HERE IS A QUESTION to ponder this Easter: What would have been the history of Christianity, or the world, for that matter, if Jesus had merely been put to death and had not been "raised from the dead?"

He might well have gone down in history as a great spiritual leader, like Socrates or a Gandhi. But would he have become the focal point for a new religion? The contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg insists that without the story of the Resurrection, Jesus' message about God would never have been preserved at all.

It may seem self-evident now that the story is central to the Christian religion. But 20 centuries later, with Christianity spread all over the world and modern neurobiology raising scientific questions about the possibility of a bodily rising, many Christians wonder if a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus is all that important.

Yet Christians who view the Resurrection more as religious symbolism than as a real event, or as something that "happened" only in the minds of Jesus' psychologically overwrought disciples, often fail to comprehend how much the development of their faith owed -- and still owes -- to belief in resurrection as an actual axperience for Jesus, a human person like us.

Early Christians, it is worth recalling, did not link their mission to evangelize the world with claims about the superiority of Jesus' teaching, much of which is paralleled in the work of other great spiritual masters. Rather, they stressed the message of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God.

To put this into the proper context it is necessary to recall just what this "said" to people living in the first century after Jesus' death.

There was nothing abstract, or merely symbolic, about the story told by those first disciples. As they related it, Jesus, a real flesh-and- blood Jewish teacher and miracle worker of humble background, rose from the dead, appeared to a number of his disciples on different occasions, and finally lived exalted at the right hand of God.

Undoubtedly, many first-century people who heard this story considered it preposterous. But one can also see why others, whose spiritual needs were not all that different from our own, found the story "good news" and believed the preaching of the disciples.

First, the conviction that the Resurrection was not mythic symbolism about a god or goddess dying and rising but something that really happened to a human being created a connection between humanity and the divine which was quite unlike anything in the Jewish or Greco- Roman perception of God. Both Jews and pagans had questions about whether the distant "God in Heaven" really cared about what happened to humans -- or would insure justice in the world. In that context, the idea of a real human person of flesh and blood being enthroned at the right hand of God was revolutionary. It resolved doubts about God's concern in a radical way.

Second, the Resurrection story completely changed the way people thought about immortality.

From Socrates on, philosophers had discussed immortality of the soul. That part of the human person which had access to eternal truth, justice and goodness, must, some argued, belong to the unchanging world of the divine, and not to the material world. On a more general level, people thought that some unusual persons might be deified -- taken up to live with the gods. Roman emperors, for example, were thought to be deified when they died.

But neither of these beliefs had much impact on the average person. Inscriptions found on ancient tombstones suggest that most people living at the time of Jesus were fairly cynical about death. For the vast majority of them, death was simply the end. Historian Ramsey MacMullen of Yale has concluded that it was Christian preaching of resurrection that created the belief among pagan people that a personal immortality was possible for everyone. From the Jewish side, the situation was much the same. Chapter 12 in Daniel did present a picture of the Last Judgment, in which the righteous would be raised to an angelic or "star-like" immortality. Tombstones in Galilee show that other Jews entertained the possibility of an eternal life of the soul.

But for many Jews, the fact that the Law and most of the Old Testament said nothing about an individual afterlife probably carried the day. Once one had been buried in a tomb, one's only immortality was in the memory of one's descendants, and in the continuity of the people as a whole. Even those Jews who did believe in a resurrection of the dead thought one would have to wait until God brought human history to its conclusion at the Last Judgment.

Consider, then, the impact of the Christian resurrection story on the average person. Speculation about immortality, divinization and the afterlife had been largely the province of the educated upper classes. Rulers, philosophers, heroes -- they might all stand some chance of immortality. But Jesus was a Galilean peasant who suffered a death reserved for the lowest and most vicious criminals. He was not a person of official learning or status, not a great hero of the people. Yet the message was that he now sat at the right hand of God!

Imagine the excitement in Corinth or Thessalonika when Paul came to those cities in the early 50s A.D., preaching that Jesus was "with God." Suddenly, death need not mean "the end," but the beginning of something new -- not just for a Roman emperor, but even for the lowliest slave.

