Easter is about taking a human being, torturing him to death and then calling him God.
It is, in other words, strange, very strange and ghastly, to modern minds, and it is no wonder modern people literally coat the Easter message in chocolate.
But historically, the Easter tale is is not strange, or even unique: the link between blood sacrifice and religious belief is a constantly recurring religious theme down the ages and in many cultures, from the Abrahamic religions to the Aztecs to the pre Buddhist, pre-Hindu religions in Asia.
I don’t think this raises questions about religion, because if you frame the question in that way you shuck off the issue by explicitly or implicitly suggesting that if humans could somehow rid ourselves of religion, we would be better people.
But if – as atheists argue – religion is a human construction, this isn’t going to work. You are still faced with the rather awkward, not to say chilling, question of why humans would repeatedly construct religions based around torture, blood sacrifice and death.
The tale of Easter, of the crucifixion and resurrection, actually has many versions, even within the Bible. These versions, or differences, include such matters of whether there was a proper trial, whether it happened on or just before the Passover (a critical point, this, given its Jewish provenance), just why Christ was crucified and who wanted it that way.
There are also intriguing similarities – one scholar (not sure if it was Robin Lane Fox or A N Wilson) has noted all the gospels agree Christ’s empty tomb was found by women – intriguing because women were, at the time, regarded as intrinsically unreliable witnesses and were not allowed to give testimony in trials.
This leaves aside the whole issue of the pagan origins of the timing – and even the name – of Easter, which is a relatively minor issue.
The “blood libel” which snarled homicidally across the centuries in Europe, that it was the Jews who killed Christ, strikes me as perhaps the biggest diversionary tactic in human history: it seems to me the most significant thing about the people pressing hardest for Christ’s capital punishment is not that they were Jews but that they were the church leaders of the time.
And certainly, if you want a searing polemic against church leadership, one of the best places to start is first book of the New Testament, where Matthew has Jesus excoriating the ecclesiastical leaders of his time (‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’ etc)..
So how to explain the persistence of the Easter story down the 2000-odd years? Many factors play their part, no doubt, some of them political and economic, some of them sheer chance.
But the resonance of this tale has to lie in something it says about human nature and the human condition.
It is an immensely double-edged story, both chilling and comforting. The standard, happy-clappy, version, is Jesus was the Son of God, who was sent to earth to die for our sins, and who was resurrected on the third day.
I have all sorts of problems with taking this literally: starting with what ‘son of God’ actually means.
I should probably lay my own religious cards on the table at this point: I believe there is a God, although I can’t explain this belief in any adequate terms. These things are immensely personal and, in the end, inexplicable.
I can’t understand why anyone would take a collection of writings made by humans from between 2000-5000 years ago and proclaim them to be the word of God, when they are manifestly a collection of writings from a group of people trying to work out right from wrong, and often getting it cruelly wrong.
But also getting it right, on occasion. I do not just mean things from the New Testament which are often cited – for example, Christ’s parables, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s Letter to the Romans – but also some of the more philosophical bits of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes being the best example. The Proverbs and the Psalms are a mix of the wise and the borderline sociopathic (there are far too many sayings about whacking children in the former and too many about smiting enemies in the latter).
Taken as a group, the writings in the Bible represent human beings struggling to work out this strange notion of right and wrong, and which is which.
That is where, I think, God resides, and also where humanity lies: in our need to work out right from wrong. The fact of our flawed state as human beings means we do not get it right, and also our perceptions of God will always be similarly flawed.
This is why, in turn, I do not trust certainty in either religion or in atheism. It is often said that the proselyting atheists of the Richard Dawkins mould are just fundamentalists of a different kind, and I think this is true, in a way which goes beyond the obvious levels.
But to deal with the obvious first: there is a missionary zeal, certainly, Dawkins et al share with the more foam-flecked fundamentalists.
But mostly, both actually serve to deny humanity. In the case of the crusading atheists, they seem to be trying to extirpate something which has been uniquely human, which is this development of religious belief down the millennia.
In the case of fundamentalists, of any stripe, the restrictions they prescribe for human behaviour is a similar denial of basic humanity and to the central mystery of our existence.
Both try to shrink the infinite: one to a very materialist view of life and the other to a set of rules. I can’t accept that. This shrinking of, and shrinking from, the infinite seems to stem from an at times almost hysterical fear of uncertainty, of the central mystery of our existence, of why we are here, how we came to be here and what happens when we die.
We simply don’t know the answers to any of these questions. This is quite frightening, at a kind of existential level. One can respond by denying its essential, vast mystery, or howl with despair, or with laughter (and those two are often closer than those who are laughing would care to admit) or one can wonder, and ponder possible answers.
In the end, the comfort of the Easter story is the tale of a God who entered into the word’s sufferings, and was tortured to death.
Which isn’t all that comforting, really, when you think about it. And as to why the world is such a way that such a tale is needed, that is a question for God, and one which I intend asking if and when we finally meet up.
I want some answers.