Sunday, April 9, 2023

For the Skeptical & Seeking | Why Jesus' Resurrection Matters

Resurrection by Magnus 3D

“Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. For He has risen, just as He said ... Go quickly and tell His disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and indeed He is going ahead of you ... '" "Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting?" ... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! + Matthew 28:5-7, 8; 1 Corinthians 15:55, 57

The resurrection of Jesus has been proclaimed globally again. After all the celebration, and for others, after just a simple shrug, many of us are still mixed with doubt + faith, fear + hope about what it all means. 

Does Christ reign today or is this just merely a spiritual pick-me-up? Why do we still consider this ancient idea of resurrection even possible in the first place? If you're questioning it being a bit crazy, you're not alone. People during Jesus' day thought it was out of this world, too.

It was equally unthinkable for Jews and Greeks to change their views regarding the resurrection. To shift from thinking the body is bad and worthy of escape to believing that the body is good and worthy of resurrection was inconceivable to Greeks. To conceive of a resurrection in the middle of history, limited to one man, was preposterous for the Jews. ... (But) If you met and conversed with someone you knew had died, wouldn't your beliefs and views change? ... What if this person also claimed to be God, possessing the power to forgive your sins and grant you eternal life? You know that there will be consequences to going public with your beliefs. Friends will avoid you. Family members will no longer invite you to holiday parties, or worse, they will reject and disown you. Neighbors will scorn you. If you are living in the first century, the Roman government will oppose you and Emperor Nero will burn you to death. So why run the risk of social marginalization and personal sacrifice if Jesus did not rise from the dead? 
+ Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection

So if you're wondering about it all, that's OK. Jesus' own disciples did after they encountered what was out of this world come into their world before their eyes. And Jesus invited them to press into their questions with Him. What if Jesus is inviting you, too, to encounter the impossible made possible. What if what you thought was a closed door in considering life beyond death has been unhinged, opened forever by the One who said: 

I am the Door ... I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.  
+ John 10:9-10

Regardless of what you think of Jesus, I think many of us are interested in a life that aims for the reconciliation of heaven with earth (i.e. no more disease, violence, destruction, erosion, injustice, slavery, betrayal, and shame) for people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and all of creation. But we doubt if it's really possible even as we attempt to use science and technology in the 21st century western society to bring about a world where we can evade age, death, and disease. So maybe it's not too hard to imagine yourself as part of this crowd when they saw Jesus ...

When they saw Jesus, they worshiped, but some doubted. Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the very end." 
+ Matthew 28:17-20 

Look again at who's with Him. " ... some doubted ... " For the some who doubted, Jesus came near and invited them into what He was doing to share and show His Good News in reconciling people with God and heaven with earth. And if He really is resurrected and able to accomplish this, Jesus can come near to you even now. Whether worship or doubt, or a mix of both, or something else, is your response to the resurrection, Jesus is still inviting you to wonder and to take a walk with Him in response to the validity and implications of His resurrection.  

To help us consider this crazy good possibility again for a moment, let's glean from Anglican historian and theologian N.T. Wright. As an intro to his train of thought, here is a quote to touch on his reflections on the subject:

The resurrection is the decisive event demonstrating that God's Kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you're now invited to belong to it.

God's Kingdom of heaven being launched on earth? How? Why? When? This post features snippets from some of Wright's brief answers to these three specific questions:

+ Was the resurrection of Christ historical?  
+ Why can we trust that Jesus was really resurrected?  
+ Why does resurrection matter?

+ Was the resurrection of Christ historical: Did people in the 1st century really believe that Jesus, the man from Nazareth, was risen after death before them in bodily form?

The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah took everybody by surprise in Israel and Rome. 

Jesus' own disciples weren't expecting it. They knew perfectly well if you followed someone who you thought was the Messiah, and he got killed, then that was it. We know of at least a dozen other Messianic or prophetic movements, within the hundred years on either side of Jesus, that routinely ended with the death of the founder. And if the movement wanted to continue, they didn't say, "Oh he's been raised from the dead." They said, "Let's find his brother or cousin who can carry on this movement." We can see how those other Jewish groups did that. But this one did it differently. They had James, the brother of Jesus, as this great leader in the early Church. But nobody said, "James is the Messiah now." They said, "Jesus was and is the Messiah." When others responded, "Why? He's dead. They got Him. Didn't you realize they crucified Him?!" ... they would still say, "No, Jesus was raised from the dead." 

