Is there a process, other than family tradition, involved in becoming a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ? If there is, does it ultimately require unquestioning belief in the resurrection which some one billion Christians across the planet celebrate on this day? Or can we embrace less than the entire biblical narrative running from Palm Sunday through Easter and still call ourselves believers?
Must we fully accept the claim that Jesus of Nazareth, in a singular act unmatched in civilization’s long history, was savagely tortured to death on a Friday amid claims by his apostles that he would rise again, only to be found mysteriously absent from a heavily fortified tomb defended by a well-prepared guard on Sunday (a story never successfully refuted by his enemies)?
“Sir,” they said [to Pontius Pilate], “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” – Matthew 27:63-64
“Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” – John 20:1
“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time.” – 1 Corinthians 15:6
After all, the argument goes, there are so many elements that combine to form the identity of Jesus of Nazareth in his earthly presence. He was at once a prophet, teacher, rabbi, rebel, servant, and savior – individual identities explicable to the human mind except, of course, for the last. But to confine Jesus to anything less than all of these things is to distort the fullness of his identity and miss the essence of the twin claims bolder than any ever made, ones which distinguish him as a peacemaker far beyond the likes of the Pope, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr.: that he is the only begotten son of God, co-equal to his father, and that he rose from the dead. His earthly presence would be succeeded by the third person of the trinity, the holy spirit, which would ultimately fill the spiritual void of believers once Jesus’ time on earth had ended.
“All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” Jesus states in Matthew 28:18. There is no ambiguity, no wiggle room, in such an expression. There is no implied freedom to march to the beat of one’s own drummer, reject a claim more audacious than any ever made, and still identify as an authentic Christian.
Jesus can not be ghettoized, or placed in any of the small boxes constructed for him by lukewarm believers, the kind God particularly dislikes according to scripture – “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” – Revelation 3:15. He is, to those who embrace the resurrection, more than we could ever deserve, or ever hope to receive. We do not merit this greatest gift ever given by inheritance, family tradition, or good works – “it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2: 8-9.
The answer to the ultimate question posed by Easter is yes; you cannot call yourself a genuine Christian and believe the resurrection is merely a legend or myth. You are still entitled, of course, to go to church, commit good deeds, and convince yourself that you’re a good person and that those things alone, especially in a world replete with evil, should be more than enough to qualify for eternity in the presence of the one true God.
But it is belief in the supernatural act of resurrection which separates the true believer from the cafeteria Christian who picks and chooses among scripture, embracing only those with which they agree and that make them feel comfortable. To reduce that claim is to drain away the power it conveys to those of us convinced of the efficacy of this greatest story ever told. It is the fullness of the narrative of Jesus Christ, from his birth in a manger to his death on a cross – to, yes, his resurrection from the dead – which have led so many successive generations from all four corners of the earth – old and young, black and white, rich and poor – to bow down in worship.