When my father died in 1998 he donated his body to science for medical research. Eighteen months later FedEx delivered his “cremains” to our house, and I remember thinking that there had to be a better way to return such a sacred gift. I opened the box, untied the twisty that secured the plastic liner, and experienced what others had described. These were not nice, fluffy ashes, but gritty shards of bone. I took a pinch of the coarse remnants of my father and rubbed it back and forth between my thumb and fingers. This year Easter falls on my dad’s birthday, and I’ve found myself esonating with Nora Gallagher’s friend Harriet. In Gallagher’s book Practicing Resurrection, Harriet recalls sitting in church at the National Cathedral in Washington. In the course of a boring sermon the priest asked the congregation in unctuous tones, “Now what do you really want for Christmas this year?”
“I nearly rose from my pew,” Harriet told Gallagher. “I was gathering myself up until I looked over at my sister who was giving me That Look, and I sat back down, but what I wanted to do was stand up and call out, ‘I would really like to believe in the resurrection.'”
Doubts about the resurrection didn’t begin with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, nineteenth-century Darwinists, or with twentieth-century post-modernists. Only our modern hubris could believe that we today have finally advanced beyond the crude superstitions of illiterate peasants who in 33 AD were so gullible that they didn’t know that corpses don’t rise from the dead. No, the readings this week show that lots of people doubted the resurrection.
The first believers were the first to disbelieve.
Women took spices and perfumes to the tomb after the crucifixion to anoint a corpse, not to witness a resurrection. When Mary Magdala saw the empty tomb she thought that someone had stolen the body: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2). She wept and cried: “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him… Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him” (John 20:13, 15).
Matthew writes that this stolen body scenario was “widely circulated” in his day (28:15).
When the women told the eleven disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, “they did not believe it” (Mark 16:11). Luke is more blunt: “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11).
That first Sunday night the eleven disciples cowered behind locked doors (John 20:19), and why not? It was not unreasonable for them to fear for their own lives. Later, two witnesses reported their encounter with Jesus to the eleven, “but they did not believe them either,” and even Jesus himself “rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe” (Mark 16:13–14). Thomas became the most famous Doubter, of course (John 20:24–25), and in what might have been Jesus’s last resurrection appearance there were still “some who doubted” (Matthew 28:17).
At some point, though, doubt and confusion gave way to deep-seated conviction. Luke says that Jesus “showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3). The panic of these “unschooled and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13) gave way to their bold proclamation: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32). When commanded by the religious authorities to stop preaching, Peter and John replied, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
They claimed they had eaten with the resurrected Jesus (Acts 10:41), and that many witnesses could attest to his public appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5–8). So, “with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). Their bravado would have ended easily enough if someone had produced Jesus’s body, but the absence of his body and the empty tomb pointed toward something far more radical than a mere spiritual or figurative resurrection.
Other people mocked and scoffed. The religious authorities were “greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). When some Athenians heard about the resurrection, “they sneered” (Acts 17:32). Porcius Festus, the Roman governor of Judea under Nero (59–62 AD), confessed that he was “at a loss” to know what to do with the prisoner Paul: “They did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.”
The next day as Paul gave his legal defense Festus screamed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you mad” (Acts 25:19–20; 26:24). Peter denied the charge that he propagated a “cleverly invented tale ” (2 Peter 1:16), while Paul rebutted Corinthians who said that “there is no resurrection of the dead” for anyone at all (1 Corinthians 15:12).
Disbelief in the resurrection was very much part of the original story.
It’s possible that the first believers were “deceived or deceivers,” as Pascal put it (Pensees 322, 310) — either badly deluded and wrong, or blatant liars and immoral. Neither of those explanations has the ring of truth to me. The only thing they stood to gain for their beliefs was political persecution and social marginalization.
Paul raised the stakes even higher when he insisted that no person should believe a lie about the resurrection, and that they certainly shouldn’t preach a lie (1 Corinthians 15:12–19); if Jesus is not raised then Christian faith is a cruel hoax and a silly fiction.
I believe the first believers partly because of their original disbelief — their own and that of their detractors, and because of the price they paid to proclaim the resurrection. Peter, Paul and many other unknown and unnamed believers died in Rome because of their conviction about the resurrection. In the end, Peter challenges each one of us: “judge for yourselves” (Acts 4:19). Evidence and argument only get you so far. On the one hand, the first witnesses insisted that their message was “true and reasonable,” for the events they described were “not done in a corner” (Acts 26:25–26) but were entirely public in nature. The story could be corroborated or refuted, at least at some level and for a few years.
On the other hand, Paul admitted that his gospel was “to the Jews a stumbling block and to Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Luke acknowledges that the resurrected Jesus “was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:41). Their witness amounted to what the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan once called “public evidence for a mystery.”
I believe the belief of the women who were the last at the cross and the first at the empty tomb. I believe the first believers, and stand on the shoulders of other believers across time and space, who have believed, confessed and taught that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that in so doing he vanquished sin, death, and evil. So, with readers from around the world, I join the Easter chorus, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”