THE TIMES: EASTER 2004
THE RESURRECTION IS AT THE HEART OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH. BUT DID IT REALLY HAPPEN? CATHERINE LUCAS ARGUES THAT WHETHER CHRIST'S BODY PHYSICALLY ROSE FROM THE DEAD OR NOT, THE EVENT IS PROFOUNDLY SIGNIFICANT.
According to the New Testament, on the Sunday after Jesus was crucified his mother and Mary Magdelene went to his tomb to annoint his body. The body had gone. Instead an angel told them not to be alarmed: "He has been raised! Look, here is the place where they put him. Now go and give this message to his disciples…"
For many Christians this is the most important event ever: it forms the core of Christian belief that Jesus was crucified, lay dead for three days and then rose again, fully resurrected in flesh and blood. It was considered to be the final proof that Jesus was indeed the son of God and the savior of mankind: in an act of supreme compassion he died in order to redeem our sins.
All we had to do was believe in Jesus to go to heaven and have eternal life. However if you didn't, according to the gospel of St Mark, the prospects were not so good. After his resurrection Jesus is reported to have said to his disciples: "Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever doesn't believe will be damned." Mark 15.16
Did Jesus actually say that? We will never know for sure, but the latest methods of scientific analysis show that this sentence was not part of the original gospel of St Mark: it was added by a Christian scribe in the second century. According to the writer Stephen Mitchell, such analysis has been indispensable in helping distinguish the authentic sayings of Jesus from the "additions, alterations and misinterpretations of the early Christian church."
The American president Thomas Jefferson felt the same way. In a letter to John Adams, written in 1814, he said: "In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick diamonds from a dunghill."
So much for gospel truth. But just as people are questioning the veracity of the biblical accounts of what Jesus said, many are also questioning the events of Jesus' life and death. "No good scholar would call the Christmas stories anything but legends, or the accounts of Jesus' trial anything but polemical fiction," Mitchell argues, in his book, 'The Gospel According to Jesus.' This includes the resurrection and it is not just scholars or ordinary Christians who are questioning, the clergy are too. A startling survey published last December revealed that a third of the Church of England clergy doubt whether Jesus literally came back from the dead. Some question whether the resurrection happened at all. Others see it as a spiritual rather than physical. In the 1980's David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, famously referred to it as "a conjuring trick with bones."
"To the majority of Christians the resurrection of the physical body of Christ is an essential part of faith," explained Rev Peter Dewey, a Church of England Parish Priest. "But as I understand it, it doesn't mean the flesh and blood of Jesus was raised from the dead, it means that he was reborn in a spiritual body."
The argument about whether the resurrection was physical or spiritual may sound like splitting hairs, but it is significant. "Seen in spiritual or mystical terms," Rev Dewey continued, "it is not as simple as saying 'believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven', because on a symbolic level the crucifixion means the death of the ego and the resurrection means being reborn into the soul, into the presence of God's Love that dwells within us and that Divine love is the eternal life."
This is the underlying message of all the spiritual traditions: that the presence of God - infinite, ineffable and eternal - is already within us. The Sufi Poet Rumi says: "When you look for God, God is in the look of your eyes, in the thought of looking, nearer to you than yourself." Or as Jesus put it: "The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, 'Look here is it!' or, 'There it is!'; because the Kingdom of God is within you." Luke 17:20-21 In other words the Kingdom of God is not a physical place that we go to when we die, it is a state of being or consciousness that exists eternally.
But we can experience that only when we let go of our ego - the identity we have based on our personality, family, nationality, upbringing, career and all the experiences that happen to us. It is also the part of us that is primarily interested in selfish concerns, the part that seeks money, possession, power and fame. It is not that the ego is bad, it is just that it prevents us from knowing who we truly are. So the spiritual journey is primarily a process of inner transformation as we strip away the false identity of the ego and come into alignment with our soul and the divine presence within. Metaphorically speaking it is a process of death and rebirth.
And this is what makes the spiritual, rather than the physical interpretation of the resurrection so significant, because it is telling us that we do not have to wait until we die for eternal life, because we can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now.
For traditional Christians this interpretation may sound close to heresy. When I asked Lambeth Palace if it was necessary to believe in the physical resurrection of Christ's body in order to be a Christian the press officer replied, "Well there is no definitive authority on who is a Christian and who is isn't. But the resurrection is considered to be an article of faith and it is simply not an option to take that part of the package or not." And in an interview for the Radio Times this week, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, says: "if we don't believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, we may as well all go home."
But I am not a Christian and therefore I am free to take whatever meaning and inspiration I can from the Easter events. I was raised as an atheist but was sent to a Christian school because it offered the best education. With that came compulsory church attendance and I sat through years of daily chapel and Sunday services in a silent, sullen resistance. I was incredulous that anyone seriously expected me to believe in what was obviously a load of old nonsense: the virgin birth, god as a superhuman heavenly Father, Jesus being raised from the dead.
Later I gave up a career as a television producer and moved to America. I let go of my entire life and identity and I had no idea who I was or what I was going to do. Yes, at the same time, I trusted that by letting go of the old, I would discover a new life.
And I suddenly got it. I realized that by going through the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus demonstrated the universal spiritual truth that when we give up our ego, symbolized by the death of his physical body, we are reborn into our soul. And I found that to be tremendously inspiring, so much so that it no longer mattered whether the resurrection had happened. By learning to embody our true nature and let the unconditional Divine love flow through us, we can create heaven here on earth and that is definitely good news. "What is the "good news'?" asked Nietzsche. "That true life, eternal life, has been found - it is not something promised, it is already here, it is within you: as life lived in love."