Growing up during the Cold War Era in a family proud of its Eastern European heritage and belonging to an ethnic Eastern European church, there was a story I heard periodically around Easter time. The story made its way into sermons and was sometimes repeated in family gatherings.
As there story goes, one evening in a Russian city a prominent intellectual was speaking to a large audience. The speaker was a member of the Communist party and his topic concerned religious belief in a Communist society. In great detail he explained Marx’s contention that religion is nothing more than the opiate of the people. He elaborated by saying that in a classless Communist society, people were equals and had no need for some fairy tale to bring them hope. After his speech, he asked for questions. An elderly Russian priest with a long grey beard raised his hand. The priest asked if he could make a comment. Sure that he could outwit the priest, the speaker invited him to the podium to use the microphone. When he arrived at the microphone, the priest carefully looked over the audience. Raising his head, in a booming voice, the priest exclaimed, “Christ is risen!” The audience stood in unison and responded, “Indeed, he is risen!” And the priest returned to his seat.
I don’t know if anything about this story is true. It’s simply a story I often heard. It was meant to convey the preciousness of our heritage, the importance of the Resurrection of Jesus as part of our faith, and our solidarity with long-lost relatives living in the Soviet bloc.
Today, as I reflect on this Easter holiday, my faith, and the Resurrection of Jesus, I know that my beliefs have grown, expanded, and evolved since childhood. From my studies, I have come to accept that the analysis of Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan which is shared by several others scholars is probably true: that while Jesus died on a cross, there’s no reason to believe that Pontius Pilate would have allowed his body to be taken down. As a sadistic tyrant, Pilate always left the bodies of those crucified on their crosses so that the corpses would be eaten by wild dogs and birds of prey. It was meant to be an added horror to the diabolical execution that was crucifixion. The earliest records about a resurrected Jesus are not about an empty tomb. Instead, they focus on miraculous appearances, conversations, and dreams. Were they real appearances or were they the kind of imaginings people experience at the loss of a loved one or as a kind of flashback from trauma? There’s no way to know. All we know is that those who experienced these appearances, conversations, and dreams took them to mean that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead.
So what am I saying? Am I agreeing with people like Richard Dawkins that Christianity is based on lies? Certainly not! But I also don’t find evidence to support a claim for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I also don’t believe it matters. That’s because I have come to understand that resurrection is a fundamental truth in life.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
The processes of death and decay are a normal part of our earthly existence. So is the rebirth of spring, the budding of new life, and the transformation of life from one form to another (as with a caterpillar to butterfly). If we pay attention to the ways of life around us, we know that death is never the final word. There is some sort of transformation that leads to a new and different kind of life. This perspective is found in the teachings of Jesus and was shared by the early Christians.
Dearly beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall later be has not yet come to light. (John 3:2)
In physics, there are a set of principles known as the Laws of Thermodynamics. Within the first law of thermodynamics is the law for the conversion of energy. This law holds that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Energy may change forms and flow from one place to another. But it continues to exist.
Some part of the essence of our lives is electro-chemical energy. This energy empowers our life. When this energy leaves us, we are no longer alive but dead. I contend that just as in thermodynamics that energy within a system cannot be created or destroyed but can change forms, so the energy of our lives is not destroyed does not end but is somehow transformed. What it becomes, I cannot say any more that the author of the gospel of John. But that the energy that makes us who we are continues on in some form of new life, yes, this I do believe. For me, it is resurrection.
I don’t claim to know all the answers of the resurrection. I’m sure that it’s not the mere resuscitation of worn out physical bodies or some sort of hocus pocus. Instead, I believe that death is followed by new life. That life may be in a different form and result from some sort of transformation of energy or life essence. But that doesn’t make it less real than the life we currently lead. And so, in faith, I embrace the mystery of the resurrection and am inspired by it. I trust that just as this life has been rich and beautiful so the transformation that occurs in the resurrection will also be rich and beautiful.
It’s really from that perspective that I join the priest in the story I was told in my childhood and affirm once again this Easter: Indeed, he is risen!
Photo credit: Storm Crypt via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.