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Easter Speculations

While Christmas is the biggest secular holiday of the year, Easter is certainly the most important religious celebration. Ironically, the festival of Jesus' birth marks a time of the year when Jesus most certainly was not born, while Easter commemorates a miracle, the resurrection, which surely did not happen. So much for religious tradition!

For forty-plus years, I faithfully preached the Easter message every spring, "the most important sermon of every preacher's year." But toward the end of my career, I have to admit, I began to fudge a lot. Because it was becoming obvious to me that the traditional message of Easter - the resuscitation of Jesus' dead body by a miraculous act of God - was theological as well as scientific nonsense.

In all my years in the pulpit, I never preached - and I never heard anyone else preach - about the bizarre implications of this traditional dogma. If Jesus had actually been raised physically from the dead, the result would have been either: 1. that he would have had to die a second time, perhaps of old age; or 2. that his physical body "was taken up into heaven," according to Luke's account.

Neither of these scenarios makes any sense, but it is difficult to see any other option for his departure, given the traditional story. Dramatic exits are one of the basic requirements of good theater, and the Bible supplies one: resurrection and ascension. Very impressive. But we have to remember that that story is drama, not fact. It is myth, used for the purpose of creating discipleship.

But the very elements of that dramatic exit - resurrection and ascension - create a trio of problems: 1. the resurrection leaves Jesus with a physical body; 2. this body must then be disposed of by means of the ascension; 3. to believe this, we must ignore what Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15:50, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. Common sense tells us that it was not Jesus' physical body which entered a spiritual heaven, and therefore it could not have been his physical body which rose on Easter.

So, where does this leave us on Easter morning, if we are thinking people? What are we to believe?

The problem lies in the fact that the "gospel" itself is based on a major distortion. The good news is really about God, not about Jesus. Jesus' message is that the Kingdom has come, God is in our midst, the time for religion is past. But those who invented the new religion, contrary to Jesus' teaching, confused the messenger with the message. They made Jesus the message, instead of focusing on God's immanence and unconditional love. So it was necessary to make Jesus appear to be God, and that demanded that he not be subject to death. Thus, the resurrection became a theological necessity.

However, it is not a necessity at all. What is the basic message of Easter? That Jesus was still alive on the other side of death. He didn't need a physical body for this to be true. When he appeared in spiritual form, in his etheric body, the religious people of the time, having a poorly developed eschatology, assumed that they were seeing him in the flesh. And from there, the dramatic story was set in motion that Jesus had the godlike power to rise from death. But all of that was unnecessary. His message was very basic - "There is life after death, as I am demonstrating by appearing to you. And, in just the same way that I am alive, you too will live after death."

So, the true Easter message is not about the resuscitation of a dead body two thousand years ago. It is that we are eternal spirits who will never die, not because of a saving act by a long-ago messiah, but because we are part of God. And that message is universal, not restricted to those who call themselves Christians.

As a footnote, I might say that I have come to believe that the Shroud of Turin is a truly remarkable gift from God. It gives us a technical answer to the questions raised by the foregoing discussion. It seems to suggest that Jesus' physical body was dematerialized in a burst of energy, making it impossible for relic-hungry disciples to worship the bones of the Nazarene for the next two millennia. After all, the Easter story concerns spiritual realities, not physical ones. Paul puts it this way: "What can be seen lasts only for a time, but what cannot be seen lasts forever. I Cor. 4:18 (TEV)

Posted April 1, 2004

Copyright: John W. Sloat 2004