Easter Unbelief

by Jack Crabtree


Easter is often portrayed as the story of “Easter faith.” Christians glorify the faith of the early disciples, praising the virtue of these men and women who manifested the spiritual openness to “see” and “believe” that Jesus was raised from the dead. This emphasis on Easter faith takes two forms, neither of which is biblical.

The first form shifts our attention from the historical facts of the resurrection to the confession of the early believers. The fact that Jesus’ physical body supernaturally rose from the dead is not important, but the fact that the early Christians adopted such a belief is. Their “faith” was so strong that it could shape the way they perceived the events they experienced such that they could believe without tangible evidence. According to proponents of this Easter faith, Jesus being alive and seated at the right hand of the throne of God is a transcendent and invisible reality that only supernaturally enlightened people can “see,” and so the disciples could believe that Jesus was risen from the dead even if his body lay rotting in the grave. Normally we call such people delusional and give no credence to their claims, but if their delusion is labeled “Easter faith” it becomes a praiseworthy virtue and a reason to follow their example. At the level of the psychology of belief, however, no essential difference exists between the possessor of such an Easter faith and a delusional person.

The question is whether in God’s dealings with mankind He is so managing reality that no appreciable difference between faith and delusion exists, or is He calling us to a faith that is commonsensical, sound, rational, and sane in the typical senses of those words? God calls us to believe His promises. Does He intend to keep those promises in an objective, visible sense within physical history, or only in a transcendent, invisible sense? If He intends to keep His promises in the first sense, then our faith in those promises is vulnerable to refutation: if history does not turn out as God promised, then God is a liar and my faith has been folly. If God intends the latter sense, then our faith in His promises is never vulnerable to refutation: if God keeps His promises invisibly, in some transcendent realm, then who could ever show the failure of His promises, and who could ever show my faith to be folly? This is the crux of the issue between a radical biblicist like myself and the advocate of the first form of Easter faith.

Nothing in the Bible encourages us to see our faith as only an undefined hope and optimism about an ethereal reality that will never concretely impact our tangible existence. In the whole history of God’s dealings with the children of Abraham, the Jews always expected God’s promises would come to pass concretely. They expected God to vindicate Himself to the whole world; God’s enemies would come to see He was faithful to His promises. This is a constant theme in the prophets, and it is why Isaiah’s predictions could comfort the ordinary believing Israelite as the Babylonian troops surrounded Jerusalem. The Bible testifies that God has chosen history as the arena within which He is going to manifest His character, vindicate His faithfulness, and enact the drama of our salvation. His promises are not just a story about a beautiful vision of transcendent reality; they are the transcendent God’s commitment to make concrete time and history go a certain way.

Why would God tie transcendent truth to the facts of concrete reality in such a way that, if history does not go the way He says it will, we have no epistemological right to believe His promises; in such a way that if Jesus did not rise physically from the grave in history God’s salvation cannot be believed? He did it so that faith would be different from self-delusion; so that believers would not be those who believe against the evidence of history, but who believe because of the facts of history; so that we can know we are not self-deluded, but can have an objective basis for and justification of our belief.

Unlike the first form of Easter faith, the second form fully embraces the historical facts, acknowledging their relevance and importance. The second form, however, shifts the true miracle of Easter from Jesus’ physical resurrection to the disciples’ “openness” to believing that Jesus was risen. Subtly underlying this form of Easter faith is the mistaken idea that the early disciples were ready, willing, and eager to believe the outlandish, the remarkable, and the absurd—an idea based on an inaccurate understanding of the historical situation. Looking at the facts surrounding Jesus’ manifestation of himself to the disciples after his resurrection, we do not find disciples eager and ready to believe. We find shaken, fearful, confused, doubtful, suspicious, and downright skeptical disciples. Consider the facts:

  • Peter and John ran to the tomb. Seeing the stone rolled away and the grave clothes collapsed where Jesus’ body had been, they were forced to acknowledge the grave was empty (which is what John meant when, describing himself as the “other disciple,” he says, “he saw and believed” [John 20:8]), but they made no further judgment; they just went home confounded by what they had seen. John himself tells us, “as yet they did not understand the Scriptures, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9).
  • When the women who had first seen the empty tomb ran to tell the disciples, the Gospels tell us that these men “refused to believe them” (Mark 16:11), that the women’s report “appeared to them as nonsense…” (Luke 24:11).
  • Jesus had personally appeared to the eleven apostles and had made himself physically and directly manifest to them on two (perhaps three) previous occasions before he once again appeared to them on a previously appointed mountain in Galilee. Describing that occasion, Matthew writes, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some were doubtful” (Matt. 28:17).

