The Discarding and Recovery of Resurrection

For some years I taught at an institution where penal substitution was the pervasive understanding, and at the same time I sat on the board of a campus ministry of a local university where the campus minister (who had no formal training) had been mentored by both a graduate of this institution (the former campus minister) and a professor (at the university) from out of the liberal wing of the Disciples of Christ. When it came out that he had no firm grasp on the necessity of the bodily resurrection, and he was teaching as much, I presumed some line had been crossed. On a board made up of ministers, elders, and business leaders, I found myself trying to convince them that the bodily resurrection of Christ was a fundamental part of the Christian faith. While many of the more conservative might have normally wanted to affirm the resurrection, the focus on the spirituality of the event, leaving aside the physicality, seemed to satisfy. What I discovered is that in both fundamentalism and theological liberalism, bodily resurrection is not a bedrock necessity. As the young campus minister put it, finding the body of Jesus would not change his faith. The Platonism of his Disciples of Christ’ indoctrination (an outright denial of the possibility or necessity of resurrection) was easily understandable, but the fact that there was, from the other side, no objection or dissonance caught me by surprise. Should it all be chalked up to a harmless Platonism, or is this on the order of a counter-Christianity which John identifies with the anti-Christ?

If our destiny is a timeless, bodiless, nonmaterial eternity, then any focus on the bodily and material must be a sign at best and a distraction at worst. As the proponents of a resurrectionless or semi-resurrectionless Christianity might argue: “Isn’t the resurrection simply an exclamation mark to Jesus’ saving us from hell and taking us to heaven? So, resurrection illustrates the theological point, that Jesus sacrifice on the cross has been accepted by God, our sins are now paid for due to Jesus bearing the penalty, and the resurrection is the stamp of approval on the payment of debt. It points to Jesus’ authority and power, verifies his message, inaugurates his departure, but is not itself central or integral to the faith. It is a sign of his authoritative preaching, but is not itself part of that revelation. It does not need to be a separate event from the ascension, when Jesus “sheds his body” and is seated in his former place of disembodied glory. Afterall, isn’t the incarnation only a brief episode in the life of Jesus, so why make such a fuss over that even briefer moment between death and disembodied bliss? Afterall, the soul is innately immortal, and resurrection can at best be a pointer to this reality, expressed in a momentary bodily sign. I assume something like this must have been the thought process.

This then can easily be blended with seventeenth-century rationalism and a post-Enlightenment skepticism (regarding miracles), limiting the resurrection to an a-historical spiritual event in the minds of the disciples. In our enlightened age we now understand that resurrection is scientifically impossible, though the primitives who wrote the New Testament may have been easily swayed. Perhaps, like the two on the Road to Emmaus, someone felt a burning in their heart, and this then turned into mass delusion, and it was passed along that some had seen a vision of the resurrected Jesus. We might say, Jesus was raised in their heart, but this should not be taken as a literal, historical event. Resurrection is the spiritual exaltation of Jesus, and all can agree on this point, and there need be no concern about literal bodies and flesh and blood survival of death.

I discovered it is nearly impossible to make the case for bodily resurrection as central among those focused on life after death, going to heaven, and inward spiritual piety. Where death is made a retributive payment for sin, a necessity required by God, and is primarily a fleshly predicament resolved through shedding the body, the resurrection is nothing more than an addendum or a fable. I made the mistake of trying to explain higher criticism, and the other influences which had gripped our campus minister, through his professor educated in 19th century rationalism. But the real problem is not so much rationalism, an attack on miracles, higher criticism, or the requirement of more proofs for the resurrection. The problem is the gospel has gone missing. Denial of the resurrection is a denial of the Christian faith. The resolution is the gospel, and a (re)presentation of salvation as presented in the New Testament in which resurrection is the main event and central to faith.

Step one is understanding death is at the center of the human problem. Where death is understood to be the final enemy, the root cause of sin, an evil unleashed on all of creation, the ruling orientation of this world, the power exercised by the principalities and powers, the deception by which Satan rules (that death is life-giving), the marring of the human image, the futility giving rise to human suffering, and the center of the human logos, then it can be understood that the resurrection of Christ defeats this final enemy, overcomes the rule of sin, gives hope that all of creation will be unleashed from bondage, defeats Satan by exposing the lie of sin, restores the human image to its divine purpose, relativizes human suffering in light of glory, and offers a different Logic or alternative Logos to human rationalism. Resurrection saves because death is at the center of all that destroys.

