Many Christians read the Easter story literally. Jesus, after being killed by crucifixion, is raised to life by the power of God. This is the plot of the story. But is this the only meaning or even the most powerful meaning of Easter?
What if we read the Easter story as irony?
Irony involves the use of words to express the opposite of the literal meaning. We are being ironic, for instance, when we say that a bad joke was very funny, using a tone of voice that indicates we mean the joke was really not funny.
We don’t often use the word “irony,” but we often use irony. It’s a common figure of speech.
But should we look for irony in scripture? We might read the flood story in Genesis as irony, for the story tells of God destroying all life on earth and sparing only Noah and his family in order to purge the world of evil. Yet, the flood does not end evil on earth, so the story seems to express the opposite of its literal meaning. As irony, the flood story in Genesis reveals that the God of our stories seems unable to alter the natural order.
What might it mean to read the Easter story as irony? And how would we know whether or not an ironic interpretation of Easter is faithful to the good news of the New Testament?
A literal reading of the Easter story emphasizes the power of God, for only God could raise a dead person to life. Read this way, the story reaffirms the image of an almighty God that dominates the Old Testament. Understood literally, Easter confirms that God is in control of death as well as life.
Read as irony, however, the Easter story reveals that people of faith, not God, have power over life and death in history. Those with faith in Jesus, as embodying the loving will of God, raise him to life in their lives and in their world. Each of us also has this power. By remembering Jesus, we bear witness that death ends life but not love.
God’s lack of power over the events of the world is the hidden meaning of the Easter story. An almighty God should have prevented the crucifixion. An almighty God should save all those who are faithful from suffering and death. But the Easter story, as well as our lives and history, seems to support the conclusion that God is not almighty after all.
Contemporary science provides additional evidence. The disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology give us vast power over our natural world without confirming any notion of God’s power. Our understanding of natural disasters means these are no longer “acts of God.” For us, natural history is a story of life evolving through the death of organisms, random changes, and the survival of species more fit for the environment. Science identifies death as the natural end of life, but also explains how life on earth continues despite death.
Similarly, we see human history as a story marked by injustice as well as striving for a better world. God is part of our human story, in the lives of those who feel called to represent God’s will. Also, human hope and love, which many attribute to the grace of God, actually change life on earth. The story of Jesus verifies this faith.
So, our faith might be that God is the source of humanity’s moral and spiritual freedom to live in a natural world constrained by its physics, chemistry, and biology. In this faith story, the God of creation chooses to be present in creation only in the hope and love of conscious creatures like us.
But does the New Testament allow such an ironic reading of the Easter story? Perhaps.
Jesus and Paul refer to God using an Aramaic word, Abba, which means father. Abba is an intimate, loving word that sharply contrasts with the idea of an almighty God. We know from experience that fathers and mothers have little power in life. Fathers and mothers cannot protect their young children from harm, and cannot ensure that their grown children make good choices. Like a parent, God in the New Testament is loving, rather than almighty.
To be sure, there is power in love. Stories of great love inspire us to try to be faithful lovers and loving parents, as well as good neighbors. Some individuals are inspired by the love story of the Bible to pursue a loving relationship with all humanity through a life devoted to prayer or service. Others discover that they love nature and so find meaning and purpose for their lives by caring for plants, animals, or ecosystems.
Death ends every life, even the most loving, yet death does not end love, for loving sows its seeds. In a letter to the church at Corinth, Paul described Easter as the “first fruits” of the resurrection of the dead: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable . . . It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15: 20, 43-44)
Paul is writing before the New Testament gospels were written, so his understanding of Easter is our earliest written account. The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John present resurrection appearances in which the risen Christ seems to have a physical body.
Yet, in the earliest version of the gospel of Mark, which is the first New Testament gospel, the Easter story ends without a resurrection appearance.
At the empty tomb a young man says to the women who have brought spices to anoint the body, that Jesus has been raised and will meet his disciples in Galilee. The gospel ends by reporting that the three 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.” (Mark 16:8)
Christian history confirms that death and fear were transformed into life and love. Those who were fearful became the “first fruits” of Christian faith. So, there is no necessity to read the Easter story as proof of God’s almighty power. Instead, we may understand the New Testament witness to the humanity of the risen Jesus as verifying the power of a person to love and be sustained by love.
Jesus is not a superhero, but a human hero who is super because of his love for his friends and his enemies. In his own faith and life Jesus reveals that God is like a loving parent. Easter is about life coming from death, but it does not confirm that God controls nature or history. We are free to read the story as irony.
If we do, the good news may be even better than we thought! The God who allows nature to evolve and humans to be free cannot save Jesus from suffering and death, but can change history through the lives of those who embrace love and hope in spite of suffering and death.
24 April 2011.