In the summer of 2022, I visited the charming Alpine town of Oberammergau, Germany. I wandered its leafy streets lined with mural-painted houses, their balconies overflowing with flower boxes.

After indulging in ice cream and shopping for the town’s famed woodcarvings, I settled in my seat for a five-and-a-half-hour performance of Jesus’ final week on earth. Since 1634, Oberammergau has put on a Passion play involving almost all its residents, first staged in thanksgiving for the end of a bubonic plague outbreak. Normally the performances take place in the first year of a new decade (2000, 2010, etc.), but the new plague of COVID-19 delayed 2020’s play by two years.

Scores of buses were depositing tourists from many foreign countries. Looking around, I saw groups from China, Japan, and Korea, in addition to many Europeans and Americans. That summer, almost half a million people would travel to secular Germany to sit through this presentation of Jesus’ passion, spoken and sung in a language that few in the crowd could understand.

What attracted them? I wondered. At one point, more than a thousand actors filled the stage, shouting in guttural German, “Kreuzige ihn!” (Crucify him!) The audience fell silent as Pilate’s soldiers tortured and mocked their prisoner.

Some in my tour group criticized the play for shortchanging the Resurrection; after all, only 3 of the libretto’s 132 pages focused on that seminal event. Yet the ratio reflects the Gospels’ accounts, which give far more attention to the ordeal of trials and crucifixion than to the triumphant conclusion. The criticism, however, raised a question: Would a tradition such as Oberammergau’s have persisted for four centuries if all it commemorated were a notable person’s death?

In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and Moscow’s Red Square, respectively, I have watched thousands of people stand in line to view the preserved bodies of Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin. Martyrs too may achieve an honored place in historical memory: Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi—and in recent days, Alexei Navalny.

Is that how we would remember Jesus, apart from Easter?

During his last meal with the disciples before his arrest, Jesus tried to explain the momentous changes underway. John 13–17 records much of the dialogue, in which Jesus foretells the future. “One of you is going to betray me,” he says, and identifies the culprit (13:21–27). He tells them that he, their leader, is departing, but not really; in some ways he’ll be even closer. More than ever before, he makes his identity clear, causing Philip to puzzle over the sensational claim, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).

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Two assertions that evening must have haunted his disciples in the days to come. The first: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (16:33). Within a few hours, the disciples would witness Jesus’ arrest and an excruciating sequence of abuse and execution reserved for the worst of criminals. This is how he overcomes the world? It was too much to swallow for Peter, who first showed bravado by brandishing a sword on Jesus’ behalf (18:10–11). Soon, though, he would follow Judas in a three-fold act of betrayal (13:38; 18:27).

The second mind-bending assertion: “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away” (16:7). The disciples were still basking in the glow of Palm Sunday, just a few days before, when shouts of Hosanna! Blessed is the king of Israel! echoed through the streets of Jerusalem (12:13). They were anticipating glory, the smug reward of loyalists who have cast their lots with a conquering hero. Jesus abruptly redefined glory by washing their feet—against Peter’s protest—and by naming the greatest love as laying down one’s life for one’s friends (13:1–17; 15:13).

I sympathize with the disciples’ bafflement. Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus had stayed on earth? How differently would Christian history have unfolded if we had a Pope Jesus to veto the Crusades and Inquisitions, ban slavery, and answer our questions about ethical matters such as just wars and gender issues?

But Jesus outlined the ways in which his departure could be construed as good. He would bring about a new kind of intimacy: “I no longer call you servants … Instead, I have called you friends” (15:15). Drawing on a familiar analogy, he likened their new closeness to a grape branch’s connection to the vine (15:1–16). In short, he was elevating human agency so that his followers would do the work of God, just as he had done. Moreover, by leaving earth, he would open the way for God’s Spirit, the Advocate, to come and provide the nourishment and wisdom they needed (14:26; 16:7).

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Although reclining around the same table, Jesus and his disciples viewed reality very differently. Jesus reminisced cosmically about a time “before the creation of the world” (17:24), while the Twelve (now the Eleven) could barely remember their lives before this strange rabbi ordered them to follow him. Jesus saw “the prince of this world” (14:30) coming for him through Judas’s treachery, whereas the disciples thought Judas was running an errand. Jesus foresaw the persecution to come, the descent into Hades, his resurrection and return to the Father; the disciples murmured among themselves, “We don’t understand what he is saying” (16:18).

Easter changed everything, but not all at once. A Hollywood script would have had Jesus appearing on Pilate’s porch on Monday morning, with a choir of angels booming, “He’s back!”

Jesus showed less drama, the kind of low-key approach depicted at Oberammergau. He surprised women at the empty tomb, joined a couple of old friends on the way to Emmaus, mysteriously appeared in a locked room to address Thomas’s doubts, and gave a fishing lesson to some disciples who had returned to their former occupations in Galilee.

After about six weeks of such random sightings, the disciples gathered again, still unsure about the future. Would Jesus remain on earth after all? If not, what did he expect of them? In the first meeting with the disciples after his resurrection, Jesus had commissioned them: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). And at the Ascension, he literally turned over the mission to the ragtag group that was still hoping he would revive their faded dreams of glory.

It’s up to you now, he said in effect. Jesus had healed diseases, cast out demons, and brought comfort and solace to the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering—but only in one small corner of the Roman empire. Now he was setting loose his followers to take that same message to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.

Two thousand years later, 3 billion people around the world identify as followers of Jesus. The message he brought has spread to Europe, Asia, and every other continent. The chance of that spread without the jolting event we celebrate as Easter is vanishingly small. Before his resurrection, Jesus’ few followers were denying him and hiding from the temple police. Even afterward, Thomas doubted until he saw proof in flesh and scars. But as they came to understand what had happened in the Resurrection, the disciples were able to glimpse Jesus’ cosmic view.

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At the end of that poignant Last Supper described in John 13–17, Jesus prayed for all who would follow. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me,” he said. “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:20–23).

How are we doing, we Jesus followers in the 21st century? We should be known for our unity and our confident hope, for we “are not of the world any more than I am of the world,” as Jesus prayed (17:14). If we truly believe Jesus has risen and let that reality soak in, it should help calm fear and anxiety over such matters as the economy, the 2024 elections, and global unrest. To the watching world, followers of Jesus should stand out as peacemakers: as “bridge” people committed to love, not despise, our opponents—even our enemies.

A friend of mine was stopped dead in her tracks by a skeptic. After listening to her explain her faith, he said this: “But you don’t act like you believe God is alive.”

I try to turn the skeptic’s accusation into a question: Do I act like God is alive? It is a good question, one I must ask myself again every day.

Philip Yancey is the author of many books including, most recently, the memoir Where the Light Fell.