Does Christ’s resurrection even matter? This was the question I found myself asking the day after Easter. Life had returned to business as usual, with most of the holiday lessons fading into the background. Nothing about Easter had really fazed me, and why should it? I already knew all of the sermons; I could quote the story of Christ’s death backwards and forwards.
Even my attempts at prayer had fizzled out. So it was a complete surprise one Friday night when I overheard a couple of college students talking about Jesus' resurrection.
"Christians," one said, "like to think Jesus is unique because he rose from the dead, but that isn’t true. Resurrection was a common theme in most ancient religions. The Greek god Dionysus had been brought back from death, so had the Egyptian god Osiris, the Hindu god Ganesha, a hero from Finnish mythology, and a Japanese goddess."
"So," another concluded, "not only is Christianity ludicrously fake, it’s not even original."
They all laughed, and I found myself wondering about the holiday I had just celebrated. Most Christians I knew did think Christ’s coming back to life was unique... but was it? I started looking up everything I could find on resurrection myths, and was pleasantly surprised at what I found: it turns out Christ’s death and resurrection are more unique than I ever realized.
None of These Beings Knew They Were Going To Die
The first thing that became apparent to me was that none of these other deities knew they were going to die. Dionysus was slain when he was a child. Osiris was tricked and murdered by rivals. Death took them all by surprise and in very human fashion. Jesus, on the other hand, not only knew he was going to die, he even knew the method: crucifixion.
The Gospels are replete with verses where Jesus refers to his own death, but nowhere is his knowledge more apparent than in the garden of Gethsemane,
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation." He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. Luke 22:39-45
Christ’s death did not take him unaware. He knew he was going to be crucified, it was the reason he was born. This awareness leads into the second major difference between Jesus and other resurrected gods...
None of These Beings Went Willingly To Their Death
The second significant aspect of Christ’s death is that he went to it willingly. As mentioned above, all these other gods met their ends in very human ways. Some, like Ganesha, tried to fight a stronger opponent and lost; others, like the Japanese goddess Izanami, died from sickness or childbirth. The impression is that none of them intended to die but that their deaths came anyway. Christ’s death was altogether different.
Not only did he claim foreknowledge of his impending death, he claimed he could stop it if he chose to. The book of John in particular makes note of this in several places:
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." John 18:36-37
"Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." John 19:10-11
This is perhaps the most important part of Christ’s crucifixion. In any mythology or religion, a god usually demands sacrifice from his people. The god can ask for gold, livestock, even people, but never is the system put into reverse. Never does any god willingly sacrifice himself for his people.
None of These Beings Returned by Their Own Power
Finally, and most importantly, none of these other beings returned to life by their own power. In all other cases, the deity in question had some kind of outside help escaping the grave. Another deity stepped in to rescue them, or they were resurrected by some greater power. Jesus' claim was entirely different, as God-made-flesh he claimed to have defeated death. Notice the subtle difference: they cheated death, Jesus defeated it.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Mark 16:5-7
The atheist was right when he said resurrection was a common theme in ancient times, but he should have looked more closely at Christ’s death before claiming it was no different than the deaths of other gods. Jesus' death was a willing sacrifice, an act of grace in its purest form. And his resurrection - with the resulting spread of the Good News - is truly one of a kind.