Truly he is risen!…He sure is! An Easter Meditation

“Truly he is risen!”  “He…sure is!” An Easter Meditation

On Easter Sunday morning I took my “Church Fathers and Reformers” class to the Orthodox cathedral. The priest knew we were coming and invited my class and me to come forward first for the antidoron bread at the end of the liturgy. We sat together in the middle of the sanctuary through the long service, trying our best, and with the kind help of members, to follow along with the liturgy in the worship book. I had warned the students not to go forward with the faithful Orthodox believers for the eucharist, but I also told them to go forward for the antidoron  bread at the end of the service as the ushers directed us. What I forgot to tell my mostly Baptist students was what to say when the priest handed them the bread and said “Truly he is risen!”

We dutifully followed the ushers to the front of the magnificent cathedral at the end of the divine liturgy. I was near the front of our line of about thirty students, but allowed a few of them to go in front of me. A very bright, attractive young female undergraduate from California (I forget her name as this was about twenty years ago!) was at the front of our group and first came before Father Ted. (Father Ted was a regular speaker in my classes and I took classes to his cathedral often, so we knew each other well.) Father Ted handed her the bread and said “Truly he is risen!” She took the bread, looked at him for a moment, realizing she was supposed to say something, and then, very loudly announced “He sure is!” Father Ted and his acolytes and members of the congregation who heard it laughed with delight at the unusual but appropriate response.

I have so many memories of Easter Sundays. When I was a child our little Pentecostal church always had an “Easter Sunrise Service” either outside in a park or inside (depending on the weather)  and then a church breakfast at the Settlement House that we used as our fellowship hall. (The church was in a rather poor part of town and it had no room large enough to host a hundred people for a meal. The Settlement House was the whole community’s indoor playground and community center.) The Easter Sunrise Service tradition, of course, goes back to Pietist leader Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the “noble Jesus freak” who was bishop of the Moravians who lived on his estate in the early 18th century. (He also started the New Years Eve “Watchnight Service” tradition which our church observed every December 31st.)  Part of the Sunrise Service (or Easter Sunday morning service) at our church was singing “Christ Arose.” We sang the verses slowly, mournfully, and then the chorus loudly and joyfully. I still have trouble fully enjoying an Easter worship service without singing that hymn.

Often, after the morning worship service, our family went to someone’s house, either church members’ or relatives’, for an Easter feast—usually including ham as the main course. If we had an Easter egg hunt, it was indoors if Easter was in March or at a park if Easter was in April and the weather (as this year in Iowa) was springlike. But the “Easter bunny” was Verboten as he, she or it was regarded by us as a symbol of a pagan takeover of our precious holiday. (We also did not include Santa Claus in our Christmas celebrations either at home or at church. We regarded him as also a symbol of a pagan takeover of our Christian celebration of the Lord’s birth. Strangely, however, we had no problem having a Christmas tree!)

Music has always been an important part of my Easter observance. As I mentioned, without “Christ Arose” it’s not fully Easter for me. (So I sing it softly to myself when it’s not in the order of service.) I’ll never forget how, during one Easter morning (Baptist) worship service, the “song leader” (as he or she used to be called in our evangelical churches) had us stand for the first hymn. To my great delight it was “Christ Arose.” However, much to my dismay, as always, he chose to leave out one verse—the third one! (If you know the hymn, you’ll get the irony.) I fussed and fumed through the rest of the service and my poor wife and daughter had to endure my tirade over Easter dinner. (Yes, I’m a little obsessive about singing all the verses of hymns but especially that one! The same song leader had the congregation [not the church where we are now members] sing verses one and four of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on a Sunday morning before Christmas. Again, if you know the song, you’ll understand why I ground my teeth at that! Clearly he, the song leader, did not look at the verses of hymns before deciding which ones to leave out!)

I believe the resurrection of Jesus is a crucial event without which we would not be saved and without which Christianity would be meaningless. And by “resurrection” I mean bodily resurrection (not resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse) and empty tomb. I have never been able to understand so-called “Christians” who deny the historical reality in time and space of Jesus’ resurrection or who demythologize it to mean only the restitution of faith in the hearts of the disciples (Bultmann and Tillich). In fact, I will admit that I have real difficulty regarding anyone who denies it as Christian at all.

If Jesus did not conquer death, then neither will we. That is Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 15 where he links Jesus’ resurrection inextricably with ours and vice versa. But why? Why is the resurrection of Jesus so important? Why not just believe that his soul went back to God (or something like that)? Why bodily resurrection?

