A couple of months ago, while attending a debate tournament at Swarthmore College, I overheard an interesting debate topic: that Jesus’ life would make better literature if he had not been resurrected, if he had simply been crucified, buried, and rotted. I then heard some of the arguments for why this might be true. Jesus’ followers would better be able to take up the mantle of their martyred leader. He would fulfill the classic storyline of the sacrificial hero: dying for the sake of the ‘cause’. In this view, Jesus’ resurrection seems a tacked-on, Disney ending that makes an epic story into an artificial-sounding, feel-good tale with less of a lasting impact.
At first glance, this sounds like a persuasive argument. But I really wish I had been the one to debate against this topic, because I firmly believe that Jesus’ resurrection is incredibly important—more important, in fact, than his death on the cross (1 Corinthians 15:14: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’). That is the first provocative thing that I learned from reading NT Wright’s book, Surprised By Hope. I’ll quickly go through a few others.
1. The Resurrection, not the Crucifixion, should be the center of Christianity.
As NT Wright argues “Sin is the root cause of death; so if death has not been defeated, then that means sin has still not been dealt with” (247). Thus, modern Christianity’s focus on Jesus’ death on the cross is really missing the point. His death AND resurrection were what enabled humans to be forgiven and freed from the chains of sin and death. Moreover, resurrection is a focus on the positive, victorious nature of Jesus rather than on the suffering at Golgotha. NT Wright also argues that Easter is not a big enough deal in the Church’s liturgical calendar: it should be a PARTY, complete with feasts and drinking and dancing. In the status quo, we have forty days of intense sorrow for Lent and then a single half-hearted Easter service to end it. It should be the other way around, if anything. Jesus’ resurrection is where we draw our hope; it was the totally unexpected, surprising revelation of his glory. Jews believed that everyone would be resurrected at the end of time, but Jesus foreshadowed that event with his resurrection, shattering even the disciples’ wildest hopes.
If we don’t center our theology on Jesus’ resurrection, death still has the victory: the best humans can hope for is to die quickly and join God in a spiritual heaven, leaving our bodies here. Which gets me to the second provocative point.
2. When a Christian dies, he or she will NOT be in a spiritual heaven forever.
Wow. Incredibly provocative. Nearly everyone I hear present the Gospel message talks about how if one accepts Jesus into one’s heart, one will spend eternity in heaven with God. And that is 100% false.
Why? Because as predicted in Zechariah, Isaiah, Revelation, and throughout the whole Bible, God’s people will one day live with him in a remade, renewed, recreated, physical, redeemed, perfect Earth. Heaven is just a temporary resting place where we wait until the resurrection. Then, at the last day (or the first day, depending on your point of view), we will be resurrected into new physical bodies and God will descend down to Earth to live with his people forever. The dead are all to be raised and judged accordingly, some to eternal life and some to death. God, for his part, experiences a permanent change of address (Revelation 21:3 “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”). The story of the New Testament is fundamentally not about people going to God. It’s about God coming to people: this was symbolized with Jesus, and ultimately to be fulfilled at the end of time. And when God comes, he will enter—as in Eden and Bethlehem—into the physical world. That will be final reality, not ‘heaven’. There will be a new heaven and a new, perfect earth, but the Bible clearly shows that our final, eternal home will be on the new, physical earth with God, forever.
3. Well, allow me to amend that previous statement: heaven and earth will, on the last day, meet and join together as one unified location.
I suppose that’s the more accurate way to say it. Throughout the book, NT Wright critiques the Platonic idea of separating soul and body, elevating the soul and denigrating the body. In the Platonic view, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is a case where “Oh, now he’s in all of us, how nice” a la the debate case I heard at Swarthmore. A more robust view, however, says that the Bible means what it says: Jesus, in his body, actually disappeared into heaven, and there’s a physical Jesus in heaven right now waiting for the moment when he can make his royal “presence” known (parousia, the word connected with inaccurate Rapture theology). While Jesus’ Spirit is in the Church, the Church is not Jesus. Jesus is still missing, there’s a curious absence which creation “groans” to fill (Romans 8).
