The Risen Christ: On Hope and the Death of Death


A chapter from a manuscript that I’ve worked and reworked for the past 7 years (and drastically changed as writing this is what sent me in the direction of Orthodoxy). No idea on when or if I’ll ever publish it, but I find this chapter extremely appropriate considering the celebration of Pascha (Easter). 

 

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What is hope? It seems that in our modern world there is quite a bit of talk concerning the idea of hope, but there’s not a lot of explaining what hope actually is. To some, to “hope” is to wish that things will get better at some point. We hope our team will win the Super Bowl. We hope the economy will improve. We hope our situation will get better. But with such hope, there is never an assurance that such hope will be fulfilled. The hope is not authentic and cannot be authentic, because such hope can let us down, and a hope that can fail is no hope at all.

This lack of authentic hope is the position the disciples found themselves in the morning after the death of Jesus. They had dedicated their lives to this rabbi, but He was now dead and buried. He did not swoon, He did not fake His death; He was dead. If He were attached to modern medical equipment, all signs would indicate that He had died on the cross. This left the disciples depressed (Luke 24:21). They had “hoped He would redeem Israel,” but now He was dead.

Though Christ had prophesied His resurrection, the disciples had not paid attention. It is not as though they sat around waiting for Christ to resurrect. They honestly and truly believed that Christ had died. And who could blame them? They knew that Jesus had been placed in the tomb. It’s not as though they lived in a primitive culture that lacked an understanding of death; they were sitting around in the upper room because they knew Christ had died and they, like us, knew that the dead don’t come back.

Death is Consumed

The Disciples lacked hope, but Hope was about to come upon them. In John 20:11-18 we read:

“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.”

The first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were His female followers. To modern Westerners who live in the aftermath of the feminist movement, we notice nothing strange in Jesus appearing to women first. But in His first act after the resurrection, He shows that He has truly turned the world upside down. In ancient Judea women were not viewed as real witnesses and simply weren’t respected. Yet He appears to them first to show that in His eyes, women as witnesses are just as valid as men. Just as the first act of His birth turned the world upside down, so did His first act in His resurrection.

Here He stood, announcing His victory to Mary Magdalene, but notice what He says; “Don’t cling to me!” This is a curious phrase in English. In the Greek Jesus is telling her not to haptomai Him. Though we use the word “cling” in English, the connotation of the word is much stronger than “cling.” We can imagine how a little girl might cling to her father after not seeing him in months, or how two siblings who haven’t seen each other in years might cling to each other. They wouldn’t let go, it would be difficult to breath, but in that moment neither would care because of the joy and elation felt at being reunited with a loved one. Mary, in her elation, fastened herself to Christ.

Jesus, ever present and ever alive, tells her (in modern words), “Let go, I still have to ascend to God!” Mary was so elated to see Christ raised from the dead that her first reaction was to embrace Him. She didn’t bother asking Him the theological ramifications of His resurrection or asking Him what this resurrection meant for philosophy; she embraced Him.

When she embraced Him, she did not embrace a figment of her imagination, but instead a real living person that existed in space and time. He appeared to multiple people so that there might be proof of His physical, historical, in space and time resurrection (Acts 1:3). If God were to transport us back in time with a video camera, we could record the resurrected Christ. We could come back, put videos up on the Internet, and show the physically resurrected Christ. If we lived at the time, we could touch Him (Luke 24:39). We know from Luke 24:42 that Jesus was able to eat food. As the numerous accounts of His resurrection show, we could have spoken with Him. The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t a vast metaphor that Christians used to point to a greater truth, nor was it just His ghost communicating with people from beyond the grave; He actually rose from the dead in a physical (albeit perfected) body. This was a very real event!

In the Resurrection, somehow the material and immaterial aspects of Jesus’ humanity united into one. Jesus is capable of walking through walls (John 20:19-20). On more than one occasion, He simply disappears at will (Luke 24:31). How He can eat fish, but walk through a wall is an absolute mystery to our finite minds. How can someone be both completely material and completely immaterial? Only in the mystery of the resurrection is such a question answered; Jesus heals. We learned earlier in the book that sin brought about a separation within ourselves, between soul and body, but through Christ this separation is healed; what was once separated is unified. Once again, in some grand metaphysical scandal that baffles even the most intelligent of philosophers and to the chagrin of liberal theologians, Christ brings the material and immaterial together in perfect harmony.

