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Reflections on Easter and the Resurrection

Posted on 19 April 2020 in Discussion, Philosophy, Religion

Hello everyone. I hope you have all either had a very good Easter or, in case you are Eastern Orthodox, are celebrating a very good one today. I grew up going to a Russian Orthodox church every Sunday, and I still remember how beautifully the church was decorated on Easter each year. Nowadays I celebrate Easter on the Western date. That is to say, I really haven’t been doing much in the way of Easter celebrations ever since I stopped going to church, until this year. I tried to observe Lent, with some degree of success; painted some eggs; and had a nice Easter meal on Easter Sunday last week.
Because I also have two birthdays two celebrate around this time of year, I've been feeling quite festive in general. In particular, however, my increased attention to Easter means that I’ve been spending more time lately about what exactly it is that we celebrate and commemorate on this feast—that is, the story of the Passion and the subsequent Resurrection. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you here.

I have been reading the book Jezus van Nazaret: een realistisch portret (Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait) by Paul Verhoeven. That’s right: the film director, known for blockbusters like Total Recall and Basic Instinct, has something of a private obsession with the historical Jesus, and he is in fact a member of an American society, the Jesus Seminar, that studies the historicity of the Gospels.
In his book, which was only published in Dutch, Verhoeven uses his own criteria to determine which of the things written in the Gospels actually happened. He writes off as fiction everything that violates the laws of nature. For instance, he does not believe that the Resurrection happened in the sense of Jesus’ dead body literally, physically coming back to life, because there is no way according to what we currently know about the laws of physics that describes how this would have happened. He also considers fictional other miracles, such as the multiplication of the bread and fish, and the transformation of water into wine.
I am inclined to agree with Verhoeven here; after all, everything we know tells us that such things are impossible. An important part of the definition of ‘miracle’ is that a miracle should be impossible according to the laws of nature, but this is not a good concept from a physical point of view: the laws of physics (i.e. the laws of nature) describe precisely that which happens, and are therefore inherently inviolable. Things that are contrary to the laws of nature per definition do not happen, therefore if something happens, that means it must be in accordance with the laws of nature, and if something happens that appears to be contrary to them, then either it only appeared to happen, or it did happen but it only appeared to contradict the laws of nature.
Predictably, certain religious Christians will now object: but if the Resurrection did not physically take place, that undoes the entire fundament of our religion! I think this is a nonsensical objection, and I will explain why below, but let us first look at the conclusions Verhoeven draws in his test of the Gospels’ historical veracity.

Verhoeven has another criterion to distinguish historical fact from historical fiction, and I think this second criterion is the most interesting. He also counts as fiction everything that makes too much sense from a dramaturgical point of view: if something is just a little too much of a nice coincidence, he says it is not probably that it really happened. After all, reality is often chaotic and random; events usually do not line up neatly and meaningfully. Instead, such neatly-fitting events or sequences of events are more likely to have been added on later to help create a ‘good story’, one that you would find in the plot of a Hollywood movie.
Verhoeven, who was already a well-known director in his native country the Netherlands before coming to the US, looks at the Gospels with a filmmaker's eye, something he is of course very able to do. This leads to what I think is a refreshing take on this perhaps most fundamental to Western culture of all stories. In particular, he describes a psychological development he believes Jesus must have undergone. (I found it exciting to read as it unfolds—if you don’t want the development to be spoiled, please stop reading here and go read the book first.)

