At Easter the Order of Service for the mass media is to taunt bishops by asking for public statements about the Resurrection.
It’s pretty difficult to say something intelligent about it without shocking some group of Christians.
There’s a problem. It’s all very well to say it’s central to the Christian faith, but what does this add up to?
In the past sceptics have argued that Jesus could not have been raised from the dead. I commented on this here. Today I think the challenge is bigger: even if it did happen, so what? People don’t normally come back to life after they have died, but if somebody did once, two thousand years ago, why should it be any more than an interesting historical fact, like the fascinating shapes of the dinosaurs?
The Christian churches have inherited beliefs from the past but often have not inherited the reasons for them. This happens when beliefs get turned into dogmas. As long as beliefs are held for reasons, people can talk about whether they make sense and whether they matter. In this way beliefs change over time. When they get turned into dogmas they become badges of identity. The Resurrection becomes something you have to believe, in order to belong to a church which identifies itself this way. To say you believe in the Resurrection becomes a statement about what kind of person you are; it’s about you, not about Jesus.
When beliefs get turned into dogmas like this – and it often happens – people stop asking whether they make sense or whether they matter. If anything, the opposite happens: the more difficult a dogma is to believe, the better it works as a badge of identity. This, I think, is the main reason why so many church leaders are keen to stress that the Resurrection happened, but cannot explain why it matters.
When the authors of the New Testament claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they thought both that it was credible and that it mattered. It seemed credible to them because it fitted their expectations about how God works, and it seemed important to them because it revealed something highly relevant.
All of them seem to have believed that God, by raising Jesus from the dead, vindicated him. After that ignominious death by crucifixion, leaving the impression that his movement had failed, God had turned the tables and revealed a successful, triumphant Jesus. Beyond this the New Testament authors seem to have had different ideas. The earliest relevant text is Paul’s, and he treated the Resurrection as a sign that everybody would be raised again after death: ‘As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:22).
In these ways the New Testament authors argued that the Resurrection was not only true, but important. The trouble is, these arguments don’t work so well today. If anything today vindicates the life and work of Jesus despite his crucifixion, it is the fact that Christianity is the world’s most popular religion. As the most famous person in all history, Jesus no longer needs to be vindicated in the way they proposed.
Nor does the Resurrection provide a convincing argument for life after death. Many people believe in an afterlife of some sort: reincarnation, or a new existence in a different form, perhaps in heaven. If one person’s body was resuscitated after death, just the once, two thousand years ago, it no longer adds up to corroborating evidence.