The only way you can explain why Christianity began, and why it took the very precise shape it did, is let's say it cautiously ... "They really did believe He was bodily raised from the dead." And then if you take the second question, "Why would they believe that?" You can go through all the theories i.e. that they found themselves forgiven, that they had a fresh sense of the presence of God, that this was cognitive dissonance, etc. Then you bring all those theories to the actual facts that we know on the ground in the first century ... and the only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised, is that there really was an empty tomb. They really did meet Jesus alive again in a transformed body. And then the Christianity movement makes sense. 

Of course, when I wrote a big book on this, The Resurrection of the Son of God, my philosopher tutor from Oxford who was an atheist read it and he said, "Great book, you really make the argument. I simply choose to believe that there must be some other explanation even though I don't know what it is." I said, "Fine, that's as far as I can take you. I can't bully you into saying, 'Therefore you must believe ... '" because to do that requires a change of worldview. But, once you begin to question your worldview, and say, "Maybe there really is a creator God and maybe this Creator God really is sorting out this sad old world at last?" then everything else in that historic moment makes sense in a way that it doesn't seem to fit with any other possibility.

+ Why can we trust that Jesus was really resurrected: Didn't myths in the ancient world make it easier to believe in a legend of a resurrected Jesus whereas today we would be much less likely to believe?

In the ancient world, there were lots of legends, lots of myths, lots of things floating around. My problem as a historian is unless you say, "Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead," it is very difficult to explain historically many of the features of early Christianity. 

Just take what all the early Christians believed about what happens to people after their deaths. Resurrection is a very traditional thing in Christianity. If you do a funeral, or if you go to a family funeral, people want it to be pretty much like we've always done it. They will say the same things as they've always done. Now there's a whole range of opinions in the ancient world, pagan and Jewish about what happens to people after they die that was markedly different than what Jesus' followers began to say after His resurrection. Yet astonishingly, in early Christianity, they all say, "After we die, if we belong to Christ, we will rest and then we will be raised from the dead on the last day to share in God's new world." That's a major revolution. Why did that happen? That breaks all the cultural norms that they came from in the ancient world. They all say it's because of what God did to Jesus. That's just one argument out of dozens. 

There are all sorts of lines pointing back to that moment in human history that say, "We know that dead bodies don't rise." Sometimes people today in response say, "We have modern science, and we can now prove that resurrection can't happen." But Plato also knew that dead people don't rise. Homer knew that. Socrates knew that. This is not a new discovery. No, the Christians in that world that should have known otherwise still said, "Yes, but this is because the Creator God, is launching His new world in Jesus. And this is the beginning of it." 

The resurrection is not an isolated, bizarre event within the old world. It is the "beginning of" event within the new world. But the new world nests within and is transforming the old world.

+ Why does resurrection matter: Even more so, why is Jesus resurrecting, what is He doing through His resurrection, and why should it matter to me today?

So what are the implications of the belief that Jesus really was bodily raised from the dead? They start right away on Easter morning as the disciples scramble around trying to figure out what on earth has happened and what precisely it means. Because, we have to remember, it wasn't in their game plan. They weren't going around after His crucifixion saying, "Well, that's very unpleasant, but in a couple of days, He'll be back again." They were rather completely confounded by discovering the empty tomb and then by meeting the risen Jesus Himself.

This was a whole new world opening up in front of them and they weren't ready for it. So the implication right from the start is that God's new creation has begun. Somehow God seems to have dealt with the fact of death itself in the person of Jesus. And then as they reflect on that over the weeks and months that follow, there are two things that are coming at them from a variety of angles. One is that the ancient Scriptures, which many of them had known and loved since childhood, had been fulfilled, but in a completely unexpected way. They started to read familiar texts with new eyes. So that when, for instance, God promises to David, "I will raise up your offspring after you who will sit on your throne," they said, "Oh my, it says God will raise up your offspring ... He has resurrected Jesus. This is the fulfillment of the promise to David, which was also a promise about the building of a new temple, the new thing that God was going to do, the new way He was going to be present with His people."

So we have a new creation, we have a new fulfillment of Scripture, and then, the second thing that happened very soon, I think they realized that this was the fulfillment of the promise about the Exodus, what God had said through many prophets and in the Psalms, that what He did for His people when He brought them out of Egypt, He was going to do in a whole new way. And He was going to do it in a way that would last forever. And they came to realize that this rescue from slavery had actually happened in Jesus. And that those who belonged to Jesus, those that were somehow enfolded into His life, that they were the new Exodus people, the people that had been released from slavery. And it didn't take long for them, and this particularly came through in the writings of Paul.

