Christian Fellow Citizens,—
We are living together in this world, but I do not know whether we shall live together in the next world. You probably consider yourself as booked for heaven, and me as booked for the other establishment. But that is a question I will not discuss at present. I will only remark that you may be mistaken. Existence, you know, is full of surprises; and, as the French say, it is always the unexpected that happens.
Well, my fellow citizens of this world, it is now the time when you celebrate the death and resurrection of your "Savior." Not being of your faith, I cannot join in the commemoration. I shall, however, regard the season after a more primitive fashion. Your Church adopted an old Pagan festival, the rejoicing at the renewal of the earth in the genial springtide. At the vernal equinox the sun is increasing in power, the world is astir with new life, and begins to reassume its mantle of green. Such a time inspired jollity in the human breast. It was commemorated with feast and dance and song. Perhaps it will be so again, even in sombre England, when the gloom of your ascetic creed has lifted and disappeared. Meanwhile I, as a "heathen man and a sinner," will imitate as far as I may the example of the Pagans of old. I will not sing, for I am no adept in that line; and my joints are getting too stiff for dancing. But I will feast, within the bounds of reason; I will leave this million-peopled Babylon and put myself in touch with Mother Nature; I will feel, if only for a brief while, the spring of the turf under my feet; I will breathe air purified by "the moving waters at their priest-like task Of pure ablution round earth's human shores"; I will watch the seahorses, with their white crests, in endless rank, charging the shore; I will listen to the sound which Homer heard so long before your Christ was born—the sound so monotonous, so melancholy, yet so soothing and sustaining, which stirs a pulse of poetry in the very dullest and most prosaic brain. But before I go I send you this Easter egg, to show that I do not forget you. Keep it, I pray you; study well its inscriptions; and perhaps, after all, you will not pelt me with it at the finish.
I have said, my Christian fellow citizens, that your Church appropriated an ancient Pagan festival—the festival of spring. I may be told by scholars amongst you that the time of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection was fixed by the Jewish Passover. I reply that the Passover was itself a spring festival, whose original and natural meaning was obscured by priestly arts and legendary stories. That it happened at this time of the year, that it depended on astronomical signs, that its commemoration included the sacrifice of the firstlings of the flock—shows clearly enough that it was a Jewish counterpart of the common Gentile celebration. Has it ever occurred to you that if Christ died, he died on a particular day; and that if he rose from the dead, he rose on a particular morning? That day, that morning, should have been observed in the proper fashion of anniversaries. But it never was, and it is not now. Good Friday—as you curiously, and almost facetiously call the day on which the founder of your faith suffered a painful and ignominious death—and Easter Sunday, when he left his sepulchre, never fall on the same date in successive years. They are determined by calculations of the position of the sun and the phases of the moon—a planet sacred to lovers and lunatics, and naturally dear therefore to devotion and superstition. You decorate your churches with evergreens and flowers as the Pagans decorated their temples and altars. You use Easter eggs like the pre-Christian religionists. You show, and your creed shows, in everything that Easter is really a spring festival. The year springs from the tomb of winter, and Christ springs at the same time from the tomb of death.
I am disposed to regard your "Savior" as a purely mythical personage, like all other Saviors and sun-gods of antiquity, who were generally, if not always, born miraculously of virgin mothers, mysteriously impregnated by celestial visitors; and whose careers, like that of your Christ, were marked by portents and prodigies, ending in tribulation and defeat, which were followed by vindication and triumph. Whether there was a man called Jesus, or Joshua (the Jewish form of the name), who lived and taught in Galilee and died at Jerusalem, is more than I will undertake to determine, and it seems to me a question of microscopic importance. But I am convinced that the Christ of the Gospels is the product of religious imagination; an ideal figure, constructed out of materials that were common in the East for hundreds and perhaps for thousands of years.
To confine ourselves, however, to the Easter aspect of the matter, I think you will find—if you read the Gospel story with unprejudiced eyes—that the closing scenes of Christ's career are quite imaginary. The story of his Trial and Crucifixion is utterly at variance with Roman law and Jewish custom. It also includes astonishing incidents—such as the earthquake which rent the veil of the temple, the three hours' eclipse of the sun, and the wholesale resurrection of dead "saints"—of which the Romans and the Jews were in a still more astonishing ignorance. What must have startled the whole or the then known world, if it happened, made absolutely no impression on the Hebrew and Gentile nations, and not a trace of it remains in the pages of their historians. Can you believe that the most remarkable occurrences on record escaped the attention of all who were living at the time, with the exception of a handful of men and women, who never took the trouble to write an account of their experiences, but left them to be chronicled by unknown writers long after they themselves were dead?
