RESURRECTION: Victorious Love
According to the Bible, the goal of humanity is bodily resurrection in the context of a renewed creation. The raising of Jesus of Nazareth proclaims hope for all humankind and for the whole creation. As St. Paul declares, "As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:22). Resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian faith - it proves that Jesus is Lord and that God's kingdom will come as promised. [For an introduction to the category of resurrection, see George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975).]
At the end of the last chapter we spoke about pragmatic grounds of faith; now we can say something about the historical basis. Because of prior beliefs, an atheist might not be convinced, but we have strong reasons for believing that God raised Christ from the dead. A surprisingly good case can be made for it.
The facts are fairly simple and straightforward. The event was a surprise to Jesus' disciples, who forsook him and fled after his arrest. The tomb in which the crucified Jesus had been laid was found to be empty, and his followers began to experience encounters with the risen Lord. From that point a movement started based on belief in Jesus' resurrection - a movement that continues to this day.
All this is well documented in the New Testament, and there is no hint of deception in it. The dejected disciples were transformed by this event and by the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The rest is history. Some people will not believe this, however much evidence is adduced. They will concoct some reason or other why the tomb was found empty. But others who are open to God breaking into their lives may find the case as persuasive as we have. [On such issues of history and philosophy, see Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993).]
The meaning of the resurrection is linked to the hope of new creation. As the cross speaks to the sinful past, so the resurrection speaks to the redeemed future. It is not just an isolated event that happened to Jesus - it is the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead. It signals the birth of a new order and opens the future for all of us. Jesus brought immortality to light and anticipated in his resurrection a world transformation. His resurrection tells us that there is fulfillment beyond this life and that death will not have the final word. The Risen Lord is the embodiment in advance of a new creation in which we can all share.
The promise of resurrection is one of human life fulfilled and perfected in the presence of the triune God. Instead of a merely worldly salvation, monistic oneness or judicial acquittal, the gospel of resurrection speaks of new creation and a personal and social fulfillment for which we were created as covenant partners of God.
Resurrection is a leading motif of the New Testament proclamation. As Peter states, "God...raised [Jesus] from the dead and gave him glory" (1 Pet 1:21). Paul could call his message "the word of life" because resurrection was central to it. Because of it believers can experience the power of his resurrection now and new life in the age to come. The resurrection has a clear meaning for us personally. It takes away our fear of death. It means that we can walk through the valley of the shadow and not fear evil. It means that our relationship with God is stronger than death. Paul puts it this way: "[God] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power than also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil 3:21).
The resurrection was the focus of apostolic preaching (Acts 2:24, 31, 3:15, 4:2,10, 13:30-35, 17:3). Without it our faith would be devoid of basis and meaning. Paul says, "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Cor 15:14). This is so because salvation comes through faith in the crucified and risen Lord. "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9). The resurrection is both the foundation and the central message of Christianity.
The Cross and the Empty Tomb
Though resurrection is central in the New Testament, it has not always been central in theology. The same Latin traditions we have referred to, according to which Christ is said to appease divine wrath on the cross, leave no room for resurrection to be central. Because the theory considers the work of Christ to have been finished on the cross, it diminishes the importance of the resurrection. It prevents the Easter event from playing a central role in redemption.
We need to get used to thinking that people are saved not by the cross only, but by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Paul says this plainly: "If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life" (Rom 5:10). Who ever heard a theologian say that the resurrection was more important than the cross for salvation?
Indeed, why was the resurrection of Jesus so important for the early Christians? Obviously, for the first disciples Jesus' resurrection would have been an unexpected happy surprise. It would have encouraged them mightily to know that the crucified Lord was alive. But there must be more to it than that.
Perhaps some people make the cross more central than they should because they think they understand its rationale tolerably well, whereas no such rationale springs to their mind about the resurrection. The history of Christian doctrine offers little discussion of theories of resurrection comparable to the vast discussion of theories of atonement.