Right now, the best we can do is to let God use us to bring little slices of the kingdom of heaven to earth, but realize that we can never fully establish heaven on earth until Jesus does at the end of time. But that does mean we can anticipate that event the same way Jesus’ resurrection anticipates our own. Thus Christians should be deeply involved in social justice and in restoring our world: in so doing, we are looking forward and giving witness to the last day when heaven and earth finally meet like a kiss.
4. The Rapture is not a real thing and will not happen the way Christian culture assumes it will
Also a very provocative claim. First, let me point out that absolutely nobody had the idea of Christians souls being sucked from their bodies in a Rapture until around 1850, when an American preacher believed he had revelation from God and figured it out. According to him, God would take all his people from the Earth and then essentially nuke the earth with various judgments. But the way Paul talks about the parousia or “coming/presence” of Christ does not imply that at all. Rather, Jesus’ re-appearing occurs when he comes back to Earth to establish his eternal kingdom and triumph over evil once and for all. At the trumpet call, Christians will “leap up” to meet God in the air, but only so we can escort him down onto Earth. In ancient protocol, when the king comes, you go out to meet him so you can usher him into the city. A tiny bit like going outside to help your mom bring in the groceries. There’s absolutely nothing about having our souls sucked out to be with Jesus in the parousia/Rapture. The only time our souls are separated from our bodies is when we are dead, and that is only temporary.
5. Modern Christian Liturgy is Missing the Point
I mentioned earlier that NT Wright wants an Easter-centric liturgical calendar, in order to avoid modernity Christianity’s extreme focus on Christmas and Lent. The resurrection ought be the center of our faith and the foundation for our future hope. Enough said.
NT Wright critiques another popular practice, cremation. While admitting that obviously God can resurrect any person’s body, regardless of what physical remains are still there, burying a full body is a better symbol: just as Jesus was buried and resurrected whole, we will be buried and resurrected whole. Cremation is more akin to the Platonic belief that the spirit, and not the body, is what matters. Too much of modern Christianity is more like Plato than Christ, NT Wright argues. We hate the body and long to be freed from it “in heaven”. But Jesus affirmed both the body and the soul, and we should do the same. Yes, both are currently corrupted, but both shall be one day wholly restored. The physical and spiritual healings that we may experience here on Earth are a foreshadowing of that glorious day.
6. In the same way that Jesus’ resurrection from death anticipates our own final resurrection; Jerusalem’s destruction and burning by the Romans in 70 C.E. anticipates the final judgment for those who reject God’s kingdom
For this point I’m going to quote from NT Wright regarding Gehenna, the smoldering pile of burning rubbish in a valley near Jerusalem that represents hell: “Jesus’ message to his contemporaries was stark and political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,’ that is the primary meaning he had in mind.”
Thus the destruction of Jerusalem, like the resurrection of Jesus, prefigures the future—a fact often overlooked by Christians. If people refuse to repent and instead insist on pursuing earthly kingdoms rather than the kingdom of heaven, they will find themselves destroyed by fire. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Note that NT Wright does believe in the final reality of hell. In the age of Rob Bell, it’s helpful to have a solid, biblical, yet compassionate analysis of the topic of hell. I’m not covering it here for sake of time, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
7. Those who deny miracles still occur in the modern world (using 1st Corinthians 13 as their scriptural basis) better change their position.
When one reads 1 Corinthians through the lens of the resurrection, things make a lot more sense. Particularly the section in ch. 13 that declares “prophecy, tongues, miracles etc. will be done away when the completion arrives.” Some modern Christians argue that we ought not see prophecy or miraculous healings because the completion has already come. Thus they denounce any church that has these things. But the completion to come is the resurrection. When the resurrection comes, tongues and healings will cease. This is shown in the Old Testament too: Zechariah 13, which describes the renewed, post-resurrection Earth, explains that no one will prophesy anymore.
In fact, it’s precisely because the completion has not come that healings, tongues, and prophecies still exist (or should—if you don’t see any near you, you might want to consider finding a place where they do). There is still sin and pain, and thus we still need the Holy Spirit’s supernatural intervention. And with that intervention, we catch a glimpse, a foreshadowing, of the new heaven and the new earth, where there will be no more pain, no more death, and every tear will be wiped away. And when we have that, then there will be no need for tongues and prophecy. Because in that day, the perfection will come, and the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.