To say that the ultimate slavery is sin and death, the death from which God had raised Jesus and the sin, which in Hebrew Scriptures all the way through is the ultimate background cause of death. Because when people worship that which is not God and when people behave in ways in which their humanity, their image-bearing of God is diminished or distorted or destroyed, then we see that sin and death just go hand-in-hand. And so Paul says if the Messiah hasn't been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. In other words, no resurrection means that sin has not actually been dealt with. Then Paul comes back and says, "The Messiah actually has been raised from the dead." And as a result, He is now Lord of all and He is ruling at the right hand of God.

Because that's the next implication that arises out this idea of new creation, new fulfillment of Scripture, new Exodus, and dealing with sin. The next implication is if Jesus has been raised from the dead, He is Israel's Messiah as He always hinted and they had begun to expect, but Israel's Messiah in Scriptures, is the Lord of the world. When we read Psalms like Psalm 2 and 72, or Psalm 89, we find that when the Messiah comes, when David's Son arrives, He will be King over all the world, not just over Israel. And so we find, not surprisingly, that the resurrection of Jesus means what we would call, "a new political implication." Not a new revolutionary party like all the other revolutionary parties we might have seen. But as Paul says at the climax of his argument of his greatest letter, the letter to the Romans, the Messiah is the One who rises to rule the nations. He is quoting from Isaiah 11 at that point, one of the great Messianic passages. 

And so, we can see how this works because death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant. Human tyrants rule by bullying, by fear, by cajoling people, "If you don't do what we say, we're going to make it really bad for you." But the resurrection says that the living God has a power which goes beyond death and ultimately the tyrant's power is removed and his kingdom is gone. And so Jesus' resurrection means that through what has happened, through what God has done in Jesus' death and then in His glorious rising, a new world has begun, and Jesus' people, all those who belong to Him who share His risen life in the power of the Spirit, they constitute a new people who are to bear witness by what they are, by what they do, and by what they say to the fact that Jesus the Messiah is Lord of the world.

Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce and proclaim: 
+ redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, 
+ healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, 
+ love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion. 
The Gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and evenheaven help usBiblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom.  
+ N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

So resurrection tells us two things:

1) Resurrection is personal. It says that when the moment of bereavement happens in death and at a funeral, when the moment of grief comes, and yes, it is horrible, it is very nasty, and we miss our loved ones sorely. But, there is hope because there is a future in God's new world. We can say, "Goodnight, but I'll see you in the morning." That's one of the things that it means very deeply, very personally. 
2) Resurrection is the great turning point in human history, the moment when everything changed when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning. We live in a world that can fool itself that the great turning point in history came in Europe and America in the 18th century when we had what was called the Enlightenment. And with our new ideas, and our new science, and our new democracies, etc., we are actually going to solve the problems of the world. If you look back at the last couple hundred years, we can say, "If that's called solving the problems of the world, we're going to have to think a bit better in the future." But that's because the Enlightenment has offered a parody of Christianity. The Enlightenment wants to rubbish the resurrection because if the resurrection happened, it means that that was the great turning point of history, not our new sciences and ideas. 

So the goal is to go back and re-inhabit the truth that God's new world was born when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and as we learn to live out of that belief, out of that event, then that is the way in which God's Kingdom is going to come on earth as in heaven.

Another point of the "why" of resurrection is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call our part of building for God's Kingdom. 
+ N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

If you decide after reading this post that you want to discuss this more, I would love for you to email me. Consider this an open invitation for a Zoom call (or two) with you. Or if you want to remain anonymous and take an initial plunge on your own, I encourage you to check out Raised? Finding Jesus By Doubting the Resurrectiona small book and complementary documentary that ponders these things some more. Wright's own Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church or Tim Keller's more recent Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter may take you even furtherAnd for those who just can't help diving into deeper waters, then The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3) might be your next great reading venture.

I am always hopeful. A Christian is a prisoner of hope. What could have looked more hopeless than Good Friday? But then, at Easter, God says, ‘From this moment on, no situation is untransfigurable.’ There is no situation from which God cannot extract good. Evil, death, oppression, injustice—these can never again have the last word, despite all appearances to the contrary. 
+ Bishop Desmond Tutu

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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