Theology of Resurrection
Another problem is that we moderns tend to think of Jesus in a very individualistic way. We need to train ourselves to see him more biblically, because Jesus saw himself (and the New Testament writers saw him) as the last Adam and as a representative of humanity. Not just an isolated individual, Jesus was also a corporate person who intended to identify with humankind in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. "Servant of the Lord," "Son of Man," "Last Adam"- all the titles applied to him are "corporate" terms. They all imply a person in whom the race is somehow incorporated and by whom it is represented. Jesus saw his mission (and we should see it) as bound to our destiny. If he was not raised, there is no hope, but if he was raised, it spells resurrection and redemption for the world. [For theology of the resurrection, see Walter Kunneth, The Theology of the Resurrection (St. Louis: Concordia, 1965), pts. 2-3]
The resurrection means not only that Jesus' pre-Easter claims were vindicated, but also that a new age and the possibility of redemption had opened up for all people. The resurrection spells life from the dead for humanity and a new creation. The resurrection not only validated his claims to be God's Son but also signified the end of fallen history and the beginning of the new age. As our representative, Jesus was firstborn from death among many brothers and sisters and the firstfruits of those who sleep in death. Peter called him "the Author of life" for this very reason (Acts 3:15). If Jesus is alive, there is hope for the world and life beyond death. [A most capable study of resurrection is by Murray J. Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983).]
The book of Hebrews states that it was fitting for God to become a human being (2:10-11). The author finds it appropriate that God should have endured pain and suffering in the person of Christ, experienced temptation as we do and triumphed over death for our sakes. Making corporate assumptions, the early Greek theology often stated that humanity, if it was to be healed, had to be assumed by God and its wounds healed in him. God had to assume the broken life that was to be healed and had to endure death and resurrection in our place. For this reason Jesus endured suffering and was exalted at God's right hand, sending forth a signal that the new creation had begun.
Easter also underwrote the necessity of world mission, since everyone everywhere must now be told and enabled to participate in what has been done for them. By highlighting the resurrection, the Christian message promises the coming of the kingdom of God, whereby humanity will experience redemption at the end of history. The resurrection of Jesus is the pledge and foretaste of this event and gives hope and an answer to death. [On the resurrection as hope, see Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).]
The Problem of the Courtroom Model
How was it that the cross became more central than the resurrection in Western theology? Why is it more common to hear people ascribe redemptive value to the cross than to the resurrection? Why is the resurrection so grossly neglected in our systematic theologies as compared to the atonement? [Richard B. Gaffin notes this in Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1978).]
The explanation, we believe, lies in the legal orientation of Western theology, which does not leave room for the resurrection to have saving value. If the human problem is essentially one of guilt rather than death, and if the solution is primarily the satisfaction of the cross, what place is left for the resurrection to have saving value? Once Christ died and sin is atoned for, the legal problem is solved; what else is there to solve? In this scenario the resurrection is mainly icing on the cake and not a main event.
The corrective to this lies in seeing that Christ is our representative and substitute in a much larger sense. Not just in death, but in his life, death and resurrection, Jesus stood in the place of lost humanity. From beginning to end, his whole experience of incarnation was a grand substitution. He lived and died and rose again vicariously. Paul puts it succinctly when he says that "one has died for all; therefore all have died" (2 Cor 5:14). He means that humanity died in Jesus' death and humanity rises in his life, because he represents it. The human problem is larger than guilt, and the solution is broader than the cross.
Is Death the End?
We ought to be glad that our faith features resurrection. After all, death is a fundamental problem, and religion, to be credible, needs an answer for it. Is death the end? Do we face the annihilation of all possibilities? Does life end in absurdity? Is death the end of a meaningless life?
It is hard to believe that death is the end for two reasons. First, there is what C.S. Lewis calls an inconsolable longing in us for something more, a voice inside telling us that death is not the end. Why do we feel this way? Why do we have a thirst that nothing in this world can quench? Why do we feel there is Someone calling to us? This desire, we believe, points to the fact that we were made for something more than death, as the gospel declares.
Second, it is hard to believe that death is the end because of our hope for final justice. Few people find fulfillment in this earthly life. Most have lived under difficult circumstances, with their potential unrealized. Life is very unsatisfactory indeed if death is the end of everything. Most people die before being fully born. Life is indeed tragic if it concludes in death. We need a vision such as the resurrection gives us, where good is brought out of evil in the end. This is a vision we can really live with. It tells us that human existence is not a limitless tragedy but is destined for a good fulfillment beyond death. The only way for there to be a final righting of wrongs is for there to be life beyond this one. This we can believe if we accept the good news of resurrection. [On the resurrection as theodicy, see John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (London: Collins, 1976), chap. 8.]
What Does Resurrection Signify?
But it would be a misunderstanding to construe the promise of everlasting life as a bribe to induce us to love God. This may explain why God did not reveal it clearly to Israel. Though there are hints of life beyond death in the Old Testament, Israel had to love God without really knowing the full extent of what God had prepared for his beloved. Christians should love God for his own sake, even if everlasting life were not part of the gospel package.