All the documentary evidence we possess is Christian. It is the witness of an interested party, uncorroborated by a particle of testimony from independent sources. I do not forget that the literature of your early Church includes a letter from Pontius Pilate to the emperor Tiberius, giving a detailed account of the trial, sentence, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ; but this is one of the many forgeries of your early Church, and is now universally rejected as such alike by Protestant and by Catholic scholars. To my mind, indeed, this forgery itself proves the falsehood of the Gospel narrative; it shows that the early Christians felt the necessity of some corroborative evidence, and they manufactured it to give their own statements an air of greater plausibility.
Taking the Gospels as they stand, I will ask you to read the story in Matthew (not that I believe he wrote it) of the watch at Christ's sepulchre. The Jewish priests come to Pilate, and ask him to let the sepulchre be sealed and guarded; for the dead impostor had declared he would rise again on the third day, and his disciples might steal his body and say he had risen. The guard is set, but an angel descends from heaven, terrifies the soldiers, rolls away the stone, and allows Jesus to escape. Whereupon the Jewish priests give the soldiers money to tell Pilate that they slept at their posts.
How, I ask, did those Jewish priests know that Jesus had said "After three days I will rise again"? According to John (xx. 9), his very disciples were ignorant of this fact—"For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead." Could it be unknown to his intimates, who had been with him day and night for three years, in all parts of Palestine; yet well known to the priests, who had only seen him occasionally during a few days at Jerusalem?
There was an "earthquake" before the angels descended. Would not this have attracted general attention? And is it conceivable that the soldiers would take money to say they had slept at their posts? The punishment for that offence was death. Of what use then was the bribe? Do men sell their honor for what they can never enjoy, and count their lives as a mere trifle in the bargain? Is it conceivable that the priests were so foolish as the story depicts them? Would bribing the soldiers protect them against Christ? If he had risen he was lord of life and death. Would they not have abandoned their projects against him, and sought his forgiveness? He who had the power to revive himself had the power to destroy them.
The appearances of Jesus, after his resurrection, are grotesque in their self-contradiction. Now he is a pure ghost, suddenly appearing and suddenly vanishing, and entering a room with shut doors. Then he appears as solid flesh and blood, to be felt and handled. He even eats broiled fish and honeycomb.
Such conditions are quite irreconcilable. We may imagine a ghost going through a keyhole, but is it possible to imagine broiled fish and honeycomb going through the same aperture? Or is the stomach of a ghost capable of digesting such victuals?
Has it never struck you as strange, also, that the risen Christ never appeared to anyone but his disciples? No outsider, no independent witness, ever caught a glimpse of him. The story is a party report to prove a party position and maintain a party's interests. Surely, if Christ died for all men, if his resurrection is the pledge of ours, and if our inability to believe it involves our perdition, the fact should have been established beyond all cavil. Christ should have stood before Pilate who sentenced him to be crucified; he should have confronted the Sanhedrim who compassed his death; he might even have walked about freely amongst the Jews during the forty days (more or less) during which, as the New Testament narrates, he flitted about like a hedge-row ghost. He should have made his resurrection as clear as daylight, and he left it as dark as night.
To ask what became of the body of Jesus if he did not rise, is an idle question. There is not the slightest contemporary evidence that his body was an object of concern. On the other hand, however, the story of the Ascension looks like a convenient refuge. To talk of a risen Christ was to invite the question "Where is he?" The story of the Ascension enabled the talkers to answer "He is gone up." It relieved them from the awkward necessity of producing him.
Space does not allow of my discussing this subject more extensively. I could swell this Easter egg into gigantic proportions, but I must leave it as it is It goes to you with my compliments, and a hope that it will do you good. If it leads any of you to "take a thought and mend," if it induces one of you to review the faith of his childhood, if it stirs a rational impulse in a single Christian mind, I shall be amply rewarded for my trouble.—Christian fellow citizens, Adieu!—I remain, Yours for Reason and Humanity.