Rev. Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of New Testament at the UMC’s United Theological Seminary. This originally appeared on his personal blog. Republished with permission.
If Christ is not raised…
Your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. This is what Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 15:17. Our entire salvation depends upon the resurrection of Christ.
As we enter into Holy Week, there will be a number of posts in social media about how the resurrection of Christ is a metaphor for liberation, anti-imperialism, compassion, or something else, along with the claim that this metaphor, rather than the raising up of Jesus’ body, is what truly matters. You will read people who say that they do not understand the resurrection to be the “resuscitation of a corpse,” or vaguely reference other ancient Mediterranean myths in which venerated figures rose from the dead. There will be articles in the various newsweeklies with headlines like, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” There will be “documentaries” on the History Channel purporting to investigate the reality of this claim.
Of course, no orthodox Christian believes that the resurrection was the resuscitation of a corpse. Rather, those who read the Bible and have taken the time to learn and understand the doctrine of the resurrection will know that it refers to the transformation of Jesus’ body into something that is continuous with, but still different from, the body he had before his death. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, there are both heavenly and earthly bodies. He is clear that the heavenly body is in some way similar to, but in important ways different from, our earthly bodies. In the way that various types of bodies on earth differ from one another (say, bodies for birds, fish, and people), so the heavenly body will be different from the earthly one.
Resurrection is about bodies: no body, no resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the raising and transformation of a body, the “first fruits” of what is to come (1 Cor 15:20). “First fruits” is an agricultural metaphor. At the time of the harvest, one would gather a small portion of the crops on the first day and gather the rest subsequently. That, says Paul, is what the resurrection of Jesus is like. Christ has been gathered in first, but we will also participate in the same kind of transformation. Our eternal life with God will be embodied, but differently from the way we experience embodiment now.
There is, of course, much that we cannot know about the resurrection body. Like other great doctrines of the faith, the resurrection is a mystery. To be clear, to call something a “mystery” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing of it. It means that there will be much we don’t understand. Understanding incompletely is different from a total lack of understanding. We can know certain things about God and make certain truth claims about God because we have received these through divine revelation, and even though God’s being vastly surpasses our ability to understand, we can still hold as true that which has been revealed.
We do know this much, though: if Christ is not raised, then our faith is futile. Why is this? It is because the resurrection of Christ shows us the telos of our salvation. Like other Wesleyans, I believe that salvation is a process. It involves transformation of our lives in the here and now and eternal life in the age to come. In the resurrection of Christ, we get a glimpse of what our eternal life is to be. It is to be embodied. It is to have continuity with our life before death. Yet it is also to be incorruptible. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Cor 15:42).
In fact, our resurrection is part of a much greater work that God is bringing into being. God is making all things new. God has begun to form a new creation. Our salvation in Christ is our participation in that new creation. So as Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:17-19:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
God has a telos in mind not just for people, but for all creation, and our great privilege is to participate in it.
One of the great cruelties of modernity is that it formed generations of people in such a way that they could no longer affirm belief in the great hope of the Christian life. It took away the expectation of divine action, if not belief in God entirely. We came up with a variety of ways to maintain the structures, language, and practices of the Church, while dispensing with belief in the divine actions that gave rise to the Church in the first place.
I once heard a minister speaking to a class of continuing visitors who were interested in learning about United Methodism. One of the participants asked him, “Do United Methodists believe in eternal life?” He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Well, personally, I do not.” I’ve always remembered that moment with sadness. First of all, it’s unlikely that anyone in that class ever came back to the church. Second, I lament the hopelessness of this minister who expected nothing of God beyond the brief moments we have in these mortal bodies. What could one who believed in this way say to the dying? What hope could one offer at funerals? And how painful it must be to envision your own life simply fading into nothingness at the end of your days.
I wonder at times how we have come to expect so little of God. The biblical story and the great doctrines of the faith teach us quite the opposite. What God promises to us is greater than we could ever imagine. So have hope in the resurrection.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Cor 15:54-57).