I’ve learned a few things from teaching swimming lessons to tiny children for over 30 years. One of the most obvious is that some kids have a screeching fear of being put on their back. No matter how much you try to reassure them, they don’t trust the water (or their teacher, or even their mom!) to hold them up. You can demonstrate, you can show them other kids who can do it, you can bribe, coerce, cajole. But it takes a while for these skeptical ones to learn to relax, lay their head back, get their ears wet, and FLOAT. Belief in the resurrection of Christ may pose a similar challenge for some.
What really happened on that first Easter morning around 2000 years ago? There is the “swoon theory” advocated by those who assert that Christ did not really die upon the cross, that His supposed death was only a temporary swoon, and that His Resurrection was simply a return to consciousness. This was promoted by Paulus (“Exegetisches Handbuch”, 1842, II, p. 929) and in a modified form by Hase (“Gesch. Jesu”, n. 112). Another theory is the “imposition theory urged by Celsus (Origen, Against Celsus II.56). The disciples, it is said, stole the body of Jesus from the grave, and then proclaimed to others that their Lord had risen. This is a theory the Jews proposed as described in Matthew 28:12:
“And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”
A third possibility, the “vision theory,” explains that enthusiasm, nervousness, and mental excitement on the part of the disciples caused them to experience mass hallucinations; to see and believe things that weren’t really true. But is it possible that the Biblical account can be trusted? Can one who was raised in a modern, secular culture such as ours really lay his or her head back and float in the nebulous pool of faith?
Did five women, led by Mary Magdalene, set out for the tomb of Jesus early on a Sunday morning? Intending to anoint his body with spices, did they instead find an open tomb with the stone rolled away? After the women spread the news that someone had taken the body of their Lord, did John and Peter run to the tomb and enter, astounded? Was there something supernatural about what they saw: the graveclothes lying on a ledge in the tomb almost like an empty cocoon after the butterfly has emerged? Not long after that, it is written, Jesus appeared to Mary. Then to the women. Then to Peter. Then to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then to the 11 disciples. A week later he appeared to Thomas who believed in spite of his own doubts, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”
Quickly the word spread, “He’s alive!” This became the watchword of the early church. The apostles ended up as martyrs for their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After 2000 years do we dare to conclude without any evidence that Jesus died on Friday afternoon and that he literally, physically, and bodily rose from the dead on Sunday morning?
And even for those who do believe the Easter story to this point, a deeper struggle comes when we stand next to a sickbed, gazing at the face of someone we love. The crisis may come at the senseless death of a child, a spouse, a brother. Many of us wonder at that moment, “Is it possible that I will see this person again?” The body is cold. Death seems so final, faith so unsure. The following poem was written by an unknown soldier who died during World War I. It powerfully expresses what must follow if there is no resurrection from the dead:
If death ends all, then evil must be good,
Wrong must be right, and beauty ugliness.
God is a Judas who betrays his Son,
And with a kiss, damns all the world to hell—
If Christ rose not again.
This is reminiscent of the poignant passage in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:
“And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
To appease the pain these questions leave for modern man, existential theology demythologizes the miraculous elements of the gospel to reveal the “true” Christian message: the call to authentic existence in the face of death, symbolized by the cross. As much as I believe the teachings of Christ are all about social justice, this leaves me flat. If there is no resurrection, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. To quote another poet (Henry H. Barstow),
What matter though we laugh or cry,
Be good or evil, live or die,
If Easter be not true.
Today I WANT Easter to be true. I’m plunging my head back, holding my breath, willing myself to float. I’ve got that same feeling in the pit of my stomach that my little swimmers do. I don’t know for sure that Christ lives, that the water will hold me. I’ve never seen him face to face, never touched his wounds. But on a day like today, I believe. I’m looking at the sky, the mountains, the flowers, I’m feeling the early morning sunshine on my skin. I’m letting the words of the scriptures work on me. I’m thinking of a Savior and the resurrection and I’m reciting — over and over — the words of that unknown soldier who died in World War I:
If it be all for naught, for nothingness
At last, why does God make the world so fair?
Why spill this golden splendor out across
The western hills, and light the silver lamp
Of eve? Why give me eyes to see, and soul
To love so strong and deep? Then, with a pang
This brightness stabs me through, and wakes within
Rebellious voice to cry against all death?
Why set this hunger for eternity
To gnaw my heartstrings through, if death ends all?