Many readers will have read The Spectator Easter survey — ‘Did Jesus really rise from the dead?’ — with intense interest. I did. The results of a survey posing the simple question, ‘Do you believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead?’ were sharply different from what I expected. Just one avowed atheist was interviewed, plus 22 believers. Yet between almost all of them, including the atheist, a most arresting consensus arose: one which only Charles Moore and perhaps Fergal Keane seemed reluctant to join.
The atheist, Richard Dawkins, put it like this: ‘If the Resurrection is not true, Christianity becomes null and void and [Christians’] life, [Christians think], meaningless.’ St Paul (quoted by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor) put it like this: ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.’
Three cheers, then, for both Dawkins and Paul. For, given how difficult it is for most people today to believe that though all other humans die, there is one, Jesus, who rose from the dead, you would expect modern Christians to duck or fudge this extraordinary claim. You would expect them to seek ways of maintaining their faith in the absence of certainty about the literal truth of the Resurrection. But with a rigour which I found admirable, The Spectator’s believers were not ducking or fudging.
One by one, Christian respondents followed the Dawkinian/Pauline line. ‘If it’s not true, what’s the point?’ remarked Edward Stourton. ‘There is no other way I can make sense of what has been written in the New Testament,’ was the response of Father Michael Holman, SJ. ‘Remove the Resurrection and you remove the heart of Christianity,’ said the Reverend Nicky Gumbel. Christopher Howse thinks that ‘otherwise, we are all sunk’. Cliff Richard is sure that ‘the validity of the Christian faith stands or falls by the Resurrection’. Stuart Reid believes that without it ‘Christianity is nonsense’; and Fraser Nelson agrees: ‘If the verifiable bones of Christ were discovered, you’d have to admit that the Muslims were right, Jesus was a prophet and Christianity was a 2,006-year hoax.’
It does not in fact follow from a denial of the Resurrection that one must believe Christianity has been a hoax. It never struck me as remotely likely that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead, but I have certainly not concluded that Christians were hoaxers or the disciples were making anything up. More likely they were under a misapprehension.
In my experience misapprehensions do occur, sometimes on a major scale. I also think Muslims are under a misapprehension. Muslims presumably think Christians are under a misapprehension; Christians must think Muslims are under a misapprehension. Both must think Jews are under a misapprehension. I think that they are all under a misapprehension.
So what Christians, Jews, Muslims and I have in common is in finding no difficulty with the belief that a major world religion attracting billions of adherents over many centuries can be founded on a tremendous misapprehension. We differ only on a secondary question: which of them is thus founded?
My Easter thoughts moved to a different alleged literal truth: did Jesus of Nazareth ever really exist?
Few would doubt that the figure of Jesus Christ familiar to modern Christians is at least loosely based on some individual who probably did live somewhere in Palestine roughly 2,000 years ago. What I ask, however, is whether the picture we have today of that individual is close enough to the man who inspired it for us to say we know who he was, and that he was; to say that — in the broadest sense — we can know him.
I am convinced we can, and do. Why? Paradoxically, it is because the Church founded in his name and the civilisations which have called themselves Christian have departed so fast and so far from him, and come to stand for so much the opposite of everything he was so plainly trying to teach, that he has never from the start been anything but a nuisance and a reproach to the movement he started. Yet they have not been able to eradicate him. Jesus is the fly in the Church’s ointment.
Look for the elements that don’t really fit. They are the least likely to have been made up. In the Church’s 2,000-year history, the character and teachings of Jesus are the bits that don’t fit. There is an annoying knot of gristle at the very centre of the Christian Church, and it is called Christ. Chew and chew though Christians do, time and again pushing this indigestible, discomfiting and in some ways unlovely object to the edge of the ecclesiastical plate, they cannot obliterate it. It is not least for this that I, an avowed atheist, feel such huge respect for him.
If Jesus Christ had not existed, it would most certainly not have been necessary for the Church to invent someone like him. What does the Church want with a man who plainly despised ritual? Can you imagine the man who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey wanting anything to do with bells and smells and frocks, with gilt and silver and semi- idolatry, and repetitive chants and chorused inanities? The man who said he had come to break up families being paraded as a paradigm of family values? The man who had absolutely no interest in politics or administration and preached forgiveness, not ‘the rule of law’, wanting anything to do with the Conservative party or the Third Way?
Can you imagine the man who made very little play of an ‘afterlife’ wanting to head an evangelical movement which trills continuously of Heaven and Hell? The man who made scant reference to beauty, except to compare man’s artistic efforts unfavourably with the lilies of the field, wanting to head a Church which vaunts itself as a patron of the arts? The man so contemptuous of material values placing himself in charge of the enormous wealth of the Church, or preaching Thatcherite entrepreneurialism or socialist materialism?
When we consider all those painfully counterintuitive sayings and parables — the Prodigal Son, the idea that it is no good restraining your actions if your thoughts are bad, the impatience with good works (‘the poor always ye have with you’) except as a means for personal purification — and when we consider how Jesus keeps saying (from the viewpoint of one with a Thought for the Day to compose) the wrong thing, it becomes ever clearer that he must have been real: if Jesus had been a hoax, the Church could have invented somebody so much more convenient.
In an issue shortly before the Easter survey, this magazine spent the better part of a number of articles sneering at Norman Kember, and harrumphing at the shocking irresponsibility of acts of Quixotic pacifism. Quixotic? Everything about Jesus says: Do what is right and leave the consequences to God. Everything about Him says ‘Irresponsible’.
Jesus would not have subscribed to The Spectator. But The Spectator is obliged to subscribe to Jesus. In that delicious disharmony lies powerful proof that he existed.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 22, 2006