Explainer
Belief
Creed
Easter
5 min read

What have Easter bunnies to do with the resurrection?

As we emerge from the Easter weekend, Graham Tomlin unpacks why Easter is more than an illustration of new life.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

the first signs of Spring breaking through

Bunnies, chocolate eggs, crocuses. It’s that time of year again. The dark bleakness of winter is giving way to life and colour as the soil warms. We finally feel sun on the skin, wake up to early dawns and longer days.

Across the world, festivals celebrate the coming of Spring. The Qingming Festival is a traditional Chinese carnival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, observed by ethnic Chinese people across the world as a celebration of the new season. In the festival of Holi, Hindus across the world douse each other in brightly coloured powder or water, as a  celebration of burgeoning love, and a prayer for a good harvest from the new growth in the land. The turning of the year, bringing new life, seems one of the most elemental forces in the universe.

In 1890, the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer published a book that was to become famous: The Golden Bough. It was one of the first works of comparative religion in an age which was gradually becoming more knowledgeable about the religions of the world. In it, he identified a motif in many of the world’s religions: the concept of a dying-and-rising god. He saw the pattern repeated in fertility rites connected to the annual renewal of nature from the ‘death’ of winter. Gods like Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus - and Jesus - were examples of the same pattern.

The turning of the year, bringing new life, seems to be one of the most elemental forces in the universe. 

These days, you often hear a similar version of this account. Christianity, we are told, is another form of the same story found in so many religions. Christians just took over and erased the earlier annual celebrations with their own version. Christmas was just a replacement for Yule, the ancient pagan winter festival. Easter recalls Eostre, a spring goddess from western Germanic lands, whose festival took place in April, connected to the spring equinox.

Today, we have lambs, daffodils, young rabbits and eggs. All of them emerge at this time of year and are, for us, signs of the rebirth of nature. It always seems miraculous, that from the deadness of winter, life is reborn. No wonder the ancient pagans, and religions all over the world, for that matter, found ways to celebrate new life, and to endue this season with mythical wonder.

It was tempting for James Frazer to bracket Jesus as just another of these myths of the death and rebirth of nature, the dying and rising god. Bunnies, eggs, Osiris and Jesus were all symbols, pointing to the same thing – the annually repeated miracle of new life in the Spring.

Yet this misses the point of what the early Christians said about the Resurrection. St Paul wrote: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” His point was precisely not that this event was another illustration of the annual renewal of nature, the cycle of death & rebirth. It was something new altogether. It was the once and for all breaking of the cycle, spelling the end of death and its repeated power over us. Christ breaks through the dark wall of death so that millions of other can follow him through the breach into the light beyond it.

It was not another annual temporary suspension of the inevitability of death, it was the breaking of the power of death once and for all, pointing to its final defeat one day.

The Resurrection of Jesus was the ‘firstfruits’, like the very first crocus of spring, the first apple on the tree. It was like a man breaking the four minute mile, a human being walking on the moon. A barrier had been broken that had always seemed impregnable and nothing would ever be the same again. It was the beginning of an entirely new creation that will one day come into fullness. It was not another annual temporary suspension of the inevitability of death, it was the breaking of the power of death once and for all, pointing to its final defeat one day. The endless cycle of rebirth is suddenly folded out into a linear trajectory, pointing forward to the day when all shall be made new.

CS Lewis attributed his conversion at least in part to a conversation with JRR Tolkien which persuaded him that the story of Jesus – his incarnation, descent into death and resurrection to new life - was not just another example of the ancient myth of the renewal of the world, but was the thing towards which all the myths pointed – it was, as he called it in a famous essay, ‘myth become fact’. It’s worth quoting him to get the point:

 

Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.

Of course, there will be echoes of resurrection in the other faiths of the world. Of course there will be pagan figures who look like Christ. Rabbits and eggs are to be enjoyed not frowned on as they point to the one great miracle. They are to be welcomed, not disowned. Lewis’ point is that the Resurrection is both myth and fact – myth become fact. The Resurrection doesn’t just point to the rebirth of the world. It is the rebirth of the world.

Now of course, Christians can’t prove it. They can, to be sure, point to evidence that the tomb was empty, that the profound, world-shattering effect on the disciples and even the rest of human history can only be explained by something truly extraordinary. But you can’t prove an event that by its very nature breaks the normal cycle of cause and event, death and rebirth, proof and disproof. You can only believe it and then re-build your whole view of the world around it. As theologian Lesslie Newbigin put it:

 

“At the heart of the Christian message was a new fact: God had acted in a way that, if believed, must henceforth determine all our ways of thinking. It could not merely fit into existing ways of understanding the world without fundamentally changing them. It provided a new arche, a new starting point for all human understanding of the world. It could not form part of any worldview except one of which it was the basis.”

 

So, no, we can’t prove it. But we can at least do the early Christians the justice of acknowledging what they were saying and what they weren’t.

Because this is the central Christian claim – that the Resurrection is not a metaphor for something else – for the rebirth of nature in the spring, or for the fertility of nature. In fact, it’s the other way round. The rebirth of nature is a metaphor for the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus is not an illustration of something else. It is the one thing of which everything else is an illustration. In the light of the Resurrection, the renewal of nature in spring is not yet another round in the endlessly repeated cycle of death, rebirth and death again, but it points forward to the day when “the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.”

Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.