The Certainty of Resurrection

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.

The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part III: The Quest for Certainty and the Promise Of God

To arrive at a New Testament understanding of certainty one has to pass through the Old Testament’s full acknowledgement of mortality and death (see Part II).  The various death denying systems of certainty presume either an innate immortality (e.g., the platonic or Cartesian rational soul) or access to the absolute (a Babel like ability to storm the heavens or Buddhist notions which reify death) which would nullify the need for a sure and certain word from God.  The difference between the two kinds of certainty is captured in the contrast between Abram (in Genesis 12) and the Babelites (in Genesis 11). The Babelites would create a city and tower which would secure their name while Abram is given a promise that his name would endure. The tower ascending to the heavens is aimed at transcending and preventing scattering and dissolution.  As Paul spells it out in Romans 4, Abraham was as good as dead, Sarah’s womb was dead, and Abrahams entire life journey is a prolonged scattered condition (leaving his family, home, and country) of facing the reality of death.  Hebrews, in describing Abraham’s offering of Isaac, concludes along with Paul in Romans that Abraham’s death acceptance constituted his resurrection faith. Continue reading “The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part III: The Quest for Certainty and the Promise Of God”

The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part II: The Quest for Certainty

The pursuit of authenticity, wholeness, and happiness, whether it be the shaping force in theology (the beatific vision, the pursuit of an “original authentic Christianity”) or the lure drawing customers to the mega-church industry, might also be described as the quest for certainty. Certainty or unmediated knowing is what the original sales preachers, the Proto-Gnostics, were peddling as a means of by-passing faith. The certainty of seeing God through the “mind’s eye” is the promise that Anselm’s ontological argument claims for itself and it is the sure and certain knowledge which Descartes claims to have captured in the cogito (I think therefore I am).  The modernist project is built upon the notion that certainty is available in the quest of reason and science. It gives shape to both theological liberalism, in which faith falls short of reason, and theological conservativism in its continual search for ever more certain apologetic arguments and evidences to arrive at a sure and certain sort of faith.  

The postmodern turn is simply the acceptance that the quest for certainty is a failed project and in this the postmodern has accepted the crisis of modernity as an epoch unto itself. The crisis inaugurated (or perhaps simply pointed out) by Kant and built on by Hegel and Nietzsche, only succeeds in fusing knowledge and mysticism, which was, of course, the original form of Gnosticism (mystic gnosis as certainty). Hegel’s notion that the Kantian antinomies are not problems to be resolved but the dialectic ground constituting reality, marks the passage of hard rationalism into pure mysticism.   Yet, this is not a unique moment, as Anselm’s turn to rationalism in the ontological argument produced a vision of God and the attainment of certainty that is precisely Hegelian in its final mystic vision of “darkness and nothingness.” Anselm, like Hegel, will equate this with having achieved the Absolute.  This rational mysticism, first systemically advanced by Anselm and found in its ultimate mutation in Heidegger, might best be understood as one prolonged permutation of Gnosticism. Here, certainty or absolute knowledge is at once a transcendent mystical sort of experience which uses the ladder of reason to ascend to a transcendent place from which the ladder might be kicked away.

The pursuit of certainty is characterized by two moments: the recognition that the body cannot attain to certainty due to its impermanence and mortality; the turn from the body and ordinary embodied language to the “mind’s eye,” ecstatic vision, the thinking thing, or pure thought or reason which achieves its own kind of transcendence.  It is precisely these two premises which will be addressed in the New Testament but it is an understanding to be had only against the background of a Jewish understanding.

To fully appreciate the biblical approach to the issue of certainty it seems necessary to “tarry with the negative” along with the Old Testament in its stark portrayal of the reality of death.  Here there is no platonic flight to the disembodied forms but lingering meditations on the realities of embodiment:

But man dies and lies prostrate.
Man expires, and where is he?
As water evaporates from the sea,
And a river becomes parched and dried up,
So man lies down and does not rise.
Until the heavens are no longer,
He will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep. (Job 14:10-12, NASB)

The Hebrew formula for approaching God entailed the refusal of the notion that one could take flight from the body, perhaps through death, to attain transcendence. As the oldest book of the Bible understood it, the realities of enfleshment were so final that judgment itself would require that God meet us face to face in the flesh:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
Even after my skin is destroyed,
Yet from my flesh I shall see God;
Whom I myself shall behold,
And whom my eyes will see and not another. (Job 19:25-27, NASB)

The passage is remarkable in its refusal to turn away from embodiment and death, even before the conundrum that though the flesh is destroyed it is precisely from the flesh that he will encounter God. The writer longs for an unchanging word to this effect:

Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
That with an iron stylus and lead
They were engraved in the rock forever! (Job 19:23-24, NASB)

This is already a reversal of the historic quest for certainty in the transcendent forms beyond the world of human discourse.  It is an obvious messianic passage pointing to the incarnate Word.

The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ is the resolution to the irresolvable issue facing Job but it is also a direct overturning of the two premises posited in the quest for certainty.  The necessary flight from embodiment to an unchanging reality beyond language is a necessity and reality overturned by Christ.

To be continued.