If I weren’t Christian I’d still be drawn to Jesus. Anyone who points to the birds of the air and says to his friends, “Don’t worry. Look at the sparrows. They don’t gather their food into barns, and your heavenly father takes care of them. Aren’t you just as valuable?” -- has my attention. Anyone whose only written words were scrawled in the sand and washed away by the rain but whose teachings have changed hearts for 2000 years is worthy of everyone’s attention. Anyone who can forgive the brutes who crucified him because he knew that they did not know what they were doing makes my hair stand on end.
And yet, a stumbling block for so many people who aren’t Christian is Christianity’s cornerstone: Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. Really? Can anyone know for sure that Jesus rose from the dead?
Many people, including Christians, believe that the resurrection is a myth that points to a larger truth. The imagination sings: you can nail love to a cross but you can’t destroy it. “Easter,” wrote Clarence Hall, “means you can put truth in a grave but it won’t stay there.” Others believe that Jesus was the greatest spiritual teacher who ever lived and that he did rise from the dead, as he promised, to demonstrate that everything he taught was true.
But is belief enough? Doesn’t belief leave room for doubt? Doesn’t doubt imply a belief? Carl Jung when asked whether or not he believed in God, answered, “I don’t have to believe. I know.”
Is there a way of knowing that has nothing to do with physical evidence, nothing to do with the senses or the brain?
In his movie Manhattan, Woody Allen says to Diane Keaton: “The brain is the most overrated organ. There’s a way of knowing that has nothing to do with the brain.” Eastern spiritual masters have always taught direct knowing. Christian mystics have spoken about immediate awareness of God for centuries. Pathbreaking psychiatrist Thomas Hora (1914-1995) writes about the human faculty of “beholding” -- the ability we all have to “be aware of the unthinkable, to see the invisible, and to know the inconceivable and unimaginable.” We humans have known truths long before we began to learn about them.
We don’t need to look at a cardiogram to see a loving heart any more than we seek proof that the body needs oxygen before we breathe. Neither do we need a reporter at Bethlehem or a movie of Mary Magdalen at the tomb to know that Christ is born, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again, then and now, in us. There is more to knowing than meets the eye.
Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, literally, as promised, to demonstrate that everything he taught was true. They know this truth every time they experience resurrection in their own lives: every time they fall from grace and rise again; every time they sin and know that to God their scarlet sins are whiter than snow; every time they see a brown leaf fall and know a new one will be born again.
Easter is the time when Christians stop worrying, as Jesus asked, and behold the truth that Christ has come, Christ has died, and Christ is rising now as then. “He departed from our sight,” wrote Augustine in the 5th century, “so we might return to our heart and find him there. For he departed, and behold, he is here.”
Did Jesus really rise or is the Easter story a beautiful myth? Can it be both? There is only one way to know, and it has nothing to do with the brain.
Michael Leach is publisher emeritus of Orbis Books and author of Why Stay Catholic? Unexpected Answers to a Life-Changing Question . He blogs at whystaycatholic.com