Why the Resurrection Matters
“No one wants to die,” the late Steve Jobs once quipped, “and yet death is the destination we all share.” Shakespeare wrote similarly in Julius Caesar: “That we shall die we know; ‘tis but the time and drawing days out, that men stand upon.” Although every human being will experience death, we fear it almost universally, perhaps because we cannot see beyond it. Every passing day brings us closer to a location which none of us have seen or visited – the afterlife, if there is one, does not garner reviews on TripAdvisor. So it is the most natural thing in the human experience to squirm at the thought of dying because, as Soul icon Sam Cooke once sang, we “don’t know what’s up there.”
This collective human fear does not preclude the possibility of utilizing coping mechanisms. As death signifies the conclusion of our time inhabiting and animating our physical bodies, many turn to the metaphysical realm to alleviate their fears. Ancient polytheistic, idol-worshipping faiths from Egypt to Greece affirmed that something existed beyond our physical demise. Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism are just a few of myriad modern religions that preach a life after death, whether through reincarnation or an undiscoverable, postmortem destination.
Christianity affirms an afterlife as well, but with a distinct difference. Whereas some other religions promote unknowable gods or narratives of ascending life-to-life progressions towards an ultimate state of being, my faith speaks of a binary afterlife and only one discrepancy between the inhabitants of utopian Heaven and dystopian Hell – their relationship with a singular, resurrected figure, Jesus Christ. His resurrection creates in me a legitimate optimism for my eternal future, one that I cannot find anywhere else, and many Christians I have spoken to feel the same way. The uniqueness of Jesus and the fact that He is said to have risen from the dead provides particular solace for His followers that no other religion can boast, but does Christianity supersede other means of coping with death because of Jesus? Christians often cite the fact that ours is the only religion which claims to have a resurrected Prophet; while this fact is objectively true, one is left to wonder if it matters.
You do not need Jesus, or any religious figure for that matter, to attempt to overcome a fear of death. Some try to squelch their fears by claiming that everyone, from Mother Teresa to Hitler, goes to Heaven. While pop-culture personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Rob Bell promote this happy scenario, they can make no definitive assertion that such a place exists. Believers in a universal Heaven concept can claim a wonderful, consequence-free future, but they have no foundation on which to base their belief. Although we might desire such an afterlife, one in which all the morally foul of humankind correct their behaviors, the existence of such a place is wholly unprovable. In fact, given the emphasis society puts on justice in this day and age, I wonder if a panhuman resurrection that exonerates unrepentant rapists and terrorists and orchestrators of genocide is something we want at all, for a universal Heaven is certainly unjust. Jesus offers grace to all individuals, but only if they are willing to see the error in their ways and submit to Him, as did the capital criminal on the cross beside Christ. 1 To espouse a universal Heaven is to deem His sacrifice, which sought to justly give us an opportunity to get to Heaven, unnecessary. Not only do we have no evidence for this type of afterlife, and it considers Christ’s justification to be in vain, but our cultural mood may be one that increasingly does not want it, either.
Those of secular humanist and postmodern thought tend to optimistically view death as an abrupt end to consciousness – an underground reunion with the flora from which we ‘evolved’ – but a deeper examination of this idea does nothing but deny the kind of legitimate optimism I and other Christians possess. An absence of life is not a means of escaping what we fear, it is our fear. We have no idea what it means to not exist as cognizant individuals, and while proponents of this philosophy can say that our state of being after death is a painless one, or even a happy one, they cannot know or claim their theory with any sort of empirical weight. Scientists are obviously unable to study the neurology of a dead person, as there is no longer any neurological activity to observe, but that fact does not eliminate the possibility of an existence that has departed from the physical body itself. Moreover, our justice-centric culture condemns the end-to-consciousness theory as well: if death will only bring us an unmeasurable stoppage of existence, morality is, at most, a cultural parameter that is only worth following to preserve one’s own earthly well-being. If a believer in this theory had an unhappy life, what would stop him or her from risking it (knowing that a painless post-death existence awaits them in the end) and exerting injustice on others to pursue personal happiness? Genghis Khan, whose scorched-earth military campaigns killed 40 million people, 2 would have done well for himself under this system. I doubt many who fancy themselves ‘good people’ would be thrilled to share an eternal destiny with Genghis Khan.
The two theories I have already mentioned are not the only refutable ones, however. Most religions share their primary logical flaw – they have no authority to make the claims they hold. Siddhartha Gautama could never provide substantive proof of reincarnation, and Muhammad never restored life to one of his followers. Only Christianity can boast that Jesus showed mastery over death, both with a friend of His and, more importantly, Himself.