Jesus is Still Alive

After Jesus had spoken to His disciples and left them with final commands, He ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (Acts 1:1-9). When we read about Christ, we are not reading about an ancient figure that shaped the world in the past, but instead we are reading about someone who is still alive and shapes the world today. The words of Christ do not need to be re-interpreted in order to fit into our culture; rather, since Jesus is alive and He is truth, we must re-interpret our culture in order to fit the words of Christ. Only the words of a dead man are inapplicable to modern ears.

In being alive, Jesus still acts as our mediator between the Father and us (1 Timothy 2:5). He is still incarnate, though the body He has is a body we’ve yet to receive. But He is still human and He is still God. When we suffer, He sees this and knows what it is to suffer. When we hunger, He remembers what it is to hunger. And this is why He is the mediator; as man He knows our suffering and as God He can save us from our suffering. In turning to John of Damascus’ writings on the issue, we read:

“And thus, He sits at the right hand of the Father and wills our salvation both as God and as man. And, while He acts as God by working the providence, preservation, and government of all things, He acts as man in remembering His labors on earth and in seeing and knowing that He is adored by all rational creation.”[1]

We are not left with an unsympathetic God, but instead with a God who has experienced what we experience. It’s not some transcendent “Other” that we struggle to relate to, but instead He has lived among us; when we pray to Him about our pain and suffering, He can refer to His time here on earth. The God we worship is a living God, who is both transcendent and immanent.

                                          In Christ, We Are Resurrected

It is not enough to say that Jesus’ resurrection gave Him an experience of what it means to be human. While we can take comfort in Christ’s empathy towards our plight, it means little if He did not save us from our plight. Thankfully, His resurrection gives us hope of our own resurrection. Even the earliest of Christians believed that Christ’s resurrection was a promise of our own. From this, they extrapolated that there were multiple proofs that we too would be resurrected. They pointed to aspects of nature that mimic resurrection. Clement of Rome, writing in the late first century to the church at Corinth, displayed such a mentality when he wrote,

“Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead…The day and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away and night comes again…When the sower goes out and drops each seen into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain host of others spring up and yield their fruit.”[2]

The reason the early Church saw so much proof is because they placed all their hope in the resurrection. The resurrection is not some grand power play by God, something He does so He can shout out, “Look what I can do!” There is a great significance in the resurrection, namely in what it means for us poor sinners. While on the cross we see death defeated, it is the resurrection that ensures the victory over death. It is in the resurrection that we see our justification complete, for He has defeated our sins (Romans 4:24-25). It was not enough that He simply died for our sins. Had He died and stayed in the tomb then our sins would have ultimately defeated Him. It is in His resurrection that He gains victory over our sins.

In defeating our sins, Christ inevitably defeated the pains caused by our sins. We learned earlier in this book that death was the consequence of sin. Not just physical death, but spiritual death, eternal death. But we also learned in the last chapter, from John of Damascus, that Christ dying was like the darkness letting light in; the darkness cannot contain the light. In taking our sins to the grave He confronted death, but in rising from the grave He defeated death and left our sins with death in its defeat.

Christ has opened a way for us to reflect His image and thus fulfill our purpose as human beings. It is not a matter of if Christ died to free us from our pain and agony, or if He died to save us from our sins; Christ died for both, but then rose from the grave to cover both as well. If we modify an earlier illustration (and allow me to be cheesy with it) we see:

hearttransformed

Where sin and hopelessness once took hold in our heart, hiding our humanity and suppressing the image of God within us, through Christ’s death and resurrection our sin is forgiven and our hopelessness is healed. We were rebels against Him, He died so that we might have the dark soot of sin removed from our hearts and enter into communion with Him once more. “Thus, He put man in communion with Himself and through this communion with Himself raised him to incorruptibility, ‘for He created man incorruptible.’”[3] Though our pains will not go away immediately and we will continue to sin, through Christ’s resurrection we share in His victory and thus can eventually overcome both our sin and our pain.

The Curse Is Lifted

Beyond our sin and hopelessness, Christ gained victory over our mortal flesh. In fact, His victory over death is the culmination of everything He accomplished; it serves as the final proof that He is master over all that separated us from Him. Aside from saving our spirits from sin, He has also saved our flesh from the effects and consequences of sin. Just as Christ was resurrected in a physical body, we too will be resurrection in new bodies that are free from corruption. In terms of being and identity, we will not be God (as Christ is God), but we will have resurrected bodies like Christ has (Romans 6:3-5). We will be given bodies that are not corruptible (1 Corinthians 15:50-57). Though growing old and dying is something we can joke about as a coping mechanism, we must understand that for those in Christ a day will come when “growing old” and “dying” will no longer be realities. This is because we have been resurrected with Christ.

