Easter · Gospel · Jesus · resurrection · theology

The Centrality of the Resurrection – Thoughts After Easter

My pastor gave a sermon yesterday titled “It’s Sunday.” The four points in his sermon outline were (1) attempts to stop Sunday’s commin’, (2) Attempts to cover up Sunday’s comin’, (3) Proof of Sunday’s comin’, and (4) The importance of Sunday’s comin’. The first three were fairly generic parts of many Easter sermons I have heard in the past, but today I would like focus on the fourth aspect on “the importance of Sunday’s comin.”

Within this fourth point, my pastor suggested there are three important reasons for the importance of the resurrection:

  • It placed God’s stamp of approval on the truth of the word of Jesus.
  • It placed God’s stamp of approval on the person of Jesus.
  • It placed God’s stamp of approval on the work of Jesus.

I have trouble agreeing  for one main reason: God already placed his stamp of approval of Jesus’ words, person and work at the Baptism in the synoptic gospels. In that pivotal moment of Jesus’ life, God the Father says, “This is my son, whom I love; with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). First he suggests that he approves of the ministry of Jesus by calling him—in the fashion of Biblical history—part of his (God’s) family. Second, he approves of the person by calling him “son.” Third, we can tell that God approves Jesus’ work because he is “well pleased” with him and “loves” him. Thus the resurrection is, in some sense, a reiteration of the things said at the baptism—a kind of theological bookend—but it also must function on its own merit. The resurrection is more than just God giving “approval” to Jesus’ movement and kingdom.

The reason that some churches have a weak theology on resurrection is their dependence on the substitutionary atonement model of the cross. In this model everything is finished on the cross, and not much room is left for wide theological significance on the resurrection of Christ. We receive most of substitutionary atonement models from Medieval theologians like Anselm who were studying the Pauline corpus to understand justification. Resultantly, I want to look at Paul’s passage on Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 starting in verse 12:

Paul begins by asking, “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?” In other words, Christ’s resurrection is not the primary issue at stake, but the issue of a general “resurrection of the dead” is at stake. One particularly helpful book on this matter is Robert Wilken’s book called Christians as the Romans Saw Them. In it Wilken’s shows how the Roman church viewed Christianity from the first three centuries of Christianity. One particularly heavy critic of the idea of behind the resurrection was Celsus the philosopher. Wilkens says:

“[Celsus’] most serious criticism, however, is directed against the idea that God could reverse the natural process of the disintegration of the human body or that a body that had rotted could be restored again. ‘For what sort of body, after being entirely corrupted, could return to its original nature and that same condition which it had before it was dissolved? As they have nothing to say in reply, they escape to a more outrageous refuge by saying that ‘anything is possible with God.’ But, indeed neither can God do what is shame nor does He desire what is contrary to nature’ (c. Cels. 5.14).”

The main problem with simply glossing over the resurrection as “unbelievable” in the eyes of the Romans, one must view the phenomena as entirely impossible, implausible, and “contrary to nature.” It is not a matter of belief, but a matter of science. For instance, God cannot both heal and kill someone at the same time—this, according to the laws of nature, is impossible. This is because, by definition, a man cannot be healed if he is killed because a healed man implies some sort of life still flowing through the man’s veins. This is the view the Greeks seemed to have taken towards resurrection. Such a popularizing of resurrection was not even really apparent in Judaism through a reading of the scripture and popular literature until the second and first centuries before Christ. So here Paul is not just dealing with a matter of faith, but a matter of science, reality, and is severely stretching the imaginations of his counterparts in the letter.

Paul goes in the letter to say that, “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” (1 Cor 15:13-15). Paul argues that if we do not believe in the general resurrection of the dead, then we cannot logically believe in the resurrection of Christ. When Paul talks about the “resurrection of the dead” he is probably referring to the parousia (the coming of Christ to usher in the new age), and thus he is arguing about the future resurrection of all the saints when they are reunited to Christ. But if Christ has not been raised, the teachings of Paul are useless because he centers on the idea that Jesus is not in the grave.

As Paul continues he says, “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 to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:16-23). Paul clearly articulates the central aspect of his theology about resurrection when he says “if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” Paul is writing to mostly lower-class, poor, and oppressed people. At this time, most of the world had not embraced Christianity. To embrace it at this time meant scorn. If this life is all they have-a life of scorn, a life of contempt, and a life where they are continually oppressed by the Roman Empire-then they really are to be pitied.

The place where Paul lives is not in this present struggle, but in a future eschatological hope where Christ is “the firstfruit” and we are going to follow in his resurrection. The central controlling metaphor of the resurrection is the undoing of the original curse that came through Adam. Death no longer has any power over the followers of Christ because we too will be raised like cross in a triumphal victory over the serpent and his kingdom. Paul and his community are waiting for this parousia to come in all its power. In the next few verses, Paul takes the time to explain how the parousia is going to come:

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:24-29).

…more on this to come hopefully in the days to come…

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2 thoughts on “The Centrality of the Resurrection – Thoughts After Easter

  1. Good post danny. And I so agree that the concentration on penal substitution to the exclusion of all other metaphors weakens our theology of resurrection.

    Two book I read recently which really helped me and inspired, Scot McKnight’s ‘A Community Called Atonement’ and NT Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’. Both brilliant

  2. Yes I have read other books by both of those authors–namely “Embracing Grace” by McKnight and “The Challenge of Jesus” by Wright. I think it is funny that the publishers have lately been creating Wright titles in such similar fashion to Lewis’ titles. Apparently if you have a British accent, you must all be the same.

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