What would you say is the foundation of the Christian faith? What is its most central tenet? You could make a defensible case for the Trinity or the Incarnation. But Scripture tells us quite clearly: “If Christ is not raised, your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) The Trinity or the Incarnation might be logically (or chronologically) prior, but St. Paul tells us that the doctrine of the Resurrection is theologically prior. The Resurrection is the starting point for understanding who Jesus is and lens through which salvation history should be viewed. Yet how often do we think of it? Not as often as we ought, given how important it is.
Just how important is the Resurrection? Remove the Resurrection from the story of Jesus, and the difference is radical. We have an itinerant Jewish rabbi who gave admirable ethical teaching and was executed by the Romans for various charges, from seditious political views to blasphemous statements. His teaching might have lived on alongside that of Confucius as an example of irenic Eastern philosophy. He would be a barbarian Socrates with a more horrific end. It seems likely the material about judgment and such would have been discarded as an aberration—saying that “the Son of Man will come with his angels” would be viewed at best as a pleasant mythos, along the lines of Arthur awaking on Avalon, and at worst as a fit of lunacy—actually, not unlike the way many a secularist views those passages today. That is, if he were so lucky as to be remembered so eminently. His memory may have been on par with Simon bar Kochba, known by specialists but of no interest to the general public.
But Jesus’ story did not conclude on that hill outside of Jerusalem. His memory was not buried with him in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Jesus’ death and burial were not the end of the play; they were the dark moment before the sudden turn, the great twisting climax, the “eucatastrophe” (as J.R.R. Tolkien termed it with his neologism). On that Sunday morning, the hope that one would dare not hope came to be: death was not the end. Death did not have the final say. Death, which had loomed over humanity as the great terror, a sign of man’s separation from God, had been overcome. And it had been defeated precisely through itself, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
For this was not a simple resuscitation, as had been those of people like Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter: these people had been raised from the dead, but they would eventually die again. Jesus was not resuscitated, but resurrected. His humanity was transformed, his body still truly human, but capable of living an eternal and integrated life—yet still showing the scars of His Passion as “an everlasting trophy of victory,” as the Venerable Bede puts it. Nor was this an event meaningful only for Jesus, a unique miracle for one person to show that he was especially special. Christ’s resurrection is not a peculiar particularity, but the “firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23), a prototype for the renewal of humanity, a sign of things to come in the saecula saeculorum, and the cause of our own resurrection as the “first in order of being” (to put it in terms of Aristotle and Aquinas).
This great truth, the truth of our eternal destiny as sons and daughters of God, is placed last in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we recite every Sunday, seeming almost an afterthought. And like so many of the would-be messiahs and passing prophets, it is frequently forgotten. Too often we speak of our belief in “dying and (hopefully) going to heaven,” referring to the sojourn of our separated soul in the presence of God, when in fact this is merely an intermediate state. Human beings are created as bodies and souls not as an accidental or temporary teaming up, not as ghosts in machines, but as integral wholes, substantial relations, such that a body is not a body without its soul, but a corpse; and a soul is incomplete without its body, yearning for its other half. We forget about our own rising again, body and soul, whole and entire—what the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright calls, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “life after life after death.” Our resurrection and eternal life is mentioned at the end of the Creed, but it resides there, not as a tacked-on addendum, but as a person of prominence in a great procession, or an epilogue in which we’re told exactly how the characters will live happily ever after. Or perhaps we should think of all of salvation history prior as a prequel which sets the scene for the main story of the Church, beginning with the new spiritual Big Bang of Christ’s Resurrection.
In this Easter season, let us not forget that our dry bones will once again breathe with life, as Ezekiel 37 tells us. Let us see in the risen Christ the hope of our own eternal life, through him and with him. Let us not neglect to “look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”