A common misconception about Christianity will claim that it is based on believing a series of abstract truths regarding a God who is one and three, and a person who is God and man. The more abstruse side of these tenets of belief, however, were only fully worked out centuries after the apostles first preached. It is true they are integral parts of an organic whole, but they came later in the growth of that whole, as flowers and fruits come later in the life of a newly sprouted tree. The roots and trunk come first, or, to change the metaphor, the basis and foundation come before the walls and roof. And Christians consider that foundation to be, not a rarefied teaching, but a fact. Christianity stands or falls on the truth of an empirical fact. All later magisterial and theological elaborations hark back to that fact, and without it become empty puffs of air. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain,” as St.Paul bluntly put it. But what does this mean?
Try this: imagine a person you knew and loved, but who is dead. Imagine them when alive and vibrant, and then imagine them motionless and pale in their coffin. Now imagine them, days later, walking in the front door and kissing you on the cheek. Once you had overcome initial doubt after walking around them a time or two, pinching their flesh and checking their breath, you would hardly be inclined to utter abstractions. You would feel that something had just changed forever in your life. And you would start telling everyone about it. The most dreaded bogeyman of all – death – would have just been delivered a dramatic setback, and a universe of once fixed and fated meanings would have been turned upside down. That was the first experience of the content of Christian witness – a witness to the death and resurrection of a man known and loved by a large group of ordinary, non-academic folks. An ignominious and unmistakable death (as definitive as the crushing of a fly under the sole of your shoe) had been witnessed and bewailed, only to be reversed and transcended before the same human eyes and in the same weird world we still live in.
The word martyr means witness, and what was witnessed here was an intrusion of higher Life into this world of inevitable death. And this was no mere ‘spiritual’ renewal, but a bodily reboot: molecules and cells called into a new order of being. Millions have preferred torture and even their own deaths to denying this witness. And lest we unfairly exclude the academics, Paul of Tarsus was one smart dude – in today’s terms, he would have the equivalent of doctorates in philosophy and theology. But the fact of the Resurrection bowled him over, and he never got over it. The root of Christian faith, and the source of all its most sublime theology, is to never get over the empirical fact of Easter.