Life Finds a Way

In this second week of Easter, this verse from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings has lodged itself in my brain: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). It’s in Peter’s address to those “men of Israel” (not all Jews!) who colluded with their rulers and Rome to execute Jesus.

There are three astounding claims in this verse.

First astounding claim: Jesus is “the Author of life.” Jesus is the origin of life, the ruler of life (archēgos). Everything Jesus did, he did to bring about life. Everything Jesus continues to do by the Spirit, he does to bring about life. This, then is who God is: the Author of life, the one who writes our stories toward a full and thriving life. That which brings about death is not-God; this is the Satan, the anti-God, the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus has come to bring life, a life that is abundant (John 10:10).

Second astounding claim: Jesus, the Author of life, was killed. Humans killed the origin of life. Powerful humans, coalescing in the powers-that-be—human structures and systems of injustice and oppression—killed the ruler of life. The Author of life was written out of his own story. While God always moves creation toward life, we can do things that bring about death—even the death of God.

Third astounding claim: God raised the Author of life from the dead. God overturned the verdict of the human powers-that-be; God undid the death and destruction of the Satan, the anti-God, the thief. To quote that well-known theologian, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.” The God who always and only moves creation toward life, finds a way to bring life even out of death.

May we be chastened by the reality that we as humans can do things that bring death, even writing the Author of life out of their own story. But may we be encouraged that the Author of life still lives, and God is writing our story toward a full and thriving life, an abundant life for all persons and all creation.

The Good News of “Holy Terror”

As we begin our Holy Week journey toward the cross, we know already that the story ends with the good news of resurrection. But Mark gives us a different take on Jesus’ resurrection than we typically think of.

Here are the (most likely*) final words of Mark’s Gospel: “So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear, even terror? How is this good news?

There’s a long history in the Bible of “holy fear,” even “holy terror,” in the presence of God. This isn’t (normally) because God is angry or abusive, but because God is so…absolutely other. “Holy,” to use the biblical language. When we humans find ourselves in the absolute presence of the transcendent God, we realize that God is not like we had imagined: God is so much greater than we had ever imagined.

This biblical thread finds its way into Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus. When Jesus teaches, people are “astounded.” When Jesus casts out demons, they are “in awe.” When Jesus heals, they are “stunned.” When Jesus walks on the water, his disciples are “terrified.” When Jesus calms the storm, they literally “fear with a great fear.” “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So we really shouldn’t be surprised when Mark ends his Gospel with these same words, following this long biblical tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has revealed God’s self in all God’s fullness: in life rising out of death, in peace growing out of violence, in liberation bursting out of oppression, in love blooming in the midst of hate. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has blown the doors off all our expectations of who God is and what God does.

This Easter may we, like the two Marys and Salome, come face to face with God in the resurrected Jesus, so that the walls we build around God might be shattered in the revelation of God’s life and peace and liberation and love. This is a good “holy terror.” This is good news.

* Mark’s Gospel has several different endings in ancient manuscripts of Mark. Most textual critics think Mark’s Gospel originally ended here, at Mark 16:8. Later scribes weren’t satisfied with this ending so they added their own or borrowed from the other Gospels.

“Heaven” in the Bible and My Imagination

“Heaven” in the Bible is never used to talk about “where we go when we die.” It usually means either “the heavens” (“the skies”) or it means something like “where God is most present.” Sometimes, because of this, it is used as a roundabout way of saying “God,” as in “kingdom of heaven” meaning “kingdom of God,” kind of like how we might say, “Thank heavens!” when we mean “Thank God!”

But still, when we talk about “heaven” we typically mean “where we go after death.” So, here’s how I think about “heaven” in this way, what happens after we die.

The Old Testament moves from basically no belief in life after death, to a belief in she’ol (a kind of shadowy existence without any substance or colour), to a belief in a future resurrection of the body (e.g. Daniel 12:2, 13). The New Testament picks up on this “resurrection” idea and fleshes it out in a pretty consistent way, even if the details vary from passage to passage.

The consistent New Testament expectation is this: immediately after death, we are with Jesus; and then, at some point, we are bodily resurrected to live in a renewed earthly creation. So, you could say, as N.T. Wright puts it, first there’s “life after death” with Jesus, and then there’s “life after life after death” in a new creation.

“Jesus, remember me…” Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

Immediately after death, we are with Jesus. In Luke 23:43 Jesus promises the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (“Paradise” is a Persian word that has the idea of a beautiful garden—it’s a place of bliss.) In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul says that when we are “away from the body” we will be “at home with the Lord.” And in Philippians 1:23 Paul talks about “departing from this flesh” and “being with Christ.”

Other New Testament passages give the same consistent message: after death we are with Jesus. There’s no more detail given than this (Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 and the vision in Revelation 6:9-11 are probably not to be taken literally as descriptions of what this actually looks like), but for Christians this is intended to be enough: after death we are with Jesus, and by extension with all those who have died “in Jesus” before us.