According to Verhoeven, Jesus began preaching about the Kingdom of God that would soon be brought about, without seeing Himself as playing a role in that Kingdom. At the time, there was quite some dissatisfaction with and resistance to the Roman occupation of Palestine, which Verhoeven does quite a good job of placing in its historical and political context. He states that there were various groups who were against the Roman occupation with varying degrees of militancy, and that these groups began to think of Jesus as a figurehead for the overthrowing of the Roman government and the restoration of the kingdom of David.
Jesus, however, did initially not believe such a change should be brought about through human action, let alone through violent means, and rejected this idea. Verhoeven describes the occasion of the multiplication of the bread and fish as an encounter with such more militant revolutionaries, who wanted to make Jesus the leader of their resistance movement, which Jesus and His disciples prevented by leaving the scene). Later on, Jesus increasingly came to believe that the Kingdom of God, of which the political undertones are now clearly apparent, should be established through human (but still non-violent) action, with Himself playing an important role in the new order to be established.
Of course, such subversiveness would lead to trouble with the Romans, and Verhoeven describes quite intricately how, according to him, Jesus was sentenced to death in absentia and was fleeing the Roman (and local Jewish) authorities more or less continuously after that. It is noteworthy here that Verhoeven believes Jesus visited Jerusalem at least three times, as described in the Gospel of John (but not in the other three canonical Gospels), which is important for his chronology. Jesus knows, so to speak, that if the Romans get Him, it will be game over for Him. Over time, in between these visits, the movement of Jesus and His followers changes from an initially very optimistic one focused on the idea of establishing the Kingdom of God during Jesus’ lifetime to one characterized by the idea that Jesus should sacrifice Himself, that his inevitable death at the hands of the Romans is part of God's plan. In this vision, the Kingdom of God will arrive on Earth through Jesus' sacrifice.
This becomes especially important after Jesus is called to Bethany in Judaea because of Lazarus. Of course, according to Verhoeven, Jesus did not actually resurrect Lazarus from four days of death, because this is impossible. Rather, Verhoeven believes Lazarus was an important figure in Jesus’ movement and that he was held captive by the Jewish authorities instead of ill, as it says in the Gospel. Because Lazarus would likely have been tortured until he revealed Jesus’ whereabouts, Jesus decides to go to Bethany to save Lazarus, knowing that this will mean a certain death for Himself. This makes sense in the state of mind proposed by Verhoeven, where Jesus had at this point already accepted that He would have to sacrifice His own life. But upon arrival, Jesus find that Lazarus is already dead, probably as a result of torture. After this, writes Verhoeven, Jesus ‘radicalizes’: He becomes more militant and no longer dismisses the use of violence.
This development is seen in other ‘resistance’ and ‘freedom’ movements, who often start out peacefully and eventually adopt violence in order to bring about their good cause. Eventually, Jesus is arrested and crucified. Verhoeven thinks that His betrayal was not foreseen, like it says in the Gospels—this was added in later to ‘improve the story’, and the betrayal in fact came unexpectedly. (By the way, Verhoeven also believes it was not Judas Iscariot who committed the betrayal—but if you want to know his reason for believing this, as well as many other interesting details, you should read the book.)

All in all, the overall sense conveyed by Verhoeven’s book is that the story of Jesus’ eventual capture and death is incredibly tragic, that it is a failure: Jesus does not succeed in His attempts to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, He does not succeed in saving His good friend Lazarus and He then dies an untimely and wholly unnecessary death. It really makes you incredibly sad to read it described that way: a real tearjerker, in Hollywood terms. Of course, the story of the Resurrection turns the whole thing around, by having Jesus’ self-sacrifice turn Him into the ultimate victor, the King that overcomes all injustice and reigns supreme. But if you believe, like Verhoeven, that Jesus never rose from the dead, because that is impossible, the story gets the aforementioned tragic reading—not bittersweet, simply tragic.
In that case, I thought when pondering this, that means Christianity is extremely strange! After all, it means Christians worship as our God—not merely the son of God, but actually God Himself—a failure, someone Whose mission in life failed, for Whom everything went wrong, Who was laughed at, mocked, horribly mistreated, and killed in the most dishonourable of ways. One of the biggest losers in history, as it were. Why in the world would you worship a loser like that as your God? It makes so little sense, on the face of it, that the story of the Resurrection pretty much has to be tacked on to give any logic to the whole thing. Without it, the element of zero-turned-hero, of the outcast Who returned to become the ultimate winner, the ruler of the world Who dominates His former torturers and murderers for all eternity, seems to be completely gone.
This, I believe, is the thinking of Christians who believe that Christianity without the Resurrection makes no sense and therefore desperately cling to the idea of a literal, bodily Resurrection even though they know very well that such a thing is impossible. One can easily see how, in the early days of Christianity, the Resurrection story helped ‘sell’ the religion to new converts. A story of someone Who overcame death itself to become the ultimate King of Kings—now that’s impressive, especially to the average person who is impressed by displays of power and dominance and who is not interested in the losers, the weak, the outcast, but rather looks down on them as an example of how not to do things. One only needs to consider the prevalence and popularity of ‘unlikely return to dominance’ stories in today’s Hollywood movies (those most archetypal modern myths) to see that the human mind, ever sensitive to stories and symbols, still works that way—even in so-called ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ cultures.