Everlasting life, even when its promise is known, cannot be a bribe because of its nature. There is nothing about it that a mercenary person could desire. It is not at all like winning a lottery, for example. Heaven is a place where love for God is consummated. As marriage for lovers is a prize related to love, heaven for believers is intrinsic to their faith. It is a situation in which our feeble love for God can be fulfilled. Only a person who loves God on earth already would want to be in heaven. Perhaps the reason Jesus said only the pure in heart would see God was that they are the only ones who would want to. Anyone else would be uncomfortable.
Heaven represents the possibility of loving God more than we now do. It would be desirable only for persons who want more of that opportunity. If a person did not want it, heaven would be like hell.
Another misunderstanding of the Christian hope has to do with other-worldliness. Does our hope undercut commitment to good causes here on earth? The reason this is not a problem is that hope for resurrection is hope for the redemption of the world as created and loved by God. Belief in resurrection thus reinforces and does not negate commitment to the creation. It makes such commitment very important. Atheism inevitably undercuts commitment to the world, because it argues that there is finally nothing of value or meaning in the world. Christian hope, on the other hand, spurs us to commitment to our world and the people in it.
C.S. Lewis once said that because we love something beyond the world, we are able to love the world better than those who have nothing else. Loving God is a solid basis for loving the creation, because God is its Creator and Redeemer. Hope for perfected humanity in the presence of the triune God beyond death has positive implications for action in this earthly life. It lets us live in hope in the midst of despair, and it tells us that love, sharing and cohumanity are matters of ultimate significance.
The resurrection of Jesus is the foretaste of the resurrection of the dead, and this hope is a strong basis of meaningful social and individual life on the earth. People who hope do more for this world than those without hope. As Lewis said, "Aim at heaven and you will get the earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither." [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fontana, 1952), p. 116.] Hope for resurrection sustains a committed life in this world and points us forward to a new creation, not just of individuals but of humanity itself.
What Will Resurrection Be Like?
Because the descriptions of the new creation in the Bible refer to matters that are outside our present experience and beyond our imaginations, they are necessarily symbolic. One can only use language from this side of death to refer to that which lies beyond it. Resurrection itself is a metaphor of awakening from the sleep of death, waking up to an altogether new reality. We are going to see things that no eye has every seen, things that we can only expressed by symbols because they are beyond present experience.
Gold, for example, is a good symbol for life in eternity because it has value and never rusts. Crowns speak of royal splendor, while musical instruments express ecstasy and joy. Reality will surpass all these things, but the symbols give us an inkling. Everlasting life is life made completely whole, where the effects of sin will be no more and where pain, sorrow and death will perish. In this restoration we will become all we were meant to be and will inhabit a renewed creation. The world will be bathed in light, and God will be fully present.
The image of resurrection suggests that we will have a more perfect body, one that will express personality and relate to others in new ways. The idea of spending eternity as a disembodied soul is not appealing, but in the Apostles' Creed we confess the resurrection of the body, not the survival of disembodied souls. We look forward not to the immortality of the soul but to the resurrection of the whole person. [John W. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989).]
Hope for the consummation of history beyond the world is deeply meaningful when symbolized in the image of resurrection. The re-creation of a person in body and soul is a meaningful idea, not an illogical one. The Bible and modern anthropology agree that body and soul go together as a unit, that body and soul form a personal whole. A credible hope, then, must involve a resurrection of the whole person.
One way to think of this is to imagine God replicating a dead person in another place. Imagine John Brown dying in Canada and turning up the next day in China. The fellow is an exact replica of the dead man, with the same physical and mental characteristics. He even says he is John Brown. It is as if he had been re-created in another place as a fully embodied human person. This is thinkable if you grant that there is a God powerful enough to do such a thing. And who can deny that the God who made the world is able to fulfill such purposes for humankind? [On the replica theory of resurrection, see Hick, Death and Eternal Life, chap. 15.]
An atheist might counter that resurrection is an impossibility because there is no God to raise the dead. This is true (and so much the worse) for the atheistic model. In creative love theism, the divine Artist, having designed us in the first place, has the wisdom and power to resurrect us to improved bodies appropriate for a new creation. The argument between atheist and theist about resurrection lies in a difference of models and presuppositions and has little to do with scientific fact.
