The Easter story is celebrated each year with such fanfare and splendor that one might think it was all just one big convincing event in the gospels. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If ever there was doubt about the Easter story, it did not begin with the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Skepticism or more recent Post-Theism. Doubt was there at the beginning in the gospel stories.
Take the gospel of Mark, for example. The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end the 16th chapter with these words in verse 8: “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It may be the most unsatisfying ending to any story ever. In fact, in very short order, scribes in the early church began amending the last chapter of Mark to produce a more satisfactory ending.
Even in the later gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, doubt is always a part of the story. None of the stories say, “On the third day, Jesus came out of the tomb and said, ‘See, I told you!’ And they all rejoiced forevermore.” Each of them has belief and doubt as part of the church’s experience of Easter. That suggests that we can experience this story in varied forms today.
Sometimes, Easter is perceived through the veil of tears. The pain of Friday leaves a mark, as it was filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial and even a cry over the absence of God. The early church knew that when we embrace the hope of new life, we do so with the full brunt of Friday’s suffering still throbbing. Resurrection, in this respect, is no walk through the daisies. It is a slow, plodding trek toward a glimmer of light.
Sometimes, Easter is perceived as both believable and unbelievable. I know, as a pastor, I am expected to say only “Believe!” but that would be an oversimplification of the gospel stories. Like us, the early church folk had their categories that kept life in neat, explainable compartments. The very idea of the dead coming to life blew those compartments wide open. The Easter message was often given to those who simply could not wrap their minds around it.
And sometimes, Easter is perceived as too good to be true. A typical reaction in the stories — even from those who believe — is that they fall to their knees in fear and trembling. It is a sad thing when we lose our capacity to be overwhelmed. It means that we think we’ve got the parameters of life marked out. We don’t. It is a sign of our humanity — not weakness — that we find ourselves simply in awe of that which lies beyond us. Many of the gospel accounts read like that kind of awe-full experience squeezed into a narrative form.
For those who doubt, fear, or hurt too much to hear the Easter story, be of good cheer. You are in good company.
MARK DAVIS is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.