The ultimate reality of life for those who have entered into communion with God is that our physical sufferings are temporary. Though they might seem eternally long, what is six months of pain, fifty years of pain, or even a lifetime of pain compared to an eternity of unimaginable joy? The mental woes and physical ills we suffer come with an expiration date, but the life to come is perpetual, a world without end.

While Christ hung on the cross, He was taking our sins and infirmities with Him to the grave, but it is in the resurrection that we find our final victory. The day will come when the blind will receive sight, the deaf will hear, the victim shall be healed, and the whole of our humanity, which comes from the image of God, shall be fully realized. When Christ was on earth, He healed the sick, but they still got sick because they were under the curse of the Fall. Lazarus was raised from the grave, but only for a while; eventually he had to die. Christ gave us a taste of things to come while He was on earth, and such a miniscule taste it was. His time on earth allowed us to lick the spilt salt from the never-ending feast. The day will come, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, that all healing will be final. We will finally have victory in this struggle against our curse.

In a way, the resurrection allows us to return to the Garden, while at the same time bringing us into something even better than the Garden. In the Garden we saw that death entered the world through Adam. God cursed Adam and Eve and told them that we would surely die. Since that time, death has plagued humanity. However, just as death entered the world through Adam, life has once again entered the world through Christ (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). We now have hope that we will one day live eternally with Him. Our God is so powerful that He has defeated death itself (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).

Every creed, every religion, every philosopher, every human that has ever lived has had to face two facts: We live and we die. Some will die unexpectedly in accidents. Some will take their own lives. Others will have their lives violently taken from them. Some will battle with cancer for months, even years, only to succumb to it. Some will, in their old age, one day die succumb to time. How we die is the unknown, that we will die is known. It is only through the resurrection that Christ defeated death. (1 Corinthians 6:14).

I recall the story of a family losing their daughter to cancer. She was no older than six or seven. At an age when most little girls concern themselves more with pretending to be a princess, play with dolls, or scrape their knees playing outside, she faced death and did not win. This is the curse of death, one that even children cannot escape. We cry out to God and ask why evil exists. His Answer dies upon a cross and walks out of a grave.

Thankfully, Christian teachings do not end in this nihilistic curse of death. Christianity begins, but never ends, with the resurrection. Even for those who suffer from cancer at such a young age, we can remember that Jesus Christ is in the cancer wards; Jesus Christ is at the deathbed of the child passing into the darkness of the night, holding her, and carrying her away, for He has been where she is, and He has raised her.

The curse of death has been lifted. Once we look upon the empty tomb, we recognize that our own graves will one day be empty as well. If we want to be technical, the defeat of death took place on the cross, but the resurrection served as proof. Athanasius backs this up when writes, “Death having been slain by Him, then, what other issue could there be than the resurrection of His body and its open demonstration as the monument of His victory?”[4] While Jesus defeated death on the cross, we needed proof; it wasn’t enough for Him to instruct His followers, “When I die, just tell everyone I’ve been raised in your hearts.” That wouldn’t be a real resurrection. An empty tomb is full of more hope than the grave of a great human or a heart full of spiritual platitudes. On the cross death was defeated, but the culmination, the parade of this victory is the resurrection of Christ.

Christ’s ultimate reason for defeating death was to bring us back to Himself. We tend to think of our resurrection hedonistically, thinking that we get to live forever. It is important to personalize the resurrection, but ultimately everything goes back to God. We should never forget the words of Ephrem the Syrian:

“Adam had been most pure in that fair Garden, but he became leprous and repulsive because the serpent had breathed on him. The Garden cast him from its midst; all shining, it thrust him forth. The High Priest, the Exalted One, beheld him cast out from Himself: He stooped down and came to him, He cleansed him with hyssop, and led him back to Paradise.”[5]

What is Left to Fear?

Once we realize that we will be resurrected and that Christ will raise us from the grave to live with Him eternally, what fear is there in death? The skeptic might mock Christians and point to the fact that we still die, but the skeptic doesn’t realize that what we call ‘death’ isn’t really death. The reality is we become alive once our bodies fail us, as we come in contact with Christ (Philippians 1:21).

What fear is there of death? Why should Christians fear dying? The fact is, we shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean we should all rush to our deaths, as living on this side of eternity is just as important (as we’ll get to later in the book). But it does mean if God calls us to do something that could cost us our lives, then so be it. Even more, when we face a terminal illness we shouldn’t fear the suffering to come, but instead should fight death to the last instance, to show our defiance against its vain attempt to take us.

