The Easter Moment: What Really Happened?

Is the literal claim of Easter still believable? Can Christianity afford to debate its originating moment?


In anticipation of Easter, I begin a series designed to explore in-depth the foundational Christian claim that the death of Jesus culminated in his resurrection. In these columns, I will raise difficult and, for some, even frightening questions. Among them will be: "Is the literal claim of Easter still believable? Can we get beyond such legendary details as angelic messengers, empty tombs, and resuscitated bodies, and still discover a reality that is firm and convincing? Can we separate the truth from the interpreted framework that has carried that truth for so long?"

I intend to look at the biblical stories of Jesus' resurrection openly, honestly, historically, and critically. I will not fall back on the line of last resort and insist that before such mysteries one simply "must have faith." I will follow wherever the search for truth takes me. I believe we are well beyond the day when the leaders of the church can still protect their weakest members by not sharing with them the findings of scholars on matters of critical religious importance.

I hear well-meaning but not necessarily well-informed religious leaders say such things as, "If the biblical story of Easter is not literally true, if there is no physical resurrection of Jesus, then Christianity will surely die." They actually quote St. Paul to buttress their claim. However, no creditable New Testament scholar in the world, Protestant or Catholic, will defend those simplistic propositions.

People who employ this line of defense seem to forget that at one time almost all Christians believed that the story of Adam and Eve was literal history. They also asserted that the Christmas narratives of wandering stars, angels singing to hillside shepherds, and virgins who give birth were literally true and that all accounts of miracles attributed to Jesus actually happened. The fact is that the great majority of contemporary biblical scholars have for almost 100 years been moving away from these conclusions. Yet Christianity has survived that transition.

Critics will argue: "Are not Adam and Eve, the Virgin Birth, and even the miracles peripheral to the Christian faith--while the resurrection of Jesus is not? Can Christianity afford to debate its originating moment? Does the possibility of saying 'no' to the physical resurrection of Jesus mean the end of Christianity?" I do not think so, but I anticipate that some will think that is true.

I do admit that for Christians to enter this subject honestly is to invite great anxiety. It is to walk the razor's edge, to run the risk of cutting the final cord still binding many to the faith of their mothers and fathers. But the price for refusing to enter this consideration is for me even higher. The inability to question reveals that one has no confidence that one's belief system will survive such an inquiry. That is a tacit recognition that on unconscious levels, one's faith has already died. If one seeks to protect God from truth or new insights, then God has surely already died. So let me invite those who are willing to join me in this analysis.

There are five portions of the New Testament that purport to give us knowledge of the events of Easter. The earliest one was written by Paul in the mid-50s of the first century of the common era. This biblical segment, found in 1 Corinthians 15, is noteworthy both in what it says and in what it does not say.

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