The following is a guest blog by Matt Welch[i]
One way of looking at things is: “The only certainty we really have in life – is death.” From this point of view, death is the central fact of existence, the only fate we can be sure we all share; the lone shadow under which we all truly live and move and have our being; the one, final truth binding us all together under the darkness of its cruel, unstoppable power. Death is, no doubt, a terrible, sobering thought. Because we know deep in our hearts that even the people and things we love most, both young and old, are subject to death’s tyranny. We know that, eventually – and possibly sooner rather than later – we and everyone else we know, will die. And, what’s more, none of us can ever know when or where or how any of us will meet our always untimely demise. And so, in a life filled with anxious worry and restless uncertainty, of this one fact all of us can be sure: death is coming. Of this, and this alone, we can be certain. But this, of course, is only one way of looking at things.
And we should probably at least respect the courage of those brave souls who valiantly hold to such a position. At least they have the nerve to admit the brutal fact that death (and therefore nothingness) is the ultimate reality which all of us must face, along with the obstinacy to continue forging ahead through life undeterred, nonetheless. Despite their unwavering belief that death reigns supreme as the undefeated, undisputed, omnipotent king of the universe, before whom each of us must finally, silently, bow down to as lord and master, they not only press on through life but – in an almost heroic act of defiance – even “grab the gusto” in the process.
At any rate, there is, thankfully, another very different (and infinitely more beautiful) way of understanding things. And this very different way of understanding things is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ, the Truly Human One, has been raised from the dead, then resurrection life – not death – is the central fact and fundamental truth and essential reality for human beings and for all human history. And this is precisely why the resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the true form of the Christian faith.[ii] No other form of the faith will do. If the victory of life over death is, in truth, the central fact of history – then death is only what we imagine (apparently through some sort of deception) to be certain. If the resurrection is true, then death only seems to be the ultimate reality of things. Because, if Jesus truly rose from the dead, then death no longer reigns as the sovereign King. Jesus does. If the resurrection is true, then life is the most absolute certainty because, if Christ has been raised, then death does not have the final word. Life does.
If God brought the crucified Jesus back to life then, in Christ, everything has been reversed: the only certainty we have in life, as it turns out – is the resurrection. In the truly Christian understanding of things, only resurrection life in Christ (the life of God) is the central fact of all existence: the one shared destiny uniting all mankind and in fact everything else under the sun. The beautiful truth – over and against the lie of death – is that, in Christ, the absolute freedom of the resurrection has been made an actuality and therefore all of creation can know the sovereign, unstoppable power of life and therefore of love and peace. Through faith, we can know (and faith is, indeed, a higher form of knowing) that, despite all appearances to the contrary, resurrection life is truly “the real.”
Death and resurrection are not just one more dualism among many others. In fact, there is no dualism in Christ. Death is not and indeed cannot be “the real” on the order of, say, God, who has life and being in and of himself. Death is a privation of life; it is a failure to be. The whole story of Christianity is that, in Christ, death has been “swallowed up in victory” by life (1 Cor. 15:54). The resurrection life of the Son of God, then, in order to be what it most fully is, must actually be the real: the central, defining event of all human history. And if the resurrection of the Son of God is truly “the real” – then everything outside of resurrection life is comparable to the well-known analogy of The Matrix. And The Matrix is of course nothing more than a construct which, for those with eyes to see, can be exposed for the false reality that it is. It is only what seems to be real; that which only has the appearance of the ultimate. But it does not have the final word because there is a truer Word, a truer reality, which runs deeper than appearances. And so it is with death and resurrection: one (death) only has the appearance of being the ultimate reality – and the other (resurrection) is the actual reality. One is potentially true; the other is actually the Truth.
And so, in this view, the fundamental truth and ultimate reality of all existence is that, since Christ has been raised, resurrection life is our salvation because death has been exposed as a lie; an imposter, dethroned, abolished and displaced forever by the love of the Father, in the life of the Son, through the power of the Spirit. Viewed in the light of the resurrection, the certainty of death as the central fact of all existence is, as it turns out, only a terrible lie from which Christ has saved us all.[iii] And, since, properly understood, the Lordship of Jesus Christ over death is the central fact of existence, we can (again, by faith) have a new, higher and infinitely deeper form of certainty,[iv] This form of Christian certainty may be properly understood as “resurrection faith” – a faith (or faithfulness) which, as the writer of Hebrews put it, is “the assurance of things hoped for…”[v] For the early Christian writers, it would seem, faith is an epistemology grounded in the faithful certainty of God’s victory over sin and death.
This Christian notion of certainty of course may sound suspicious or even ridiculous to our post/modern sensibilities. But it is difficult to imagine St. Paul having much patience for such modern “sensibilities” grounded – not in the knowledge of the resurrection – but in a human logic he would consider already oriented towards death. For the apostle – who met and communed with the crucified and risen Christ – nothing could be more certain than resurrection. For perhaps the greatest Christian thinker in the history of the church not named “Jesus,” there is no more central fact, no more fundamental reality, and no other greater certainty than that of Christ’s total victory over death:
“But now the Anointed has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For, since death comes through a man, resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life.”[vi]
For St. Paul,
resurrection life is a certainty. And not merely a potential reality for
some – but an actual reality for all. A reality to be appropriated, to
be sure, but a reality, nonetheless. For Paul, one form of certainty (that of
death) has been displaced by another form of certainty (that of life): “Just as
in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life.” Through the
resurrected life of Jesus, we come to know the Truth which is stronger than
death: that, because of God’s great love for us, death has indeed lost its
sting since, after all, death’s sting was its certainty.
[i] I dedicate this, along with all future contributions to FPS, to my dear friend, Dr. Paul Axton.
[ii] The false form of Christianity has at its idolatrous heart, of course, the logic of sinful desire, violence, deception, and exchange (the law of sin and death): “Let us do evil so that good may come.”
[iii] See 1 Timothy 4:10, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (ESV).
[iv] For instance, most days, the only thing I am certain of – is that hope that we have in Christ.
[v] Hebrews 11:1, (ESV). Emphasis (of course) mine.
[vi] 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, from David Bentley Hart’s (magisterial) “The New Testament: A Translation.” Emphasis mine.