If Easter Be Not True

Bored in Vernal christianity, death, Easter, Jesus, Mormon, Resurrection, testimony 15 Comments

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?

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Comments 15

  1. Pingback: Easter vs. General Conference « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  2. Perhaps I’m just missing something, but the poem doesn’t seem to express — at all — what must be true if there is no resurrection from the dead.

    of course, the person probably has different ideas about what “evil” and “good” are, what “beauty” and “ugliness” are, etc., that just happens to support his viewpoint.

    I think it’s all from a presupposition of things like Hell and sin. That’s why the later scripture says, “Your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” I think if you’re prone to believing such things, then that’s what will make you miserable.

  3. OK, well let me try to explain what it means to me. I know that an atheist/agnostic viewpoint might be that beauty and morality can exist just as well without God. I’ll go about my life seeing things that I think are good or lovely or repugnant. But suddenly I’ll be overwhelmed by the feeling that, if I am wiped out of existence tomorrow, what will it matter? Am I simply here to procreate and have daughters who will grow up to do the same? What will it matter what I choose to do, whether I consider it good or bad? How are my decisions or my moral feelings any more valid than anyone else’s, be they those of the worst sadist? All this confusion is what I get when I give in to my agnostic tendencies. And worst of all, I still have that hunger for eternity that eats me up inside. Where did that come from? What am I to do with it? Was it divinely placed within us, or is there by some chance, and the reason humans are always trying to make up a God that will comfort them?

    Does that make sense, Andrew?
    Today, I might as well believe:

  4. BiV — Thanks for this. I’m at a place where I need to do just what you’ve described, and I don’t want to. It’s scary. Leaning back and trusting just isn’t easy, no matter how many times it’s worked before.

  5. Thank you for this post.

    My hardest issue: there have been several important times the last few years where I felt like I leaned back, my head went underwater, and I nearly drowned. I’m back treading water, spitting the salt out of my mouth, and trying to muster back up the courage to lean back again.

  6. re 3:

    BiV,

    The thing I think is…if I’m suddenly wiped out of existence tomorrow, then I’m out of existence. It’ll be exactly like the millions of years before I was born — I don’t recall caring too much about THOSE.

    What matters is what is in between those expanses of nonexistence. We need to cherish every living, conscious moment and not waste these.

    I don’t believe you are here simply to procreate and have daughters that will do the same, but sometimes, when I hear so many of the talks at conference or at the church, I get the sense that’s really what the church ultimately would have us believe. (Sorry for the negativity there.) I think, on the other hand, that you really need (and have the opportunity) to decide what your life will be about for you. It matters to YOU and the people you share it with, and that’s what YOU (because this story is told from YOUR perspective, since YOU are living from within YOUR ears and within YOUR eyes at the front seat) will have to live with.

    I find that some things, I like to live with better. Other things, I like to live with less. Some things enrich this life experience for me, my friends, and my family. Other things do not. That is why I push for some things and not for others. But I recognize that, at the same time, I must be willing to admit that when I step on a few toes — I am stepping on a few toes. When society makes laws against the sadist or someone else, to put what it collectively feels is good as the standard, I think we should not be blind to the fact that we are committing violence (irony!) against the sadist. But we simply accept it.

    I try to minimize stepping on toes to what I feel are the most extreme of cases, because I know what it’s like to be in the position where others are committing violence to *me* and what *I believe* or what *I wish to do*.

    I mean, ultimately, if believing is what works for you, go and do it. Go and do it with as much effort as you can. Seek what will satisfy your hunger for eternity. But, I think the reason you should do it is ultimately not because of eternity, but because of this short gap between the two “goal posts” of birth and death. That way, whether eternity stretches out in both directions from these two points or not, you wouldn’t have damaged your *life*.

  7. Well, for one, BiV, Mormonism is far more inclusivistic in its theology than for me to really worry much about eternity from that perspective.

    Even still, Matthew 25: 31 – 40 (and particularly 37-40) makes me suppose that what precisely will damage our eternity may be a little different than what we keep commonly believing.

    I guess the question really doesn’t have a binary though. After all, “if Easter be not true,” but some one of many other religions be true, then wouldn’t we also have to worry about the damage done to our eternity? Yet we don’t seem to worry too much about that.

  8. Today was an Easter about having my plans changed by others — from an Easter dinner that I had NOT had opportunity to build into my schedule of medicines to having to deal with a nuisance neighborhood breakin as a new Homeowners Association President that I hadn’t planned to be in the first place.

    When I finally sat down this evening for the Easter supper we had planned, there immediately came a knock at the door from one of my wife’s clients bringing her flowers. Although I did not know the clients by sight, and went back to the kitchen, my wife told me who they were.

    They were an evangelical family whose 21-year-old daughter was senselessly killed by a driver as she rode alongside the road on a bicycle. One year ago, exactly. They had chosen to spend the anniversary of her death looking for opportunities to live the ressurection through service to others.

    I don’t think it changed my theology any; it certainly changed my perspective on the day.

  9. Wonderful post BiV. I love the idea of taking a leap of faith by throwing my head back into the water. I remember being one of those hesitant floaters, and even later in my dancing years having difficulty using my “back space”. It takes practice for me, and reading nuanced descriptions of your Easter thoughts helps the practice stick a little better.

  10. If Easter be not true,
    Then all the lilies low must lie;
    The Flanders poppies fade and die;
    The spring must lose her fairest bloom
    For Christ were still within the tomb–
    If Easter be not true.

    If Easter be not true,
    Then faith must mount on broken wing;
    Then hope no more immortal spring;
    Then love must lose her mighty urge;
    Life prove a phantom, death a dirge–
    If Easter be not true.

    If Easter be not true,
    ‘Twere foolishness the cross to bear;
    He died in vain who suffered there;
    What matter though we laugh or cry,
    Be good or evil, live or die,
    If Easter be not true.

    If Easter be not true–
    But it is true, and Christ is risen!
    And mortal spirit from its prison
    Of sin and death with him may rise!
    Worthwhile the struggle, sure the prize,
    Since Easter, aye, is true!
    — Henry H. Barstow (1866-1944)

  11. Andrew #8 After all, “if Easter be not true,” but some one of many other religions be true, then wouldn’t we also have to worry about the damage done to our eternity? Yet we don’t seem to worry too much about that.

    I do!—but I worry about a lot of things.

    Thank you, Stephen, Blain, SteveP, kmillecam. It helps to know someone out there is reading these!

    Floyd, thank you for the poem, same sentiment there, I love that one, too–especially the first verse. Beautiful imagery.

    Mike, I know.

  12. #13 on #8 — The way around this is to have one’s faith include the trust that the God of Easter would not set up insuperable barriers against those who diligently seek him. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner taught a doctrine called “anonymous Christianity” — subsequently incorporated into the Catechism — in which people of non-Catholic, or even non-Christian or non-religious traditions, may find themselves worshipping the true God accidentally, under a different name. That is, if you live an objectively Christian life, it is imputed to you as if it were express Christian worship.

    A corollary of this doctrine may be that it might work the other way around: If it turns out that some other tradition is the actual, objective vessel by which God sent salvation into the world, it may not matter that we seek and accept God’s grace through the tradition we have received. The essential component of faith is to believe that God is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. (Heb. 11:6.) If you have that faith, and act out its implications as God gives you to understand them, you have nothing to fear.

    Thanks for a beautiful post, BiV.

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