Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Easter-Weekend Resurrection

I have yet to see a church sign that says, "Believe our message, and you may be killed for that belief someday," nor have I seen "We take a collection at every service" or "The things you may come to believe will make you wildly unpopular at work." All of these statements are true, of course (though the last one may depend on where you work), but we don't advertise these things. Instead, we point to the those elements that will resonate with people where they are right now. Everyone wants community, everyone wants hope, and everyone wants to be set free—so we highlight these.

I suspect something like this is taking place when we read the Good Friday and Easter narratives in the four Gospels. Matthew includes an event that the other evangelists leave out:
At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people (Matthew 27:51-53, NIV).
To me, dead people coming back to life and walking around the streets of Jerusalem seems like news. But Mark, Luke, and John are silent on the subject. This has led many Bible scholars—even very conservative ones—to doubt the historical truth of Matthew's claim.

These commentators reason that perhaps Matthew was using apocalyptic language to describe the cosmic significance of Jesus' death. Maybe it was a literary device to show the monumental impact of the Son of God laying down His life, akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson describing the first shot of the American Revolution as "the shot heard round the world." No one believes Aborigines in the Australian outback were listening to the musket balls flying at Lexington and Concord. So they argue it is with these Old Testament saints coming out of the ground on Easter weekend: History turned so sharp a corner on Good Friday that it was like the dead had come to life to see the turning of the ages.

I believe in letting the Bible speak on its own terms, that we should read poetry as poetry and historical narrative as historical narrative. I believe apocalyptic literature is unique and should not be interpreted like an Epistle or a Gospel. But I think we do great damage to the text of the Bible when we attempt to import a separate rule of interpretation to a single verse or two because we find content difficult to swallow when read as presented. In other words, Matthew 27 and its larger context is clearly historical narrative. No conservative Bible scholar would see Jesus' resurrection as figurative or a mere literary device. Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, mocked, and nailed to a Roman cross in history. It actually happened. If we were able to travel back in time with an iPhone in tow, we would be able to capture the whole thing in stunning HD video.

So pulling out the bit about the dead coming to life as illustrative fluff that didn't really happen is unfair to the text. Readers are free to disregard the Gospels as mere fiction, but let us not pick and choose which parts of the story are true. The real difficulty with this passage is not what Matthew tells us. If we are willing to believe that God stepped down out of heaven, was born as a baby, lived as a carpenter, performed miracles witnessed by thousands, was crucified, and then raised from the dead, why is it so difficult to believe that a few others were also raised to new life? The real difficulty with this passage is that the other Gospel writers are silent on the subject and that there is no mention of the event in other historical records of the period.

But I don't think it's really all that strange. There are several other events mentioned by only one Gospel writer. Matthew alone tells us about Herod's slaughter of toddlers and infants (Matthew 2:16). Only Luke tells us that Jesus restored the ear of the high priest's servant on the Mount of Olives after one of his disciples (Peter, according to John) cut it off (Luke 22:51). And it is just John who mentions Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11). As for Roman and Jewish historical archives from the time. I'm not sure what we'd expect to find. Those who rose from the dead were not zombies (contrary to the Lego image above), and they didn't wreak havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Jerusalem. They were people—there's no reason to think they looked any different from you or me—and it would have been wildly difficult for secular historians to believe they were the dead come to life, even if that was the rumor floating around town.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith—it changes everything about life—and each Gospel was written so that its recipients might believe in Jesus and be saved. It's not surprising then that Matthew includes the event. It fulfills, at least in part, what God had said through the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 37:12-13)—something that would have been of particular interest to Matthew's largely Jewish audience. For the other Gospel writers, these dead followers of God kicking up dirt and strolling through town add little to the hope found in the gospel. In fact, including such an event would have introduced a lot of new questions, rather than providing answers, as it does today when believers who are less steeped in Old Testament prophecy read Matthew's account.

So what do we do with these strange few verses? I have a rather simple suggestion: Believe. Matthew provided us with a glimpse of the resurrection that will take place when Christ returns. In the pages of his Gospel, we have a real-world preview of one of the most difficult-to-swallow bits of Christian theology: Death does not have the final say. Those of us who know Jesus will be raised to new life and will live with Him forever. This is the good news of Easter, so let's embrace this small preview of the goodness of God yet to come as we celebrate the more important resurrection that took place that same weekend.

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