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We Believe – the true meaning of Easter

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EASTER Sunday is the highest, holiest day of the church year. Across the world, hundreds of millions of Christians will enter a sanctuary today and recite an ancient profession of faith which begins with the word ‘credimus’, or ‘we believe’. This is the start of the original creed named after the Council of Nicaea, convened in the year 325 AD, whose purpose was to find consensus within the fledgling church about what, exactly, were the central tenets of Christianity.

The Nicene Creed settled that question for the early church, and throughout all the controversy and conflict of the succeeding 17 centuries it has remained remarkably and substantially unchanged. Catholics and Protestants, for all their differences, are united in the belief in ‘one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible’.

That ‘maker of heaven and earth’ part of the creed has always intrigued me. Notwithstanding the observable fact that the features of a given species may vary as nature selects the strong from the weak, few of us are intellectually satisfied with evolution as an explanation for the origin of things. The idea that the wondrously complex design of our physical world exploded into existence from a formless void and fell accidentally into a perfectly well-ordered whole, with the Earth settling into orbit at just the right distance and angle from the sun and moon for the precisely correct gravity, temperature, pressure and atmosphere – and all this before the first tiny proteins mysteriously appeared from nowhere and started rolling down a long, random path to Beethoven and Einstein – seems suspiciously unlikely. Read Dr Stephen C Meyer’s fascinating book Darwin’s Doubt, and you will learn what evolutionary biologists quietly conceded decades ago after the fabulously complex mysteries of DNA began to unfold: that Darwin’s idea that all forms of life evolved by a long series of random,  genetic mutations from a single, primordial cell is not just improbable but mathematically impossible. It is more likely that random drops of rain would etch Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into the face of Mount Rushmore than that a species of lizard would continue to reproduce and thrive for eons while a series of birth defects, each more improbable and catastrophic than the last, turned it into a species of giraffe. Yet as we have seen in our flight from reality during Covid-19, when the science doesn’t fit the preferred narrative, the science is ignored. This is why the evolutionary ‘Tree of Life’, which was never more than a figment of Darwin’s imagination (and about which Darwin himself expressed grave doubt), is still displayed in the British Museum of Natural ‘History’ and taught as received wisdom in schools across the West. It serves the preferred narrative that we need no longer concern ourselves with God or what he might expect of us.

Darwin aside, most of us still leave the origin of things to faith, because science simply cannot tell us why there is something rather than nothing. You can collide and smash all the atoms you like, but every experiment to explain how the universe began must first be supplied with a chemistry set containing the raw materials of existence, and atheists tend to get very stroppy when you take their chemistry sets away. This is partly why more than a few notable progressives, intellectuals, scientists and Hollywood celebrities who would never openly discuss their faith will skulk into a church somewhere on Easter Sunday and return when the time comes to baptise their children. It is the reason why so many around the world recite the ancient creed that begins with the words ‘we believe’.

Choosing the God of Abraham over the exploding-cigar theory of the universe is one thing, but believing that an obscure Palestinian Jew rose from the dead to save mankind, which is what Easter and Christianity are all about, is something else entirely. Nothing is more central to the Nicene Creed than the resurrection, but do we today truly accept that as a fact? We might have an intuitive sense that there is a God, but isn’t the whole idea of the resurrection altogether wildly improbable, seemingly unnecessary, and conveniently lacking in proof? As author Lee Strobel aptly demonstrates in his bestselling book The Case for Christ, to answer that question it helps to begin with the negative premise and work backwards.

Strobel argues that if it is false that Christ rose from the dead, a great many events and phenomena we know to be true would also have to be false. We know it to be true that the apostles preached in the first century to people who would have been alive and present to see the miracles of Christ’s ministry and resurrection or who would have known living friends and family members who could report whether those events occurred. Scholars believe that the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians between 53 and 57 AD, or approximately 20 to 24 years after the crucifixion of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul writes that, after the resurrection, Christ ‘appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles’. It would be pointless for Paul to refer to 500 witnesses if there were none, and it would be impossible to persuade 500 witnesses to say that they saw something they did not. It would be equally impossible to persuade them to report the identical illusion to all their families and friends, to continue to do so for generations, and finally to lay down their lives for the sake of a charade.