There is evidence from the Gospels and the Epistles that this egalitarian message flowing from Jesus' death and resurrection was one of the most difficult things for new Christians to grasp. But it was also the one that, when accepted as true, almost by definition filled converts with a strong sense of their obligation to spread the news.

What we "know" today about Jesus' death and resurrection is based on the testimony of later believers. None of them set out to collect and evaluate the reports of witnesses to the Easter events. To some extent, every believer "fills in the gaps" and smooths over apparent contradictions in the stories of what happened.

The Gospels themselves are full of discrepancies and inconsistencies. For example, there are different accounts of what happened when a woman, or women, went to the tomb where Jesus was buried to annoint his body. The Gospels contain disparite reports of Jesus' subsequent appearances. Where they happened and what transpired vary depending on the source. In Luke, Jesus shows his wounds and eats food with his disciples. In John, he makes a return bodily appearance a week after Easter to convince Thomas of his resurrection. (Thomas is persuaded.) Other Gospel accounts, in Matthew and John, have Jesus appearing in Galilee.

Numerous theories have been put forward to explain these strange events, including speculation that Jesus was resuscitated after being taken down from the Cross.

But in later centuries, the importance of "the facts" began to fade somewhat, and the Resurrection itself was shifted out of the center of Christian attention. As convictions about the divinity of Jesus were asserted more explicity, it began to appear a foregone conclusion that Jesus, as the incarnate, second person of the Divine Trinity along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, would not be "in death" after his experience on the cross. So the surprise and paradox of the Crucifixion and Resurrection began to lessen.

Nevertheless, the Resurrection continued to provoke

sharp disagreement between Christians and non-Christians, and among Christians themselves. At one end of the theological spectrum, fundamentalist Christians took the Resurrection literally. In their view, the Resurrection stories not only gave a blow-by-blow account of what happened on Easter, they also describe the eventual fate of believing Christians.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people asserted that there was no bodily rising, and that it makes more sense to presume that the disciples' claims to visions of the risen Lord were based on some sort of psychological stress or hallucination. In the late 1960s, British writer John Allegro created a stir in his book, "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross," by theorizing that the disciples used some sort of hallucinogenic plant.

Others, even committed Christians, have suggested that the trauma of the final days in Jerusalem built up such an intense longing and psychological pressure among the disciples to "see Jesus again" that they were able to experience his return in their minds.

They point out that Jesus' powers as a miracle worker, including his reviving persons who had died, and Jesus' own claims to a close, personal relationship with God, could have fueled his disciples' expectation that he would come back to life.

And it is true that Jesus' appearances often occur in highly emotional situations. Jesus had been buried by an outsider, in haste. When the women go to the tomb to complete a mourning process that had been cut short, they find it empty. As if this were not traumatic enough, the disciples had to face their own guilt at deserting Jesus when he was arrested. They gathered to celebrate the kind of fellowship meal that Jesus had celebrated during his lifetime and on the night before he died.

In such emotionally-charged situations, the theory goes, Jesus' love and forgiving power broke through the despair, failure and guilt the disciples were feeling. They were suddenly convinced they could go on and proclaim Jesus' message. And they had no other way to express that reality than to speak of Jesus as living in a new dimension of God's heavenly power.

Many Christians today find this account the most plausible explanation of what happened at Easter. And, everything that it says about the personal and psychological change that the disciples experienced is certainly true to the stories of Resurrection.

The Dutch theologist Eduard Schillebeeckx has emphasized the importance of Resurrection as a "conversion" experience which enabled the disciples to overcome their sense of failure and guilt. Paul himself refers to it that way. Before he saw a vision of the Lord, Paul was actively trying to stamp out the growing Christian movement. For Paul, the vision was not just the end of his persecuting Christians. It was the beginning of his life preaching the Christian message among the Gentiles.

Others have argued that it is not necessary, in any case, to take literally the account of Jesus' body "rising." Rather, they say, this can be seen as a kind of metaphor for the "immortality of the soul."