Not a single early disciple is described as being so ready, so willing, and so eager to believe that he believed in the fact of Jesus’ resurrection at the very first indication that it might be true. On the contrary, the Bible describes ordinary, commonsensical men and women who are very reticent to reject their ordinary presumption that people, once dead, do not just pop up alive again. So what caused these ordinary, commonsensical folk to finally come to believe? Time and the evidence.

It took time, because a paradigm shift always takes time. One does not just confront a situation that demands looking at reality in a radically new way and say, “Okay, cool! I’ll do it.” We have to get used to the idea. We have to be sure we are not being fools, that we are not being hasty and irresponsible or doing something unnecessarily risky. Over time, these men and women could not deny the evidence. Jesus had appeared to them and spoken with them. They had seen him with their own eyes. They recognized him in the way we always recognize those we know. They had heard him with their own ears. They had touched the wounds in his hands and feet with their very own fingers. Could they completely disregard the evidence of their own perceptions? Something within them wanted to do so, but in the end reality forced itself upon them. They had seen what they had seen. They knew what they knew. They could not deny that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The miracle of Easter, then, is not primarily the disciples’ openness and eagerness to believe. The miracle of Easter is the reality of the risen Jesus that so forced itself upon these no-nonsense Jews that they had no rational choice but to capitulate to that truth. In one very important sense, their faith was not remarkable; it was coerced by the evidence. What was remarkable was the event itself—God supernaturally invading history in such a way that He provided tangible proof of the reality and reliability of His promises.

In a different sense, of course, something is remarkable—truly supernatural—about the early disciples’ faith. Like every human being throughout history, they had a choice to make. When faced with the coercive evidence of their own eyes and experience, they could choose to remain rational and believe the evidence of their experience or they could choose to wax irrational, to explain away the evidence and persist in denying the reality of God and His promises. Left to ourselves, we human beings will always choose irrationality over bowing the knee to truth and God. To render a person willing to follow his reason to the truth about God takes a supernatural rebirth of the heart, and that very miracle is evident in the lives of the first disciples. Their eyes and minds told them that Jesus’ resurrection was undeniably true, and they overcame the propensity within their heart to reject it. Submitting to common sense and reason, they also submitted their minds to the truth about God and reality. Jesus was risen. The promises of God are true.

This openness to belief is different from the form of voluntary gullibility that the advocate of “Easter faith” considers a virtue. True, the early disciples were supernaturally “open and receptive” to the truth—in the sense that God made them no longer irrationally hardened against the reality of Him and His purposes. That is different, however, from saying they were “open” to believing for its own sake. The Gospels clearly show the disciples were not open to believing anything that was not evident to them from their own experience. Thomas captures the essential attitude of all the early disciples when he says, “Unless I see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). But Thomas did put his finger into Jesus’ wounds, and on that evidence he believed. He was not hostile to the truth; he was able and willing to believe if the facts so demanded. He was not, however, ready and willing to believe against the facts. And why should he?

We can speak of the Easter unbelief of the early disciples just as aptly as we can speak of their Easter faith. By their unbelief I mean their prior resistance to believing what they had no reason to believe. God overcame the disciples’ rational and appropriate unbelief with compelling and undeniable evidence. He did not call on the disciples to suspend rationality and commonsense, to ignore the evidence of their senses and just believe anyway. He called on them to remain eminently rational, to remain sane and commonsensical in their outlook, to remain sober and reasonable in their judgment, and to follow the facts where they led. In the end, those facts led to a Jesus Who was risen, to a powerful and real God Who was actively accomplishing His purposes in history. In effect, God was saying to these early disciples, “Hold on to your unbelief as long as you can. Leave it to me to take it apart.”

I am afraid many Christians today have abandoned the virtue of such reasonable unbelief. Many of us do not flinch when told that God has manifested Himself by making a man bark like a dog. We go empty-headed when told that the Holy Spirit is manifesting His presence by doing supernatural dentistry—not by making original teeth whole, but by creating supernatural crowns. We are failing to follow the worthy example of the first disciples in their Easter unbelief. Consequently, we make ourselves ridiculous.

We need a healthy dose of Easter unbelief to fix what ails Christian culture today. For the sake of integrity—as children of our Creator—we must never believe unless there is reason to believe. We must not believe anything about God and our relationship to Him unless He gives us cause to know it is true. We must be appropriately skeptical, appropriately resistant to outlandish or absurd claims. We must not be hostile to God; we must be open and willing to be persuaded by the evidence, but it must be evidence and not voluntary gullibility that moves us. Otherwise, there is no difference between Christian faith and ordinary self-delusion.

Copyright March 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree