Easter Is Still Unbelievable

I still remember my astonishment when an Australian prime minister, at a campaign trail event — the kind where hands are shaken, babies kissed — picked up a raw onion and took a bite from it. 

If I saw the clip of that farm visit now, I might declare it a deep fake. Could someone really be so determined to please, so delighted by fresh produce, or so sleep-deprived that they’d not only bite an onion but, still smiling, swallow it too? Surely it was just an apple, digitally manipulated for a laugh.

Seeing isn’t quite believing anymore — but not believing our own eyes is nothing new. Easter is approaching, and the story it commemorates is full of people who, though seeing, do not believe.

I have to say, I sympathize. If I watched a close friend die, then saw them standing by their grave or walking down a road or appearing in a room, I wouldn’t trust my eyes; I’d favor a logical explanation over a supernatural one. And that’s exactly what some people did.

Even those who called Jesus of Nazareth “Christ,” even those he’d let in on a secret — that he’d be killed and in three days return — expected nothing of the sort.

These were the people who knew and loved him best, who had good reason to think he wasn’t just talking about a heavenly resurrection. They knew he’d performed miracles, they believed he was God’s son.

To be fair, their friend could be obtuse. As his death approached he told them, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me” (John 16:16). That could mean anything, right?

But their idiosyncratic leader — who often spoke about himself in the third person, who sometimes called himself the “Son of Man” — could also be direct: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31).

He could even be specific: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (Luke 18:31–33).

Even so, the disciples probably thought their friend was speaking metaphorically, something he did a lot.

You might ask how a 21st-century reader could presume to know that the disciples didn’t catch Jesus’ drift. Luke, a physician who made a “careful investigation” of these events before documenting them, says as much: “The disciples did not understand any of this.”

In their defense, he adds, “Its meaning was hidden from them,” as if they weren’t to blame. Whatever the cause, he’s clear about the result: “They did not know what he was talking about.”

The disciples did not expect their leader to die the way he did, and afterwards, they didn’t expect him to return to his body the way he did. 

Mary Magdalene, when she saw the empty tomb, did not immediately think, “He is risen!” — she assumed someone had taken her friend’s body away.

Even as she’s weeping by the tomb, Jesus appears — and she mistakes him for a gardener. Later, when he strikes up a conversation with two of his disciples, walking down a road, neither of them recognizes him. It’s not until after they’ve walked and talked and asked him if he’d like to share a meal — until he breaks some bread — that they realize who he is.

To be fair, Mary’s eyes were blinded by tears; when she hears Jesus say her name, she knows him instantly. And in both cases, there are hints of supernatural subterfuge. In John’s account of the disciples on the road, “Their eyes were kept from recognising him.” It wasn’t until Jesus broke the bread that “their eyes were opened.”

It’s almost comical that, after the disciples who are eating with Jesus recognize him, the moment they finally see, he disappears from view. But by that point they don’t need their eyes. By then, they know.

They ask each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They then set off to spread the news.

Lucky for them, Jesus appears a few more times to verify their claim. According to the Gospel accounts, some eat with him, some touch him, and many see him. Extraordinarily, some who did not see him — quite a number, actually — believed.

And some — quite a number, actually — have believed since. I count myself among them.

Much is unbelievable when you first hear talk of it. Imagine growing up learning that planet Earth is flat, only to be told that it is round. Imagine thinking that walking on the moon could not be done, then hearing news of those first steps. It’s not unreasonable to question strange and unexpected news.

But just because you didn’t see something coming, or see it for yourself, doesn’t mean it can’t be true. The explanation might be utterly bizarre — it’s not a hoax? — but so is, such is, life.

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