Once upon a time …
If you’re a storywriter, people expect you to construct a plot that’s reasonable. The characters in your story need to behave consistently with their personal values (whether good or evil). The loving mother gets up in the middle of the night to soothe a fever. The self-centered boss takes credit for work his staff did, claiming it as his own.
In other words, stories have their own interior logic that controls the unfolding events. The mom would hardly slap her child in the midst of applying a cool washcloth to its forehead. The supervisor would never think to ask a lowly warehouse worker how his day was going. If such a thing were written into the script, you’d dismiss the author as inept.
In fact, there’s a long-standing expression in literary circles for this kind of goof: deus ex machina (Latin), which means “god from the machine.” It goes back to early Greek plays in which the on-stage tension would sometimes be resolved by one of the Greek gods suddenly popping up out of a trapdoor, or dropping in from an overhead crane, to fix everything. Critics back then and ever since have cried “No way!” to such clumsy plot development.
Now let me try out this story line:
A boy grows up in a blue-collar home in a small town. Upon reaching adulthood, he develops into a fairly good speaker. He talks about changes he would like to see in the social and religious landscape. A groundswell of popular support begins to cluster around him.
The established authorities, however, are not pleased with this pot-stirrer. They’d like to shut him up—and when one of his closest friends turns against him, they seize their opportunity. Soon they manage to get a court to hand down a death sentence. The young man dies a martyr for his cause.
So far, the story holds together. It carries shades of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King Jr. This, we tell ourselves, could be a compelling book, a strong movie.
But then: a deus ex machina! The fallen martyr shows up alive again! He gets away from his persecutors. He is seen around town for six weeks, drawing all kinds of rumors and speculations. And then—he disappears for good. Nobody can spot him. He has gotten away twice.
More than a few literary reviewers would say, “No, no, no. These last couple of elements don’t belong. This part of the story line simply doesn’t fly.”
As we approach the Easter season, we have to admit that truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes. No wonder the disciples of Jesus, when given an advance peek at the drama to come, “did not understand any of this” (Luke 18:34). No wonder Broadway adaptations of the story (Jesus Christ Superstar, among others) just leave out the resurrection bit, not knowing how to make it sync with all that has gone before.
No wonder the sages of Athens balked when Paul, who up to that point had held their attention quite well, got to the last part about Jesus. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered….” (Acts 17:32). This was, in their view, preposterous.
No wonder, nearly every year about this time, our popular press rolls out yet more cover stories touting “the real Jesus” or “what you didn’t know about the Easter myth.” Revisionist theologians and journalists tease us with alternative explanations, feeding our suspicions that somebody’s been hiding information from us all these years, a la the claim of the who-killed-JFK theorists.
Of course, that’s been happening since the very beginning. Within a few days of Jesus’ resurrection, the chief priests and elders concocted their own whodunit story, namely, that the disciples had snatched Jesus’ body during the night while the guards were dozing. Did it work? Well, Matthew reported that “this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (Matt. 28:15).
Yet, the Easter event really happened. No playwright or novelist would have scripted things so oddly. It still makes us scratch our heads.
Maybe the more insightful approach is to say that the principal characters of this very strange story are not Jesus and Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate. Maybe the real protagonists are Jesus’ Father, the Sovereign King of the Universe—and his ever-hopeful, if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed enemy, the Prince of Darkness. He thought he had finally ambushed the King’s Son … only to have the King say, “Watch this!” And then, as the song goes, “Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.”
We who listen to the story today are left affirming that Jesus is. Not “Jesus was.”Any number of secularists and followers of other world religions would grant that much. But his story didn’t end at the tomb. It went on.
Long, long ago, a prisoner named Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35—c. 107 A.D.) wrote:
If you come across somebody who says that Jesus Christ never lived, or that he’s just an idea or a concept, or a myth—shut your ears to him.
Jesus Christ was born into a human family, a descendant of David. His mother was Mary. He was persecuted and crucified under Pontius Pilate, a fact testified to us by some who are now in heaven, and some who are still alive on earth. How can this be a phantom, or an illusion, or a myth? These are facts of history.
It is also a fact that he rose from the dead (or rather, that his Father raised him up). And that is the most important “fact” of all, because his promise is that the Father will also raise us up, if we believe in him….
In any case, if he only appeared to live, and only appeared to die, and only appeared to rise from the dead—why should I be in chains for this “myth”? Why should I die to support an illusion? I am prepared to die for him, the true and real Son of God. But no man is prepared to die for a shadow.
Not long after, this brave man was fed to Emperor Trajan’s lions in the Roman arena. Ignatius went to his bloody death insisting that the “no-way” story was entirely real.
It’s a strange story, all right. Just strange enough to be true.