Last Easter a poll by the Barna Group found that "fewer than half of Americans mentioned Jesus' death and resurrection when asked about the significance of Easter." Yet the key event that defines Christianity is neither the life nor teachings of Jesus, but rather it is this strange event that happened after his death: the resurrection. What exactly does resurrection mean? Are we supposed to believe that a dead man came back to life 2000 years ago?
Many sermons in churches declare clearly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, in the sense that his same body was reanimated. The Bible, however, is much less clear on the details of the resurrection. Mark, the oldest Gospel, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb with no appearances by Jesus. In the other Gospels, we have various confusing and conflicting details about the resurrection appearances: in some Jesus is not recognized, even after former disciples have followed him on a road and eaten with him; in other appearances he takes on ghost/spirit-like qualities by suddenly appearing in and then disappearing from locked rooms. Paul's visionary experience of Jesus is the earliest recorded one we have, as well as the only first-hand account (his letters were written 20 years after the death of Jesus, versus Mark which was 40 years after the crucifixion). Paul never met Jesus during Jesus' life. His experience of the resurrection was in a vision on the road to Damascus, yet Paul classifies this vision as the same in character and importance as Jesus' other appearances.
Without this strange experience of the resurrection, whatever it actually was, we would not have Christianity as a religion. Some scholars argue that the resurrection was either a mass hallucination or that the story was simply made up by Jesus' followers after the death of the man who was supposed to be their Messiah. But would these men have given up their lives in martyrdom if that were the case? Would a pure fiction have the power to sustain a movement that would become the Christian religion?
Is it possible, however, that something deeply spiritual happened, but that something was not a supernatural reanimation of the corpse that was Jesus, which would violate our laws of science and which is hard to reconcile with the details of the stories mentioned above? Furthermore, maybe this spiritual event held (and most importantly, still holds) a powerful metaphorical message about our relationship to the divine.
What if the experience of Jesus was one in which his followers truly saw the power of God within a man to an extent that they had never encountered before? If we see God as the ground of our being (instead of a supernatural being as discussed in my earlier post Reimagining God), then Jesus can be viewed as a unique (but human) man in whom this ground was not a distant source of existence buried under layers of ego, but was the very center of his being. Jesus' life, his teachings, his compassion, his ministry of healing all radiated this power of the divine.
Jesus opened up his disciples' eyes to this power of God. After the human Jesus died, what if his followers still experienced the power of God that they had seen within Jesus, even though their teacher was no longer with them? In an age in which supernatural visions and prophesies were commonplace, this experience of the power of the divine that their teacher had opened them to could have been interpreted as if the spirit of their teacher had never died because the power of God never does die.
The concept of resurrection is not original to Christianity but is taken from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, one of the latest Hebrew scriptures. The Israelites themselves borrowed and then adapted the concept of resurrection from the Persians under whose rule they lived for two hundred years. In the Persian religion Zoroastrianism, we find earlier writings that detail an end of the world in which the dead return to life in their bodies.
Jesus' martyrdom (his crucifixion) occurred during an age in which many Jews (as Jesus and his followers all were) believed in a soon-to-come End Times during which the faithful would be resurrected. Physical reanimation is what was expected with resurrection in Jewish context, but the actual experience of those who saw the resurrected Jesus was different: it had spiritual and ethereal qualities. In other words, maybe the resurrection was a powerful mystical (but not supernatural) experience of the living power of God in the world. But as this experience is told and interpreted over decades in a time that expected a bodily resurrection, the stories developed in which the resurrection is conveyed in bodily imagery.
When we examine the story of Jesus' death and the mystical experience of resurrection in metaphorical terms, we can see in the story of the crucifixion (probably a historically accurate event, though certainly dramatized by the gospel writers) the very human nature of Jesus: we see suffering, pain, doubt, and death itself -- inevitable conditions of being human. Yet in the story of the resurrection, we learn that this human condition is not the conclusion -- hope exists for all of us. Behind the suffering of existence lies a power: the power of existence itself that is eternal and infinite. This power thus "conquers death" because it is the source of existence and of life.
The powerful message of Christianity thus becomes one of light and hope: just as Jesus was able to tap into this power such that his life was centered on it and radiated it, we can do the same. We can also experience the divine ground within ourselves and within all of creation.