Nearly a third of humanity is celebrating the central tenet of the Christian faith this Easter season: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Polls suggest Americans’ belief that Christ was physically raised from the dead has slipped somewhat in recent years but remains strong.
A 2010 Rasmussen Reports survey found that 78 percent of Americans believe Christ was raised from the dead, 10 percent don’t believe it and 11 percent aren’t sure.
Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly – 97 percent – believe in the Resurrection along with 87 percent of Catholics and 86 percent of other Protestants.
Just less than half of people who rarely or never attend church believe Christ rose from the dead.
A 2009 Harris poll put belief in the Resurrection at 70 percent, down 10 points since 2003.
The Rev. Sharon Daugherty, pastor of Victory Christian Center, a large charismatic church, said the Resurrection was an actual, historical event, attested to not only by the four Gospels but also by other historical records.
“The resurrection of Jesus Christ is very important to us,” she said.
The Bible teaches that the resurrected, living Christ comes to live inside people who receive him, she explained, and that his spirit transforms their lives from within, giving them eternal life, forgiveness, newness of life and the power to overcome sin.
“None of that would be possible if Christ were not raised from the dead,” she said.
The Bible also teaches, she said, that “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you’re still guilty in your sins.”
The Rev. Jack Gleason, pastor of Church of St. Mary in Brookside, one of the largest Catholic parishes in Tulsa, said Catholics believe the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, witnessed not just by his closest followers but by up to 500 other people.
He called the Resurrection the “core belief of our Christian faith, attested to in Scripture, the constant teaching of the church throughout the centuries, and the central reality that we celebrate, not just on Easter, but every Sunday.
“The promise of our own physical resurrection, the promise of our being with the Lord, hinges on Jesus being resurrected,” he said.
The Rev. Bill Christ of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church said Eastern Orthodox Christians also believe the Resurrection story is literally true.
“If you get away from that, you turn it into mythology rather than historical fact. When the church started, there was a man named Jesus. And the apostles went forward as witnesses, preaching that these things actually happened.
“Theologically, the idea that God somehow became human, therefore uniting divine nature with human nature, is an important concept (in Orthodoxy),” he said, a concept that hangs on the Resurrection.
“The Apostle Paul said that if Christ be not raised, then our faith is in vain. So what would be the point? We might as well sleep in on Sundays.”
Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the Resurrection this year on April 15, a week later than Protestants and Catholics. They call the celebration Pascha, from Passover.
Liberal Christians, sometimes called progressives, tend not to believe in the literal, physical resurrection of Christ.
“The progressive understanding is that you don’t have to believe the story is literally true for it to still carry the same weight and meaning,” said the Rev. Todd Freeman, pastor of College Hill Presbyterian Church and co-founder of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Tulsa.
Progressive scholars do not believe in the literal resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus, he said.
“But I totally believe that something incredible – transformative – happened to the disciples, or the whole Jesus movement would have faded away,” he said. “Something gave them courage. … We just don’t know what that was.
“Progressives would still say that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and is with us. What we disagree with is the idea of the physical presence of Jesus – the physical, bodily resurrection.
“We’re saying to people, ‘Don’t give up on Christianity if you can’t believe in the literalness of the stories. There’s still a place for you if you don’t take the stories literally.’ ”
Humanists, many of whom are atheists, have little respect for the resurrection narrative.
Bill Dusenberry, coordinator for Tulsa Coalition of Reason, who calls himself a pantheist, rather than an atheist, said there is no primary, credible evidence for the Resurrection.
“The only evidence is the vision, or hallucination, of Saul on the road to Damascus,” he said. (The Book of Acts records that Jesus appeared to Saul in a blinding light after the Resurrection.)
Dusenberry said the Gospel writer Mark, writing 40 years later, picked up the resurrection story from Saul, and other Gospel writers got the story from him.
“No verification of the story exists outside of the Bible,” he said.
“The whole resurrection story is a faith-based view, held by people who grew up in a society where others told them about the belief. Nobody is born with that belief.
“Newspapers, PBS, the media all reinforce the belief. Almost everyone treats it as a historical event. By the time you reach a certain age, it’s so much imprinted on your mind, it becomes your reality.”
Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world, he said, not because it was true, but because it was an easy sell – the promise of an afterlife – especially to people who had nothing.
“Without belief in the Resurrection, there would be no Christianity,” he said.