I think I was in college when an older cousin gave me an interesting novel to read. In the book, the resurrection of Christ is exposed as a hoax and then you see how the whole institution of Christianity responds to this new reality. Essentially, things begin to fall apart. I remember feeling rather scandalized at the audacity of the author, but I suspect, unbeknownst to me, a seed got planted. At that time, however, belief in a physical resurrection was essential to the foundation of my faith. If I were to let that belief crumble, I was of the opinion that my whole faith would disintegrate along with it. Since then, the seat of my faith has changed often and it is no longer so reliant upon tradition, creed or dogma. In numerous past blog posts I have expressed my doubt about the literal interpretation of much of scripture, so maybe it won’t come as a surprise to hear I have reservations about the literal resurrection as well. However, literally true or not, my faith wouldn't falter.
A few blog posts ago I shared that the first New Testament books to be written were Paul’s epistles, composed around 20 years after Christ’s death.* Paul talks about resurrection, but it seems to mean something different for him than it does the later gospel writers. In fact, Paul doesn’t seem at all familiar with the story of the empty tomb. Let me be clear, Paul absolutely believes in the resurrection. He spends an entire chapter in I Corinthians talking about it and how essential this understanding is. But the resurrection he speaks of is not so much a physical reversal of death as it is a spiritual rebirth into life eternal.
In I Corinthians 15:42-44 Paul writes, "So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body."
And in Philippians (3:10-11) he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Mark was the first gospel written, and his is a pretty abbreviated Easter story. Mark actually spends way more time with the crucifixion. He concludes with a very short chapter 16 in which a young man in a white robe tells the women who come to the tomb that Jesus has risen. But Mark ends on a doubtful note. Because while the man tells the women to go and share the good news, the final verse in this book is, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. The end. Most Bibles do add both a short ending for Mark as well as a longer ending. The longer ending includes some of the more familiar elements such as Jesus appearing to Mary of Magdalene, the commissioning of the disciples and the ascension. But both endings are acknowledged as later additions.
And an interesting thing happens with the Easter story as time goes on. Matthew, the second gospel to be written at around 50 years after the death of Jesus, adds much more detail to the story. Luke adds even more. And John, the final gospel to be written, has the longest Easter story yet. So the story keeps developing, but it also keeps changing. Between these different gospel accounts you find contradictions all over the place. Did a group of women go to the tomb that morning, or did Mary of Magdalene go with Mary, or did just Mary of Magdalene go on her own? We have all three versions here. Did Jesus appear to Mary of Magdalene or not? These stories tell it both ways.
Resurrection stories were not a new thing. There are a number of stories about gods who were resurrected from the dead. It was an effective way to lift a person up as someone set apart, someone who embodied the divine or to clearly distinguish between a god and a human.
This is a more objective take on the matter. I also have a completely subjective one. The other day a friend talked about trying to find a time in Jesus’ life when he experienced the grief that comes when a loved one dies. She concluded the only example we have in the Bible is Jesus’ grief when his good friend Lazarus dies. Jesus is heartbroken over this loss. But then how does Jesus handle things, how does he live with this loss? Well, he doesn’t. He goes and resurrects Lazarus. He brings him back to life. And you know, that’s not a very helpful model for grief if we take this story literally. I find a parallel there with Christ’s resurrection as well. It’s not comforting for me to imagine God stepping into time and reversing the natural order of things in order to restore Jesus to physical life when all the rest of humanity has or will go through the experience of physical death without a physical resurrection ………Lazarus excepted.
But Paul’s assumption is that the very real resurrection Jesus experienced is one that is available to each of us. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” And listen to these words from Romans 6:4-5 - “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
In my church on Easter Sunday, we bring flowers in memory of loved ones no longer with us. We offer up our real grief and let it mingle with resurrection joy. I think Easter is inextricably linked to our understanding or lack of understanding about eternal life. Here too, our ideas continue to evolve just as they have regarding our approach to resurrection. Throughout most of the Old Testament there isn’t much thought given to the afterlife other than the belief that when a person died their soul went to a morally neutral place called Sheol. Then towards the end of the Old Testament, but in particular in the time span between the two Testaments, the idea of a separate heaven and hell comes into being with the understanding that in the afterlife you will either be rewarded or punished for your conduct in this life. From this developing dogma we proceed into the fiery pits of hell, different levels of hell, purgatory and heaven, the pearly gates, streets paved with gold and lots of harp playing. Maybe at one time harps were all the rage, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my life interested in playing the heavenly harps. Today, intense hope bordering on belief I encounter regularly is simply that after death we will come into God’s presence in a new way, we will be reunited with our loved ones and all will be as it should be. We’re not quite sure what this will all look like, so we don’t ever really attempt to talk about the details. Actually, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about heaven, period, except leading up to and during funerals.