The early Christians believed and taught that by his death Jesus conquered Satan and by his resurrection conquered death. Our own victory over death is guaranteed by his if we are “in Christ” by faith. The resurrection demonstrates that God values our bodies and not just our souls. Matter matters to God. In fact, according to Paul in Romans 8, the whole cosmos will be resurrected in a manner analogous to Jesus’ resurrection and promised bodily resurrection. Of course, these resurrections are not to be thought of in grossly material forms as if decay and death would once again be a possibility. In some mysterious way, our resurrection bodies, like his, will be “spiritual bodies,” but that by no means cancels out the fact that they will be bodies. In the case of Jesus there was continuity and discontinuity between his buried body and his risen body. The same will be true of our resurrection bodies. The same will be true of the resurrected cosmos in the new heaven and eath.

The resurrection of Jesus is the eventful promise of ultimate redemption for those who are by faith transferred from Adam’s humanity to Christ’s (Irenaeus). That promise and hope shines a light backwards on life now. It means, if we take it seriously, that creation, including our bodies, is God’s gift and so valued by God that he plans to redeem it/them. This will not be just a return to the garden as in a Christian version of the myth of eternal return. It will be a glorious joining of God with creation in what Moltmann calls the Great Sabbath of God when God will be “all in all.” Beyond that we get into realms of pure speculation.

The tragedy is that, over my thirty years of teaching theology, I have discovered that many people who grow up in Christian homes and churches think of the resurrection as “spiritual” to the exclusion of “material.” They think of these dualistically, as if matter could not be spiritualized and still be real. That is, to them, the resurrection body is a ghost with no substance, the only “substance” being physical. (They learn differently in physics classes, but somehow that doesn’t translate into their folk religion.)

Gnosticism has invaded modern Christianity. It shows nowhere more clearly than in modern Christians’ thinking about the resurrection and “heaven.” Many, I would dare say most, think of these in purely spiritual, ethereal terms, even as escapes from the body and the world.

I admit to being a fan of Southern Gospel music. But there are some gospel songs I can’t listen to, let alone ever sing. One typical one is “My Soul is Gonna Live On” by Bill and Gloria Gaither. (If you must, you can watch and listen to it on youtube!) Whenever I hear it I wonder “What were they thinking?” It’s a perfect musical expression of the old Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. I’m not accusing the Gaithers of denying the bodily resurrection; I’m just saying that songs like that easily mislead people to think of the “resurrection” as soul immortality and not as what the New Testament teaches—the restoration of bodily life gifted with immortality. Of course, that song stands in a dishonorable tradition of gospel music that implies Gnosticism such as “I’ll Fly Away.” (Plato would have loved “like a bird from prison bars has flown!”)

In sum, the bodily resurrection is theologically necessary for authentic Christianity and ethically fruitful for responsible stewardship of the world God has given us as our home and that he plans to redeem—including our bodies. It means that Jesus was vindicated by God such that his claims about himself were not lies while the accusations made against him (viz., that he lied by making himself equal with God) were. It means that God values materiality and bodily existence and so should we.

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  • Peter

    Thank you so much. I just returned from a sunrise service a tad discouraged. First by the topic of the sermons and testimonies (sin, sin, sin and fire insurance) and then secondly by my response (sin, criticism, judgment, eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and death). Your celebration of His (and our) victory over sin and death might rescue my attitude and, thereby, my Easter celebration (as well as that of those who must put up with me today!) Happy Easter. He is risen.

  • Bob Brown

    Thank you Roger. One day this mortal shall put on immortality and this corruption incorruption. May He return soon.

    Phil. 3:20 “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”

  • Mason

    Thank you Dr. Olson..i talked yesterday morning in Sunday school about the differences between the raising of Lazarus and the Resurrection of Jesus. to my dismay many (not all) looked shocked. for some reason the idea that Jesus kept his body and never gave it up was shocking. some assumed that Jesus was raised from the dead bodily but only for a few days and then his spirit left his body to return to “Heaven.” i wished that you could have seen the look on their faces when i attempted very poorly to explain that Jesus’ body was raised/resurrected and that Jesus along with his body are currently sitting at the right hand of God. i told them that i did not fully understand all of that, but that i believed it. (i do not think that you have to understand something to know that it is true, but that is another discussion). btw this was a very conservative Methodist congregation probably more methobaptist…i think Gnosticism is alive and well and it is conservative/evangelical churches..we just do not realize how deep…

    • Josh T.

      That’s interesting. I did the same Lazarus/Jesus comparison with a group of 5th & 6th graders and they seemed to see the difference. But when I asked the question about what our ultimate hope is (based on Jesus’ resurrection), the answer is always initially “we get to go to heaven,” at which point I explain about the hope in future resurrection for us, as well. That one always gets me some blank stares.

