Sunday, April 8, 2012

Occam and Easter

My nine-year-old was asking me about Easter yesterday, and I found myself speculating once again about its meaning.

Some years ago I attended the parents' visiting day at my girls' Catholic high-school. It was near Easter, and in theology class, in which the resurrection was being discussed, I asked the girls the following question: Jesus was crucified naked or nearly naked, but the next time his disciples saw him, he was fully clothed. Where did he get the clothes?

It was, of course, a facetious question, but one intended to start them thinking about the resurrection in a practical way. A practical way: That is always the hardest sort of thinking to apply to matters of faith, yet how important and illuminating it is. In the case of the resurrection, if we accept that Jesus was crucified and died, then we are left with two possibilities: Either he managed to resuscitate himself (or be resuscitated by some other power) and return from the dead through a miracle of both physiology and spirituality or... the body was simply removed from the tomb during the night.

Now, faced with those choices, any reasonable person, that is, anyone not imbued with dogma, would have to choose the latter. It is the law of Occam's razor: The simplest solution is usually correct.

Disposing of the bodies of rebels and malcontents is hardly a rare phenomenon. We did as much with the corpses of John Wilkes Booth and Osama bin Laden, in order to prevent their graves from becoming rallying points for their fanatical followers. Certainly the Romans, having executed the rebel Jesus, would have been wise to dispose of his body as quickly as possible. Assuming that they did so, then when the disciples arrived at the tomb on Monday (not Sunday) and found it empty, they may have interpreted it as a sign that Jesus had returned to life; or, perhaps, taken advantage of the fact of his disappearance to claim that he had.

The forty days that he is supposed to have spent among them are scarcely chronicled, though one would think they would have been the most important six weeks of his time on Earth. But, of course, the number forty, like the number three, is a powerful symbol in Hebrew mythology and numerology. That of this postmortem period nearly nothing is said is stunning. The one human being in history who defies death and returns to his friends, and nothing is revealed about the afterlife, the experience of death, and the transformation of a resurrected soul? Impossible.

The idea of the resurrection of Jesus, or of any man, seems a fatuous one on even brief reflection. Try to imagine the actual event: What would it have looked like? How was it done? Was there some blinding radiation, as the Turin Shroud advocates claim? And of what did this radiation consist? How was life returned to the corpse of Jesus? How did he experience it? How did he feel? The notion defies everything we know about life and death.

No, I am inclined to take a rather pragmatic view of this event, and suggest that it was invented by the followers of Jesus, who could not accept the fact of his death, just as those of L. Ron Hubbard and Elvis Presley cannot accept theirs. If Jesus was dead and gone, then they were finished. But if he could be presented as being still alive, then their movement, too, was still alive. And the hope which he represented for them had not died, but had been reborn immortal. The resurrection of Jesus was not a historical fact; it was a historical necessity.