In March of 1997, Time magazine ran an article called, “Does Heaven Exist”. The following quote represents the main thrust of the article,
“And yet, in a curious way, heaven is AWOL. This is not to say that Americans think death ends everything or even that they doubt heaven's existence. People still believe in it: it's just that their concept of exactly what it is has grown foggier, and they hear about it much less frequently from their pastors. To reverse the words of the old spiritual: Everybody's goin' to heaven, just ain't talkin' 'bout it. The silence is such that it sometimes seems heaven might as well not be there.”
Then last year, Time did a feature story on a recently released book by a young and rising evangelical pastor named, Rob Bell. Bell is the founder and pastor of a 7,000 member church in Michigan. And he’s mixing things up. Experimenting with what it means to be church and expanding and/or calling into question a lot of theological assumptions. Anyway, last year he released a book which called into question the whole concept of hell, creating a bit of a firestorm in the evangelical community. However, I’m going to guess his opinions didn’t raise nearly as many eyebrows in mainline denominations because as far as I can tell many people in the mainline churches have been questioning the idea of hell for a couple of generations already.
It feels to me like our understanding of heaven and hell keep getting closer and closer to this world and this life. In a Sunday School lesson a few weeks ago, the John scholar who authored this particular series wrote, “Eternal life in John is a present reality that we share with God as God’s children.” That same Sunday a parishioner got up and shared with us her spiritual director’s belief that we experience heaven in the here and now. For most of my life I’ve believed hell is separation from God, heaven is union with God and when I voice that opinion, no one‘s ever disagreed. And a few weeks ago in a blog post I shared my hope that we are moving towards a fulfillment of God’s Kingdom here in this world.
So why at Easter of all times would I feel compelled to call into question Jesus’ physical resurrection and all our old and newer understandings of heaven and hell? I mean, what a kill joy! What I observe among Christians is an increasing schism between said beliefs and actions. Nowhere is this disconnect more evident then on the topic of death and life after death. I’ve had the opportunity, as a pastor, to journey with many individuals, family and friends towards death. And there have been a few individuals along the way who haven’t shrunk from death but have approached its inevitability with peace, firm in their beliefs about what lay beyond for them or their loved one. In other words, I’ve seen their said beliefs reflected in their actions. But many of the Christian people I’ve worked with have been quietly terrified of death, whether it was their own death or that of a loved one.
I experience this and I believe over the past several generations our theology, our traditional ways of understanding God have become cracked as new discoveries and understandings keep emerging. Instead of addressing the cracks, we’ve ignored them. I also think there’s a direct link here to the diminishing numbers in our churches. Most of the time ignoring the cracks works well enough in the short term and we’re actually unaware of to what degree our lives have parted from our said beliefs. But this catches up with us in the face of death, when we can’t ignore the cracks anymore and have to instead really wrestle with what exactly we believe. And this process takes time, often more time than people have left when death draws near to them or their loved one.
This feels a little like my mission now - to figure out exactly what I believe and in the process, challenge others to pull out and rethink long held assumptions as well, just to check and see if maybe those beliefs don't fit us so well as we like to think they do. Nor do I need or even want people to come out at the same point I do. How boring would that be?! But I am disturbed by the unexplored disconnect between our long held and assumed beliefs as contrasted with our lived lives. How we live says so much more about what we believe than our words do. And I think the church has really been coming apart at this seam, between belief and action.
This is all well and good, but it still doesn’t answer the question we ache to have answered. What does happen after we die? The most honest thing I can say is that I don’t know and no one else does either. But here’s what I believe. We see evidence of eternity all around us. We experience eternity everyday if we’re tuned in and paying attention. I believe God is eternal. So then it’s a small leap to believe we have that which is eternal within us as well and that after our physical death our essence, our spirit is united with the essence of God as well as with the spirits of all those who have gone before us. How this happens goes far away to a place beyond the reach of my understanding and/or words. I believe that time "when all tears will be wiped away" is a description of what we’re moving towards in this life and not in some heaven light years away. I also believe the spirit of everyone who’s ever been, will and do participate in that fulfillment.
Paul’s understanding of a spiritual resurrection rings as truth in my ears. I believe Jesus was risen. That God’s spirit and the spirit of Christ became one and that in the realm and nature of God, Christ lives. And along with Paul, I anticipate and hope for some form of this resurrection in the lives of all people. So I celebrate Easter. I celebrate resurrection joy. And I find Easter hope renewed in my life each year on this special day.
So I join with the faithful in the joyful Easter proclamation, "Christ IS risen! He is risen indeed!"
*While information about dating the books of the New Testament can be found in a wide variety of sources, the easiest route is to use wikipedia and read about the majority conclusions in Biblical scholarship.