The ultimate end, however, is being bodily resurrected to live in a renewed earthly creation. The idea is a return to the way God originally created us to be: people with both a soul and a body, living in an earthly creation, enjoying that good creation and caring for it even as it provides for us (that’s Genesis 2:7-15). The New Testament is consistent in looking forward to this, even if it gives different depictions of exactly that might look like. This is what’s behind every future “resurrection” passage (e.g. Romans 8:18-30; 1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:4-6).

So much for the biblical, basic Christian expectation of life after death (and then life after this life after death!). How do I myself actually imagine this to look like?

I believe that when I die (when my body and brain stop functioning), my “spirit” or “soul” will continue to exist. I imagine feeling a kind of “painless peace” at that moment. I imagine, maybe, a feeling of motion to another place, where I will experience a kind of “waking” in a place suffused with light, as if the light oozes out of everything around me. That feeling of “painless peace” continues, but now is added a feeling of being deeply, perfectly loved, and being intimately connected to everything around me. I imagine, then, in this “place” being reunited with my loved ones who have died—a joyful reunion!—and seeing Jesus for the first time face to face—like coming home after being away for a very long time.

At some point—it might feel immediate, it might feel like time has passed—I believe that God will complete the renewal of creation that Jesus has begun and we have continued. Exactly what this looks like, I’m not sure, but I imagine this same world, this very earth, within this universe—yet without the pollution, the overcrowding, the disease, the war, the disasters, and all the greed and pride and abuse of power and more that has caused all that. It’s a pristine earth, with clear streams and clean air, beautiful flowers and grass and mountains and valleys and prairies and sunsets and twinkling stars.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

And at some point—again, not exactly sure what this looks like—I believe that God will resurrect us, bodily. We will live as we do now, as God intended us to live, but with bodies untouched by sin and death. We will plant gardens and make music and share meals and tell stories and live together in harmony—all peoples, every tribe and language and nation—with all creation, as God originally intended us to live.

Much of this imagining I get from stories of people who have had “near-death” experiences and from some of our poets and storytellers in the Christian tradition. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have been especially influential for me in my imagination of life after death and life after life after death.

I think, for example of Tolkien’s description of Frodo waking up in Minas Tirith after destroying the ring in Mount Doom—that’s how I imagine what happens immediately after death, waking up in Jesus’ presence. And then I imagine the new creation being like Frodo and Sam being back in the Shire, enjoying again the simple pleasures of tilled earth and good companions, but without the threat of evil from the East. Or, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lewis’ description of “heaven” in The Last Battle: just like this earth, only brighter, the colours purer, and with worlds upon worlds to explore “further up and further in!”

Maybe this is too many words. Or maybe it’s too much speculation. But the biblical descriptions of what happens after death do lend themselves to using our imaginations—always remembering, of course, that God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God” (1 Corinthians 2:9). This is in many ways the basis for my hope for “heaven”—that God has given us deep desires to live, to flourish in life here on this good earth, and so God will fulfill those desires beyond our best dreams.

Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

It’s a question I’ve heard many times over the years: “Do Christians really need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection?”

It is, after all, a pretty difficult idea to accept. And this is not just a modern difficulty—it’s been obvious to humans for a very long time that dead people stay dead.

It can also seem irrelevant, even unnecessary. Many Christians focus on Jesus’ death, some on Jesus’ teachings and way of life. What difference does it make whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not?

I used to think the answer to the question, however, was a straightforward and resounding, “Yes, of course we have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection!” But now I think the question requires a little more nuance.

Jesus’ resurrection is specifically mentioned dozens of times in the New Testament, by almost every author. The one notable exception is the author of the letter we know as the Epistle of James, yet even there Jesus’ resurrection is probably behind phrases like “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 2:1).

This particular example from James points to the reality that even where Jesus’ resurrection is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament it’s almost always there in the background. It can be seen in language of Jesus and “glory,” Jesus as “Lord,” Jesus as “exalted” or “at God’s right hand,” and more.

Jesus’ resurrection is everywhere in the New Testament. It is even affirmed in the Gospel stories well before their resurrection accounts. All four Gospels foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection before the end, even having Jesus predict it in advance.

Jesus’ resurrection is also in all the earliest and universal creeds of Christianity. The informal “Rule of Faith,” the early Old Roman Creed, the later Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds—these all have Jesus’ resurrection at the centre, often with the language of the very primitive “Gospel Creed” cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, that Jesus “was raised on the third day.”

All this is to say that the resurrection of Jesus is pretty important to Christian faith and life.

But here’s where the nuance comes in.

The New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ resurrection throughout, yes. But there is a diversity of perspectives in the New Testament as to exactly what Jesus’ resurrection looked like and how best to understand it.