One difficulty with a replica model of the resurrection is the fact that it posits no physical continuity between the body of earthly life and the resurrected body. It suggests a new body materially unrelated to the old, a new one expressing our personality in a new environment. Many theologians have held that there must be some continuity of particles between the two bodies. This is difficult to image and would not be strictly necessary, since the cells of our body change every seven years.
The reason theologians insist on some material continuity is the fact that Jesus rose bodily, and the impression Paul gives is that the old body is transformed into a new one, not replaced. The issue probably comes down to the fact that resurrection as the firstfruits of a renewal of the whole creation must not be seen as replacement but as transformation. To ease our minds we could say that there will be material continuity of some kind, but we cannot say exactly of what kind.
What aspects of earthly life would we expect to continue and expand after the resurrection? Creative love theism suggests some possible answers arising out of its vision of God as primarily loving parent.
Loving parents on earth want their children to be able to crawl, to walk, to run and eventually to drive and be free to travel. By analogy, we are sure that God will make it possible for us to grow more in our friendship with him. We imagine that the resurrection will enable us to meet and relate to people of all nations and times. We will watch as all the nations bring their cultural treasures into the heavenly city. We will all be able to visit, communicate with and enjoy each other on a vast scale.
Loving parents on earth want their children to be creative, form words, string them into sentences, tell stories, write stories, paint pictures, write poems, learn music, make quilts, garden and so on. But in life we are continually frustrated by limitations of creativity based in mortality. God wants us to be free to enjoy the language of heaven, to write and paint, to dance and compose and sing melodies with all possible accompaniments.
Loving parents on earth in particular want their children to be free to love. In this body we long to know and be known, to love and be loved, but our loving is restrained and made difficult beyond the few persons whom we trust. Since God loves us and wants us to love, we can imagine our great Lover giving us bodies capable to loving to a fuller extent. In this life we have intimations and glimpses of what perfect loving might be like, but much more lies ahead.
God will surely satisfy the longings of the human heart. One frustration in life is that from time to time we have a vision of a beauty that we would love to create, a joy that we would love to enjoy, a love that we would love to enter. The paraplegic longs to walk and run, swim and climb mountains, dance ecstatically with abandon. The deaf long to hear, the blind to see. Atheists may suppose such longings are futile, but Christian hope enables us to picture every longing being satisfied and nothing good being lost. In heaven there will be the time and opportunity needed to capture and recapture the longings, the beauty, the joy, and to see a fulfillment to all that this life has left unsatisfied. The pleasure will be multiplied in the knowledge that every other person is finding his or her satisfaction too.
We cannot prove that all this will be the case. But we can picture possibilities and dream of what resurrection might mean. Whatever pictures we use are metaphorical, based on what we can now experience in our world. But we know, because God is truly loving, that the reality will not be less than these pictures but will surpass them.
Most essentially, life in the kingdom of God will involve interpersonal fellowship with the persons of the Trinity. It is not the life of the solitary self, but life in community with God and others. As on earth we are social beings and exist in relationship with other persons, so in heaven we will grow in this dimension. We will more and more transcend an individualist orientation and grow in our capacity for relationships. There will be an experience of community beyond anything we know now. As we grow in our knowledge of the God who incorporates three personal centers that relate to one another in loving relationships, we will find fulfillment in a communion that reflects that love flowing from God the Trinity. The many persons in heaven will not exist over against one another, but rather with one another and in openness to one another.
When asked a question about a woman who had lived with seven brothers in succession, Jesus commented, "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mat 22:30). He also chastised his interrogators for not realizing that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be not less alive but more alive on the other side of death, because their relationship with God could not be destroyed by death (Mat 22:31-32). All others who love God will also live beyond death, thanks to his grace and power. Human beings matter to God, and he will not see them scrapped.
Centuries ago Pascal offered a wager to help people decide about the truth of the gospel. He said that it made sense to accept it because if it proves true, one will have gained everything, and if it is not true, nothing will have been lost. In creative love theism, too, there is nothing to lose. God has already included us in salvation without our asking. We have been accepted into the life and love of God. Unconditional love gives us freedom and fosters our own ability to love. The light of the resurrection calls us to a love that makes life full and fulfilling. Faith is a risk, but it is better to bet on life than fall into despair.
Jesus Christ has brought a new order into being. Lives can be changed, hearts made new, bodies healed because our human nature has been raised in him. The Risen One gives us a glimpse of real life without limitations for all eternity in the kingdom of God. The whole creation now is feeling the birth pangs of newness.
Chapter 4 .....