Is it possible that we have drawn the wrong conclusion – or fail to draw the right conclusion – from the resurrection of Jesus? Has the church substituted a Pagan/Platonic application to the truth of the resurrection for the apostolic one?
If we treat the resurrection primarily as proof that we will live in heaven after we die, we are certainly on the Platonic spectrum. First Stone in an Avalanche examines St. Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ misunderstanding of the meaning of Jesus’s rising. You can: watch (YouTube, skip ahead to 18:46 for the beginning of the sermon) or listen (Lockwood Church website – scroll down to “Listen to Sermons”) or read below – whichever works best for you.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)
In the four Gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus – this surprised me when I first realized it and it surprises me still – no one ever uses the word “resurrection” to describe Jesus’s return from death, neither the Gospel writers nor the people whose conversations they reported. They talk about how Jesus rose from the dead, but they never use the one word you would expect them to use: “resurrection.” It’s almost as if they were avoiding it.
That ought to raise a question in our minds: Why didn’t they use the word “resurrection?” The answer, I think, comes in two parts, the first of which is very straightforward: The Gospel writers did not use the word “resurrection” because the men and women whose story they were telling didn’t use the word. The fact that the writers refrained from using what is arguably the most important word in the vocabulary of the early church speaks volumes about their intention to faithfully recount what had happened.
Some modern scholars think that everything theological in the Gospels – especially everything that points to the deity of Jesus and his status as the Messiah – was invented by the Church and written into the Gospels in an act of historical revisionism. Those scholars believe that the healing miracles, the transfiguration and especially the resurrection never happened. They think the Church fabricated them as a way of elevating Jesus’s status and validating their faith.
Yet here we have the most important thing ever, the climax of all four Gospels and the core tenet of the Christian faith, and none of the writers even once give in to the temptation to describe it as resurrection. This is an overlooked and remarkably important evidence for biblical authenticity.
But that brings us to the second part of the question. Why didn’t the people in the story – Peter, John, the apostles, the women disciples – refer to Jesus’s return from the dead as “resurrection”? The doctrine of the resurrection was profoundly important to most first century Jews. It was a belief for which they were willing to fight. So, why didn’t Jesus’s apostles, the women disciples or even, after the fact, the fidgety chief priests, ever mention it?
I think the answer is once again straightforward, though it might surprise us. In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s return from death, the disciples didn’t realize he had been resurrected. Now, they did believe Jesus had risen from the dead. The evidence overwhelmingly supports that conclusion. They did not, as some have suggested, think that Jesus lived on in spirit or as a “life force” or as a powerful memory, as people do when they point to their hearts and say of a deceased spouse, “He’s still with me and always will be – right here!”
No, the disciples believed that Jesus died; that he was stone-cold dead, dead as a doornail; dead and buried. And they believed that after three days he came back to life; that he was alive again, walking-talking-eating-drinking-alive! But during those first days, it did not occur to them that Jesus had been resurrected.
That may sound like a contradiction to you; it is not. The disciples had seen three people (that we know of) raised back to life after they had died: the daughter of Jairus, the young man living (and dying) in Nain and, most spectacularly, their friend Lazarus. These people had been dead – stone-cold, dead as a doornail dead – and Jesus had somehow brought them back to life. But the disciples did not think that any of those people had been resurrected. The idea never occurred to them – and it wouldn’t occur to them.
When they heard that Jesus was alive and then saw him for themselves – after having seen him horribly killed – they believed their Master had risen from the dead and were overjoyed. But that did not signify to them that he had been resurrected. In their minds, and in the minds of their contemporaries, resurrection was a different thing altogether. It didn’t happen here or there, to this or that individual. When it happened, it would happen to everyone in the world, and that would be on the last day. Resurrection was the inaugurating event of the age to come.
So even though Jesus rose from the dead and his friends knew it, they didn’t make the connection between his rising and the resurrection. In their minds, when the resurrection happened, everyone who had ever died would be raised from the dead – the righteous to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal death. It took time and instruction – most importantly from Jesus himself – for the enormity of what had happened in that garden tomb to sink in. Jesus had not only come to life again after being dead, as remarkable as that was; death had been overcome and the resurrection – the coming to life of everyone who had ever died – had begun.
