If you are a Christian, you probably agree with the title of this post. After all, there is an Easter tradition that when one Christian says, “Jesus Christ is risen,” everyone else is supposed to respond, “He is risen, indeed!” Traditions like this do more than just express a truth that we Christians happen to believe. By setting aside every Sunday as the day that we celebrate the resurrection, by centering the liturgical calendar around this day, and by proclaiming the resurrection of Christ as a community, we are doing more than reporting a fact. We are suggesting that the resurrection was the event on which all of human history hinges. It is the foundation and distinction of the Christian faith. It is the source of salvation.
I have to admit that I did not always see it this way. When I was a teenager – a Christian teenager, mind you – I believed that someone must have made a mistake. After all, I had always been taught that it was through his death that Jesus Christ brought salvation to the human race, not through his resurrection. Thus, it seemed like it would have been more appropriate to have church on Fridays, to celebrate Good Friday as the pinnacle Christian holiday, and to say, “Jesus died for our sins,” with the reply, “Jesus died for our sins, indeed!” Don’t get me wrong, I always believed in the resurrection, but I saw it merely as the epilogue to the story that climaxed with the crucifixion.
However, after a long and difficult theological journey, I have come to see that I was gravely mistaken. I would now say that any account of Christianity that can present the gospel without reference to the resurrection – ranging from the social gospel of liberal Christianity to the Four Spiritual Laws of conservative Christianity – is deficient. The resurrection is not merely evidence in the case for Christ or a 30-second ending to a story about how much Jesus suffered. It is the basis of the Christian faith. According to Paul, “if Christ has not been raised, our peaching is useless and so is your faith.” [E1] But we have gotten so used to a death-centered Christianity, that it sounds heretical even to suggest that it may not be the most central component of our faith. We have to do the hard work of re-reading Scripture if we are to take the resurrection seriously.
The best place to begin is with the gospels. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke [E2], Jesus’ message at the beginning of his ministry could be summarized in the phrase, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news!” [E3] This summary is disturbingly unrelated to what I thought “the gospel” meant in my teenage years. First of all, it doesn’t say anything about having a personal relationship with God, which is what Evangelical Christianity taught me that salvation meant. Second, although “believing the good news” uses the same terms as Evangelicalism, it’s talking about a different good news. The good news that Jesus introduces is, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” not, “I am about to die on the cross for your sins.” Of course, you can argue that these mean the same by suggesting that “the kingdom of God” should be understood as a spiritual experience that results from inviting Jesus into your heart. But then you might as well say that "the kingdom of God" is just another phrase for the principle of karma or the invention of the steam engine. Instead of imposing what we want into the text, we should turn to the Biblical context to get a sense of what this phrase means there.
The Old Testament teaches us that the Jews had been living in political subjugation for centuries prior to Jesus’ arrival. Many of them were fundamentally dissatisfied with this situation because it contradicted the call that God had given their ancestor Abraham that they would be God's nation. David represented this nation at its best, when it had political independence and the worship of God was built into its laws. The prophets looked forward to the restoration of this kind of Davidic reign. Although the specific visions varied a bit, most Jews were waiting for God to intervene not just in their spiritual lives but in the social order.
When Jesus came, he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah [E4], which implied that he would meet these social expectations. Everything he said and did had a strong political flavor to it. Both “the kingdom of God” and “the good news” were loaded political terms, he appointed twelve disciples, implying one would lead each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he baptized people and told them that they needed to prepare for the revolution that was about to occur. All of this was politically subversive, which is why the Roman government executed him. Think about it, the Romans didn’t kill people for teaching spiritual principles!
This may seem to favor a kind of social gospel, but before my liberal Christian friends get too excited with me, I have to point out one other aspect of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. Jesus made it clear that this kingdom would not come about by political lobbying or even by caring for the poor but through a dramatic apocalyptic event: the Son of Man’s descent from heaven. You see, Jesus believed that he knew how the world would end. All of his teaching about how people should behave was based on this knowledge. He told people to repent lest they end up on the wrong side at the end of history. He tried to teach them what the new social order would look like so that they could begin to prepare for it ahead of time. And what did he think it would happen? Every human who has ever lived would be raised from the dead and the lives they lived would be determined by whom they chose to follow before death.