We know it to be true that the apostles, based on what they actually witnessed – not what they were indoctrinated to believe or were asked simply to accept on faith – devoted their lives to a cause which offered neither wealth nor power nor safety nor social status nor material comfort. With direct, personal knowledge of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, they chose to accept imprisonment, torture and death rather than renounce what they had witnessed.

We also know, of course, that religious faith can be subverted and become a powerful self-delusion, as tragically proved by people who blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces and fly planes into buildings. But jihadists act on blind faith in a religious history taught to them by others who themselves have no personal knowledge of that history. The apostles acted on, and died for, what they had seen with their own eyes. As the risen Christ said to them, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (John 20:29). Many people in history have died for the sake of a lie they fervently and tragically believed to be true, but what man willingly goes to his doom for the sake of a lie he knows to be a lie, much less one that he knows promises tribulation in this life and offers no hope in death?

We know it to be true that the stories of the four Gospels were considered so credible and sacred by the people who witnessed the events they describe, or whose fathers and mothers and grandparents and friends had witnessed those events, that as historian Tom Holland documents in his bestseller Dominion, many early Christians chose to be burned at the stake rather than hand over their copies to Roman soldiers. Long before the writings we know as the New Testament were collected into one book, they were already the most widely circulated and copied documents of all time. Before the age of movable type, much less the internet, the Good News was bigger than any bestseller in history.

We know it to be true that, since the first Easter, the miraculous events of Christ’s public ministry, death and resurrection have not been publicly duplicated by a single human being. Christ’s claim to be not merely a prophet but the Son of God, backed up by a long series of public miracles, has no credible corollary in all of human history. If it were possible for an itinerant vagabond of first-century Palestine to pull off such a monumental fraud, it surely would have been repeated by a long line of religious charlatans hoping for the same power and glory. When fraud works for one, it tends to be repeated by others. Who has repeated the life of Christ?

Years ago, I visited my son in Dallas when he moved there for his first job after college. Kip, who was born in 1990, was only vaguely aware that Dallas is associated for ever with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. I decided he should see Dealey Plaza.

The site of Kennedy’s death is still a shrine of public fascination. Tourists mingle in the Texas sunshine around the place where Kennedy died. His exact locations at the time he was struck by the first, then the second bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle are marked on the pavement of Elm Street with two white crosses. The sixth floor of the book depository from which Oswald took aim is now a museum. Hundreds of thousands still visit yearly. Kennedy is glorified today as an unparalleled icon of youthful American manhood.

It has now been about as long since Kennedy’s death as it was when scholars believe the last Gospels were written after the death of Christ. Kennedy’s memory today is cherished around the world, and his philosophical disciples in the media, the arts, the academy, and politics are numerous and powerful. Yet if any one of them claimed tomorrow that John F Kennedy rose from the dead, no one would believe it. 

No book describing Kennedy’s resurrection would be published and cherished by billions. No faithful would gather in catacombs, no cathedrals would be built, and no movement of the risen JFK would sweep the world and shape human civilisation. No such lie would ever have such power.

People today would not believe such a claim even though most of them were not alive at the time Kennedy was killed and could not refute it from personal experience. Their parents and grandparents would tell them the truth. They would not believe it even though none of them ever saw the body. Those of us who did live through those awful days would not believe it no matter how desperately we might want to piece back together the shattered world of Camelot. 

And yet this year on Easter, as on all the Easters for all the centuries since Christ walked among us, the chorus goes up from lips too numerous to count in churches across the globe, ‘We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God’; that he was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’; that he ‘suffered death and was buried’.

And that ‘on the third day, he rose again’.

The truth and power of the resurrection is established by the length and breadth of two thousand years of human experience.  This is why ‘we believe.’

Happy Easter.

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Michael Hurley
Michael Hurley
Michael Hurley is an American attorney, novelist, memoirist and singlehanded trans-Atlantic sailor who formerly lived in London.

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