Pics or it didn't happen
Christ is risen. So?
Something I find kind of hurtful in ways I find hard to express is when, at the end of a thoughtful and respectful conversation about our respective beliefs, my nonreligious friends close with something along the lines of “well, regardless of whether it’s true, what matters is that it means something to you.”
It’s not the disagreement that bothers me (if you know me you know that I have many disagreements), or even the fact that they’re kind enough to be glad I’m happy with beliefs they don’t share.
It’s something about the tone, the way this is usually expressed, that makes me feel like it’s taken for granted that I will agree that what’s important is the moral lessons I derive from my faith rather than the faith itself. That I don’t even have to be asked for my input because of course we all agree on this.
To be fair, I can see how it might look this way from the outside — if I don’t mind that the stories of Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel turned out not to be historical, why would I feel differently about Jesus’s resurrection (or even his crucifixion?)
So I want to sketch out, from the inside, why the assumption that I believe “it’s more about the message than the facts” makes me uncomfortable. I want to tell you why my faith isn’t about “what’s left of the bible after removing some stuff” — why my faith starts and ends with Jesus crucified and resurrected.
I want you to understand why Jesus rising from the dead — not as a metaphor or nice story, but (to use Marcus Borg’s distinction) as something you could capture on a video camera — is central to who I am and what I care about.
I really care that it happened this way. You can disagree, and we’ll still be friends and I’ll still respect you.
But please don’t ask me to affirm that it doesn’t matter.
I want to tell you as briefly as possible why the literal truth of the resurrection matters to me. To get there, we first have to ask why Jesus died in the first place.
Why did Jesus die?
This is the sort of question where there’s a standard Sunday school answer — “for our sins!” — that immediately becomes complicated when you try to be more specific. How, exactly, does the death of our Lord rescue us from sin?
The church has been exploring this question for literally thousands of years, and there isn’t a single answer so much as a mosaic of perspectives across time and space, trying to capture this central, profound, beautiful, yet deeply confusing event.
The American Evangelical church has settled on such a specific answer (“We sinned, so God had to punish us in order to remain just, and Jesus took the punishment instead”) that we sometimes say this is “the” answer, and forget that this framing is only a couple hundred years old. I personally am more fond of the Christus Victor answer, which emphasizes Christ’s defeat of demonic powers and unjust systems.
But I don’t want to make you sit through hours and hours of historical theology and nuance, so instead let’s try a question our video camera could answer: “why did the people who killed Jesus want him dead?”
The bible portrays two groups’ involvement1:
First, the Jewish religious authorities spend much of the gospels looking for ways to kill Jesus. (Christians have a really awful history of emphasizing the “Jewish” part, which both lets us avoid confronting the times we act like this and scapegoats our Jewish neighbors who don’t.)
The Gospel of Mark introduces us to their motives with a quick scene:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
The religious leaders (“Pharisees”) are trying to entrap Jesus — they know he will want to have mercy on the man and heal him, but doing any sort of work (including healing) on the Sabbath would break traditional purity laws.
We sometimes frame this divide (Jesus vs. the Pharisees) as a battle between grace and legalism, but this isn’t quite right. Sometimes Jesus’ ethical teaching seems more gracious than his adversaries’, but sometimes it becomes even stricter: he says to give away all your money. Not only is adultery a sin, but objectification is too.
A better way to think of this division is to take seriously Jesus’ insistence that ethical conduct comes down to loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
Loving one’s neighbor, for the Pharisees, meant things like properly observing tithing rules and perhaps ordinary displays of kindness. But for Jesus, it meant something more radical. It meant prioritizing the needs of your neighbors over and above your cultural and religious norms. It involved tearing down unjust systems and difficult generosity and social inclusion.
This wasn’t just Jesus trying to “get rid of” a bunch of rules and let people live however they liked. Jesus’s teaching set out to radically reshape contemporary religious life, demanding a costly obedience not to rules in and of themselves, but in devotion to God and to our neighbors.
People don’t like having their ideals challenged, or being forced to admit the system they’ve spent their lives mastering isn’t quite right. If we look at contemporary examples of this — the fearmongering over critical race theory or feminism, say — the backlash is something more than “I disagree with this.” There’s an extra layer of defensiveness, of anger, a glimpse into the darker parts of human nature we’d prefer to keep hidden.
Unsurprisingly, in this light, some of those Jesus called out wanted to get rid of him2.
(I know it’s hard to believe that purity-obsessed religious leaders might demonize people who prioritize actual care for the poor and marginalized over performative and nationalistic gestures, but you’ll just have to do your best to imagine it.)
The second group is of course the Roman-led government, who carry out the actual execution.
The most clear-cut messaging we get is from Pilate, who insists that a sign reading “The King of the Jews” be placed over Jesus’ cross. Christians since the beginning have enjoyed the irony in Jesus’ murderer giving him a Messianic-sounding title, but for our purposes we need to look at Pilate’s actual intentions.
Imagine, if you will, a workplace preparing for a contentious unionization election. The night before workers vote, the body of a murdered employee is discovered with “the next union boss” scrawled in red ink above the corpse.
This is not a paean to a brave worker. This is a clear and disturbing threat, meant to intimidate workers from participating in the unionization process. The company’s owners are not trying to celebrate their victim’s leadership — they are looking down the barrel of a gun at potential future leaders and saying “you’re next.”
