But on the first day of the week, at early dawn,
they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus…
Behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing;
and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground,
the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”
– Jesus’s Resurrection, from the Biblical Gospel of Luke (LK 24:1-5)
To be a human being is to live in fear. Like fish adapted to polluted water, for all of human history we have accepted the howling horror of knowing that each of us will soon cease to be. On top of that fear, we enter these lives with a powerful drive toward spiritual growth, and with an innate curiosity even despite our need to distract ourselves from our own mortality. Humankind’s spiritual restlessness has for all of our history demanded that we find ways to confront and address the terror of our imminent demise.
So, hundreds of thousands of years ago we began to try to bargain with death. And to do that we needed imaginary ways to personify the unknown. Modern humans came into being about two hundred thousand years ago, but evidence suggests that the idea of having gods is older by another hundred thousand years. It was then that hominins like Homo neanderthalensis began to formally bury their dead, often with jewelry and household goods or weapons, and with offerings of food and flowers.
Our relationship with the gods we had created was contentious. We envisioned powerful gods who were able to protect and provide for us, and it took us awhile to begin to trust them. Once we had developed the notion of bargaining with invisible entities, we would have experimented, giving them offerings as we prayed for good mammoth-hunting or a good run of fish. As nomadic groups shared their experiences, the gods that had seemed to be most successful would gain followers, while those that hadn’t performed well would fade. The only evidence we have now of prehistoric gods is respectful treatment of the dead, but those burials tell us so much! Valuable grave goods buried with the dead give us evidence of a developing belief that invisibly life goes on; and offerings of food and flowers show that human-made gods must have had a meaningful role in the imagined post-death process.
It wasn’t until the advent of agriculture about twenty-two thousand years ago that people settled in long-term communities with their powerful and whimsical gods. By then, most human leaders had learned to use stoking fear of the gods’ disfavor as an essential base for their own power. And as the tensions in our lives increased, our gods were soon demanding more. One indication of our societal stress as we became more civilized is the fact that the practice of human sacrifice soon was adopted worldwide. The earliest solid evidence yet found of an organized religion is Gobekli Tepe, a stone temple that dates to twelve thousand years ago. It was buried after a couple of thousand years in what may have been a dispute with its gods, so it has been well preserved.
Polytheism was the norm worldwide until shortly before the birth of Jesus. We think of the ancient Jews as monotheists, but references in their scriptures and excavations in Israel suggest that the original Yahweh probably had a wife and companions. The devotion of the Jewish tribes to a single powerful deity seems not to have been fully formed until the Babylonian exile that ended in 538 B.C. It was then that the genuine God chose to be born to the Jewish people. Their imagined deity was still human-made and fear-based, but in learning to relate to a single god the Jews had proven to the Godhead that they were ready to leave their man-made religion and begin to know the Un-Caused Cause.
It was to help us discover and begin to relate to the genuine God that an aspect of the Godhead was born two thousand years ago in the Person of Jesus. We can see in His Gospel teachings what He meant to do; and now that we better understand His mission we can contemplate its staggering importance! Jesus’s mission was apparently five-fold:
Jesus was not the Godhead’s first emissary. The Old Testament indicates that God was reaching out to the Jews from at least the time of Moses, trying to better shape their human-made concept of God. There were many Old Testament prophets who carried out this task, including Micah of Moresheth, who delivered an early version of the Gospel message more than seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. He said, “With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8).
So now we understand why Jesus was born, and why He taught us as He did. But why did He choose to die in public and so horribly? And why did He re-animate His dead body?
Thomas has told me that the Lord’s original life-plan didn’t mention how He would die. Its focus was on His mission. But even though He was trying to wean His followers away from their religious traditions, He was well aware of the impact it made when He fulfilled prophesies. He was having trouble convincing His first-century followers that our lives are eternal, so Thomas has told me that shortly before Jesus died, He decided in concert with the Godhead to alter His life-plan. He would die publicly so He could rise from the dead as a kind of “Ta-da! See? I didn’t die, and neither will you!”
(I offer this explanation with the caution that Thomas is only one reporter.)
Actually, there is some textual evidence that the Lord’s crucifixion decision may have been last-minute. Throughout the Gospels He is calm and confident as He repeatedly courts death by breaking religious laws; but on the night of His arrest “He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” … And being in agony, He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (LK 22:41-44). Even on the cross, after nine hours He blurted, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (MT 27:46). So He seems to have been less confident through His crucifixion ordeal than He ever had been before in His lifetime as Jesus, which makes sense if He was winging a last-minute plan. But He carried out the plan so well that I imagine Him now smiling to recall it.
At Easter we celebrate the fact that two thousand years ago God came to earth in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and began a new stage of human development in which we can abandon all religious superstitions and live in the love of the genuine God. Humankind was growing up! We also celebrate the fact that by going through a public death and then re-animating His dead body, Jesus gave us indisputable proof that God is real and we are immortal. It matters little whether the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial cloth of Jesus. The Shroud bears on it signs that we could not have recognized for almost two thousand years, and that we still cannot reproduce. It is God’s message given two millennia ago and meant to open our hearts today. The Shroud of Turin is the greatest token of perfect love ever given!
This Easter each of us can celebrate our joyous newfound certainty that we are the Godhead’s best-beloved child and forever safe in Everlasting Arms.
“He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee,
saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men,
and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”
And they remembered His words, and returned from the tomb
and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest…
Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings;
and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.
– Jesus’s Resurrection, from the Biblical Gospel of Luke (LK 24:6-12)