“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 who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:16-18
It is quite clear that the resurrection of Christ is the one event upon which our entire faith rises or falls. Paul, quoting from an early creedal statement, says, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). “According to the Scriptures,” would of course be referring to the Old Testament Prophets.
The Pharisees often debated with the Sadducees whether or not resurrection could be a reality. Many Jews confidently believed that God would renew his creation and restore what was lost. But not even the Pharisees expected the resurrection to happen until the final Day of the Lord.
The resurrection of Christ even took his closest disciples by surprise. Jesus goes before us all by being the “firstborn among the dead” (Col. 1:18). The apostle Paul believed in this resurrection, not only in the possibility of it, but in the reality that he had indeed seen the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus (Acts. 9).
“It’s one thing to believe it. It’s another thing to see it.” ~Benjamin Linus, LOST, “Dead is Dead” season 5, episode 12 (Ben’s response to seeing John Locke alive again.)
For a person to believe in the resurrection of Christ is to accept that they too will pass from death to a new bodily existence at the second parousia (i.e. “coming”) of Christ. Jesus himself passes from an earthly body to a real “spiritual body” and promises that those who follow him shall do the same (Jn. 11:25).
Jesus not only spoke of this new existence, but he allowed his closest followers to witness the glorious transfiguration, and later his visible presence in his resurrected body (Matt. 17; Lk. 24:36-49).
According to Paul, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred” people in this new body. And at the time of Paul’s writing, these folks were “still living” and you could go talk to them yourself (1 Cor. 15:6).
Life After Death
Contemporary visions of the “afterlife” stand in stark contrast to the uniquely Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead. Let’s take a moment to briefly examine what others believe about the divine destiny of man.
We have already seen the Platonic or Gnostic vision of the immortality of the soul. This view seeks to emphasize the individual. In this vision, our lives culminate at death when the soul is released from the body and we are freed from the imperfections of the material world.
According to this view, discarding the body is necessary to reach the world of eternal ideas and touch the divine.
Another prominent view teaches that we all are destined for a blended union with the divine. Proponents of this idea, often known as monism, believe that God is impersonal and lacks personal distinctions. To become “one” with the divine is actually to lose all of your own personality and be absorbed in with the “great spirit” in the sky.
This view undermines the personhood and character of God as well as the personal nature of human beings.
Reincarnation goes a step further in this idea of union with the divine. According to this view, we do not blend with the divine immediately, but after a series of “rebirths” that continue until the soul has reached perfection. Since this cycle of rebirths is actually never-ending, life is ultimately meaningless. It believes the real person to be only the soul that moves from body to body.
Reincarnation denies the perfect God-created union of spirit, soul, and body.
Finally, we can’t leave out those who believe that a person simply ceases to exist upon death. This belief may just be the saddest of all things a person chooses to embrace. Believing that everything ceases at death rejects the created order left by God to lead us to knowledge of himself (Rom. 1:20). And it denies that internal longing for life beyond the grave.
This person should stop to observe the seasons. Winter can be dreadful, but Spring is forthcoming.
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:51-52
Somehow believers have failed to recognize that Scripture teaches that the culmination of our earthly life is found in the future resurrection of the dead when the Lord will break through from heaven and establish his Kingdom upon the earth. They have missed John’s revelation of the Holy City “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).
Instead, many have embraced an eschatological view that propagates some of the tenants of the pagan ideas already discussed. We see this most clearly in Christian funerals and popular teachings on the eschaton (i.e. “last things”) from the pulpit and the pen of preachers everywhere.
Pop-culture Christianity teaches a distorted view of death and the last days. And I believe it is partially born from a resistance to suffering in the New Testament fashion. We say we have the Kingdom in mind through “winning the culture” by legislating sin, when in reality we don’t wish to rely on the foolishness of the cross and suffer as Christ in patient love. We, like the world, are fighting against death instead of embracing it with hope in the resurrection.
American Christianity has made it possible for us to look past Paul’s words, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12) and “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). We have built for us a faith that wants nothing but comfort in this world, only to turn and grieve in sorrow as the world grieves.
We have failed to know the true hope that comes by first confronting the ugliness and reality of death. To cope with the “sting” of death we resort to absurd beliefs that are more reflective of pagan teachings than they are of our distinctly Christian hope in the resurrection.
How can we know the victory until we have felt the defeat? Death has “lost its sting” because of the finished work of Christ (Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:55). Why would we ever use language that takes away from that work?
Evangelical Christianity has largely adopted pagan ideas of the “afterlife” that allows us to continue propagating the “no suffering for me” theology.
The Left Behind Series has done much to further the idea that what we all need is to escape or be “raptured” from this evil world and our lowly, decrepit bodies for a future “spiritual” existence on the other side of the cosmos.
Meanwhile, we are learning to care less and less about the soul of a terrorist, genocide, and the many ways we are destroying the planet.
What does it matter when the Christian life can be summed up in “going to heaven when you die”… which translates: this world isn’t so important after all. We can hardly see the urgency and the importance of it because the Gospel has been mixed with worldly political agendas.
You have heard it many times at funerals before and probably have said it yourself at some point: “they are in a better place… they have gone home.” Our hymns even reflect this Platonic idea of the soul’s escape from the body. “I’ll fly away O glory… when I die hallelujah by and by… I’ll fly way!”
Really? Are we flying away or are we awaiting the resurrection of the dead for a new existence when heaven comes to earth? If we are flying away, where are we going? Cause I’m not too sure I want to go there anymore.
Does this sound like a teaching that reflects our hope in the resurrection of the dead? Is it a development or a deviation from the Gospel that testifies that someday soon heaven will break through to this groaning earth and God’s reign will be known among the nations? According to the New Testament, it’s a clear deviation from the Gospel of “peace on earth.”
Why do we insist on furthering a dim view of the Christian hope?
We should stop and reconsider our anticipation in the resurrection of the dead when a believer is struck by the awfulness of death. In a better place, I’m sure, but “home,” I should think not. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, sure. (Lk. 23:42-43; Rom. 8:38-39; Phil. 1:23). But who can be home when they are separated from their body?
It is in the climatic event of resurrection that we shall enter our rest.
“The doctrine of the resurrection affirms that we do not enter into the fullness of eternity apart from the body, but only in the body.” Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, pg. 588
When we reduce the Gospel to a few clichés and water it down with pagan ideas of life after death, all that is left is to convince our neighbors that hell is hot and that they better hop aboard the J-train before it shoves off headed past a few stars to the right and on till morning. Are we followers of Christ or members of the Heaven’s Gate cult?
If we believe there is life after death without the body, then we have greatly misunderstood our hope in the resurrection of the dead. All the saints past and present await the coming judgment and resurrection of the dead. It is as if all of creation is on the edge of its seat crying out for that passing from death to life (Rom. 8:22; Rev. 6:9-11).
Heaven and earth cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”
“Now, at the climax of God’s salvation in the bodily resurrection of believers, the final enemy is defeated, the final victory won.” Michael S. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, pg. 281
Until heaven comes to earth and God remakes the world for our new resurrected existence, we live in that hope. We live to testify of the coming Kingdom of God that is already, but not yet. Winter is here and the times are dreadful, but Spring is coming!
Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part III