Why fear death when Christians don’t die, but fall asleep? Turning to John of Damascus again, we read,

“God ‘is not the God of the dead,’ of those who have died and will never be again. Rather, he is the God of the living, whose souls live in His hand, and whose bodies will by the resurrection live again…And Isaias also: ‘The dead shall rise and those in their graves be awakened.’ And it is obvious that it is not the souls that are put in the tombs but the bodies.”

John of Damascus points out that our bodies shall be awakened, that when we fall asleep our spirits are present with Christ, but at some point our bodies will be resurrected and our spirits and bodies will be reunited. So why fear suffering? Why fear death? Why fear that which won’t come to us?

When we face our demise, when we feel that we are drawing our last breath, we can take comfort with the fact that we will soon embrace Christ, because He died for our sakes and was raised to life again. When we become weary from battling a terminal illness, the resurrection of Christ allows us to take comfort that we will find new life in our death. For those who have life, remember that to live is Christ; for those that feel death at their door, mock death, laugh at it, pay it no respect, for in death you have truly gained.

Jesus Is Hope

We must face the reality that without Christ there is no hope. Without the resurrection, there is no hope (1 Corinthians 15:58). If there is no afterlife, if there is no resurrection, then there is no hope in life, no purpose to life. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre saw this and dreaded, concluding that we make our own purpose. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw the nihilistic abyss of life and accepted it. All philosophers who deny the resurrection of the dead will agree on one thing if they are honest enough to admit it; there is no purpose or point to life without a resurrection. Do what you want, live as you will. As Paul says, “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32).” Without the resurrection, morality is simply a tool we use for our own survival, but it holds no importance; if the powerful can murder and get away with it, there will be no accountability for them. Without the resurrection and without God’s judgment, there is no hope for humanity.

One of the ancient writers of Christianity summed it up best when he wrote,

“Now, if there is no resurrection, let us eat and drink and lead a life of pleasure and enjoyment. If there is no resurrection, then how do we differ from brute beasts?…If there is no resurrection, there is no God and no providence, and all things are being driven and carried along by mere chance. For just consider how very many just men we see in need and suffering injury, yet getting no recompense in this present life, whereas we see sinners and wicked men possessing wealth and every luxury in abundance.”[7]

What he points out is extremely important; without the resurrection, there is no justice. The victim of corporate greed simply becomes food for worms while his oppressor simply becomes richer food for worms. The victim is never relieved and the oppressor is never punished. Without a resurrection, what does anything matter? The cosmos doesn’t care about the impoverished Mexican child living in the slums. The cosmos doesn’t care about corporate greed, free trade, the environment, genocide, or any of our concerns. The cosmos simply moves about, unaware of our suffering. Only Christ is the solution to this nihilism, only Christ gives meaning to life.

The answer to the nihilism that exists in a world without the resurrection is hope. What does it mean to hope? The Greek word often used means to believe that you will be saved, justified, sanctified, and glorified. To hope means you know you will one day spend eternity in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ is the foundation of our hope (1 Peter 1:3). To hope means we know that He will resurrect us and save this fallen world. In our hope we turn our gaze to Christ. The great Church orator John Chrysostom spoke about our hope, saying,

“But after he humbled himself, he exalted all things. He erased the curse, he triumphed over death, he opened paradise. He struck down sin, he opened wide the vaults of the sky, he lifted our first fruits to heaven, he filled the whole world with godliness…Before he humbled himself, only the angels knew him. After he humbled himself, all human nature knew him.”[8]

Our hope is based upon the resurrection; everything else in Christianity is based upon this hope. The resurrection is justified by our knowledge of God as Three, is preceded by the Incarnation of Christ, and has His death as the proposition; the resurrection is the conclusion. Every belief in Christianity is (or should be) contingent upon those four teachings.

We hope for better things to come, not in a type of wishful thinking, but in anticipation of the inevitable. We are like children around Christmas time who see the presents under the tree; we know we will open them we’re just waiting for it to happen. We have hope that “…the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.”[9] We know that death holds no power over us, that suffering is nothing when compared to eternity; we know that we will one day live in bodies that will never taste decay, death, or illness. We know that one day we will live free from sin and walk next to Christ for eternity to come.

 

[1] Ibid. 335

[2] Clement to the Corinthians, 33

[3] An Exact Exposition, 337

[4] On the Incarnation, 60

[5] St. Ephrem the Syrian. Hymns on Paradise. Translated by Sebastian Brock. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1990. 98-99

[6] The First Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, 122

[7] An Exact Exposition, 400

[8] On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, 231

[9] On the Incarnation, 26

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