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What happened on Easter Sunday?

Author: Michael Pfundner, 25 March 2024

It’ll depend on whom you ask. In this part of the world, only a minority associate Easter with a crucified man returning from the grave. We’ve all been to school. We’ve done our basic history, physics, and biology. We’ve been taught that dead means dead, and that stories to the contrary are the stuff of legend.

What today’s folk might not know is that people from Iron Age Judaea and Galilee thought along similar lines. 

They were sceptics too

One of Jesus of Nazareth’s closest friends dismissed rumours of the resurrection as hogwash, insisting he’d only change his mind if he could personally examine the master’s crucifixion scars. 

A female follower of Jesus told the man she mistook for the local gardener that her Lord’s dead body had been stolen. 

And before becoming a trailblazer for Christianity under the name of the Apostle Paul, a zealous Pharisee named Saul treated stories of a crucified and resurrected Messiah as dangerous heresy. 

First-century Jews knew perfectly well that people who passed last night are unlikely to show up for lunch tomorrow. Even some of their clerics believed death to be the end, or at least no more than the beginning of an obscure, shadowy post-mortem state. Others did believe in a blissful life after death because they couldn’t see how a righteous God would allow the injustices of this world to go unpunished, without sorting things out in the next. But even to them, resurrection was a future, collective event. No-one expected God to revive an itinerant preacher from an obscure hamlet up north who had just been executed outside Jerusalem. 

In other words, the writers who recorded the stories of Jesus’s resurrection are disarmingly honest about people’s doubts. They knew that their readers (back then, the few people who could read were among the smartest and most educated) were anything but gullible dimwits who would simply take any old wives’ tale as gospel truth. And so, they included sensible folk like doubting Thomas and Mary Magdalene in their resurrection accounts, and people like the two friends on the road to Emmaus who’d had their hopes dashed of Jesus driving the hated Romans out of their land.

The Bible doesn’t go into the exact ins and outs of how Jesus emerged from the tomb. It simply states that death couldn’t hold him. Folk whose common sense kept them from expecting to bump into the risen Jesus changed their minds when that very thing happened. Nowadays, we have many reports from former sceptics and atheists who had near death experiences or visions which turned them from doubters to believers.

Common sense and intuition

I’m no neuroscientist, but from the little I know, our brains seem to be divided into common sense parts and intuitive parts, and we use both to navigate our way through life. Neglect one of those cerebral regions and we’re in trouble. Therefore, when we switch off our intuition and behave as if our common sense could solve every riddle under the sun, we are likely to reply to the question ‘What happened on Easter Sunday?’: ‘Absolutely nothing!’ That’s because, if left to run loose, our common sense will dismiss anything that goes against it.

The thing is our common sense is sorely limited. On its own, it can’t tell us how quantum physics works, what consciousness is, or why Jack fell in love with Jill. So, we use the intuitive side of our brain to make sense of what our common sense on its own will never understand. 

The resurrection stories invite us to do something similar: use our common sense as well as our intuition and imagination. That is why they’re not like fairy tales or myths where no-one bats an eyelid at little girls chatting to big bad wolves in the forest, or Zeus turning into a bull in order to abduct Princess Europa. You know it’s a tale and so you happily allow your common sense to take a nap.

The resurrection stories couldn’t be more different. Rational thought plays a part. Thomas: seeing is believing. Mary Magdalene: someone must have removed Jesus’s body from the tomb. Paul: God would never raise a crucified charlatan from the dead! We see these people grappling with the invitation to use their intuition instead: to believe that there’s more to life, and faith, than what reason can explain.

Something else happened on Easter Sunday. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: God raising Jesus from the dead was like a farmer starting the harvesting process. A process that will end with those who trust in Jesus being joined with him in eternity:  

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died … all will be made alive in Christ …: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father ... 

(1 Corinthians 15.20; 23–24, NRSV)

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