Imagine yourself as an Olympic athlete (that’s probably a stretch for most of us, but just go with it for a second). You’ve dreamed of the gold. You’ve pushed yourself to the limit in training and have given your all in competition. And now that your event is over, you find yourself on the platform as a medalist.
Someone else has won the gold. Question: would you be happier winning silver or bronze?
Perhaps surprisingly, research suggests that those who win the bronze are happier, at least at that moment. The reason? Researchers believe that both athletes are contrasting what actually happened with what might have happened — but each imagines a different possible world. The silver medalist is thinking, “I just missed the gold,” and is therefore disappointed. But the bronze medalist is thinking, “I just missed being eliminated from medal contention,” and is therefore glad to be up on the podium at all.
I am writing this post on Easter morning (though it won’t go online for a week), and thinking about how Jesus’ followers responded to the news of his resurrection. It’s clear from the gospels that even though Jesus repeatedly told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to be betrayed and killed, then raised from the dead, they didn’t understand (e.g., Mark 9:30-32). Often, what Jesus said before Easter didn’t make sense to them until after (e.g., Luke 24:6-8; John 2:19-22). Even when he appeared to them in person, he had to overcome their doubts, explaining in detail how the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah was part of God’s plan (Luke 24:27, 45-46).
We could take all of this as a sign of the obtuseness of the disciples. Charitably, we could admit that we, too, are similarly dull. And that may be so. But there’s another possibility.
In their imaginations, Jesus’ followers had envisioned a world in which the Messiah would be powerful and triumphant, here and now, not tortured and crucified — a king who would bring the miraculous might of the God of the Exodus, not the humility of the Suffering Servant, nor the accursedness of one who hangs on a tree. Their reaction to the real-world crucifixion of their beloved leader, in other words, was conditioned by the possible world they had imagined.
And even after Jesus returned, they had not yet imagined a world in which resurrection was a present possibility.
That, I submit, points to a post-Easter question for us. Many of us understand the core of the gospel as being the good news that because of the work of Jesus on the cross, we get to go to heaven when we die, instead of the hell that we would have deserved for our sins. And that’s true as far as it goes.
But the apostle Paul, for example, seems to think that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything — now, today, not just in the future. And that is the question: have we yet imagined a world remade by the resurrection of Jesus? A world in which new life in the Spirit is a present possibility?
Because how we experience this day, how we think and feel and act, is shaped by the possible worlds we imagine.