By the time we come to the early chapters of Acts, Jesus’s followers are using the word “resurrection” right and left. What changed? Over the forty-day period following the Passion, Jesus repeatedly met with his disciples and explained to them from the Scriptures what had happened and what it meant. In Luke’s words, “[B]eginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). By the time the events in Acts take place – beginning less than a month-and-a-half later – we find the disciples “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2).
They now understood that the resurrection – the coming back to life of everyone who had ever died – had commenced. That brought them to the remarkable conclusion that the “last days” had begun and “the renewal of all things” (to use Jesus’s own words) was underway.
Easter celebrations frequently focus on the fact that we will continue to live after we die. As true as that is, it’s important to realize that most people believed that before Jesus rose from the dead. They believed that humans continue to live in some form (as ghosts or spirits or as some amalgamation of life forces) after they die. The resurrection of Jesus signaled something more radical and far-reaching than that.
No one has explained the implications of Jesus’s rising more thoroughly than the apostle Paul. When he first heard people say Jesus was alive, he didn’t believe a word of it. (We assume that people in the first century were gullible and would believe anything. That’s rubbish. They were no more likely to believe that a man three days dead would return to life than we are.) Paul never doubted it was a hoax—until he saw the resurrected Jesus for himself, and that changed everything.
From that time on, Paul could not stop talking and writing about the resurrection. In his biblical letters, Paul used the noun “resurrection” approximately four times as often as he used the noun “forgiveness”. The verbs related to resurrection and forgiveness are even more out of balance. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the resurrection to Paul. As far as he was concerned, there is no “faith in Jesus” apart from belief in the resurrection.
Paul’s most comprehensive explanation of resurrection comes in 1st Corinthians 15. That entire letter was written around the idea that God is restoring all things, and the resurrection is central to his plan. And when I say “resurrection” I am referring to the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all the rest of us. In Paul’s mind – and in the mind of the early Christians – the two cannot be separated. His resurrection is the guarantee of ours, and ours is the outcome and achievement of his. The bond between them is unbreakable.
Yet some people in Corinth were trying to break that bond. They couldn’t see how sophisticated intellectuals could believe in resurrection. Yes, they believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, but they denied that the rest of us would be so raised. Death, they believed, unchains people from their weak and corrupt bodies and releases their spirits into the eternal world. To them, the idea that the spirit would be reunited to the body was repulsive.
Now look at 1 Corinthians 15. The central question in this passage comes in verse 12: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” These educated Corinthians were affirming that Jesus had been raised but denying the resurrection of the rest of us.
In this chapter, Paul begins with the question of whether the dead are raised, then moves to the question of when the dead are raised, and finally to the question of how the dead are raised. It is a brilliantly organized passage. We don’t have time to look at all of it, so we’ll focus on the relationship between the miracle of Christ’s rising and our own resurrection.
Now remember than some of the Corinthians denied there is a relationship between the two. Paul insists that there is. He carefully avoids speaking about Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, as if they were two different things. Jesus’s resurrection is a part of the resurrection. Or it might be more accurate to say that the resurrectionflows out of Jesus’s resurrection. The two cannot be disconnected. There is one resurrection, but it happens in two phases. Christ’s resurrection is the first stone in an avalanche.
Why make such a fuss about this? Because Paul understood that the resurrection is about more than a spirit being united to a body following death. That is far too individualistic a way of looking at it. Resurrection is the pivotal event in God’s plan to “make all things new.” Resurrection inaugurates the last days, initiates the Great Renewal, and promises the glories of the kingdom of God. Resurrection is the threshold into the age to come. Most Jews believed that. What they didn’t know was that resurrection had already begun in Jesus. That was the astonishing good news the Christians had to tell. It was not just that people go on living after they die – everyone already knew that! It was that the new age had arrived when Jesus rose from the dead.
