The Original Explosion
This much we know: an explosion occurred in the early years of the first century of the Common Era. This explosion expanded throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Despite efforts to cover it up, some of them subtle and some of them brutal, the fire kept spreading. Soldiers carried it along with their knapsacks, philosophers took it along with their books, and people who crossed boundaries everywhere took it in their hearts, on their lips, and in their actions. By the end of that first century the explosion had rolled to the west as far as the British Isles and to the east as far as what is now Saudi Arabia. The explosion was ignited by faith in the resurrection of Christ.
No matter what you make of it, you cannot deny the strength and pervasiveness of the explosion it created. The record is in the history books. This is not about “organized religion;” that by-product came because the movement touched hearts and souls, so the community grew. The community eventually needed rules and guides and authority, but they grew like a flower from a bud. They are of the essence of the movement.
Christians say that one proof of the resurrection is the existence of the church, particularly during those early (and much later) centuries when the church was opposed by forces in both state and religion. Christianity did not expand by the sword, but by conviction. It did not expand by hating enemies but by transforming them through love. Those who carried the news did so at peril to and loss of their lives. A spirit of love, not a spirit of conquest, moved them to share what they had found in this prophet of Nazareth.
The message of the resurrection upset the balance of power in ancient realms – as it may still do today. People in power fear those freed by a message that death could not hold them. The state’s ultimate coercive power is to take away your life. If you cannot be deprived of your life by death, what’s left to fear? This reasoning of the early church explains why the apostles were put in prison for preaching the resurrection (Acts 4). This engine drove the incredible growth of the Christian community in early centuries. Freed from the curse of death, people turn to one another in love, compassion, and support.
Early Christians did not believe in the natural, innate immortality of the soul. That was Plato, not Jesus or Paul. Life continues only by virtue of God’s decision to overcome death in Christ. Death is conquered but not by abolition: we continue to die, but death cannot be victorious, in Paul’s words.
Lest you think this is superstition, remember this: Christian faith denied a place to fate, to supernatural forces out to do us harm, and the like. The gods were toppled. There were no more bogeyman to fear. No need for rabbits’ feet or other talismans. Though people would have you think differently today, this faith also paved the way for an explosion of scientific knowledge as well.
To live by resurrection in 2009 does not mean solely to believe one man was raised from death two millennia ago, but that the power of life continues unabated with the same force to overturn tyrants and raise up the poor, to free captives and heal the sick and, ultimately, to burst the bonds of the grave. Christians “in, but not of” this world are empowered by Love unleashed upon an hopeful world. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
published 17 April 09