Some New Testament accounts give rather bare-bones descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection state, as if what had happened were little more than the resuscitation of a corpse. Others view Jesus’ resurrection as still “bodily” in some way, yet with a “body” of a different kind than our present, earthly bodies. Some use “vision” language to describe Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, while others are sure to emphasize the real flesh-and-blood nature of their encounter with the risen Jesus.

And then there’s what Jesus’ resurrection means. The idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a divine vindication of Jesus runs right through the New Testament, but beyond that there’s plenty of diversity. Jesus’ resurrection as participation in the coming new creation, as foretaste of the future resurrection, as victory over sin and death, as manifestation of God’s power—all these and more get explored by various New Testament authors.

So, part of the nuance required with saying that “Yes, Christians should believe in Jesus’ resurrection,” is recognizing that there is room for a diversity of perspectives on exactly what happened in Jesus’ resurrection and what this event means.

But there’s more. There’s a fascinating statement in the conclusion to Matthew’s account of the resurrected Jesus. It’s often skipped over because we Christians are so eager to get to the Great Commission. The risen Jesus has gathered with the Eleven disciples, and there in Matthew 28:17 are these words: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

“Some doubted.” Even after everything they had witnessed, even with the resurrected Jesus standing in front of them, “some doubted.” To me this only makes sense as an expression of doubt that the Jesus standing before them was truly who he said he was, that Jesus had truly been resurrected from the dead. Doubt like this, even among the Eleven remaining apostles!

All this suggests that however vital the resurrection of Jesus is to Christian faith and life, there is room among followers of Jesus for diverse understandings of Jesus’ resurrection, and even for those who doubt whether it really happened at all.

But why is Jesus’ resurrection so important?

Put another way, why do we need Jesus’ resurrection in Christian theology? What would we lose if we simply left off this particular belief? Would it have been such a big deal if Jesus’ story had just ended with his death?

Well, I wrote a whole book about this that you can check out. But I’d highlight these as the most significant reasons.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is Jesus’ vindication by God. The powers-that-be had given their verdict on Jesus: guilty, and therefore to be shamed and cast out and executed on a cross. However, by raising Jesus from the dead God reverses that verdict: Jesus is declared righteous by God, he is glorified and worthy of all honour, he is brought to God’s right hand, and he is given true life untouched by sin and death.

This has a whole world of implications. That God has vindicated Jesus means that Jesus’ teaching is as Jesus claimed it to be: having the authority of God. It means Jesus’ way of life is as Jesus claimed it to be: evidence of God’s kingdom, the outworking of God’s good news for the world. It means Jesus’ death was not simply a horrific tragedy, the death of an innocent man; it is the very undoing of the ways of the world, the way of death, and so it is the epitome of God’s love and wisdom and power.

This was a world-changing belief for those early followers of Jesus, that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by God. This is why we have the Gospels, why we have the New Testament, why Jesus is more than just a historical footnote as yet another failed Messiah: because these early Jesus-followers believed Jesus had appeared to them, resurrected and fully alive.

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Second, Jesus’ resurrection is creation’s affirmation by God. This is why the bodily nature of Jesus’ resurrection is so important (however “bodily” is understood). By resurrecting Jesus in body God affirms the essential goodness of our bodies, the goodness of the created order, the goodness of human existence and human history.

This also has several profound implications. Christianity, the way of Jesus, is not some kind of disembodied ideal, trying to renounce our human desires or deny our essential humanity. These things are given by God, and they are good—and this is affirmed not only by humanity’s creation but also by Jesus’ resurrection.

This means that salvation, then, is not some kind of disembodied ideal. Salvation is not about escaping our bodies, flying up and away from the world, and living eternally as spiritual beings up in heaven. Jesus’ resurrection affirms that God’s desire in salvation is to transform us and our world, restoring humanity and creation to God’s original intention, all things experiencing justice and peace and flourishing life, heaven come down to earth.

And the fact that God has raised Jesus from the dead means that all this—this whole grand sweep of salvation—has begun, and it is assured to one day reach its completion.

So, “Do Christians really need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection?”

Jesus’ resurrection is vital to Christian faith and life. It’s a pillar—even, I would say, the very foundation—of Christian theology and ethics and mission.

However, if you find yourself thinking of Jesus’ resurrection differently than others, or even if you’ve got your doubts about whether it really happened, there is plenty of room for you among the followers of Jesus—just like there was for those first disciples.

As a companion to this, be sure to check out my post, “Why in the World Do I Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?” As well, you might want to see my reflections on “faithful doubting”: “Confessions of a Faithful Doubter.”

Why in the World Do I Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is an utterly impossible event.

I’m serious. It is truly impossible.