The biblical portrayal, that the reign of death is the cause of sin, has been rendered inaccessible, in part, by the presumption of Augustinian original sin (a mysterious and inherited guilt). Where this presumption can be set aside, it is clear that death and not sin is pictured as primary: it is death that is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:24–25); death and Hades (the place of the dead) are the last thing to be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14); Paul’s primary thing from which he needs rescue is “this body that is subject to death” (Rom. 7:24); sin is the sting or result of death and not the other way round (that is death is not the sting of sin in I Cor. 15:56); the problem is not that sin reigns and then comes death but death accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), “as sin reigned in death” (v. 21). As Paul concludes in 5:21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way round. In Paul’s explanation in Romans 5, it is not sin that is inherited from Adam but it is death which Adam passed on and which gave rise to sin.

Hebrews pictures the devil enslaving humanity as he wields fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15) and Paul describes this same reign of fear and enslavement (Rom. 8:15). Hebrews explains, the death of Jesus was intended to “destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” John puts it succinctly, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). At the opening of Revelation Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Presumably the one who holds the keys to death has taken control of what was formerly under Satan’s power. He has the power to unlock the chains which bound human kind. Resurrection is a direct defeat of sin and death.

Step two is to understand that salvation means the salvation of all things. Salvation is cosmic, corporate, and inclusive of the entire created order. There is a continuity between the death and bodily resurrection of Christ, because what death would destroy is God’s good creation, and the defeat of death is not simply the release of souls but the beginning of recreation, a new heaven and earth. God pronounces his creation good, and its goodness is restored and fulfilled in the work of Christ. His plan was not to abandon the world but to save the world. He loves the world and gave his son that it might be saved (John 3:16). “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19–21).

The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses embodied resurrection life with God as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ, that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). As Colossians states, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. . .. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:15, 20). Colossians 1:15-20 describes the reconciliation of all things. Nothing is discarded or abandoned, all people and all things are included in the new creation inaugurated on Easter morning.

Step three is to understand that resurrection defeats the sinful orientation to death, now. Resurrection life is inaugurated on Easter as all can live in the hope that life now reigns in place of death and they can begin to live that way. “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I Jn. 4:9). The fear, that would obstruct love is cured through the love of Christ: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18). On the other hand, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (I Jn. 3:14). John explains: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:15-16). Fear of death leaves one under the control of death and incapacitates love and gives rise to violence. Resurrection life defeats this fear controlled orientation.

Fear, death, hatred, and violence, pose the orientation to death, and life, love, abiding in Christ, and laying down life for others constitutes the resurrection option. Paul’s depiction of the power of God, available now, is found in Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and reign over the powers which is a singular movement: “what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Eph 1:19–21).

Step four is to understand that resurrection inaugurates a new sort of kingdom, a new sort of human cooperation, a new society, in which self-giving love is afforded, as the zero-sum game of the reign of death is defeated. The captivating power, the darkening power, the death dealing power, is not the power of God but the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers (the cosmocrats), the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). The cosmic struggle is not removed from the historical, political, and earthly, and so too, the Christian engages these spiritual forces through their earthly manifestations. Ideologies and institutions manifesting the various forms of individual and corporate violence and oppression (e.g., nationalism, fascism, racism, sexism, legalism) constitute the cosmos of darkness. There is no mystery as to the power of evil (this power of death and violence is the coin of the realm of the kingdoms of darkness) undone by the gospel of peace, truth, and righteousness instituted in the kingdom of resurrected life. Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation.

As I began to write this, I realized that the steps necessary for realizing the centrality of the resurrection could be nearly endlessly multiplied to include the apocalyptic breaking in of life in death, the centrality of revelation, the second coming of Christ, the recognition of a future universal resurrection, etc.. But one essential understanding, is the key role resurrection plays in recognizing the work of the Spirit. For Paul, the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and the inauguration of new creation is tied to the gift of the Spirit.

For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.    However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.  But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Rom. 8:6–11).

Resurrection life in the Spirit enables human righteousness and is at the center of the living hope of the Christian life.

If liberalism, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or particular theories of the atonement have displaced the bodily resurrection, such that it need not be taught or emphasized, it may be that resurrectionless or semi-resurrectionless “Christians” constitute the largest unreached people group in the world. Proofs of the resurrection, dispelling rationalism, deconstructing theories of the atonement, will not do. They need to hear the fulness of the gospel, as a resurrection centered Christianity has yet to penetrate their religion.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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