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Easter Skepticism

Summary:
A few Easters ago, I posted “What If Jesus Was Really Resurrected?” giving the pro-resurrection case for non-supernaturalists. This Easter, I’ll give a more skeptical take. In his April 2, 2021 essay “Recovering the Strangeness of Easter” in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Barron objects to watering down the Resurrection by treating it as a metaphor:Especially today, it is imperative that Christians recover the sheer strangeness of the Resurrection of Jesus and stand athwart all attempts to domesticate it. There were a number of prominent theologians during the years that I was going through the seminary who watered down the Resurrection, arguing

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Easter Skepticism

A few Easters ago, I posted “What If Jesus Was Really Resurrected?” giving the pro-resurrection case for non-supernaturalists. This Easter, I’ll give a more skeptical take.

In his April 2, 2021 essay “Recovering the Strangeness of Easter” in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Barron objects to watering down the Resurrection by treating it as a metaphor:

Especially today, it is imperative that Christians recover the sheer strangeness of the Resurrection of Jesus and stand athwart all attempts to domesticate it. There were a number of prominent theologians during the years that I was going through the seminary who watered down the Resurrection, arguing that it was a symbol for the conviction that the cause of Jesus goes on, or a metaphor for the fact that his followers, even after his horrific death, felt forgiven by their Lord.

But this is utterly incommensurate with the sheer excitement on display in the Resurrection narratives and in the preaching of the first Christians.

To understand what it means to treat the Resurrection of Jesus as literal, rather than as a metaphor, John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” is eloquent:

Seven Stanzas at Easter

John Updike

“Seven Stanzas at Easter
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.”

To those who explain the Resurrection account as myth, Robert Barron brings in C. S. Lewis’s argument that the specificity of the account of the Resurrection is not much like a myth:

The problem with these modes of explanation was well articulated by C.S. Lewis: Those who think that the New Testament is a myth just haven’t read many myths. Precisely because they have to do with timeless verities and the great natural and psychological constants, mythic narratives are situated “once upon a time,” or to bring things up to date, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” No one wonders who was Pharaoh during Osiris’s time or during which era of Greek history Heracles performed his labors, for these tales are not historically specific.

But the Gospel writers are keen to tell us that Jesus’ birth, for instance, took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and Augustus the Emperor of Rome—that is to say, at a definite moment of history and in reference to readily identifiable figures. The Nicene Creed, recited regularly by Catholics and Orthodox Christians as part of their Sunday worship, states that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” a Roman official whose image is stamped on coins that we can examine today.

My reaction to this is that the accounts of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, being directed to gold plates by an angel and then miraculously translating them are similarly specific, concrete and non-mythlike. For Mormons who believe in both the Resurrection and the Gold Plates with an account of Israelites who came to the Americas around 600 BC, that is no problem. But for those Christians who want to believe in the Resurrection but not in the Gold Plates, it demonstrates that C. S. Lewis’s argument is not fully decisive. (For more on Joseph Smith, see “Michael Coe on Joseph Smith the Shaman.”)

It matters whether claims are in principle falsifiable or not. But falsifiable claims are sometimes falsified. So having a claim be concrete and falsifiable is not enough to ensure that it is true.

Curiously, in addition to citing C. S. Lewis’s argument for the literal reality of the Resurrection that works for Mormonism as well, Robert Barron also cites the early Christian Fathers (that is, Christian writers in the first few hundred years after the crucifixion) laying out an idea that is central to Mormonism:

One of the favorite phrases in the writings of the Fathers of the Church is Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus, which means, God became man that man might become God. No religion or philosophy has ever proclaimed a more radical humanism than that.

As with Joseph Smith, some low-probability events occurred surrounding Jesus. But I am struck by the extent to which Christians and the world more generally benefit from aspects of Jesus’ life that didn’t require miracles. His teachings have important effects that can operate through non-miraculous means. Even belief in miracles can have whatever effects it has through non-miraculous means. A large share of the value people derive from religion comes quite apart from any miracles. Indeed, many believers that miracles are possible see relatively few laws-of-physics-defying miracles in their own lives, and yet feel that religion has made a big difference for good in their lives. Conversely, even if there were laws-of-physics-defying miracles, it is not clear that these are what would make our lives deep and rich.

Admittedly, without modern technology and wisdom, miracles would seem more important for human happiness. We desperately want healing when we are messed up physically or mentally. When miracles were the only way to hope for healing in a large share of cases, they looked crucial to the good life. But where we stand now, is it miracles we need, or is it human goodness and meaning?

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

And don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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