That is why, in verse 20, Paul calls Jesus “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (or died). In the first century, people understood the image of the firstfruits. Each year, at the very beginning of the wheat harvest, the Israelites sent their first ripe wheat as an offering to the Lord’s temple. Seven weeks later they went to Jerusalem to celebrate the completed harvest. Just as the firstfruits announced the harvest had begun and promised more to follow, Jesus’s rising announced the resurrection had begun and promised more to follow. We live in the period between firstfruits and harvest.
Behind this passage, remember, stands the idea that God is restoring creation. There are allusions to the first creation – recounted in Genesis one and two – everywhere in this chapter. That is intentional. There are seeds and plants, like Genesis 1; men and animals; birds and fish; there is the sun, the moon, and the stars. And in case we still haven’t made the connection, Adam himself shows up. Paul is thinking about creation … and recreation. The first creation floundered upon Adam’s rebellion and is dying. The new creation was established on Jesus’s obedience and is ready to rise. Look at verses 21-22: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
“But,” verse 23, “each in his own turn.” Here is where the Jesus-follower’s understanding of resurrection goes beyond the ancient Jewish understanding. It didn’t change it (Paul’s view is still thoroughly Jewish), but it added to it; it clarified it. The additional insight was this: There is an order to the resurrection. It happens in phases. That’s the thing Paul and his colleagues had not previously understood. When he did, it changed everything. (And it should change everything for us, too.)
Christ’s resurrection was not simply proof that people continue to live in some form after they die. It was not just proof that death has been defeated, though it was certainly that. It was proof that the new age had dawned, that the ancient promises made by God – promises of a kingdom, a restoration, and a renewal – were being fulfilled. It was proof to the disciples, as Chesterton once put it, that the world had died in the night and that “what they were looking at was the first day of a new creation…”
Judaism divided time into two ages: The present age and the age to come. The present age is a time of injustice and conflict. Paul referred to it elsewhere as “the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), a time of growing corruption, from which people need to be rescued.
The age to come, on the other hand, will be the time of God’s undisputed rule, characterized by peace and justice – a time of prosperity, reconciliation, and joy. And, as everyone knew, the line between this present age and the age to come was the resurrection.
And here is Paul, telling us that the resurrection has already begun. The claim is staggering. The resurrection began on a spring morning somewhere around 30 A.D. in a Jerusalem garden when Jesus came out of the tomb and it will conclude when Jesus comes back from heaven. But if that is true, what has happened to the age to come?
That is a profoundly important question, and no one contemplated it more deeply than Paul himself. He believed that the new age had already dawned and that everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is already part of the new creation (“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” – 2 Corinthians 5:17). The new age had dawned but the old age would not conclude until the completion of the second phase of the resurrection when the Messiah returns. The moon is still out but the sun has already risen. We live in the overlap between the arrival of the new age and the termination of the old one.
We frequently think of the resurrection as proof that we will go to heaven when we die but Paul thought of the resurrection as proof that God’s kingdom has come to earth while we live. The new age had dawned or, to be more precise, the new age is dawning. In the overlap time, we still have the sorrows, sins, and corruption of the present age. But we can already tap into the joy and peace and freedom of the age to come. The winds of that age are blowing across the borders of our time, and we can lean into them. We can know “the power of the resurrection” – the remarkable power to live the future in the present. It is in this overlap period that we learn to live “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
There are battles to be fought and won during the overlap. There is a way of life to be learned. There is work to be done. So Paul says in the last verse of this chapter: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
Easter – the resurrection – means so much more than life after death. It means that we can live a different kind of life before we die, as we draw on the resources of the age to come. Most people live out of the past. For good or ill, they are molded (and often shackled) by their former experiences. But those with faith in Jesus Christ can break the mold by learning to live out of their future. They can learn to tap into the age to come, and so live in hope. They are formed by the future in ways that people who are shaped only by the past cannot imagine. They live, as Paul put it, “in the power of the resurrection,” and that sets them free to become all that God intends them to be.
If you want that kind of life – a future-oriented, God-empowered, old-habit-breaking, hope-producing life – there is one place to find it: in a faith-connection to the Resurrected One, Jesus. If you’ve already established a faith connection to the Living One, that kind of life is waiting for you – and us. Let’s learn to live it!
 The Everlasting Man. The entire quotes runs: “On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.”