People don’t like death. No one is going to argue with this self-evident truth. It is the issue which defines human nature. The rage against finitude is at the heart of the human condition: our fearful reaction to the knowledge that, like it or not, we will die someday. A huge portion of human activity can be traced back to an attempt to avoid death, consciously or unconsciously. Of course, such activity is always in vain, and along the way, causes untold injustice and suffering to people and damage to the environment, but we do it all the same, because the alternative Jesus gave to us – to die to self and put faith in God – is just too hard, too scary, too contrary to our animal instincts.
From the start, it is necessary to understand that resurrection is not about immortality or life after death in heaven, and it certainly is not about escaping death. In the stories told by the Gospel writers, Jesus really died! He was not asleep; he died a cruel and ugly death. He wasn’t dead for a moment on the operating table having an out-of-body experience. He was D-E-A-D, sealed in the grave for three days. He didn’t show some immortal soul, some divine spark that lived on in him or in the hearts and minds of his disciples. That’s a pagan, Greek view that has oozed into our culture, but it’s not in the Bible.
Jesus was dead. The disciples did not deceive themselves about his death; they did not have a sense that, though he was crucified, his spirit was alive and well on some other plane. The one whom they loved, in whom they had hoped, was dead. This much is plain in the Gospel stories: how they arrived at the first Easter in great grief. They came to Jesus’ tomb with no cheap, false consolation about ‘his message will never die.’ When they saw that the tomb was empty, they didn’t think, ‘Jesus is immortal;’ they thought, ‘Somebody stole his body.’ There’s a lot of weeping and real grief in the story. Tears are the appropriate response to the reality, the finality, the totality of death.
More than Jesus died on Good Friday. The people of Israel believed that one day God was going to solve the problem of Israel’s suffering and oppression and, while God was at it, God would solve the problem of evil and injustice in all the world. The Scriptures promised such a day of divine victory, and many believed that God was going to act in Jesus. On Easter the disciples discovered that day had come, expressed in the story of the resurrection of Jesus, but not in the way people thought it would come.
The cross, which they had thought was the end of their dreams for Israel and the death of their relationship with Jesus, was really the beginning. Easter was God’s answer to the question, ’What shall be done about the world?’
Into the tragedy of Jesus’ death, and more importantly, what he represented for Israel, comes resurrection. There is life after death in this story, but the point is that it isn’t what lots of western people think about as life after death. Christianity does not embrace a belief in the immortality of a disembodied soul. The creed affirms resurrection of the body; not resuscitation of the body, not a corpse that suddenly comes back to life, not the immortality of the soul, not some divine spark that keeps on living despite our death.
In the story, the tomb was empty; Jesus’ body was not there. When the risen Christ appeared to Mary, he appeared not as some disembodied ghost, a spirit, but in his body. Later the risen Christ would eat with his disciples, and be touched by them.
So how do we make sense of this notion of resurrection? In first place we Christians believe, as they say, ‘when you’re dead, you’re dead.’ Death really is death; the end. But we also believe, as the story of the resurrection proclaims, that God has decisively acted to defeat death. This is better than wishful thinking about life after death, for the resurrection of body means that this world matters, now.
This world matters. The matter of this world matters. Our goal is not some disembodied spiritual never-never-land. God has made a bridgehead against the onslaught of death here and now.
In case the reader has not yet grasped that resurrection is not a literal description, please recognise now that it is a symbol. As theologian Paul Tillich said, resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the ‘New Being’ to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow; eternity is created out of every moment of time.
The symbol of resurrection applies to all kinds of death: death of dreams, death of contentment, death of ideas, death of peace, et al. There is no pain we now face that is not transformed in the notion of resurrection. Resurrection is God’s response to Jesus’ choice to follow God’s will unto death, and so it becomes God’s promise to us which, in turn, makes it possible for us to follow God’s will to the point of giving up our attempts to protect ourselves from death, that makes it possible for us to let God win us over. Resurrection is about God getting at last what God wants here, now, on earth, in the body, in the bodies of those who would follow Jesus.
That’s why we pray each Sunday, “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” It is not a concern about a cushy afterlife in store for some of us who make the grade, someday. If it was, then Christianity could be justly accused of being some sort of pie-in-the-sky religion rather than the thy-kingdom-come-on-earth religion that it is. If Easter is just about Jesus exiting the tomb in some ethereal spiritual sense, leaving a body in the tomb to rot, leaving the world to stew in its own juices, then what hope is there for us, for the world?
Nor is the living Christ just about having some warm feeling in your heart, some vague inclinations of a spiritual nature. It is about kingdom-on-earth-as-in-heaven. It isn’t just about warmed hearts; it’s about transformed bodies, a new heaven and new earth. Karl Marx charged that Christianity lulls people into political complacency, willing to tolerate other people’s misery and injustice because Christianity has got nothing but heaven in its head, some future spiritual experience removed from the here and now.
Although Marx well understood many Christians, he did not understand Christianity any better than they did. The first witnesses to Easter knew full well that something had happened to them, and their world had been entered, encountered, transformed and reformed. Easter wasn’t God saying, “Let me get you out of this terrible, deadly, tearful world.” Easter was God saying, “Let me show you what I am doing with you and your world.” The disciples did not know what to name the ‘something’ that had happened to them to restore their lives and their dreams, but whatever it was, it was like their master was still with them, so they called it resurrection.