Easter was unexpected in the beginning, and it still is

The Easter story, writes columnist Wayne Holst, mingles doubt with conviction. Photo: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock
Published April 11, 2020

Few, if any, of Jesus’s original followers anticipated his resurrection from the dead. Ultimately, their sense of surprise was what made it such a life-altering reality for the first Christians. Personalized meaning behind what happened to Jesus turned the world upside down for many; and it still does.

We stand on the other side of that miraculous event, but recognizing its meaning takes just as much evolving faith and correction of perspective as the first believers required.

Two thousand years later, it continues to be a big truth to be claimed and a hopeful anticipation to be celebrated during the summit of Christian festivals.

The best way to revisit the first Easter and the meaning of that extraordinary event is to compare how the story appears in all four New Testament gospels.

Reading the biblical narrative and attempting to find a unified account will lead to a lot of frustration, however. The gospels are imprecise about what happened factually. Did the first visitors to the tomb meet one white-clad figure, or were there more? Peter the disciple shows up in one report but not in others. Confusion is the unifying thread running through all four versions.

The earliest testimonies to the resurrection led to disbelief on the part of most of Jesus’ dismayed Jerusalem followers. It was compounded by the fact that women were the first to claim he was no longer in the tomb. Their word was considered undependable. But sightings continued to accumulate.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the resurrection took place around an evening meal shared by two followers and a “stranger” who joined them in a (historically uncertain) town named Emmaus, near Jerusalem. Only after the guest shared bread with the other two did he mysteriously disappear. It gradually dawned on the hosts that their new friend had been Jesus himself.

Consensus about the resurrection took a while to coalesce, and by then Jesus had departed this earth for good.

Confusion about the resurrection continues to this day. I think that many of the original chronicles were essentially myths created by the first believers to help them make sense of events beyond human explanation. Their uncertainty is probably best summed up in a comment by one of the men at dinner in Emmaus—“We had hoped,” he said, “that he might have been the one who would redeem Israel.” But at this point, obviously, that hope was fragile.

Jesus makes an attempt to explain how his passion and death had long been intimated in the Hebrew scriptures; but even then, he is met by hesitant disbelief.

It took time and spiritual discernment for the early Christian community to come to experience the meaning, if not the actuality, of Jesus’ reappearance.

Eventually, however, “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed!” became an experiential truth, a claim that many would make personally. Still later came the conviction that everyone could experience a personal resurrection just like Jesus. What started as a claim from a few confused people matured into a global confession of faith.

Recognizing how the reality of “resurrection” burst upon a perplexed group should remind us that there will always be stages of doubt as well as conviction. I continue to evolve in my own discernment of what it all means.

But for believers—then and now—it can be an amazing surprise.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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