The Resurrection Of The Son Of God
Jeff Heidkamp, co-lead pastor or Mercy Vineyard in Minneapolis, MN, reflects on the Resurrection of the Son of God.
Co-Pastor, Mercy Vineyard, MN
Recently I was listening to a well-known preacher I admire greatly, and he was telling me of a bout he’d had with cancer. During his recovery, he’d spent a lot of time consigned to a bed, always with the risk of relapse.
During this time, he told me, he read N.T. Wright’s massive tome on the resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection of the Son of God, and it had brought him great hope and comfort.
Delving Deeply Into Resurrection
Last year I set myself the task of working through all 800-plus pages of small type and even smaller footnotes. It was no mean feat slogging through 70 pages on ancient accounts of the afterlife and 150 pages of detailed Pauline exegesis — let alone another couple hundred on intertestamental sources and the early church fathers.
But, in the end, the time was well spent. Wright does not attempt to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus, recognizing that as an epistemological impossibility. Rather, he lays out the groundwork by which a reasonable person might come to view the physical resurrection as a possibility — and therefore as something necessary to be reckoned with.
Wright begins his argument by documenting how the ancients, just as moderns, knew death to be a one-way street. Certainly, there were shadowy accounts of various sorts of afterlives, but they never involved the dead returning to our world — at least not in the same bodies they’d inhabited while they were alive. Characters from a plethora of mythologies managed to cheat death in various ways, but always in a folkloric sense. These were fables intended to teach some moral lesson.
Wright reviews the various views of the afterlife found in the Hebrew scriptures and notes polyphonic voices here. For example, some biblical writers thought death is the end. Or at best, people sink into a murky afterlife such as “sheol.” However, the later prophets, notably Daniel and Isaiah, hint at a future resurrection, with all kinds of eschatological and political implications.
These hints gradually grow into a developed expectation in certain quarters of 1st-century Judaism: a belief that one day God would vindicate his people, and all of faithful Israel would live beyond the grave.
Then the New Testament writings are tackled — first, accounts of the resurrection outside of the gospels and, finally, the stories of Easter themselves. Wright convincingly demonstrates that the resurrection was never seen by the first Christians as a metaphor or a word image just meant to note the ongoing work of the now-crucified Jesus. Rather, the early church saw the resurrection of Christ as an unexpected twist on the hoped-for resurrection as discussed in the Jewish writings.
The resurrection of God’s people had unexpectedly begun with the resurrection of the crucified Messiah into a new kind of transphysical (Wright’s term) body. This resurrection was a taste of the final resurrection that had broken into that present time. On the basis of the resurrection of Jesus, those who placed their faith in the Messiah could expect that they too would one day be raised to an eternal kind of life. This resurrection was not immediately to be expected after death (Wright speculates little on the nature of an intermediate state), but rather happens one day in the eschaton, when the fullness of the kingdom of God has come to earth.
Resurrection Implications For Today
The language of resurrection, then, has all kinds of implications for our present life. Because Jesus has been raised, we can begin to live today a new kind of life — an eternal kind of life. We can have hope in suffering. Even in death, we can have encouragement to fight temptation and live a holy life. We can have the faith to work hard to bring the kingdom of God to bear on earth today as it will be in fullness in the future.
All these implications, however, are firmly based in a belief that the Easter event really happened. They are entailments of the real resurrection event, not — as modern critics might have it — the semantic meaning of the term.
After a similar survey of the church fathers, Wright ends with the question of what modern people are to make of the story of Easter. Given that the entire early Christian movement was founded on a belief in resurrection, what are we to think happened that morning and in the days leading up to Jesus’ ascension? A mass hallucination? A shadowy power play by the disciples? Wishful thinking? Wright dismisses these as impossibilities, and he asks us to consider that perhaps what happened on Easter morning is precisely what the gospels tell us happened.
In his final chapter, as he so often does, Wright asks Christians to consider the implications of the resurrection for our lives today — and to see the physical resurrection of Christ as part of God’s message that he intends to redeem and heal his creation, not simply to do away with it so that we might go to heaven, which is often thought of as someplace far off and otherworldly.
Christian faith, however, has always declared that earth — gravity and all! — is where the Son of God made his home, pitching his tent, as John puts it, in our midst. And that declaration was the consequence, not the cause, of the belief that on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. For the earliest Christians, to speak of Jesus’ resurrection was to speak of something that, however (in our sense) earth-shattering, however much it drew together things earthly and heavenly, was still an “earthly” event, and needed to be exactly that. It had earthly consequences: an empty tomb, footprints by the shore, and at Emmaus, a loaf broken but not consumed. (737)
The skeptic can always point out that dead people simply don’t rise in this world. And at the end of the day, it’s a hard point to deny. But what Wright wants us to see is that the resurrection of Jesus is not simply something that happened in our world. It’s something that opened up a new kind of world, one in which resurrection possibilities can change everything.