Written by Sean Farver
I’m not ashamed to admit it… The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies of all time. There. I said it. It has everything: sword fighting, a fire swamp, rodents of unusual size, quicksand, the Cliffs of Insanity, iocane powder, more sword fighting and, of course, a six-fingered man (oh yeah, and some romance as well… but let’s be honest, you can find romance in tons of other movies but only one combines it with the magic of shrieking eels). What’s not to love?
Like many adventure stories, the drama is heightened because it centers on matters of life and death – most notably, the (presumed) death of Westley at the hands of Count Rugen in the dreaded Pit of Despair. After being examined, however, the best news the audience could have hoped for is delivered by the aptly-named Miracle Max: “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.” So, all is not lost; true love can go on and the evil king can still be defeated. The hero is only “mostly” dead.
Why am I yammering on about an old movie? Well, believe it or not, it offers us a chance to reflect on a true matter of life and death. There’s no question that Easter is for many reasons the most important day of celebration, worship, and reflection that Christians enjoy. The main reason, of course, is summed up in one word: resurrection. We bank everything on it. We believe that Jesus’ resurrection not only confirmed God’s promises to bring salvation but also that it paved the way for those who are in Christ to one day be resurrected as well. Jesus’ resurrection was God’s way of driving the final nail into the coffin of death itself. No longer would sin and death hold any power over us. We believe that when Jesus was resurrected, death died.
No wonder the Apostle Paul joined with the prophets Isaiah and Hosea and wrote these stirring words in
1 Corinthians 15.54-55: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
There is a nagging question, however, that has been asked for the past 2000 or so years: did Jesus really rise from the dead? After all, it’s not our normal experience that people who are truly dead come back to life. For many, it seems like a far too convenient ‘plot twist’ meant to prop up the desired outcome of a larger religious story. At best, it’s wishful thinking. At worst, it’s a dangerous delusion. In that spirit, many alternative theories have been proposed as to what Jesus’ (supposed) resurrection is all about.
The most obvious theory is that, perhaps, Jesus wasn’t really dead. He was only what Miracle Max would call “mostly dead.” I see two issues with this explanation. First, it seems to imply that ancient people might not have known when someone was really dead; those who crucified him and those who buried him were simply mistaken in thinking that he was actually dead.
After all, we are much more scientifically advanced than they were! We forget, however, that ancient people lived in much greater proximity to death than we often do. They witnessed it in their homes and communities. For us, it’s often hidden away in modern clinical institutions. I think they knew when someone was truly dead.
Second, the Bible’s witness is that Jesus didn’t simply ‘come back to life’. He wasn’t merely resuscitated, he was resurrected. He didn’t appear in the same state as prior to his death, he appeared in a state that represents the other side of death. He had a resurrection body, one that actually made him hard to recognize by those who first saw him. He wasn’t “mostly dead.” He was totally dead and came out on the other side!
Another theory is that Jesus’ resurrection was a fabrication, the result of a conspiracy among his followers that involved stealing and hiding his (actually) dead body and claiming that he had risen. Again, I believe there are at least two difficulties with this explanation. First, the gospel writers and especially Paul stake their message, their reputations, and even their lives on the eye witness testimony of those who saw the risen Jesus. In a culture that was steeped in oral tradition (the passing on of truth, history, memory, etc. in oral form), it would literally have been incredible for Paul to have claimed that so many people (hundreds, several of them named) had seen the risen Jesus and to make those claims within the lifetime of those same witnesses if they did not concur. Paul’s claims would have been very easy to falsify.
Second, it seems highly unlikely to me that a small band of people could have perpetrated a conspiracy of this magnitude in the face of the Roman Empire, literally altering the trajectory of world history by virtue of their own efforts. Charles Colson, who was convicted and served prison time for his role in the Watergate cover-up (young people, look it up on ‘the google’), argued many times that some of the most powerful men in American government couldn’t keep their Watergate conspiracy together for more than a few weeks before it fell apart as they all gave way to self-preservation. What hope would the small band of Jesus’ first followers have in the face of persecution? The entirety of Christian faith resting on a conspiracy seems more far fetched to me than someone being “mostly dead.”
A third explanation is that what we call Jesus’ resurrection is really just a metaphor for how he lives on in the memory and even the mystical experiences of those who follow him. In this view, Jesus didn’t literally rise in resurrection-bodily form but instead ‘lives on’ in the lives of his people (for one explanation of this view, see Marcus Borg’s chapter called The Truth of Easter in the book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions).
On the surface, this view might seem to have great appeal for modern (or maybe postmodern) people because it makes the question of a literal resurrection irrelevant (Borg’s point) but still allows for Jesus to be remembered, honored, and even worshipped. It seems to make Christianity and naturalism compatible by eliminating the need for the supernatural. The ‘reality’ of the resurrection is that it is real to me (metaphorically speaking), not that it actually happened in any literal sense.
One of the issues that I have with this view of resurrection is that I’m fairly certain that someday I will die (insightful, I know). What I mean is that my death won’t be metaphorical, it will be real (certainly not ‘mostly’!). And, it raises real questions. What happens to us when we die? What eternal significance does our present embodied existence have? I need more than metaphors and I believe God’s Word gives us more. It gives us real substance. It tells us that God created us with bodies. It tells us that Jesus entered the creation and was embodied himself. It tells us that he rose bodily from the grave and that someday I will as well. I love metaphors as much as the next person, but they only make sense if there is some reality to which they point.
So, why does all of this matter? One main truth that underlies our celebration of Easter is that Jesus was really dead. Not ‘deceivingly’ dead. Not ‘mostly’ dead. Dead. Period. And so will you and I… someday (unless he returns beforehand). The other main truth, however, is that he is now alive. Not ‘metaphorically’ alive, but alive in the same way that all who believe in him will someday be alive.
For people of faith, Easter is a glimpse of the future. It fills us with hope. It reminds us that life is not, “as you wish” (yeah, I had to get one more movie reference in there; I saw that eye roll…) but is based on the certainty of God’s promises and power. I don’t know about you but I need more certainty, not more speculation. I need more hope, not more wishful thinking. I need a Savior who was fully dead but is now fully alive because I can be certain that’s exactly what I will be.
May your celebration of Easter fill you with hope and joy!
Sean Farver, Kirk Crossing Campus Pastor
Sean worked as the youth minister for The Kirk for six and a half years before transitioning into other ministry roles which included overseeing the The Kirk’s communications, directing some adult discipleship programs and being the first worship leader for The Kirk’s contemporary worship service. He then went to Seminary and afterward, returned to The Kirk in a pastoral role. Currently, Sean is the campus pastor at Kirk Crossing – The Kirk’s second campus in Jenks.