Imagine a debate in which an orthodox(ish) Christian says that the resurrection narratives aren’t very good stories, whilst the atheist insists they are charged full of meaning and significance. That’s the position I found myself in during an exchange with fellow Tweep Shane McKee, a self-described Christian Atheist.
To my mind the resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity; it’s the sun around which everything else orbits. However, I say this only insofar as the story is true. Shane, on the other hand, insists that the story is false – utterly mythical – but that it’s none the worse for that, speaking to us about human life, death, hope, and many other issues. So much does it resonate with Shane that he sees fit to add the description “Christian” to his “Atheist.”
I want to explain – in more than 140 characters – why that strikes me as rather absurd.
Firstly, take the resurrection narrative purely as a story, the kind of thing that someone might make up around the campfire on a cold night, perhaps. Is it a good story? It might come as a surprise, particularly to my Christian friends, that I don’t regard the resurrection story – considered purely as fiction – to be particularly interesting. There are certainly some interesting moments in the run up to the resurrection, such as the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends who subsequently has such regret that he kills himself, or that most poignant moment on the cross when Christ cries out those haunting words of Psalm 22: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?.” But the actual resurrection narratives – again, taken purely as fiction – don’t amount to a literary hill of beans. They are a combination of the mundane with the surreal, lacking the power and pathos of the crucifixion account. Considered purely as literature the narratives are of minor interest. Of course, if the event really happened then the story is suddenly far more interesting. There’s now a wonder and a significance that was lacking previously. The only reason the Easter story has such a grip on even the non-Christian imagination is because it has been passed on and preached as true by centuries of Christians. Had it never been preached as true the story would today be of only minor interest to a handful of classicists, if indeed it was remembered at all.
Secondly, whilst it’s true that the resurrection story contains certain “big themes” of human life, there are literally thousands of other such stories doing a much better job. Take a story like The Plague by Albert Camus, for example. Hell, even take the graphic novel I read last week – Thor: Gods & Men! It tells the story of Asgard crashing into New York City. Thor, the god of thunder and now ruler of Asgard, proceeds to take over earth and make life as brilliant and easy as possible for humankind. However, the more he tries the more human beings resent him for it and begin to fight back. The story touches on themes of power, freedom, divine-human relations, and repentance; it’s full of intrigue, double-dealing, sacrifice, and love. Other stories – such as many ancient Greek, Celtic or Norse myths – are full of such notions also. However, no matter how much these stories resonate with us, no matter how much they raise our spirits, warm our hearts, or make the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end, it seems bizarre in excelsis to define our identity in terms of any of them. It would be like me calling myself a “Grimmian Christian” because not only am I a Christian but the Brothers Grimm stories give me the warm fuzzies.
Thirdly, the power of any myth lies in its use of images to portray a truth beyond itself, typically a metaphysical truth. So, for instance, the Genesis myth isn’t just a cutesy story about a magician God who poofs the world into existence in 6 days and makes a nice garden with a talking snake. It’s saying much more than that. It’s pointing to the absolute power and supremacy of Israel’s God. “You worship the sun? Pah! Our God made that almost as an afterthought!” Theological points are crammed into these few chapters. What though of the resurrection if it never happened? What’s its mythological point? It doesn’t actually have one. The authors wrote the story as true. There isn’t any bigger point under it all, which is why – considered as myth – it’s incredibly bland. If it didn’t happen we are left with a rather sad story of a man unjustly killed by the state, and a bit of make believe tacked onto the end. That’s hardly great material out of which to create something of religious significance, or personal identity.
The resurrection story is therefore significant – existentially, religiously, cosmically – only if it’s true.
Stephen J. Graham