Sunday, September 30, 2012

Jesus Christ Is Risen

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.


Scott David said...

Brian, I must confess I am still a little fuzzy on what Jesus meant when he said, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." I always have been. I guess by now I suppose Christ meant everything that would take place through his life, ministry, death and resurrection. Do you have any further, more helpful, lucid thoughts in this regard?

Scott David said...

I don't think this was what you were going for in mentioning folks' uncomfortability with end-times talk, but it seems to me that if one feels completely comfortable when thinking about Christ's return and judgment, something is not right. What I mean is, the classical teaching about the judgment is not speculation, but, as you have pointed out, preparedness. Meditation on the things to come should make us question whether we are prepared to meet Christ Almighty.

It always seemed odd to me that in the church I grew up in, we talked about going to hell for not believing in Jesus, but we never addressed the issue of our being judged according to our deeds, as is mentioned explicitly by Paul and the other authors of the New Testament numerous times. We seemed to suggest that if you believe in Jesus you get let off the hook of beign judged. And that's just simply not how I read the Bible.

I have honestly come to accept and be (un)comfortable with the notion that it would do me some spiritual good to think about, and remember often, judgment day and the last things, as a 'moral' motivator, if you will. The remembrance of death is a strong element in the moral tradition of the church, and I have come to embrace it intellectually. I only have one life to live, to work out my repentance, the transforming and renewing of my mind[E1]. By thinking on my end / the end (God's judgment seat) I call to mind what matters in the broad scheme of things.

[E1] The understanding of repentance (in Greek "metanoia", literally "change of mind) in the orthodox ascetic tradition refers, broadly speaking, to a complete renewal of a person in the image of God, not merely "being sorry for one's sins." It means reversal, change of mind, the renewing of one's mind as in Romans 12:1, resurrection in this age, bearing fruit for the age to come.

bobby wrigley said...

"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 is an idea I have espoused before as well. But I have come to question how conscious the Roman government was of Jesus' subversiveness. When I read the gospel accounts of Jesus being condemned to be executed on a cross it seems that what caused the flood waters to burst on that levy was more so the pressure from the Jewish leaders on the Roman Officials. An uproar was in the streets over this Jesus - the Romans, for political reasons, had to deal with it because the Jews were a significant group that couldn't be ignored. In my mind all of the ruckus could have come simply from Jesus' "spiritual teaching" about him being the Messiah and son of God. This doesn't mean, however, that Jesus' message wasn't a radical political subversion, I am just not clear that it was this aspect that caused Jesus to be crucified.

Brian Bither said...

When I said, "this kind of end-times talk makes liberals and conservatives equally uncomfortable," I was alluding to "theological discomfort" - in the sense that the return of Christ doesn't fit well into most Western systematic theologies - not the personal discomfort that arises when one reflects on one's own sinfulness. But I wholeheartedly agree with you that it is good to be uncomfortable in the latter sense. This will be come clear in the next post - which reveals how much I have been influenced by the Orthodox tradition.

Brian Bither said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Bither said...

I didn't meant to delete that. Here is a re-post.

Although I believe that Jesus' life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and return are all crucial elements to salvation, I understand the line, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near/at hand" in the more narrow sense to refer to the new era that would begin with his resurrection. It seems to me that everything Jesus says and does in the synoptic gospels looks to the near future, especially in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21.

I wondered if any of my Orthodox friends would comment on this, as divinization soteriology [E1] puts more emphasis on the whole life of Christ (and especially the birth) than either on the specific moment of the death of Christ - like most of Western Christianity does - or the resurrection - like I am doing now. I appreciate that theological perspective, but the narrative structure of the gospel inspires me to see the resurrection as the proper "climax" of the story and center of salvation. Still, in my mind, this does not amount to a substantive difference, as my disagreement with Anselm is.

[E1] Divinization soteriology is a Christian way of understanding salvation that was classically stated by Athanasius in "The Incarnation of the Word" and which is the dominant view among Orthodox Christians today.

Brian Bither said...

I appreciate your response here, Bobby. I'll offer three thoughts.

First, there is no doubt that some (but not all) Jewish leaders played a significant role in the crucifixion of Jesus. But even then, it probably wasn't because he teaching spiritual principles. There were many rabbis in and after Jesus' day who had different interpretations of the Torah, and Jesus can rightly be considered one of these. But Jesus was threatening because he disturbed their social order by disrupting sabbath observance, encouraging people to disregard ceremonial purity, and ultimately, by his actions at the temple, which immediately precipitated his death in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I don't think it was him saying, "Love your neighbor as yourself" or even, "Love your enemies," that got them upset.

