I had a philosophy of Christian religion professor who liked to begin his semester with the same question: “If the bones of Jesus were discovered and authenticated by the world’s leading archeologists—leaving no shadow of a doubt—would you still be a Christian?” I found this to be incredibly thought-provoking. He was basically asking, “Does the bodily resurrection event matter or not?” I have raised this question at various times in Cabinet meetings and with much less academic prowess and philosophical rigor, and so my colleagues think I am obsessed with Jesus’ bones!
The question has less to do with Jesus’ bones and more to do with a single event that has changed everything. Events have a way of doing that. If you took a stroll down memory lane, you could name some events that forever impacted your life. For example, 9/11 impacted airline travel forever. The fall of the Berlin wall freed people, nations, and markets to whole new opportunities. For me personally, the hug that happened in the laundry room of the seminary dorm ended up impacting my life’s course, and with whom it would forever be shared. That’s what real historical events do.
These physical, tangible, historical events impact us to such a degree we can remember things like where we were, who we were with and what they were wearing, the temperature, and maybe even the smell.
One event I’ll never forget was the Orange Revolution. The streets of Lviv, Ukraine (where we were serving as missionaries) were full of the color orange and echoing with the cry “Yu-Shen-ko.” Citizens of a Euro-leaning Ukraine gathered to protest election improprieties and to demand a more just democracy and freedom from Russian influence. That event changed the course of Ukraine.
The impact of events influence us deeply and have the potential to forever change our behaviors, our governments, our world views, our perspective, our opportunities, our families…you get it. Think of the event called COVID-19. Is there any doubt of the deep and lasting impact it will have on us personally and us as human race?
This is why I still get hung up about the bones of Jesus. To discover them in a tomb somewhere would suggest the event called Easter never happened. You see it was an EVENT that had cosmic impact, changed human history, and penultimately transformed my life. My philosophy professor would remind me that it’s because of a certain, actual event of bodily resurrection that we are able to formulate any other Christian theological concept. Think about it: What we believe about the Trinity, creation, the incarnation, the teaching and ministry of Jesus, or the crucifixion are only construed because Jesus’ bones were not in that tomb. The event of his resurrection means that he is who he says he is, and that impacts everything.
I love the way Cleopus put it on the walk to Emmaus: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” You see, some things have taken place and real events have transpired—and one EVENT, more than any other, changes everything.
It’s that event that empowers us to respond with hope to our current events. It enables us to be people of compassion, sacrifice, and generosity in the midst of a global pandemic. His bones are not there! He has risen! He has risen indeed!
Rev. Dr. Fred Vanderwerf is superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference's Southern Prairie District.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church