Christianity would undeniably be more convenient if the New Testament gospels ended with Jesus nailed to a cross, with no mention of him having risen from the dead. But then, the whole point of Christianity is that he rose from the dead. There seems to be no getting around that, even though, Lord knows, people have tried. Thomas Jefferson even took scissors and paste to the New Testament and produced his own gospel, with all the supernatural bits removed. His theory was that Jesus was a great teacher, and there was no need to muck things up with a lot of hocus-pocus. And yet all four gospels have the great teacher walking around after he was supposed to be dead. In the various gospel accounts, the formerly dead Jesus speaks and eats with his disciples, shows some of them a good fishing spot and even allows the apostle Thomas to touch the wounds from his crucifixion. St. Paul reported that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time after he was laid to rest.
So where does all this leave Christians who are normally skeptical about miraculous claims of any kind? Some of them have followed Jefferson’s lead and prefer to do without the supernatural bits altogether, perhaps becoming Unitarians. As for the rest, a third of mainline Christian clergy in the U.S. and two-thirds of clergy in the Church of England do not believe that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead. Even orthodox believers tend to pick and choose which Bible stories to believe; otherwise, they must defend the literal truth of stories in which Moses parted the Red Sea and God created the world in six days – only a step removed from Elvis sightings and alien abductions.
Make no mistake: the resurrection is not just another miraculous claim that believers may pick and choose as they see fit. It is arguably Christianity’s keystone, a tenet of faith that holds everything else in place and that cannot be removed without bringing down the entire edifice. The Resurrection is deemed to be proof that Jesus is indeed the son of God whose sacrifice freed humankind from bondage to sin. And if Jesus triumphed over death, so can we. We’re not just talking about some spectacular stunt, in other words; the entire plan of salvation depends on it. As St. Paul put it, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
I can’t say for certain whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. I did not see it with my own eyes – nor, for that matter, did St. Paul or the writers of the four gospels. They all came along at least a generation after the fact, if indeed it was a fact. Paul, at least, was personally acquainted with some of those who claimed to have witnessed the event. However, the important thing for him was not whether you saw it happen but whether you believed it did. You might even say belief trumps fact in the scheme of things, which may be why fundamentalists seem so impervious to scientific evidence. Among hard-core believers, there is something almost heroic about embracing truths that defy our plain sense of what is possible.
I admit to being pretty skeptical about anything that defies my plain sense of what is possible. Yet I hope I can never be accused of dismissing something out of hand merely because it has been declared a miracle. I am reminded of John Donne’s statement that there is nothing “God hath established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seem a Miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once." You might think of the Resurrection was one of those things that was done but once, except that it is not. Emergency-room doctors and EMTs now routinely bring people back to life after they have stopped showing any vital signs – something that would surely have been regarded as a miracle in Jesus’ day. There are even rare instances in which people have returned to life spontaneously after all efforts at resuscitation have failed, a phenomenon referred to in medical literature as the Lazarus syndrome after the New Testament figure whom Jesus is supposed to have raised from the dead.
As improbable as it may seem that anyone could rise from the dead after three days, it is no more improbable than life arising in the first place. Just how did the first self-replicating chain of carbon atoms emerge in a universe that for its first two billion years consisted of nothing but hydrogen and helium atoms? Were it not for slight variations in the gravitational density of this expanding cosmic matter, there would have been no galaxies and stars producing the heavier elements like carbon from which we are made. How these atoms organized themselves into DNA molecules remains a mystery. Each human genome consists of three billion base pairs of DNA molecules that are precisely sequenced to provide the blueprint for a living organism. DNA cannot be produced in a laboratory from non-living materials, and the odds of DNA assembling itself by random fluctuations would appear to be vanishingly small, even in a universe with ten thousand billion billion stars and untold numbers of planets that could support life. In the entire universe, it may only have happened once – by any stretch a miracle. In this context, then, the possibility of life arising from death is not such a stretch after all.
1 Corinthians 15:6, 15:17
Stephen Hawking, “Life in the Universe”