John depicts the story of Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus, one that portrays Jesus as an intentionally-acting master over humanity’s undefeated enemy, in the eleventh chapter of his gospel. Jesus’ disregard for His friend’s health at the beginning of John 11 seems cold and uncaring – when Jesus hears that Lazarus, referred to in the passage as “he whom [Jesus] loves,” is seriously ill, the renowned healer chooses to let the illness persist. Christ is obviously deliberate in his decision-making, and His intention to avoid Lazarus for several days is further elucidated in the subsequent verses when He plainly tells His disciples that His friend has died and that He is glad He did not go to see Lazarus earlier when he was sick. Lazarus’ sister Martha is correct when she tells Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Something is wrong with this picture ‒ Christ’s nonchalance has killed His beloved friend.
Further reading reveals why Jesus acted in such a seemingly unloving manner. Through Lazarus’ passing, He is able to engage in a seminal discourse with Martha (with the disciples certainly listening in as well). When Jesus reassures Martha by noting that her “brother will rise again,” she heartily agrees in light of her understanding of spiritual resurrection that follows death. Faced with Martha’s opinion, Jesus makes a claim that no other religious leader of any era in any geographical location could ever make: instead of saying that “there is a resurrection,” He says, “I am the resurrection.” To clarify, he adds one of the most comforting promises in the Bible: “He who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” His apparent ignorance of the situation earlier revealed that Jesus wished to expose His divinity and power not over mere illness, but over death itself. His claim is as difficult to prove as it is audacious: He would have to bring someone back from the dead to back up what He said.
Jesus, however, was never bound by difficulty or overconfident in audacity. The Man who walked on water, 3 fed thousands with a boy’s meal, 4 and healed illnesses with only words 5 regularly lived up to the challenges presented to Him by His skeptics. This scenario is no exception: Christ has no difficulty at all legitimizing His claim to those around Him. After lamenting the necessity of His friend’s death and being questioned about it from nearby Jews, He demands the impossible of His friend by urging him to come out of his tomb. Incredibly, the resurrected Lazarus complies. The Jewish spectators are spellbound at the sight of this event, and many religious leaders who feel threatened by Christ’s power begin to plot to kill Him. 6 Ultimately they succeed, crucifying Jesus mercilessly, 7 and Jesus’ death puts His assertion that He is the resurrection to the test again. When Jesus resurrects Lazarus, He punctuates a compelling argument about His understanding of death: He has mastery over it because of the source of His power. Yet His death soon after this event throws a wrench in His claim – if He had stayed dead after His crucifixion, His mastery over death must have been incomplete. Fortunately, Christians do not have to wrestle with that hypothetical.
Like the Lazarus narrative, John recounts Jesus’ gruesome death, but his gospel does not end there. He tells of a moment less than 72 hours after the crucifixion, the early morning of history’s greatest day. On this first Easter Sunday, John himself, along with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, saw a living, ambulatory Jesus. The risen Christ even showed dubious Thomas His hands and feet, which still bore the scars from the day He was nailed to the cross. All of the disciples, probably remembering the death-defying miracle He had previously performed, believed that He truly did rise from the dead. John goes so far to say that he writes his gospel primarily for the purpose of bringing that belief to others. 8 Two resurrections are a compelling case for belief, indeed.
Despite fierce resistance from the Jewish religious leaders, rapid growth occurred in the early church, with thousands joining the new Christian religion within two months of Christ’s execution. 9 These converts, contemporaries of Jesus, understood that if His resurrection actually happened, He holds a metaphysical power that no other historical figure has held. What’s more, He can truthfully say, as He did in John 11, that He is the resurrection, and He can abrogate the power of death, our collective, fearsome, ultimate enemy, which Paul calls “the last enemy to be abolished.” 10 Just as it did to the multitude of Jews who heard Peter speak in those early days of the Christian faith, Christ’s potency demands our attention. If Jesus conquered death, as no other person has done, we absolutely must heed His words. We must take seriously what He said to Martha at Lazarus’ tomb: “He (or she) who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” 11 Christ’s doctrine on Heaven and life after death is simple: believe in Him and you can experience life after death, in a paradise which Jesus discusses on several occasions. Choosing to believe in Jesus and His resurrection means that you can have confidence in the only person who has mastered death. This mastery is why the resurrection matters.