“Stay in your place, or else.”
So the Roman government’s motive (to the extent that a collection of people can have a single motive) is not necessarily so much about Jesus himself as it is about holding on to their power over the Jewish people.
“See what we do to ‘The King of the Jews’. Watch your step.”
It is easy to look at the things people do to hold onto power with disgust. The way Pilate ruled was certainly evil and we can and should denounce it. But I think we miss something if we pretend this is something that we wouldn’t be tempted to do in this situation, or if we entirely blame “the wealthy” or “the powerful” (a category we never seem to include ourselves in.)
The median household income worldwide is around $10,000 per year, and this doesn’t change significantly if you adjust for purchasing power. If people came to your house tomorrow and forced you at gunpoint to raise a family of four on a $10,000 income (or if some annoying blogger on the internet keeps telling you that you really should be giving more away), you might find yourself upset.
You might find yourself willing to go to great lengths to avoid this.
This is the feeling of giving up power.
This is what Pilate didn’t want to do. This is what Herod didn’t want to do. This is something that you and I don’t want to do, and we’re lying to ourselves if we pretend there isn’t blood on our hands, too.
And so Jesus died.
Just another dead prophet
If all we had were the sorts of facts you could see on video cameras up to this point, we wouldn’t necessarily find anything unusual about Jesus’s death: a man speaks up against an authoritarian government and power-hungry religious leaders and finds himself dead.
Jesus himself points out that this happens literally all the time.
When we tell the stories of people like this, we naturally try to give them hopeful endings. We want to say that the hero’s death inspired people, that it changed something, anything we can fit in a nice title card over panning shots of sunrises and large crowds.
But there’s always a sense in which this is a lie, because what happened isn’t good and it isn’t hopeful. The powerful held onto their power, somebody brave paid the price, and whoever’s telling the story lied or exaggerated a bit to let you feel okay with it.
And if Easter is just a nice story we tell ourselves, or if Jesus’ resurrection is just referring to the fact that his memory lived on in the hearts and minds of his disciples, then this is all Christianity is. The story of something terrible told in a comforting way.
In the words of theologian Henry Winkler:
BoJack: I'm sorry I accused you of murder, American TV legend Henry Winkler.
Henry: No need to apologize. You ascribed a mystery to Herb's death to give it meaning. But there is no meaning in death. That's why it's so terrifying.
BoJack: I guess it was just easier to believe that you killed him for his book than believe that he just died—for nothing.
Henry: There is no shame in dying for nothing. That's why most people die.
BoJack: I just wanted to fix things. Somehow.
Henry: I’m sorry, horse guy. But you can’t.
-BoJack Horseman, Still Broken
But if the resurrection was more than that — was something that actually happened, then everything is different.
For one thing, it proves that Jesus was right. Not just confirmation that “this is the the part that proves his divinity” (though it does), but demonstration that his ethical teachings, his demand for radical love for our neighbors and radical defense of the marginalized, were correct in a way that other approaches to religion are not.
That means that even when the forces of justice appear to be losing
—when racism and greed and nationalism thrive in “Christian” churches
—when protestors are murdered in Hong Kong and Kabul and Ferguson
—when states start to outlaw teaching basic empirical facts
we can know that, at least once before, love won anyways.
Not just that “the side we liked ultimately won”, but that the creator of existence itself rewrote the laws governing the very fabric of this universe to make things right even when any possible earthly hope was lost.
And if it happened once — not just in the way we told the story, but in a real way you could capture on a video camera — you can bet that it’ll happen again.
Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or this year, or this century.
But things are going to be made right.
The wicked and the unjust and the apathetic will have to account for everything they’ve done before the God who shatters mountains.
(And, terrifyingly, we will too.)
This is “good ultimately wins” not just as an aspiration but as a human being you can walk and eat with, with holes in his wrists and ankles from the nails that you can stick your hands into and feel.
This is “things are going to get better” not just as well-meaning people confused that their platitude hasn’t cured my depression but as a man whose broken and redeemed body lets me know that someday my brain will work right too.
This is “care for the marginalized” not just as a nice-sounding slogan but as the creator of the universe himself facing the worst of human evil and finding a way out — not just for himself, but for others too — even after his death.
Everything I care about hinges on the difference between “the world is broken and I’m okay with it” and “the world is broken and there’s a fix to it.”
And so yes, I’m glad too that my faith makes me want the world to be better.
And yes, I hope I can turn those good intentions into real action.
But even if I devoted my whole life to other people and did so in the best possible way, my efforts couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the horrors and the injustice and the pain that seem to be everywhere and only getting worse.
If you care about other people I know you’re familiar with this feeling — the helplessness, the frustration, the sense that no matter how much you do you can’t possibly be doing enough.
If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then even though we can’t fix everything ourselves we can know that God will ultimately make things right in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
And if he didn’t, then things really are as bad as they seem and no amount of prayer or mindfulness or good vibes could ever make that okay.
Please don’t ask me to pretend that those are the same.
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This framing of the “why” question owes a lot to N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, but as far as I know it’s a lot older than that. I don’t know who first came up with it.
Officially their accusation was “blasphemy”, which in context (particularly Jesus’ recorded reluctance to disclose his divinity) seems to mostly consist of “upsetting the established religious order.”