The twentieth century - grown up on rationalising and equivocating - is used to adjusting its expectations to suit its experiences. So as the power and depth of christian discovery has weakened, the gulf between the world of the new testament and the world of the new order has widened. People have reconciled themselves to the difference by spiritualising the historical events of the bible, because it is easier tell yourself it was never really like that, than to ask yourself why it is no longer like that. Sadly, this has been reflected in the testimony of many who claim to speak for God.
This is especially true of the foundational facts surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. If it is true that the bible and contemporary witness accounts are substantially accurate, then an impotent, ineffective Christianity is not simply impossible to defend, it is impossible to explain. If on the other hand it was not like that at all, then you can make Christianity whatever you want it to be. It can be promoted as a series of ‘nice’ thoughts and vague aspirations, designed to foster the intention to ‘be a better person’, to ‘work for a fairer world’. Nothing wrong with these sentiments at all. But they are not Christianity. They are just easier to live with.
So the myth grew that Jesus never actually ‘rose’ from the dead because he did not really die. The execution failed. The ‘resurrection’ was not an actual event, more of an aspiration; a legacy of superior values and loftier ideals, which somehow ‘transcended’ death, and were passed on to his followers by the persuasive influence of a great and much-loved leader. So the resurrection of Jesus has been re-defined as the triumph of the human spirit over the previously-feared enemy of death. This is the great lesson of the resurrection and - apparently - explanation enough for many. It was not however enough for the disciples.
For the disciples, nothing mattered if Jesus did not have the power to to live. The power to live - not the good fortune to survive! Distance and the passage of time makes it easier for us to speculate. But they were there and could not be so easily fooled. If their friend escaped death, they would of course be relieved and grateful. But they would also have a daily reminder of the failure of their cause and of their leader’s defeat. The kingdom of God would have been shown to be demonstrably weaker than the kingdom of this world. They would spend the rest of their lives in burying the dream. And in moving Jesus from house to house, village to village, even country to country: in order to keep his secret, and his life, safe. In a complete reversal of roles, instead of Jesus leading and guiding them, the disciples would protect, provide and plan for him; as the one they depended on absolutely, became absolutely dependent on them.
Such a profound alteration in their relationship could not occur without changing their perception of who he was. Yet it is an undeniable historical fact that, so far as the disciples were concerned, their confidence in his divine nature, his authority and status, was far more complete and unquestioning after the resurrection, than it ever was before. How could this be if they had seen him fail so completely?
Remember, it was not enough to love their leader. Many leaders have arisen who have inspired great personal loyalty, love, even worship. Often despite more than sufficient proof that they are undeserving of it. But it was an absolute condition of Jesus’ claim on his followers, that he was God and could prove it. When he went into the grave they had not simply lost the one they loved. They had lost the one who held the keys of death and hell.
Had Jesus staggered from the grave bruised, battered, bloodied, but alive, they would still have loved him. But they would not have believed him again. For Jesus to succeed, it was not enough that he escape death. He must overcome it!