  • earl simmons

    Have some slack on “I’ll Fly Away”. I’m from the deep South and go to a Southern Baptist church that no longer sings the old hymns. But I remember them and singing “He Arose” each year. Tears usually come when I try to sing “How Great Thou Art”.
    But I doubt anyone there is thinking about what type of body we will have when we are standing before God. Only the scholars will do that. The rest of us just praise Jesus and love Him for what he did for us.

    I’m reading Bloesch and loving it!

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    ROGER WROTE: “The resurrection of Jesus is the eventful promise of ultimate redemption for those who are by faith transferred from Adam’s humanity to Christ’s (Irenaeus).”

    Well said, Roger! Now here’s a little thought about the resurrection of Christ that will make any evangelical think twice: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is more important to our ultimate salvation than is our personal faith in his resurrection” (by Ivan A. Rogers). Based on 1 Corinthians 15:14 — “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

  • John

    I remember another Southern Gospel “Gnostic” song by Dottie Rambo. I had an Oak Ridge Boys record of it. “The Holy Hills of Heaven Call Me.” The chorus says:

    This house of clay is but a prison
    Bars of bone hold my soul
    But the doors of clay are gonna burst wide open
    When the angel sets my spirit free
    I’ll take my flight like a mighty eagle
    When the hills of home start calling me
    (http://www.mp3lyrics.org/d/dottie-rambo/the-holy-hills/)

    • rogereolson

      Exactly! I noticed that several of her songs were gnostic in that way. I love many of her songs, though. I assume you know this, but she was killed in a bus accident in Texas a couple years ago.

  • C.J.W

    Admitting that you have a problem (i.e., Southern Gospel Music) is the first step to addressing it (i.e., removing any such music from your collection) :-). Thank you for this wonderful posting!

    • rogereolson

      I used to try to hide my problem, but as I get older I don’t care as much what people think of me. Now I even occasionally play a recording (or show a video clip from youtube) of a Southern Gospel song to illustrate a point to a class. For example, “How the Wesley Brothers Preached the Love of God” when we study Wesley.

  • Scott Presnall

    Dr. Olson, what did Jesus do on the Saturday between his crucifixion and his resurrection?

    • rogereolson

      Tradition says he descended into the abode of the dead to preach to the souls there. I don’t hold that as any kind of dogma, but I don’t know of a better explanation.

  • Stan Fowler

    To add to the Gaither critique, consider one of their best known songs, “Because He Lives.” The three stanzas are true as far as they go, I think, but they don’t go far enough. The final hope of the song is about what happens at death, and there is no reference to our resurrection at the return of Christ. The apostle Paul’s point is perfectly clear, i.e., that the implication of Jesus’ resurrection is our future resurrection. Because He lives, we also will live (as fully redeemed persons, body and soul).

    • rogereolson

      Right. But I just want to say that I love Bill and have talked to him in person. He’s very well intentioned even if a bit misguided theologically. My biggest complaint, one I brought up to him in conversation, was his change of the wording of “I Have Decided (Being Good Is Just a Fable)” recorded by Amy Grant. When the GVB recorded it he, Bill, changed the words to “being good is not a fable; I can ’cause he is able.” (The original wording was “being good is just a fable; I can’t ’cause I’m not able….”) I liked the original wording better. We agreed to disagree about that. (Note that Bill belongs to a Holiness denomination that believes in entire sanctification. I don’t and never have.)

  • David George

    This made me think of John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanas at Easter.” His theology at an early point in his career is unsophisticated, describing a reconstituting of the natural body, but his intention is right on:

    Make no mistake: if he rose at all
    It was as His body;
    If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
    The amino acids rekindle,
    The Church will fall.

    It was not as the flowers,
    Each soft spring recurrent;
    It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
    Eleven apostles;
    It was as His flesh; ours.

    The same hinged thumbs and toes
    The same valved heart
    That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
    Out of enduring Might
    New strength to enclose.

    Let us not mock God with metaphor,
    Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
    Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
    Credulity of earlier ages:
    Let us walk through the door.

    The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
    Not a stone in a story,
    But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
    Time will eclipse for each of us
    The wide light of day.

    And if we have an angel at the tomb,
    Make it a real angel,
    Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
    The dawn light, robed in real linen
    Spun on a definite loom.

    Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
    For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
    Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
    By the miracle,
    And crushed by remonstrance.

    • rogereolson

      I’ve read that before. Thanks for reminding me. I like it.

  • Rob

    I read this last week and still somehow forgot what I was supposed to say this morning when I visited the Greek Orthodox Church and was greeted with “Christ is risen!”. I think I responded with “He is risen indeed!” which would have been correct in the Anglican church. At least I didn’t say “and the Son” during the Creed.

    • rogereolson

      Good for you! That’s important. I doubt they really care that much about the response to “Christ is risen!” so long as it isn’t “No he’s not.” If I ever do say the Creed I always omit “and the Son” (filioque). It shouldn’t be there.