In theory Easter is the biggest festival in the Church’s year. How it works out in practice is another matter.
Today the main issue is that it’s impossible. Nobody rises from the dead. Some people conclude that Christianity is wrong, others that the whole point of Christianity is that God made something impossible happen. Cue science against religion debate.
The first followers of Jesus, and the people who wrote the New Testament, didn’t think like that at all. In those days most people believed in many different gods and there were other stories of gods bringing people back from the dead. Obviously they thought it was unusual; but they interpreted very unusual events as divine messages, not as breakages of the laws of nature. For example, eclipses were characteristically considered severe warnings from the gods.
So when the authors of the New Testament said that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they did not mean ‘Look what God can do! Doesn’t this prove that God exists?’ What they meant was that God was making a statement about Jesus.
The vast amount of effort expended on calculating the exact facts about what happened seems to me, therefore, to be misplaced. The Resurrection was not about God saying ‘Look what I can do! Aren’t I clever?’ If you really want to know exactly what happened, the people who wrote the New Testament are not much help, especially as they described it in very different ways. Since I wasn’t there at the time, I don’t know either. What we do know is that they described the Resurrection as God saying something about Jesus.
So the question to ask is: what did they say God was telling us about Jesus?
They thought it meant two things. One was about life after death. The earliest surviving account of the Resurrection puts it like this:
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:20-22).
In Jesus’s time, most people believed in life after death but some did not. Here Paul argued that God, by raising Jesus, showed that they would be raised too.
The other thing they thought the Resurrection was telling them was that God was vindicating Jesus. God was telling them that Jesus was right.
The first followers of Jesus were Jews living in Galilee. A long time before, Israel had been a free country; but at the time they were part of the Roman Empire. The Romans brought economic growth and globalization. The rich got richer. What happened to the poor was different. Peasant farmers, with enough land to feed themselves and sell a bit, found the price of food going down. They got poorer and were forced into debt. Eventually they had to sell their land and walk to the nearest town to look for paid labour. There was no safety net, no jobseeker’s allowance. Many people ended up just sitting at the roadside begging until they starved to death.
Those people – the unemployed and destitute, with absolutely nothing – were the ones to whom Jesus brought his message. The Jews had a tradition which did not fit what the Romans were doing to them. According to their scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, God had designed the world to be good for us, so that everybody’s needs should be met. They thought it was God’s intention that nobody should end up sitting by the roadside begging while other people have enough and to spare. Those scriptures therefore contain many laws laying down how society should be governed so that everybody’s needs are met. Every family was have its own patch of land to grow enough food. Every seven years all debts were to be cancelled and all slaves freed. When poverty forced people to sell their land, they would eventually get it back because every 50 years in the Jubilee year the land was to be divided up again so that everyone had enough.
Those were the laws laid down in the Bible. In theory the Jews accepted them. In practice they were governed by the Romans and it did not happen.
So Jesus went to those poverty-stricken, destitute ex-farmers with a message about the Kingdom of God, the way the world would be if everybody did things God’s way. They joined together to live the life of the Kingdom as much as they could. We don’t know many of the details, but the basic principle seems to have been that whenever one of them got some money or some food, they shared it with the others. So there began a movement based on the Kingdom of God as expressed in the Bible. The movement was more than a way of getting fed: it was also a non-violent symbolic political statement about God’s kingdom. As they shared the food they gave thanks to God of justice, the giver of all good things. When they said their ‘thank you’ in Greek, the word was ‘eucharist’.
If Jesus could give hope to people like that, others considered him a danger. They put him to death.
That was the context. Jesus had empowered the destitute. Then he was killed. On Good Friday the Jesus movement appeared to have come to a sticky end. Two days later, however, some of them were going round telling people that they had seen him risen from the dead.
Nobody would have thought ‘Oh that’s impossible, it breaks the laws of nature’. They just didn’t think like that. What they would have thought was ‘What does it mean?’ What it meant to them was that God was saying Jesus was right. To see Jesus risen from the dead gave them confidence. With that confidence the Jesus movement carried on.
In every society there are two questions people have always asked: How should we live? And, what happens to us after we die? People keep asking them because they are important. The first Christians believed the resurrection of Jesus answered both of them. By raising Jesus from the dead, God was showing them both that there is life after death and that the world is designed so that everybody’s needs can be met. We can do better than compete against each other for resources: we can live together in justice and harmony. It really is possible to make the world a better place.