Two weeks ago the Western world celebrated Easter. When I say “celebrated”, I mean that Easter was marked by public holidays and by widespread customs such as the eating of hot cross buns and chocolate eggs. In the small mountain village where I live, there was a huge surge in the population as holidaying families arrived for the weekend and, on the Sunday, about a hundred eager kids turned up for an Easter egg hunt. I wondered how many of those families gave a thought (or even had a clue) about why they were doing this.
Of course, even in our secular society most people know that Easter is in some way connected with the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But why does this matter nearly 2,000 years later? Why are these holidays (holy days) still in our calendar? Do they have any significance to our lives and human concerns in our sophisticated, high-tech age? Well, that depends on what Easter is really about.
What is Easter really about? The short answer to that question is this: Easter is about the defeat of Death. No matter what you believe or what moral code you live by, no matter what you achieve in life or how much power and money you amass, there is one reality above all that casts a pall over human life. And that is our mortality.
I’ll never forget a poignant conversation I once had with a woman whose husband had died in his mid 50s. They had been planning an early retirement and dreaming of the opportunities for global travel that would provide. Now those dreams lay shattered. She said, “I didn’t know death was so final. Nothing prepared me for that.” It’s the finality of death which makes it so crushing. Death is that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
Except that, in early first century Judea, there arises the claim that someone did return from death, and the claim looks remarkably credible when the evidence is examined. That person, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth and we find eye-witness accounts of his death and resurrection appearances at the end of the first four books of the New Testament. What convinces me that those accounts are reliable? I’ve written about this at greater length in chapter six of my book, Finding the Forgotten God: Credible Faith for a Secular Age (Daystar Books), but for now let me mention just three key factors.
- Jesus’ disciples were as surprised by the resurrection as we would have been.
The claims of resurrection are sometimes dismissed as wish-fulfilment, but what is abundantly clear is that the disciples had absolutely no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead. They were not New Age fantasists, but hard-nosed realists much more acquainted with the brute reality of death, suffering and injustice than we are today. The women who brought the first reports of the resurrection had gone to the tomb to anoint his dead body according to their burial custom, not in the expectation of seeing him alive. Their reports of resurrection are greeted by the male disciples with a disbelief bordering on derision. They are as sceptical as we would be today.
- The prominence of women as the first witnesses to the event.
In first century Judaism a woman’s testimony was so poorly regarded that it was inadmissible in a court of law. No writer of a fictitious legend which he wanted people to believe would include women as key eyewitnesses. Later opponents of Christianity did actually seize on the female witnesses as a reason for ridiculing the story. Because the women witnesses were such a liability at the time, they can have been included for only one reason, namely, that this is how it happened.
- The transformation of the disciples and the spread of Christianity.
After the crucifixion of Jesus his disciples are a dejected, defeated group living in fear of the authorities. Their hopes and expectations have been shattered by the death of their leader. However, a short time after Easter Sunday we see them utterly transformed. They are boldly facing the authorities and telling all who will listen that Jesus is God’s chosen one and that he has risen from the grave. They have an exuberant joy and gladly face flogging, imprisonment, and martyrdom in order to proclaim their good news. Such is the power of their testimony that in three hundred years it has become the dominant faith of the Roman Empire.
In the centuries since, many people have examined the evidence for the claims they made and been convinced of the truth of their testimony. More importantly, those people have entered in to the assurance that, because of Christ’s rising, they too will enter into transformed life beyond the grave.