Even though today is Good Friday, this article is about the Easter story and how Jesus’ resurrection can be affirmed by contemporary people.
A Novel Interpretation
The writing of this article was spurred by my reading of a novel: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm (1973, 1994). After finishing it in 2012, I wrote this in my “books read” record: “One of the most challenging theological novels I ever read. A book of great profundity and erudition.”
Last month I finished reading Gardner’s book for the second time—and I was impressed and disturbed by it again.
If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t necessarily recommend it. Why? Because debunking the resurrection of Jesus is one of the main themes of the book.
At the beginning of the novel, Peter Fromm is a precocious, fundamentalist, Pentecostal Christian boy from Oklahoma who chooses to go to the University of Chicago Divinity School. There he is “slowly but surely” led by Homer Wilson, his mentor who is a part-time professor and a Unitarian minister, to question and then to reject many of his Christian beliefs, including the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, shortly before he is scheduled to receive his doctor’s degree, to marry, and to be ordained and assume a full-time church position, Peter preaches at his mentor’s church—and has a dramatic psychological breakdown.
In spite of being a minister and seminary professor, early in the book Wilson acknowledges, “I do not consider myself a Christian except in the widest, most humanistic sense. I do not, for example, believe in God.”
Homer Wilson spends considerable time discussing theological ideas with Peter, who gradually begins to discard belief in the reality of the resurrection—along with ideas about the transcendence of God. So Peter comes largely to adopt what Wilson calls “secular humanism.”
Wilson tells Peter that one who preaches to modern people has “to choose between being a truthful traitor or a loyal liar.” In order to serve in a paid church position, he believes, it is necessary to choose the latter: that seems clearly to have been Homer’s choice, and Peter also apparently comes to accept that position. The duplicity of that choice, however, leads to Peter’s breakdown.
Much of the problem in accepting the reality of the Easter story centers on the interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection as being the resuscitation of his physical body. Peter assumes that that is the view of resurrection found in the New Testament.
Of course, Peter also considers, and rejects, Jesus’ resurrection as simply the spirit or idea of Jesus being “resurrected” in the minds of his disciples.
My interpretation of, and belief in, the resurrection is based on firm belief in the reality of God and in transcendence. Thus, my affirmation of the reality of Easter is grounded in a worldview quite different from that of secular humanism.
If one believes, as Homer Wilson and then Peter Fromm did, that the physical world, which can be fully examined by science, is the totality of reality, then resurrection cannot be affirmed in any historical sense.
My views are in general agreement with those of the eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright as summarily presented in his book Surprised by Hope (2008), which I highly recommend.
For me, and for Wright, Jesus’ resurrection can be, and must be, understood as something other than literal resuscitation and certainly as something other than a metaphorical, completely non-historical story.
Firm belief in God and transcendence, however, makes affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection possible, understandable, and a matter of great joy and hope.