Saturday, September 12, 2009

Rising Hope

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to pitied more than all men… For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

                        1 Corinthians 15.19, 23

Too True to Be Incredible

Before the Church left its cradle, a Greek schism fell back into pagan disbelief in resurrection. For this group, Christ’s resurrection posed no problem; He was divine. But mortals? That every Christian will be raised from the dead was too incredible to be true. It appears this resurrection debunking caught on, because in 1 Corinthians Paul exerts great effort to debunk the debunkers, unequivocally defending resurrection as the linchpin of Christianity. He builds his case carefully, first citing 500 eyewitnesses who saw the resurrected Christ. No one doubts that. Next, with dazzling agility, he flips his argument. “If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” he asks in 1 Corinthians 19.12. Then he flips it again in verse 13. “If there’s no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised.” Finally, he nails the crux of the matter in 14: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

Questioning resurrection questions other essentials. For example, in John 3.16 Jesus says He came to ensure “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16) In verse 20 of his treatise, Paul confirms Christ arose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”—His victory over death secures our immortality. And what are we to do with Jesus’s own statements? In Luke 14.14, He advises His host to welcome the poor and disabled to his table, saying, “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Why would He say such a thing? Thus, Paul’s logic: without trusting what Christ taught, what good is faith? If Jesus says the dead will be raised, resurrection is too true to be incredible. Knowing his opponents might dismiss this as sophistry, Paul serves up an airtight theological defense of resurrection.

Undoing Adam’s Deadly Deed

“You gotta give ‘em hope,” Harvey Milk famously said, and that’s the basis of Paul’s defense—hope. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (v19) It’s a given Jesus has no rivals among philosophers. His purity of wisdom and thought clarified the most opaque, unwieldy concepts into transparent truth. Yet Jesus was not a moralist or sage. His mission superseded dispensing tips for better living. Everything He did and every word He said flowed with eternal value. Paul says all that Jesus did centered on undoing Adam’s deadly deed. We were not created to die; Adam’s disobedience introduced death to our species. Jesus expressly came to correct that and return us to eternal life with God. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” verse 22 says. Before Christ, there was no point in believing in resurrection—and, indeed, many Jewish sects (e.g., the Sadducees) rejected the notion outright. Basically, existence came down to hanging around as long as possible. When the curtain fell, the show was over, a gloomy outlook on life. Christ’s proof of resurrection’s reality changed that. He gave us hope.

A New Elephant

Modern science and logic bring a new elephant to this discussion. Many Christians striving to balance natural facts with unnatural faith actually fall behind ancient resurrection debunkers. Before considering resurrection for all believers, they have to squeeze past elephantine doubts that Jesus actually arose from the dead. There are any number of rational reasons why resurrection of a corpse three-days dead is medically impossible—i.e., too incredible to be true. Yet these arguments strike me as moot, based on one basic, theological understanding. The body taken off the cross on Friday and the one that leaves the tomb on Sunday are radically different. Resurrection involves more than returning to physical life; it's transformation into a new life form. In John 20.17, when Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener, she touches Him, to which He says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.” This implies He’s protecting His resurrected body from physical corruption. Paul’s explanation of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.52-53 supports this: “We shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” (KJV)

Just as belief in spiritual transformation defies natural logic, hope in physical transformation balks at natural science. We shoo the fact-fed elephant out of the room. Faith in redemption and resurrection are all of a piece, a spiritually progressive process that starts in our beings and eventually overtakes our bodies. Resurrection is the final step. In verse 54 Paul teaches this ultimate transformation occurs so the prophecy of Isaiah 25.8 “will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’” Believing in this eventuality gives rise to hope for every day we live. Mortality—the only inevitability none of us can escape—will be defeated. By comparison, daily challenges we face look like small potatoes. Knowing our last and toughest battle with flesh ends in victory transforms how we see ongoing struggles with mortal weaknesses and desires. They also will be swallowed up in victory. That’s the real purpose and strength of resurrection. Hope we will live gives us hope to live.

Resurrection is a matter of faith, not science—transformation to new life, not return to life. To gain the hope it brings, we shoo the fact-fed elephant out of the room.

Postscript: Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, Off to Work I Go

Alas, professional commitments take me away for the next few days. As I’ve done in previous absences, I’ve combed through previous posts and selected a few to revisit while I’m gone. In the past few weeks, Straight-Friendly has gained quite a few new readers, encouraging me to think the reposts will likely be new to them. And for the veterans, I pray the reposts will also prove worth a second look. While I’m away, I’ll continue to stay in touch via email, comments, and Facebook. Until I return, I hope you’ll continue to come by, share your thoughts, and pray for me as I travel.

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