Send to Kindle

Today is Easter, the highest, holiest day of the church year. Across the world, hundreds of millions of Christians will enter a sanctuary and recite a profession of faith that begins with the words, “We believe.” This is the start of the creed named after the Council of Nicaea, first convened in the year 325 A.D., whose purpose was to find consensus within the fledgling church about just what, exactly, “we believe.” The Nicene Creed settled that question for the early church, and through all the controversy and conflict of the succeeding seventeen centuries, it has remained remarkably, substantially unchanged. Catholics and Protestants, for all their differences, are united in the belief in “one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

That “maker of heaven and earth” part of the creed has always intrigued me. Notwithstanding the observable fact that species do adapt and evolve as nature selects the strong from the weak, few of us are intellectually satisfied with evolution as an explanation for the origin of things. The idea that the wondrously complex design of our physical world exploded into existence from a formless void and fell accidentally into a perfectly well-ordered whole, with the Earth settling into orbit at the perfect distance and angle from the sun and moon for the precisely correct gravity, temperature, pressure and atmosphere—and all this before the first tiny proteins mysteriously appeared and started rolling down the long, random path that would lead to Beethoven and Einstein—seems suspiciously unlikely. Most of us still leave the origin of things to faith—to God—because any rational attempt to answer the question of why we are here at all is too vastly improbable to accept. This is partly why more than a few notable progressives, intellectuals, scientists, and Hollywood celebrities who would never openly discuss their faith will skulk into a church somewhere today and return when the time comes to baptize their children. It is the reason why so many around the world recite the ancient creed that begins with the words, “We believe.”

Choosing the God of Abraham over the exploding-cigar theory of the universe is one thing. But believing that an obscure Palestinian Jew rose from the dead to save mankind, which is what Easter and Christianity are all about, is something else entirely. Nothing is more central to the Nicene Creed than the resurrection, but do we today truly accept that as a fact? We might have an intuitive sense that there is a God, but isn’t the whole idea of the resurrection altogether wildly improbable, seemingly unnecessary, and conveniently lacking in proof? As author Lee Strobel so aptly demonstrates in his bestselling book, The Case for Christ

, to answer that question it helps to begin with the negative premise and work backwards. 

If it is false that Christ rose from the dead, a great many events and phenomena we know to be true would also have to be false. Some of what Strobel’s research has to teach us on that subject I have summarized, below.

We know it to be true that the apostles preached in the first century to people who would have been alive and present to see the miracles of Christ’s ministry and resurrection or who would have known living friends and family members who could report whether those events occurred. Scholars believe that the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians between 53 and 57 A.D., or approximately twenty to twenty-four years after the crucifixion of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul writes that, after the resurrection, Christ “appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” It would be pointless for Paul to refer to five hundred eyewitnesses if there were none, and it would be impossible to convince five hundred actual eyewitnesses to say they saw something they did not. It would be equally impossible to persuade them to report the identical illusion to all their families and friends, to continue to do so for generations, and finally to lay down their lives for the sake of upholding a charade.

We know it to be true that the apostles, based on what they actually witnessed—not what they were indoctrinated to believe or were asked simply to accept on faith—devoted their lives to a cause that offered neither wealth nor power nor safety nor status nor material comfort. With direct, personal knowledge of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, they chose to accept imprisonment, torture, and death rather than renounce what they had witnessed.

We also know, of course, that religious faith can be subverted and become a powerful self-delusion, as tragically proved by people who blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces in the belief that this murder pleases God and will be rewarded in paradise. But jihadists act on blind faith in a religious history twisted and taught to them by others who themselves have no personal knowledge of that history. The apostles acted on, and died for, what they had seen with their own eyes. As the risen Christ said to them, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). Many people over the years have died for the sake of a lie they fervently and tragically believed to be true, but what man willingly goes to his doom for the sake of a lie he knows to be a lie, much less a lie that promises only suffering in this life and, because it is a lie, no hope in death?

