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The first time I heard the quote (attributed to Dr. Johnson), “Men live in hope, die in despair,” I was not in English class but in the Student Union. I was playing ping-pong with my college roommate and friend George Ashok Kumar “Taupu” Das. He taught me how to play and, looking back, I am amazed at his patience. In our first games, he beat me 21-3 or 21-4 and, even then, I only scored points when he was not paying attention.
After months of playing almost daily, I had become competitive. He was still beating me every game, but by this time the score was 21-10, then 21-14, then 21-18. Clearly, he was paying attention.
It was during one of these contests – sometimes tied, sometimes the lead changing by a point or two – that the finish line came in sight for me. I could taste victory. The game was nearly over – just a couple of more points – and I would finally win. But Taupu buckled down, shut me down, and handed me yet another defeat.
I must have said something about how I almost had him or how I would get him next time. And that’s when our other great friend, our resident genius John Erdel, who was sitting there, idly watching the game, gave me a deadpan look and said: “Men live in hope, die in despair.”
That is a dismal view of life and a demoralizing view of death. Anyone who truly believed this could not possibly live in hope – could only live in despair and die in despair. But the resurrection of Jesus means that people can live in hope and die in hope. The death and resurrection of Jesus is both the biggest thing that has ever happened in the world and the biggest thing that has ever happened to individuals, whether they know it or not. The resurrection is proof that hope will not abandon us in the end.
The Christian story is not, as it is sometimes mistakenly presented, that we will fly off to heaven after we die to live eternally as disembodied spirits. That is Plato, not Jesus. Our story is that God has come to earth in Jesus and is, even at this moment, working out his plan for us and for the world.
It is from that story, which is our story, that transforming hope comes—hope that can change the way we think, the way we feel, and the things we do. What happened to and through Jesus then can change us now, can change us for the better.
The Christian hope is far greater than the belief that people can somehow survive death. The resurrection gives us reason to believe that we will be – that nothing can stop us from being – fulfilled, completed, perfected. St. Paul put it this way: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power…” He goes on: “…we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
The resurrection of Jesus is the promise that the long and tortuous project known as humanity will one day be finished and will be good. It will be very good. Life will finally make sense, God’s wisdom will be acknowledged, and humanity will be a source of joy to its creator and to itself. This – nothing less, and certainly far more – is what awaits the people of God.
But the resurrection offers more than the hope that humanity will achieve fulfillment, as wonderful as that is. It promises that all things in heaven and on earth will be made right, made good, made glorious. The resurrection means that God’s plan is unstoppable, that heaven will right every earthly wrong.
There is simply no hope so extravagant, so bold, as this. No utopian dream, Shangri-La or Xanadu, can compare to the richness of the Christian hope, which is founded on the resurrection of Christ. This is what Christians celebrate at Easter.
(First published by Gannett.)