When it comes to the death and resurrection of Jesus, most believers have a little trouble knowing just what to believe. What really happened to Jesus? Why was he killed? And are we supposed to believe that he really, truly rose from the dead? How much of this is myth and how much of it is history? Myth? As in fairy tale? No. Myth, as in the stories we tell ourselves when the meaning of history isn’t clear. Myth, as in the stories by which we live when we need inspiration and conviction. Myths aren’t lies, but they aren’t history either. So, what are the myths in the Easter story and how shall we take them?
Myth #1: Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
Here is a myth you really can’t take literally. No one wants a God who relishes human sacrifice, really. So, what does this myth mean? It comes originally from ancient ideas about martyrdom. When someone died for what they believed in, it was common to characterize that death as a sacrifice. We still use this expression today. Martin Luther King sacrificed his life for the cause of civil rights, for example. Actually, he was gunned down by someone who hated him and the whole idea of civil rights. This was true of Jesus too. He was arrested by Roman authorities and executed for sedition. So what was his cause, the thing for which he sacrificed his life? He talked about a new empire, the kingdom of God, we say, in which the beggared poor are blessed, the hungry fed, and where the last become first and the first last. He advised people to care for one another, to refrain from judging others, and to love even one’s enemies. Some of this is seditious, some of it isn’t. The point is, this is what he died for. So, would this save us from our sins? Yes, most of them—the worst ones, anyway.
Myth #2: The tomb was empty.
Here is a myth you could take literally, but what would it mean? In the Gospel of John, Mary discovers the empty tomb and declares, “They have taken my Lord and I know not where they’ve laid him.” An empty tomb is just a missing body. To skeptics and opponents, and even the grieving, it means nothing. What about the other stories of Jesus’ resurrection—that he appeared as a stranger to two people near Emmaus, then morphed into Jesus, then disappeared; that he passed through a door and appeared to his disciples, then disappeared; that he later rose up into the air—and disappeared? Nothing but ghost stories to the unbeliever. Historically, people did not believe in Jesus because of stories about the resurrection. They’re just not that convincing. Those who believed the stories, believed them because they already believed in Jesus. What convinced them was their experience of Jesus himself, who he was, what he said, what he did, and what he stood for. So, the point of the resurrection is not, can you believe in miracles? The point is, can you believe in Jesus, what he stood for, what he believed in?
Myth #3: The resurrection is Christ’s victory over the powers of death.
The traditional Easter hymns talk a lot about victory. Victory over death, “o’er the grave.” But I think what we hear in these hymns is usually just victory. We really kicked ass in the religion games. Nobody else has a resurrection. That’s our ace of spades, which Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists just can’t trump. Historically, however, resurrection was a pretty common thing in ancient Mediterranean religion. Heroes, demi-gods, philosophers, poets, emperors—especially emperors—death couldn’t hold them either. That is probably why Christianity didn’t actually take off like wild fire when Jesus' followers proclaimed his resurrection from the dead. The resurrection claim was neither unique nor powerful. Generations would pass before anyone noticed that there was a Jesus and that he had followers. Centuries would pass before anyone began to think of Christianity as a legitimate religion. And when it did gain legitimacy, it was because Constantine the Great discovered the cross as a talisman to be carried into battle. It brought him victory in a bloody civil war and sent his foes headlong into the Tiber River. And so the Prince of Peace finally triumphed as the God of War. So, what was the vision of life that Jesus hoped would triumph in the end? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God.” And how many generations, how many centuries would it take for that vision to triumph?
Easter is not an historical fact that gives Jesus and all his followers the final victory. It is a myth expressing the hope that Jesus’ death was not the end of Jesus’ vision, and the daring thought that the triumph of his reign of love and peace might still live out there somewhere in the near or distant future.