By Douglas Anele
Today is Easter (Pascha in Greek and Latin), or Resurrection Sunday, a day an overwhelming percentage of Christians commemorate the alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who is by far the most prominent figure in Christianity. Now, that Easter is probably the most significant celebration in Christendom is evident in the fact that, without the conviction that Jesus Christ the “Son of God” died after crucifixion and came back to life on the third day, Christianity would not have emerged.
Of course, the New Testament story about Jesus’ purported virgin birth is theologically indispensable also; but that narrative would have meant nothing within the context of Christian eschatology without belief in his crucifixion and resurrection. It follows that the significance of Easter in Christianity cannot be hyperbolised because it signposts the rationale for belief in the redeeming character of Christ’s mission on earth and the uniqueness which believers attach to his life in world history.
According to Christian scriptures, God, right from the very beginning, singled out a Jew, the man Jesus, to carry the burden of redeeming humankind from sin and eternal damnation by dying on the cross. In other words, Jesus occupies a very unique and unprecedented position in humanity’s quest for reconciliation with God. Yet, the very bold and extremely tantalising view that, out of all the peoples in the world a Jew was chosen by the Almighty to die a brutal death and resurrect to save humanity as a whole, in my opinion, must be subjected to the searchlight of ratiocinative analysis since it contradicts what is scientifically known about the universe and the contingent nature of human existence on earth.
Furthermore, in his book, Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell argues that the notion of a chosen race and a God-ordained saviour, is one of the most dangerous delusions that have afflicted humanity, on the ground that it tends to precipitate intolerance, conflict and war. Clearly, it is impossible, except on the basis of unquestioning faith, to provide logical and epistemological justification for the belief that a supposedly omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and morally perfect God is not only so parochial as to have a “chosen people” but also would permit his “son” to die in disgrace and rise again just to atone for sin. Why should God choose such a torturous route when he could simply have forgiven the transgressors and left the issue at that? If the God presented in the Holy Bible is truly universal and not the tribal deity of the Jews who was later promoted to become the God of everyone, why did he choose a Jew and not an Igbo, a Hottentot or an Australian Aborigine as his son and saviour of humankind?
More generally, is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus a historical event or a variant of the myth prevalent in Mediterranean cultures for millennia which states that the human species can only be redeemed through the death and resurrection of a God or a son of God? To answer these and related questions, let us examine what scholars have written on the biblical narratives pertaining to Jesus. But before we do that, it is useful to present more information about Easter as a foundation for our analysis. According to biblical historians, it is difficult to ascertain the precise date Christians celebrated Easter for the very first time.
What is incontrovertible, however, is that traditionally the observance is linked to Passover and the exodus from Egypt recorded in the Old Testament, through the Last Supper, sufferings and the crucifixion of Jesus that took place before the resurrection. Hence, Easter is the culmination of the Passion of Christ, preceded by Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer and penance. It is not surprising, then, that Jewish Christians, arguably the first to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, timed the observance of Easter in relation to Passover.
Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian celebration of Easter began to appear in the middle of the second century AD. Up to the present time, Easter and the holidays associated with it are moveable events because unlike Christmas Easter does not fall on a fixed date either in the Gregorian or Julian calendar. Rather, the date for the festival is determined by a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew version. At the First Council of Nicaea conveyed by Emperor Constantine of Rome in 325, two rules were established, namely, the independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity; but the Council did not specify the details for computing the date.
As a result, for centuries the issue of when Easter should be celebrated sparked controversies in different denominations of Christianity. According to Wikipedia, in applying ecclesiastical rules, Western Christian churches use March 21 as the starting point in fixing the date, whereas Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches tend to prefer the Julian calendar. In fact, the latter churches also use March 21 as the navigator for determining Easter date, but in line with the Julian reckoning which for the present century corresponds to April 3 in the Gregorian calendar.
Given the fact that without belief in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ Christianity would not have existed and that Easter is probably the most important aspect of Christian faith, the theological significance of the celebration for adherents is immense. In Christian theology, the belief that Jesus rose from the death establishes him as the powerful Son of God, the messiah, and is proof that God will eventually pass righteous judgment on the world during the final assizes or Judgment Day. The conviction that Jesus died and resurrected means that he triumphed over death, such that anyone who believes in him is born-again with renewed hope of salvation and a new spiritual life in Christ. In otherwords, through faith in God and the redeeming mission of his “only begotten son” Jesus, those who follow the messiah are spiritually resurrected with him so that they will receive salvation and become partakers of eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Still, there are some Protestant Christian minority denominations that have either altered several Easter traditions and observances or abandoned them altogether, on the premise that such traditions are “pagan” or “Popish.” Another reason for rejection is that any celebration or practice not written in the Holy Bible must be a later development and cannot be accepted as an authentic part of Christian faith or practice – which implies that at best it is simply unnecessary, at worst actually sinful. The Restored Church of God consider Easter as originating from a pagan spring festival adapted by the Roman Catholic Church, while many Jehovah’s Witnesses prefer observing what they refer to simply as ‘The Memorial,’ an annual service to commemorate the Last Supper and crucifixion of Jesus.
It must be pointed out that in countries where Christianity is a state religion or that have a large Christian population, Easter is often a public holiday, as is also Good Friday, the last Friday before Easter. And because Easter is always celebrated on Sunday, the next day, Easter Monday, is usually declared a public holiday in Nigeria and many other countries. Now, although the theological significance of Easter is the same for Christians worldwide and observances such as prayers, all-night vigil and sunrise services are also widely practiced, there are dissimilarities in the way believers in different parts of the world celebrate Easter. Still one thing is clear: as long as there are Christians in this world Easter celebration will continue, and there cannot be Christians without strong belief in the resurrection of their crucified messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, having provided a fairly detailed background for our critique of Easter, it is necessary to reiterate that the Holy Bible, like all religious texts, is not a historical document pure and simple. Even those parts of it that appear to document historical events are neither necessarily accurate nor completely based on authentic and reliable sources. For instance, if one really wants to get detailed factual information concerning the historicity of Jesus, the main character in the Easter story, Alfred Reynolds claims in his book, Jesus versus Christianity, that based on historical sources, there is no evidence that he actually lived. This point is well-known to scholars of the New Testament, but most Christians are unaware of it.
In the Misery of Christianity, Joachim Kahl, a former protestant pastor, frankly proclaims that, on the question of whether Jesus actually existed “we just do not know.” Reynolds insists that the New Testament “cannot be regarded as a historical record since the extant copies were written by believers, in foreign countries and in Greek, over almost a hundred years after the events they describe.” Bertrand Russell also argues in the same direction. In his well-known devastating critique of Christianity entitled Why I am not a Christian, he submits that “historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ existed at all, and if he did, we do not know anything about him.” Therefore, if we are to make any headway in our inquiry, we must suspend for the time being questions concerning the historicity of Jesus and take the Gospels’ narratives as they stand.
To be continued.