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Easter Challenge

Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ


Spring is a good time to bring people's attention to the "Easter Challenge" popularized by Dan Barker. Although not necessarily a decisive argument against the validity and coherency of Christianity, it does serve as a pointed reminder that traditional, orthodox Christian beliefs have a lot of problems with them.

Author or "Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist" and PR director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dan Barker is a former preacher who now spends his time promoting both freethought and the separation of church and state. In an effort to draw people's attention to the contradictions and conflicts in traditional Christian beliefs, he has proposed a deceptively simple challenge: "tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born."

Ostensibly it's a simple request, but as I observed it is deceptively simple. The hard work involved is made apparent by the parameters Baker sets: "In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul's tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened."

That Christians should make use of all of the accounts of Jesus' resurrection on the first Easter morning is perhaps obvious. What's more significant, however, is the fact that nothing can be omitted. Not a single described event, encounter, or statement. Why is this condition so important?

According to Barker, the challenge cannot be met successfully without omitting a few things - otherwise, there will be obvious and unacceptable contradictions in the final story. Technically, omissions shouldn't be a problem. All we need to do is conclude that what we are omitting is erroneous or spurious - that author got that particular bit of the story wrong.

This shouldn't be a problem, but it is. For one thing, fundamentalists and inerrantists cannot make such an admission - for them, every last detail in the entire Bible is true. To admit that something must not be true, especially where it concerns the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, would contradict one of their fundamental religious dogmas. That just isn't going to happen.

An admission that portions of the Bible may be in error also presents a problem for more liberal Christians as well. Once it is acknowledged that some aspect of the resurrection account is mistaken, it becomes a bit more difficult to uphold the idea that any other particular aspect is necessarily true. Perhaps it is, but then again perhaps it isn't.

No longer can a Christian simply rely upon the authority of the Bible to justify belief in the historicity of the resurrection, for now it has been accepted that the Bible is a flawed authority, even on such critical events as those which occurred on the first Easter. When an authority is revealed as fallible in such a way, it is justified for outsiders to expect independent validation and support for the key claims - and there doesn't appear to be any such support for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

According to Barker, few Christians who are willing to be skeptical of the alleged miralces of other religions have made a serious effort to validate the central miracle of their own faith - and none of them have succeeded in meeting this challenge. So what's a Christian to do? I'd like to see someone successfully meet this challenge - but, if they are not able, it would probably be better if they stopped insisting on the historicity of Jesus' resurrection.

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