My wife and I were invited for Easter dinner with my sister, who is a Unitarian. I know I was surprised some years ago to learn that Unitarians even celebrated Easter, since they do not believe in the divinity of Christ, much less in the resurrection of the dead. Isn’t that the whole point of Easter? Then again, when you come right down to it, I’m not sure how many traditional Christians believe in a literal resurrection, either. Recent polls indicate that fully a third of church leaders in mainline Protestant denominations doubt that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. As far as they are concerned, this bedrock Christian belief is no more substantial than the Easter bunny.
These Protestant leaders need not be accused of hypocrisy simply for refusing to accept the literal truth of miraculous events that they may interpret as metaphor or allegory. After all, there is a long tradition of that within the church. However, defenders of the faith have insisted from the beginning that scriptural accounts of Jesus’ resurrection must be accepted on their own terms. “If Christ has not been raised,” St. Paul insisted, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
Like any good story, Jesus’ resurrection bids us to suspend our disbelief, at least for the telling of it. If we do, we may find that the story itself moves us more profoundly than any interpretation of it, whether literal or figurative. There is a reason why this story has survived a hundred generations beyond the lifetime of anyone who claimed to have witnessed the event. The cycle of death and resurrection has woven itself into countless other tales and myths throughout the world. It is the grand theme of nature itself, something Jesus acknowledged in alluding to his own death: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
I confess my sympathies have always lain with the Apostle Thomas, who vowed not to believe Jesus had returned from the dead unless his felt his wounds. Is this not what any sensible person would say when presented with such an outlandish tale? Otherwise, you are forever at the mercy of people who swear they saw the risen Elvis standing in line just yesterday at Dunkin' Donuts. If it could be determined with certainty that Jesus’ resurrection was nothing more than a pious embellishment of the facts, I would not be surprised. Yet neither would I feel that my faith had been in vain, St. Paul notwithstanding. On the other hand, I have witnessed enough in life never to rule anything out just because it defies conventional notions of reality. What if it could be determined with certainty that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead? Incredible, yes. But I would not be surprised.
1 Corinthians 15:17