One could also suggest that perhaps Christ survived the crucifixion—something which is highly unlikely, but for which there is at least room within the laws of physics—and laid in the grave for three days, then regained consciousness. This would mean that He essentially spent three days in a coma. But I don’t think that is a satisfactory take; apart from the fact that it is extremely improbable that one would survive such a violent ordeal, if it were really true that Jesus walked and talked three days later, there would no doubt have been more scriptures with sayings and actions attributed to Him. It is unlikely that He would just disappear without a trace (and, for what it’s worth, I also do not think the Ascenscion literally happened in the sense that Jesus levitated all the way into Heaven).
Now I have to address an obvious question: if you do not believe that people can rise from the dead, why would you continue to worship a loser and a failure, who was killed without honour, as your God? Why not simply drop Christianity altogether and become an atheist, or even if you continue to believe in God reject the idea that Christ is God and become some sort of nonreligious theist? This is no doubt the mindset of those who call Christians “Christcucks” and believe that Christianity, with its injunction to love one’s enemy and turn the other cheek, is full of weakness and for losers, not a respectable attitude to live your life by. But Paul Verhoeven does not see it this way and neither do I. Let me explain. Verhoeven writes (p. 208, my translation):

[...] The vision of human beings envisaged by Jesus can only become a reality out of humans’ own actions: to act nobly towards those who have not had the chance to take care of themselves; to overcome our own spite and resentment and receive the one who admits to being in the wrong with open arms; to treat our enemies as a human being, equivalent to ourselves, when they are knocked to the ground defenseless. In short: to realize that all humans, even all animals, are living beings like ourselves and have just as much of a right to live as we do. [...]