When we make it into something that is “possible”—whether historically or scientifically—then we’ve stripped it of its power. When we make it into something that is “possible,” we miss the nature of “resurrection” as new creation invading the old, the transformative redemption of the old into something radically new. As I note in From Resurrection to New Creation, all this is rather scandalous for Christian faith: Jesus’ resurrection demands historical investigation at the same time that it defies historical investigation.

So why then do I believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? Why do I believe in something that is truly impossible?

After all, I don’t make a habit of believing in impossible things. Sure, we all believe things that may well be improvable, but that’s different from believing in things which are impossible. So why do I believe in this particular impossible claim, that something happened to the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth such that he was resurrected from the dead to a transformed bodily existence?

PrintIn From Resurrection to New Creation, I note that this “scandal of the empty tomb” places Christians in the “risky realm of faith—trusting in the primitive testimony of those very first witnesses as found in ancient traditions in later written records, and believing in the history-demanding yet history-defying claim that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘raised from the dead on the third day,’ transformed to an immortal bodily existence untouched by sin and death” (12).

I do think this is the most fundamental basis for belief in Jesus’ resurrection: the apostolic gospel, the “kerygma,” the message of salvation to which the Spirit through the Scriptures and the Church bears witness, calls us to faith in Jesus’ resurrection. But this is a general reality, a common thread which runs through billions of diverse experiences of faith.

So why do I—I, and not all Christians—believe in the impossible: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?

Belief is a funny thing. We very often continue to hold to a belief for different reasons than we came to believe in the first place; the way we attain belief is not always the same as the way we sustain that belief. So it is that my own belief in Jesus’ resurrection was first prompted by the faith of others: my primary social community in my formative years of childhood and adolescence believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and they passed on that faith to me as well.

This “faith in the faith of my faith community” is still an important dimension of my belief in Jesus’ resurrection, but it is not in itself enough to sustain that belief for me. So, my own belief in Jesus’ resurrection is sustained by a few other things as well.

I have had several experiences of the “transcendent” or “supernatural” in my life—situations where things happened in an unusual and beneficial way, or impressions of something or someone “completely other” and “utterly beyond” engaging me in some way in my “inner being,” or the like.

I’m sure these can all be explained as coincidence in a chaotic world, or neurological processes in response to some subconsciously perceived external stimuli, or whatever. But there’s something about many of these experiences for which those explanations are—however true—not enough. Undoubtedly this simply reflects the fact that I want to believe there is someone somewhere out there who is “completely other” and “utterly beyond.” In any case, these experiences in many ways lay the groundwork for more specific belief.

Rembrandt EmmausI also have an ongoing and growing conviction that no other explanation than Jesus’ resurrection fully does justice to the texts and ideas, events and experiences of those first Jesus-followers after the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. Grave robbing and hallucinations, fainting and reviving, myth-creating and -telling, natural evolution of socio-religious ideas—none of these or similar explanations makes good sense to me of the specific traditions, writings, convictions, ministries, and deaths of those first followers of Jesus.

Now this is not the same as saying Jesus’ resurrection is “provable” according to the standards of historical criticism—I don’t think it is. Rather, it is more along the lines of saying—with deepest apologies to Sherlock and Sir Arthur for completely skewing a maxim of Holmesian logic—that when you have eliminated the improbable, whatever remains, however impossible, may well be the truth.

Nor is this simply another way of saying the same thing as I said above, that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is faith in the apostolic kerygma. This is rather what you might call a historical-but-not-critically-historical reason for cautious conviction that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

Also significant for my belief in Jesus’ resurrection is seeing individual lives and faith communities transformed by this belief, seeing Christian faith work in the daily grind of real life.

Again, alternative explanations are possible—people can make major, positive changes in their lives for a variety of reasons and from within (or apart from) a variety of faith traditions. And there’s no doubt that many who claim belief in Jesus’ resurrection see very little positive change in their lives, and can in fact do some pretty horrible things. But still, I can’t deny that this particular belief in this particular God who raised this particular Jesus from the dead has had some very positive effects on many individuals, communities, and even crucial moments in human history.

A not-unrelated factor is this: to me, a broadly Christian worldview works better epistemically than the alternatives, allowing me to make sense of my perceptions and experiences in the world in a way that is coherent and meaningful. And a crucial dimension of that Christian worldview is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, that God is a God who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist, a hopelessly optimistic notion that God alone provides hope for real, lasting change.

All these factors—my personal experiences of the transcendent, my heritage of faith and my faith community, the coherence of a Christian worldview for me, the positive change I’ve seen in the lives and communities of believers, my dissatisfaction with alternative explanations for the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, and ultimately, the Scripture- and Church-witnessed apostolic kerygma—all these factors come together to prompt and sustain my belief in the impossible claim that the crucified Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

And this, in turn, changes everything.

This post is adapted from a post written in 2010 on a previous blog of mine. Also cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl. As a companion to this, you might want to check out my post, “Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?” The answer is more complex than you might think!