We know it to be true that if the established political and religious orders of the day who violently opposed Christ’s early followers could have so easily dismissed the story of the gospel by showing it to be an utter fabrication they would certainly have done so, yet there is no historical record of any such official, factual rebuttal. On the contrary, the stories of the gospel were considered so credible by the people who witnessed the events they describe, or whose fathers and mothers and grandparents and friends had witnessed those events, that long before the letters we know as the New Testament were collected into one book, they were already the mostly widely circulated and copied documents of all time. Before the age of moveable type, much less the Internet, the Good News was bigger than any bestseller in history and more “viral” than all of the videos on YouTube, combined.

We know it to be true that, since the first Easter, the miraculous claims of Christ’s very public ministry, death and resurrection have not been publicly duplicated or even credibly alleged by a single human being. There are other religions with other prophets and creeds whose validity we need not question, because Christ’s claim to be not merely a prophet but the incarnate deity, backed up by a long resume of public miracles, has no credible corollary in all of human history. If it were possible for an itinerant vagabond of first-century Palestine to pull off such a monumental fraud, it would surely have been repeated by a long line of religious charlatans hoping for the same power and glory.  After all, Bernie Madoff is in prison not for a Madoff scheme, but for a Ponzi scheme. He was not the first, and sadly he will not be the last.  When fraud works for one, it tends to be repeated by others.  Who has repeated the life of Christ?

I was visiting my son recently in Dallas, where he moved to accept his first job after college.  The tour of his Spartan apartment took all of eleven seconds, after which we were looking for some touristy things to do together.  Kip, who was born in 1990, was only vaguely aware that the city where he now lives is forever associated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.  I decided he should see Dealey Plaza.

The site of Kennedy’s death, now more than fifty years distant, is still a shrine of public fascination. Even today, it seems impossible that someone who shone so brightly in our national firmament could have been taken from us in an instant by someone as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald.

Tourists mingle everywhere in the Texas sunshine around the place where Kennedy died.  His exact locations at the time he was struck by the first, then the second bullet from Oswald’s rifle are marked on the pavement of Elm Street with two white exes.  The sixth floor of the book depository from which Oswald took aim is now a museum.  Hundreds of thousands visit yearly—still.  Kennedy is glorified today as an icon nonpareil of youthful, American manhood. His memory is cherished around the world, and his philosophical disciples in the media, the arts, the academy, and politics are numerous and powerful.  Yet if any one of them claimed tomorrow that John F. Kennedy had risen from the dead, no one would believe it.  The book describing his resurrection would not be copied and read by millions and billions.  No one would publish it.  No one would harbor such a faith.  No faithful would gather, no cathedrals would be built, and no movement of the risen John F. Kennedy would sweep the world and shape all of human civilization.  No such lie would ever have any such power.

People would not believe such a claim even though most of them were not alive at the time Kennedy was killed and could not refute the claim from personal experience.  Their parents and grandparents would tell them the truth. They would not believe it even though none of them ever saw the body.  Those of us who did live through those awful days would not believe it no matter how desperately we might want to piece back together the shattered world of Camelot.  None of the millions of friends and loyal supporters of John F. Kennedy could be united to recite a belief in such a creed.  Their sorrow and their incredulity would be too great.

And yet today on Easter, as on all the Easters for all the centuries since Christ walked among us, the chorus goes up from lips too numerous to count in churches across the globe, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,  the only Son of God”; that he was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”; that he “suffered death and was buried, . . .”

And that “on the third day, he rose again.”

We will never know the truth of the resurrection as a scientific fact, and that is hardly our goal.  It will not be on the news at eleven, and we cannot follow Geraldo into the tomb.  But we can know the truth by the power of faith given weight by the length and breadth of two thousand years of human experience.  This is why, “We believe.”

Happy Easter.

© 2014 by Michael Hurley