He contrasts this with the vision he ascribes to Jesus, in which the Kingdom of God would be brought about purely through ‘God’s action’, without any action on the part of humans. But I think Verhoeven misses something here, and that is probably also why I am a Christian and he is not. In a way, it is frustrating because he only just misses it: it’s like watching a golf ball almost going into the hole but then coming to a stop right on the edge.
Let me tell you what that is. I do not think of the Kingdom of God as something that will be established one day and then exist forever. On the contrary, I think of it as something that has to be established again and again, day after day after day, through the kind of action and attitude to life described in the above quote. To that extent, I agree with Verhoeven. Unlike Verhoeven, however, I do not see this as an opposition between ‘God’s action’ and '‘human action’. I believe that God is in all humans, just as in Christ; indeed, that God is in everything, and that God can work through human action. It is up to us to be ‘like Christ’: to embody this vision, to live it out, and thereby establish the Kingdom of God by continuously acting it out in the world.
As far as I’m concerned, this goes not only for Christians but for all people, regardless of religion or lack thereof; but I believe this is the central message of Christianity. I also believe this is what Jesus had in mind; I do not believe Jesus had the kind of naïve image of God’s action that Verhoeven ascribes to Him. Incidentally, this vision on life reminds me of a vision often put forth by Jordan Peterson, and which is (a large part of) the reason Peterson is particularly popular with Christians, especially Orthodox Christians.
In this vision, the default state of affairs is the one where humans are motivated by their base instincts; where we murder, rape, pillage, betray each other and enrich ourselves at one another’s expense. It is therefore not poignant to ask why people do these things, but rather how it is possible that we so often don’t do them: that is the miracle, the miracle of civilization. Civilization consists of a constant struggle uphill, a constant effort to improve life for yourself and others by picking up the heaviest burden you can lift and carrying it, to put it in Petersonesque terms. Most of the time, this consists not of very lofty things but rather of the, often all too banal and boring, daily grunt work of human existence: working hard and doing the things that you may not like to do but that you have to do anyway.
Civilization (and Christianity) thus requires a lot of restraint to overcome our basic instincts and a lot of effort to be noble to our fellow human beings. This outlook on life emphasized in Orthodox Christianity most of all forms of Christianity: Orthodox Christians say you have to ‘pick up your cross and walk up the hill’. You could also say that to be a ‘good Christian’ means to be in the grind daily, to be in the hustle daily. To sin is to ‘miss the mark’ (the original meaning of the Greek ἁμαρτία hamartia); to undershoot (or overshoot) your target in your attempts to do the right thing.
In other words, if we use the word ‘normal’ to mean ‘the default state of affairs’, this means Christianity is abnormal, just like civilization; but the utility of these things comes precisely because they are abnormal in this way. It also means I believe the story is better without the corporeal Resurrection, and not only because I prefer more realistic stories. Yes, it is abnormal to worship a man who was humiliated and brutally executed like a criminal as your God. But it is precisely because of the tragedy of the story, precisely because of the inevitability and finality of Christ’s death, that the injunction on all of us to live our lives in a good way becomes all the more imperative. After all, we all die, and it is our limited time in this life that we have to put to good use—various religious promises about rewards in the afterlife notwithstanding—so that we may leave this world in a better state, even if it is only slightly, than it was in when we came into it. If we do not do that, that really means we have let Christ, retroactively, die in vain.
But the good thing, the hopeful thing, is that we get new chances all the time to not have let Christ die in vain. Every day is a new opportunity for a Resurrection, an opportunity to rise and make the world better, even if you have previously done things that made it worse. This, I think, is a wholly Christian message: you can always overcome your sins of the past and start bringing about the Kingdom of God, slowly but surely.

When you look at things this way, the suffering of Christ on the cross and His death becomes an example for all of us to accept our own suffering and our own mortality so that we can transcend it—by accepting it and then voluntarily undertaking as much work as we are able and willing to do to reduce it. If everyone did that, we would reduce first our own suffering, then that of our neighbours, and eventually that of the whole world.
I believe this is the objective of life whether you are a Christian or not. All kinds of metaphysics, cosmology and religious dogma do not have any bearing on this as far as I’m concerned. I am not a fan of dogmaticism. Hopefully I have managed to describe why it does not matter whether the Resurrection and the other miracles from the Bible really happened or not; as I mentioned, I even think the story is better if you interpret these things not literally but symbolically. In my opinion, in fact, this is a much better religion than one that is supposedly worthless when you do not accept as literal historical events things that are by all accounts impossible; I believe that a Christianity that requires its followers to believe in such impossible miracles is a weak religion. Having said that, Christianity for me is a philosophy of life first and foremost, more than anything else, and I believe this philosophy can be taken on and embodied by anyone, whatever other beliefs (religious or not) you may have—indeed, if I’m not mistaken, that was the idea of the original Christianity, before the Church came along and the host of influence it had in worldly matters. Which eventually led to Protestantism, which led to the Counter-Reformation, and then came the Enlightenment... but now I digress.
Again, I hope you all had a very good Easter and that you may rise from the dead, metaphorically speaking, and do something that makes your life—this short, finite, miserable life—worthwhile and meaningful, today and every other day.

P.S. Of course, when it comes to the story of the Resurrection and other Christian stories, I can’t refrain from mentioning the reaction of the Pirahã people to being told about Jesus by linguist Daniel Everett. This reaction eventually had the effect of converting him, who had been sent to convert them to Christianity, to atheism—and even as a Christian, I think that is a brilliant and highly amusing story. To me, this story and the Pirahã people's outlook on life also represent a kind of triumph: the triumph of empiricism, which I think is of great importance, religious beliefs or not.

This text also appears as a post on my Locals community. If you support me on Locals, I will have more time to write things like this for you!

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