Some theologians insist that the Resurrection was not an "event" at all, but a symbolic way for the Gospel writers to affirm that the crucifixion of Jesus was not an ordinary human death, but the revelation of God's salvation. For these modern theologians, the principle event at Easter is the emergence of faith in Jesus' frightened disciples. This faith and new-found sense of community with each other and the risen Lord gave them the courage to preach the message about Jesus to the world.

While the disputes between the various "models" for understanding Easter will never be definitively settled, the very diversity of the stories and statements about the Resurrection do suggest that something very strange and unique did happen in Jerusalem that Easter.

The numerous substantive differences in the accounts show that several versions of the Easter events were circulating among Jesus' followers, which suggests that they themselves were struggling to understand what had happened. Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion, after all, took them completely by surprise. Apart from the proclamation that Jesus had been raised, there was no "party line" on what happened, even in the Gospels that were written later.

But wouldn't it have been a logical story for Jesus' followers to disseminate? Hardly. Remember how weak and diffuse belief in the afterlife was in this period. And remember how the Jewish population tended to view "resurrection." Even Jews who expected that the righteous would be resurrected anticipated that it would come only at the end of history. But the Passover period in which Jesus was executed scarcely seemed to be that time.

Jesus had been rejected by Jewish religious and political authorities. He was then put to death by the Roman prefect as a condemned criminal. And the world plainly was not coming to an end, as the Jewish apocalypse stories said it would at the time of general resurrection.

However intense their grief, guilt and longing to experience the fellowship they had had with Jesus, and to recover Jesus' certainty of God's presence, the disciples are not likely to have made up some story about God raising Jesus and exalting him above all others in such circumstances.

And when you consider the implausibility of the claim made by Jesus' followers, it is not so surprising that it did not become "big news" in Jerusalem that year.

Clearly, the concept of individual resurrection was difficult even for converted Christians to comprehend later on. Paul, for example, chided his Corinthian converts for denying that the "dead are raised." Not being of Jewish background, these Gentile converts probably brought a very different mental image to the story.

They may have imagined the Resurrection and Ascension as a trip into heavenly glory that applied only to Jesus. They could have thought that the Resurrection was a way of saying how Jesus, a human being, became divine and therefore the object of Christian worship.

What is at stake in any understanding of the Resurrection is ultimately the Christian representation of God. The Resurrection stands or fails with the question of whether or not God is in some way responsible both for the existence of the world in which we find ourselves and for a salvation which is its recreation.

Without a clear perception of the creative power of God, resurrection can only be a symbolic way of speaking about something else -- the immortality of the human spirit, the renewal of a cause, the sustaining life of a religious community or whatever.

But the Resurrection does mean more than that.

True, there is disagreement even among Christian about the statement, "He is raised."

But it seems plausible to insist that Easter commemorates a real experience of Jesus' disciples, even though our sources do not enable us to give a documentary account of all that happened.

We could say that theologians who insist that the Resurrection is not a "news event" from the past do a better job of preserving the connection between resurrection faith and belief in God's action in and through Jesus than literalists.

There is, however, a limit to the usefulness of debates about the plausibility of the Resurrection story. The real challenge to contemporary Christians is not to believe a list of facts, but to rediscover the energy that early disciples found in a faith in resurrection.

What does it engender in the human imagination and heart to believe that God raised Jesus, the crucified? Jesus' resurrection didn't usher in the end of the world and its history. It didn't give all the righteous the heavenly paradise imagined in apocalyptic Jewish writing. It didn't even defeat the powers of evil that had led to his crucifixion.

Yet the Resurrection tells Christians that, in Jesus, the one who suffered as a victim of political and religious forces, we find God's power to save us. Jesus didn't bring the Messiah as Divine Warrior, conquering the evil of the world in a giant battle. Instead, the Crucifixion and Resurrection evoked a disturbingly powerful new symbol -- that of the crucified God.

After that, how can we look at the old games of religious and political power, and at their heroes and victims, with the pragmatic eyes of a Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate, which saw the silencing of a troublesome and obscure Galilean as nothing important in the larger picture? Don't we have to challenge ourselves with the paradox of the crucified God and ask whether we, as individuals, churches and perhaps even as a nation, are working to forge a message of life and hope for our world?