On Holy Thursday it is appropriate to stop and think about these events and their meaning for us as Christians. The cross is important, through death on the cross the powers of evil are vanquished. The kingdom of God triumphs over the kingdoms of this world. But in a real sense this victory comes when resurrection defeats death and with it the violence and depravity of this world. A sacrificial death alone is not enough. The Christian claim and hope of resurrection is central to the faith.
Yet the resurrection seems too bizarre to be true, a strange ending to an otherwise interesting tale. It is something hard for rational modern people to take seriously. The questions go beyond the rather straightforward “can a scientist believe the resurrection?” Although this is an important question there are fairly good answers as NT Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God) and John Polkinghorne (Testing Scripture) both point out. The more significant questions address the purpose of the resurrection in the story. Even if resurrection is plausible is it coherent with the story? A commenter on one of my posts several years back put it like this:
The death of Jesus sounds like such a great story of sacrificial love until the resurrection. What a disappointing turn of events! Who wouldn’t go through crucifixion if afterward they would be resurrected and given all power in the universe. It’s no longer about something mature like love but rather about power, and for the Christian being on the team that has all the power and access to eternal paradise. Such a story reminds me more of something I’d see on Saturday morning cartoons … forces of evil battling against the forces of good … than from a wise creator.
How would you respond to this criticism?
The question posed by the commenter penetrates to the purpose and meaning of the chain of events leading from incarnation to resurrection. Resurrection is a surprising outcome following the incarnation and crucifixion. It changes the story. But does it trivialize the story, removing the element of sacrificial love from the picture?
If we are honest, we will probably admit that the way the story is told in many churches it is the forces of good battling the forces of evil with the result never in doubt. It is told as a tale of power – present all along and confirmed in the resurrection. (After all, we often also teach a divine Jesus minimizing his humanity as well.)
Another common story line – somewhat different from the forces of evil battling the forces of good – focuses on (individual) human sinfulness and the need for divine satisfaction through blood sacrifice. Crucifixion satisfies divine wrath. But again this story line could be viewed as something of divine playacting – after all, the outcome was never in doubt. The divine son was never consigned to death, it was merely a temporary state on a path to inevitable resurrection and ascension.
My gut feeling is that there is something deeper going on than either of these narratives portray, although I remain unsure how to express it.
The revolutionary claim of resurrection is not peripheral to the Christian faith – something that can be accepted, rejected, or spiritualized. It is not that He lives within my heart but that He Lives whether hearts are receptive or not. And his death and resurrection accomplished something powerful. Paul, when writing to “the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people”, not preaching to unbelievers or those not yet in the church, found it necessary to emphasize the importance of resurrection.
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? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19)
We have this passage in our bible (along with the rather confusing discussion of Adam and of spiritual bodies that follows) because Paul found it necessary to defend the resurrection when he was writing to The Church of God in Corinth, those sanctified in Christ Jesus, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul continues and concludes his thought in 1 Cor. 15 with certainty and confidence:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:20)
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:56-58)
In some sense, though, the claim of Paul at the end of this powerful passage in 1 Cor. 15 and elsewhere ( c.f. Phil. 2:5-11 and Romans 8:31-39) comes right back to the commenter I quoted above. This is a story of power. And resurrection is the victory over the power of sin and death. But how should we understand and speak of this victory?
How is this resurrection part of the mature love of a wise creator?
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