Some have called this event,“The Rapture,” but most Christians have understood this term to have exactly the opposite meaning that it really does. According to Jesus, God will not pull humans away from the earth and funnel them off into the spiritual spheres of “heaven” or “hell” at the final judgment. On the contrary, the judgment is precisely the moment when God brings everyone who has ever died back to the world. The resurrection that the Bible speaks of is a PHYSICAL resurrection, one that occurs on EARTH. When Jesus predicts the coming of the Son of Man, this figure comes DOWN to earth, he doesn’t bring us up to him. In Revelation, that beautiful city with streets of gold and pearly gates comes DOWN from heaven; we don’t go up to it. This is why Paul says that “the whole of creation has been groaning… as we wait eagerly for our adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies.” [E5] After all, if God made creation and said it was “very good,” why would he ultimately abandon it? [E6]
Truthfully, this kind of end-times talk makes liberals and conservatives equally uncomfortable. One cannot deny that there is a certain similarity between Jesus and end-times preachers like Harold Camping, who tell people to make radical changes to their lives on the basis of some foreseen apocalyptic event. [E7] But there is one crucial difference between Jesus and everyone else who has predicted the end of the world: Jesus rose from the dead.
The resurrection is, of course, the ultimate validation of Jesus’ teaching. But more than that, the resurrection inaugurated a new stage in history. Christians believe that the resurrection broke the bonds of death and set the kingdom of God in motion. Because Jesus rose, we have reason to believe that there will be a time when every other human will come back to life. Because Jesus rose, we know what the kingdom of God will look like and how to live into it already. Because Jesus rose, we are no longer enslaved to the powers that threaten us with death. Because Jesus rose, the Holy Spirit has come, the Church has taken root, and salvation made available for all.
I hope to unpack these comments more more in later posts, but for now let me dwell on that first point: If it were not for the resurrection, I would not believe in the afterlife. The vision of heaven that is populated by books like 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is For Real is not only philosophically inconceivable to me, it’s utterly unappealing. Honestly, how many of us can say we’d rather be floating around in a disembodied heaven than living out life on earth? Our distaste for heaven doesn't mean we're too "worldly." It means that we were designed for embodied life on earth. And according to the Bible and the Apostle's Creed, that's exactly what the afterlife will be. We believe in the resurrection of the body. But if that’s true, if we aren't going to end up in otherworldly spheres, what are we to make of heaven and hell? That’s the point I will consider in my next post.
Endnotes (You don’t have to read these unless you want further information)
[E1] 1 Corinthians 15:14
[E2] I am temporarily setting aside the gospel of John as I make a case for a resurrection-centered Christian faith. This is not because I disagree with John, but because it gets disproportionate emphasis in Western Christianity in general and Evangelicalism in particular. Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, argued that John could not be understood properly until you first understood the rest of the Bible. I have come to agree with him, and I would challenge those who disagree with me to try not appeal to gospel of John to make their case. I will come back to this important gospel in later posts.
[E3] Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 4:17, Luke 4:43. Luke even spells out the social implications in greater detail in Luke 4:17-21.
[E4] Even the term “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the Messiah.” He saw himself first and foremost as the Messiah for the Jews. Cf. Romans 1:16, Matthew 15:24.
[E5] Matthew 24:30-31; Revelation 21:1-2; Romans 8:22-23.
[E6] For a good book that argues for a bodily resurrection, see N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.
[E7] I don’t want to overstress this analogy. First of all, Jesus specifically taught his followers not to look for a certain time or date of his return (Mark 13:32 and parallels), and so Camping made his predictions in defiance of Jesus’ teaching. Second, the basis of his predictions was not very sophisticated. He simply assigned certain numerical values to different concepts (for example, atonement = 5 and heaven = 17), and used those to create an equation for the end of the world. By contrast, Jesus’ view of the end is based on his assessment of the evil in the world and the inevitable clash which he believed must result from those powers which rebelled against God. Nevertheless, there is a similarity insofar as both people called their followers to make radical changes on their lives in anticipation of the final outcome. But for Jesus’ instructions (in contrast to Camping), they have generally found the lifestyle to which he calls them in preparation for the end is intrinsically rewarding, as it happens to be the way that God designed for humans to live all along.