More thoughts on “resurrection of the dead”

November 5, 2009

As I said in my sermon, some of the most thought-provoking discussions I had in my “Questions” classes surrounded the phrase, “I believe… in the resurrection of the dead.” In more than one class I pointed out that the goal of the Christian life is not simply heaven when we die, and some people seemed surprised by that. There was an Indian woman visiting the class, who was Hindu, and she was intrigued. She grew up in India attending a Christian school, and she thought that heaven was our goal. She seemed happy and relieved to know that it wasn’t. She explained that for her, this emphasis on heaven when we die robs this present world—which,despite its sin and evil, is still very good—and our present life within it, of so much of its meaning. I’m sure that’s true. One point I argue in my sermon is that if we understand texts like Revelation 21, we see that it affirms the value and goodness of this Creation: God loves it so much that God wants to redeem and renew it, rather than hitting the reset button and staring over.

But if we take this scripture seriously, then we also avoid the mistake of imagining that we can accomplish “heaven on earth” for ourselves. This was a mistake that many people in the Church made in the late-19th and early-20th century. We thought the world was making progress. Science, technology, industrialization, advances in medicine were going to save the world. Things were getting better—a rising tide lifts all boats, etc. War would be a thing of the past. The Church’s work in the world would build God’s kingdom right here—and soon. And then World War I happened; and World War II happened; genocide on an unprecedented scale; the development and use of nuclear weapons; and on and on. Look what the Enlightenment and science and technology have wrought: The genie is out of the bottle. Now plenty of politicians want us to be afraid of Iran, North Korea, or terrorists using weapons of mass destruction against us. If our hope for the future were based on what human beings can accomplish, then we Christians would be the most naïve optimists imaginable.

But resurrection finds its hope for a new world elsewhere. Our hope is based not on what we do, but what God does—at the end of the world as we know it. Revelation 21 teaches that life in our future home, where heaven and earth become one, will be both continuous (meaning it will be something like life now) and discontinuous (meaning it will require a radical and decisive transformation by God) with our present existence. But this is not the same as saying that what we do here doesn’t matter. We often read portions of Paul’s inspiring words on resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals: In that chapter, Paul says that what Christ is in resurrection is what we will become: that’s our future. Paul concludes, “Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting?… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Immediately following this passage, in 1 Corinthians 15:58, are words I never hear at funerals: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” There’s a therefore there. Paul is saying that all of his hope-filled words about resurrection preceding the therefore are connected to the words that follow: If we understand what resurrection means, then we also understand that the work we do now for God’s kingdom matters for eternity; it will not be discarded by God; it too will be redeemed.

I believe my head will explode if I try too hard to imagine how this truth will work itself out. I’ll leave to N.T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar, to help us. Regarding our action on this side of resurrection, he writes that you are not simply “oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s about to be thrown into the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.” Instead, you are “accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.” He writes, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, but I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”[1]

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.


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