Easter: Who needs it?

The world’s great religions offer what millions of people want: a sensible, straightforward path to life. That’s why those religions are the victors in the Darwinian struggle of religion versus religion, worldview versus worldview, philosophy versus philosophy.

The basic logic of Confucianism is simplicity itself. Each social class, and each person (man, woman, and child) within that class, has a role to play. “We shall have harmony,” so a famous Confucian text reads, “when each prince acts like a prince, each minister acts like a minister, each father acts like a father, and each son acts like a son.”

Nothing complicated there: just do your job, everyone else does his or hers, and society gets along nicely.

The basic logic of Hinduism is simplicity itself. In the standard version, each social class, and each person (man, woman, and child) within that class, has a role to play. That’s your dharma, your duty, your rule of life. Play it well and, in the similar logic of a video game, you will “level up” and, in your soul’s next incarnation, you will enjoy a higher form of existence. Eventually, all going well, you will enjoy a happy outcome in a Hindu heaven…until the credits (or karma) you have banked with all your good deeds eventually run out…and you start again.

Play your role badly, however, and you level down. The universe metes out justice automatically, as it metes out physics. Do the right thing, and right things occur. Do the wrong thing, and you’ll pay for it.

The basic logic of Islam, to pick one more example, is simplicity itself. Here there isn’t a focus on social classes, but on each individual (man, woman, and child). Each believer is to learn to read God’s Word, to follow the duties of the religion according to the pattern laid down by the great prophet Muhammad, and to expect to be judged fairly—indeed, with some compassion—by God after one’s death.

Those who do well will enjoy an eternal paradise—pictured in the Qur’an as a superlative oasis. Those who do evil will be punished by God in a fiery hell. Be good, get good. Be evil, get evil. No wonder Islam keeps making converts.

This weekend, however, the Great Exception celebrates its highest holy days. Christianity is not simplicity itself. In fact, at its most basic level, it trades in mysteries—or contradictions, depending how you see things.

It starts reasonably enough. We human beings have gotten ourselves into a terrible mess from which we evidently cannot extricate ourselves. This mess has at least three dimensions.

First, the moral dimension. We have all done bad things—lots of bad things. Behind us is the wounding of both enemies and friends, the abuse of power and kindness, the secret acts of shame and cowardice, and the wreckage of relationships. Ahead of us lies, alas, more of the same. Worse, we have a bent toward it, even an appetite for it. How can we possibly find forgiveness—and the healing of our souls so that we sincerely desire the good and loathe the bad?

Second, the physical dimension. No matter how wealthy we are, how carefully we eat, how rigorously we exercise, and how cautiously we live, we will die. Every single one of us. How can we possibly find a way around death?

Third, the political dimension. We work to elect good leaders, only to see them turn out to be merely the latest version of the Same Old Thing. We strive to enact good laws, only to see money and power twist the legal system into a shocking perversity. We give to good causes, only to see food rot on docks and aid redirected into rulers’ bank accounts. How can we possibly learn to live together in true peace, justice, and charity?

Jesus of Nazareth seems a wildly unlikely candidate to help us: the illegitimate carpenter-cum-rabbi who ended up being killed as a nuisance by the minor powers he annoyed two thousand years ago.

Yet on the first Good Friday, Christianity says that God, who was Jesus (!), suffered and died so that we wouldn’t have to, in atonement for our sins. On the first Easter Sunday, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead so that we would be able to—if we cling to him through death’s door to enter the life to come.

On the first Ascension Day, a few weeks later, Jesus returned to heaven to direct the long-term project of slowly, but surely, bringing peace, justice, and charity to the world—with the promise of his personal return to establish a righteous regime once for all. And on the first Pentecost, a few weeks after that, the Holy Spirit of God descended on the Church, as Jesus promised, to give each member a fresh beginning and the power to finish what we start: the path toward permanent goodness.

Most of us in Canada still find this story at least vaguely familiar. Most of us thus have forgotten how impossibly strange it is—strange to the point of absurdity.

This uncredentialed folk prophet is the Centre of Human History? This wretched victim on a Roman cross is the Victor over all that afflicts us? This strange little man is the Saviour and Lord of All?

It is unfashionable in Canada today to believe in miracles. Well, here’s one: that any rational person believes in this bizarre story.

And here’s another: that it’s the most believed story in human history, with billions of people finding it to be, not what we expect or even what we want, but what it turns out we truly need.

Might be worth picking up a Bible, or finding one online, to read a Gospel this weekend (take your pick: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and see if this truly weird story has, miraculously, something to say to you, too.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).