. Both have Jesus eat in the disciples’ presence. Yet both also have Jesus not (or at least not always) look like Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him. The disciples in John 21 might have asked him who he was, but did not.
None of these traditions and narratives can be said to remove doubt. Yet even though they suggest that doubt was not eliminated altogether for those who had the original Easter experiences, some conservative Christians today not only claim a higher degree of certainty than the apostles seem to have had, but make such certainty the standard of their Christian orthodoxy. If the apostles do not meet the criteria of their “fundamentals of the faith”, nor do the New Testament authors, then something is terribly wrong with this definition of Christianity.
But it should come as no surprise that some get Easter wrong. The same people generally misunderstand the crossas well. Claiming that God has said sin must be punished and that Jesus was punished in our place, they make two major errors, from a Christian perspective:
- In claiming that God must punish sin and yet he punished the innocent in the place of the guilty, they make God unjust and a liar. For in those passages where it mentions death as a punishment, it says things like “you will surely die” (Genesis 3) or “the soul that sins will die” (Ezekiel). There’s no provision for substituting the innocent and allowing the guilty to go free. And so the penal substitution theory of the atonement is not merely unjust, but also unbiblical.
- In claiming that God requires sacrifice, they invert the Scripture quoted by Jesus, which said that God “desired mercy, and not sacrifice”. And so in claiming that God requires sacrifice in order to be merciful, they are not merely being unbiblical, but un-Christian.
I fully expect someone to object at this point “But it says in Hebrews…” I would love to know how a point of view that allows an epistle that barely made it into the canon to override the words of Jesus may be called Christian. Intriguingly enough, Hebrews is perhaps the strongest candidate in the New Testament for representing a form of Christianity that didn’t believe Jesus underwent a bodily resurrection. It is really hard to fit a return to reclaim a body into Hebrews’ view of Jesus dying and then presenting his sacrifice in the heavenly tabernacle.
Be that as it may, the point remains that Easter is not about historical certainty. In Matthew, it even explicitly includes doubt. And by making the day a day for celebrating certainty, we risk losing one of the most important steps that may help us to experience the “resurrection power” that drove early Christianity and has continued to transform lives down the ages.
Death and resurrection is one of Christianity’s most powerful metaphors. Paul uses it in Romans 6, when he tells Christians “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NIV). Although elsewhere Paul uses language that might suggest that there is an objective reality to our transfer from one kingdom to another, in fact it is something we have to “reckon”, something that we have to take from Christianity’s most central symbolic story and make our own.
Talk of being crucified with Christ was no idle image to many early Christians. Surely the very first disciples knew there was a danger that they might share their master’s fate. Good Friday (and the Saturday that follows it) reminds us not only of victory through suffering and dying for what one lived for, but also the sense of apparent defeat and the loss of certainty that accompanies it. Yet for those of us who have experienced it, often it is that very sense of having nowhere to hold onto that leads us to die to the world, and until we do so there can be no rebirth.
I wish you a happy Easter. But to get there, you may need to experience the uncertainty the earliest disciples felt. And then, finding no certainty to cling to, may you know the powerful, life-transforming effect of letting go. It is like being reborn, like being raised from death to life.