Easter: More Than Jelly Beans and Bunnies
By Jim McGill, Peterson Professor of Applied Ministry, Neuhoff Institute for Ministry
Date published: April 12, 2020
Christianity would not exist without the resurrection of Jesus. It’s just that simple.
The raising of Jesus from the dead, celebrated at Easter, is the most central and
important belief held by Christians.
The New Testament addresses the resurrection in two principal ways: by preaching (“But
now Christ has been raised from the dead,” I Cor. 15:20; “But God raised him up, having
freed him from death,” Acts 2:24) and by narratives. These narratives are found in
the four Gospels and center around two events: the discovery of the empty tomb (“They
found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but when they went inside,
they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” Luke 24:2), and the appearances of
the risen Jesus to his disciples (“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to
them, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:19). What are some of the surprising aspects
of this Easter faith in the resurrection of Jesus?
- It may seem puzzling to discover that the New Testament never describes the resurrection
of Jesus – only its consequences. The resurrection itself is not an event that could
have been seen and described like the crucifixion. It is an event existing outside
of time and space. Yet because of it, Jesus is available to all times, all places
and all peoples.
- While Christians say that Jesus rises from the dead, the New Testament writers almost
always say that God raised him from the dead. The resurrection is the action of God
not Jesus. In the resurrection, God vindicates the faithful life and obedient death
- It is interesting that the first witnesses to the effects of the resurrection are
women. One of whom, Mary Magdalene, is mentioned in all four Gospels. Since the testimony
of women was not highly valued in the ancient world, this emphasis on the role of
women suggests their importance as true disciples of Jesus and their significance
in the early Christian community.
- Oddly enough, the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus are not consistent
in the four Gospels. Does Jesus appear to his disciples in Jerusalem, or Galilee,
or both? To whom does he appear and exactly when? This lack of consistency is less
damaging to the New Testament witness than might be first thought. If his followers
concocted the stories of the resurrection, they almost certainly would have gotten
their story straighter than what appears in the New Testament.
- Surprisingly, in almost all of his appearances, the risen Jesus is difficult to recognize.
There are various ways that this dilemma gets resolved, but in the Gospels of Luke
and John, the disciples realize the person appearing to them is Jesus by his wounds.
Until they see the wounds, all they perceive is a phantom or an hallucination that
causes them to react with unbelief, hesitation and fear. But the wounds mark the person
as the same Jesus they had known. The resurrection transforms suffering and death
into new life. Transformation is not magic, but rather a maturation into a new creation.
Scars remain while life continues.
We cannot say precisely what the resurrection experience was for Jesus’ disciples.
The truth and the meaning of the resurrection must be a matter of faith not proof.
However, it can be said that the New Testament has so many diverse traditions about
the resurrection of Jesus that they do not appear to be the result of some grand conspiracy
or some kind of mass hallucination or some desperate wishful thinking on the part
of his disciples.
In the end it may be the existence of Christianity itself that allows us to see that,
behind the preaching and stories of the resurrection, lies a genuine experience of
God establishing something new. Belief in the resurrection was not easy for the first
disciples. They only gradually came to realize what had happened to Jesus and, just
as importantly, what had happened to change them because of it. In the risen Jesus,
his disciples experienced forgiveness, acceptance, love and empowerment. And being
thus changed, his disciples were emboldened to share this new reality with others.
What had been unbelievable became the very core of their belief – and the belief of
Christians down through the ages who continue to share this good news.