I’ve been thinking and writing a great deal recently about our understanding of resurrection and eternal life, both for sermon preparation and Board of Ordained Ministry work. The following essay crystallizes my thinking on the topic in what I hope is a concise and clear way. Maybe this will help you as you think about it?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our Christian hope. I believe strongly that Christ’s resurrection is at least physical and bodily: hence the tomb was empty, the risen Lord is shown eating with his disciples, and he offers Thomas the opportunity to feel his hands and side. But it was also more than physical and bodily as we understand those terms. There was a good reason that Mary Magdalene and other disciples (e.g., the “doubters” in Matthew 28:17, the two on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13ff) had difficulty recognizing the risen Lord: while his body was in continuity with his earthly body, it was also transformed. This also explains why the resurrected Jesus could disappear and reappear and walk through locked doors. As Christ’s body is in resurrection, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, so ours will be. The resurrection of Christ is the “first fruits” of our own resurrection at the end of history.
Resurrection means that our Christian hope is not for “heaven when we die,” if by heaven we mean disembodied souls living an incorporeal existence—like angels floating on clouds (or whatever other images our popular culture serves up for the afterlife). Our hope is not merely for life after death, but for the life that follows that: what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls “life after life after death.” Whatever our lives will be on the other side of death and resurrection, they will be more grounded, more substantial, more real than life on this side.
Why does resurrection matter? It matters because God loves this world, this very good Creation, and God intends to save it. Salvation is not about God’s plucking individual souls out of a wicked world and taking them someplace far away—like a firefighter rescuing people from a burning building and taking them to safety. Rather, it is about God’s restoring and renewing all of us—body and soul—and this good Creation. The alternative to this understanding of resurrection—a discontinuous, non-physical, non-bodily life—would mean that this world’s problems of sin, evil, and death proved too great for God to solve: God was cutting his losses and starting over. If so, then death has the final word on life in this world. In other words, death wins.
We Christians believe, however, that death doesn’t have the last word; God does. Through his life of perfect obedience to the Father, including obedience to the point of death on a cross, Christ wins a victory over death and its allies, sin and evil. Through faith and baptism the Holy Spirit connects our life to his, and we share in Christ’s victory. Just as Christ was raised, we too will be raised. And in this resurrection we will find our life’s deepest needs fulfilled—through living, working, and loving in God’s kingdom.
There are two more important implications of resurrection. Paul draws out one of them at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. The very last verse of Paul’s great chapter on resurrection contains a “therefore”: “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.” In other words, because of all that Paul has been saying about resurrection, the work that we the Church do for God’s kingdom on this side of resurrection is not wasted. Somehow, as strange as it is to imagine, resurrection means that God will make what we do, the products of our good labor, last for eternity. Consider what this means for the Church’s mission in the world: As N.T. Wright says of our work for God’s kingdom: “You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire… You are… accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”
The final implication of resurrection that I want to explore, which I hint at above, is that our hope for future resurrection has the power to change the way we live now, so much so that resurrection becomes a metaphor for our life in the present. Upon being baptized, Paul writes, we now “walk in newness of life.” In Ephesians, Paul goes further, saying that he and the Ephesians were at one time dead in sin but were now—already, on this side of death and resurrection—raised up with Christ and “seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
It is no understatement to say that our faith in Christ, including our resurrection hope, ought to therefore make a dramatic, tangible difference in the quality of our life now—so much so that our life before Christ could be referred to as a kind of death. Now, in Christ, we are fully alive. This new quality of life is what the Bible calls eternal life or “abundant” life (John 10:10). It encompasses life in the resurrection but it begins in the present. Eternal life should free us and inspire us to work on behalf of God’s kingdom for justice, peace, and reconciliation, so that others may also experience this life.
 Luke 24:31
 John 20:19
 1 Corinthians 15:23
 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 169.
 Wright, 208.
 Romans 6:4
 Ephesians 2:6