The Resurrection: Historically Probable, Religiously Insignificant (Chapter 6)
The resurrection — surely now we are dealing with a central tenet of Christianity?
OK — So I disagree with almost everybody on both sides of this question. Something happened. But it can’t be the cornerstone to our faith. It doesn’t work. It just can’t bear that burden.
What do I mean by this?
First, examining the probable facts from a historical perspective — assuredly, after Jesus was crucified, something happened to turn around the defeated and discouraged little group of disciples he left behind. The idea that they made up this story of a resurrection, and then were willing to go out and die for it, simply doesn’t pass the credibility test.
And if an empty tomb was not discovered by the women, why would the male Gospel-writers have given them the credit for this key role? And why would Matthew have to discredit a rumor that the tomb was empty because the disciples stole Jesus’ body? (Mt. 28:11-15.) [For a more “scholarly” analysis, including consideration of a couple of minimalist hypotheses, the see Appendix B — “Did He Or Didn’t He?”]
But — if God doesn’t go “zap,” then the appearance of Jesus after his death doesn’t prove that he was chosen by God, or that we are “saved” by this event.
A resurrection-type event can’t prove that God can forgive our sins or grant us eternal life — or even that God is interested in doing this. Even if the appearance of Jesus for only a few days after his death was evidence that he’d been granted eternal life, that doesn’t mean God would do this for you and me.
Nor does this event prove that Jesus was “chosen” by God. The return to life of a dead person today would be very curious, but we wouldn’t assume that this revivified person was chosen by God for anything. The world doesn’t work this way, and God doesn’t work this way.
Surely, as Christians, we can believe that God will forgive us, and after our deaths will grant us union with God. But if we believe that the God of the Universe is a loving God, then we can and should believe that God will forgive us whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead. Either way, how could that change the nature of God, or God’s relationship with us? And after all, didn’t Jesus himself forgive people, before Easter?
[If your concern is the sacrifice of an innocent Jesus to overcome our original sin — I address this repugnant notion in Chapter 14.]
This means that belief in the resurrection, however probable it may seem to us, cannot be required for someone to be Christian. Which means that those who cannot believe in this, cannot use this as an excuse to reject Jesus’ message. As we said in the last chapter, Jesus taught us how to live, not what to believe. We are still called to feed the hungry and visit the sick, and love our neighbor — and even our enemy.