This is the question that cannot be avoided by the church in this post-modern world, where the authority claims of yesterday are subject to doubt, erosion, and even ridicule.
"Well, it's in the Bible, so it has to be true."
The dialogue between this question and this answer reveals the problem faced by those who work for a new reformation of Christianity. Church leaders, eager to protect their power, appear intent on employing pre-modern claims that convince fewer and fewer people--or else they spend their time answering questions that modern people no longer ask. They are also the victims of what can only be called historical amnesia.
These leaders seem not to recognize that, as modern history has unfolded, the Bible has proven to be wrong many times. People sometimes gasp when they hear that said out loud and in public. The notion of wrongness and the Bible are not normally linked in print, because the church has lived with the illusion of biblical inerrancy for so long.
Yet the Bible was wrong in 1215 when it was used to oppose the Magna Carta and to uphold the divine right of kings. The Bible was wrong in the 17th century when it was quoted to attack Galileo's vision of the earth turning on its axis as it moved around the sun. The Bible was wrong in the 19th century when it ridiculed Darwin in the name of the literal accuracy of the seven-day creation story found in Genesis. The Bible was wrong when it assumed that sickness was the punishment for sinfulness or that the weather patterns were the means of God's judgment. The Bible was wrong when its words were used to justify slavery, to undergird segregation and apartheid, and to keep women in second-class status. It is wrong today when it is quoted to oppress gay and lesbian people. A column could be written on each of these subjects if space permitted.
Before representatives of Christianity begin to answer modern questions about the resurrection with biblical assertions as the source of their authority, they should remember this history and face the possibility that the Bible might also be wrong about the literal details of Easter.
We need to remember first that the Easter experience occurred around 30 C.E., while the gospel stories about that experience were not written until sometime between the years 70 and 100 C.E. This means that the gospels were not eye-witness accounts. When the New Testament is read in the order it was written, it is also easy to see how those stories grew, and exactly when new miraculous details were added to the narratives. We traced that development in the first column in this series. When these data are engaged, the literal accuracy of the resurrection narratives becomes suspect, causing the foundations of Christianity itself to tremble.
Buttressing these conclusions is the fact that a close study of the gospel texts reveals that these details did not find their way into the written gospels until the ninth decade of the common era. These details are the products of a tradition that arose more than 50 years after the Easter moment. They are not original to the story and therefore should not be thought of as either literally true or as descriptively accurate.
Yet, even if one is skeptical about these details, can one with credibility still argue that nothing of profound significance actually occurred? I do not think so. There was something powerful and life-changing about the Easter experience that the earliest Christians could not deny. That something must be examined deeply even as we move far beyond miraculous claims of erupting supernatural power. Whatever Easter was originally, it appears to have broken open the human sense of being bound by finitude and death. It seems to have captured people inside a sense of transcendence that was not bound by time. It removed the barriers impeding human consciousness, and it emerged in the startling realization that a life-changing power was connected in an intimate way with Jesus. That is the reality that cries out to be explored.
Easter dawned when a small group of people felt that their lives and their consciousness had been expanded to new dimensions. How could they describe something ultimately beyond the limits of their humanity, but which had, they believed, embraced their humanity. It was a time when certain people's eyes were opened to see that life was more powerful than death, that love was more powerful than hatred, and that being was more powerful than non-being. It was an awakening to a totally new reality. It was real beyond dispute, and yet no words existed in the human vocabulary that could capture that reality. So our task when trying to understand the meaning of Easter is to look not at the ancient descriptions, but rather to examine the effects that occurred in the lives of those who claimed this experience.
That was the experience that caused them to say, "Jesus lives." That is what created Christianity. It was not apparitions, empty tombs, or resuscitated bodies. It was rather an ecstatic, eye-opening, mind-expanding experience--a pivotal moment when the cloud of unknowing parted and human beings were invited to see, to enter, and to participate in the ultimate reality of life.
Perhaps it was because the first witnesses of Easter had little capacity to grasp so great a wonder that they began to describe Jesus as alive again in this world. In one sense he was. He was alive inside those who had experienced Jesus as a call into new life, even a new being. I refer to the likes of Peter, James, John, Magdalene, Thomas, Mary, and that first core of Christian believers who walked into the life of empowering resurrection.
Can modern people who yearn to be Christians, but who are put off by fanciful supernatural details of the Easter story, ever become free enough to take this step? Can they transcend literal words of would-be authoritative texts in order to enter eternal truth? Can they surrender the literal concepts of the ancient world in order to discover a reality that literal words can never penetrate?
If they cannot, then Christianity will surely die. But if they can, the resurrection will be seen as real, and a resurrected church giving new life to the world will once again become a possibility.