Second, although the Jewish religious leaders were upset with Jesus, they didn't have the legal power to kill him. That fell to the Romans, and so ultimately, the Romans get the bulk of the responsibility to his death. You're right to note that they pressured Pilate, but the pressure they applied was points about Jesus' political subversiveness. They said that Jesus was teaching people not to pay taxes and claiming to be an alternative king (19:2), which made him a political threat that had to be dealt with.

Third, and I can only touch on this point here, is that we have to acknowledge that the later gospels (especially Matthew and John) were written in a time of increasing tension between the church and the synagogue. Unfortunately, I believe that some elements of this tension caused the latter two gospel writers to put disproportionate emphasis on the Jews' role in Jesus' death. As time went on in Christian history, this tension turned into anti-Semitism, and much violence as been committed against Jews because they are "Christ-killers." My emphasis on the Roman responsibility in Jesus' death is intended partially as a corrective to this anti-Semitic history.

Of course, whenever you get into critiquing a book of the Bible - especially the gospels - you find yourself in delicate territory. I hope to address this a little more once I get into my updated theology of Scripture. But if you want to read someone who handles that issue well before I get around to it, see Richard Hays, "The Moral Vision of the New Testament," chapter 17.

Bobby Wrigley said...

Thanks for the response Brian. That helps me to think through this. Also, don't forget about the ascension ; ) or, if the resurrection isn't the epilogue to the crucifixion then do you see the ascension as an epilogue to the resurrection? Don't feel the need to respond because I am mainly looking forward to your posts on heaven and hell.

Ryan McGiffen said...

"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."

In high school, I found myself in a similar state of mind, not so much that someone had explicitly said that the crucifixion was more important than the resurrection, but that it seemed a greater emphasis was put on the crucifixion than the resurrection.

I remember arriving at the thought that the death of Christ was not the most extraordinary of his achievements. I remember posing the question of my Sunday school class, “How many of you would die to save everyone in this room? I know I would. So why would it be more difficult to die to possibly save everyone in the world?” Then, I went on to say how I was more impressed with his life and resurrection rather than his death. So I went through the rest of high school and started college thinking that the resurrection was the pinnacle of Jesus existence. My faith began to center around the hope that I had through Christ. Hope of a future in heaven, a new earth, etc…

In college, I had a roommate that rocked my world. He was not a Christian and this was novel to me coming from an area and a public school where it was the cool thing to say you were a Christian just to fit in. We had many great discussions posing theological questions and always giving careful thought and respect to what the other had to say.

Anyway, one night he asked me, “Why would God want a bunch of people who followed Him just to get to heaven?” So I interpreted that as what he was really asking was why God would want something from people who expect something in return and how is that any different than people who just do things on earth because they think they will get something in return on earth.

I thought for a while and replied that I think I would be a Christian even if there was no afterlife. Even if I only had a moment I would want to spend that moment loving God and knowing that God loves me. My faith had changed from one centered on hope to one centered on love. Now I know that we don’t have to have an answer for the question my friend posed because we do have hope in a future with God, but it sure had a powerful revelation behind it for me.
I may have diverged a bit, but I noticed that what you had posted seemed to me to hinge on a temporal basis. Perhaps due to my physics background, I have challenged the assumptions of a God confined by physics (time and space) so why would my faith hinge on such things? I suppose I am less concerned with what will He do as compared to what is He doing or more importantly what is He. “God is love.” It would seem I may be emphasizing John so I will leave it there, although I did have to come back around to John after developing my faith in other areas.

Being ignorant in theology, I cannot tell you where these thoughts and ideas align. Perhaps it is Evangelicalism, I don’t know, but as you have said some of the things commonly accepted (“Ask Jesus into your heart”) don’t hold to careful deliberation and scrutiny. I have recently enjoyed some of the works of Henry Drummond.

Anyway, I really look forward to hearing more from you. I have the utmost respect for your thoughts and the way in which you have opened yourself up to God’s wisdom. Feel free to wait to address this later when you address "the disciple whom Jesus loved."

God bless!

Brian Bither said...

Ryan, I am so glad that you commented on this post. I really like the way you have wrestled with these issues (it's very similar to the way I have wrestled with them), and I am glad that you decided to challenge me with them, even though I have a little educational advantage over you. I know how intimidating that can be!

Anyway, as my next few posts unfold, I think you will find that there is very little I would disagree with in your response. I agree with you that a faith which doesn't make a difference in this life now is meaningless. What I discovered was that the only way to make sense of the Christian teaching on heaven and hell was to see these not as the reward or punishment of our life on earth now, but - more or less - as an extension of that life. Also, it will be a long time before I can address this subject in greater depth, but your insight that God transcends time and space is one that I take to be very important. In other words, I think you have a good intuitive theological compass, and I hope you keep heading in the direction where your questions are leading you.

I'll be interested in your feedback especially on my next posts on heaven and hell... coming soon!