Reversing the Irreversible

Minburn Cemetary

Minburn Cemetary

My friend Greg came over the other Saturday evening to watch the Dallas Mavericks. He asked me two questions. The first was, “How are you doing?” He assured me that he wanted an honest answer, so I told him my day had been fairly rotten. After talking about that a bit, he asked a second question, which was, “How do you cope?” We were interrupted by Dave and Jim’s arrival so I didn’t have a chance to answer him that night.

If you’ve also been wondering how I cope with the devastation, robbery and finality of Ann’s death, then this post should paint an adequate picture of my hope.

But first, a question. If you could celebrate Easter anywhere in the world, where would you choose to celebrate it? Why?

Paul’s Beef
I had always assumed that the apostle Paul wrote the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians in order to convince the believers there that Jesus Christ had indeed risen from the dead. I came to a different conclusion a few months back when I was helping Matt with a paper for his Bible class.

Paul certainly did wish to emphasize the certainty of Christ’s resurrection (15:5-8). The phrase “he appeared” is repeated four times and supplies proof of his resurrection, just as the phrase “he was buried” is proof of his death. Peter and James, the Twelve, and all the other apostles including Paul were all eye witnesses of Jesus’ literal and physical resurrection from the dead. Of great significance is the fact that over five hundred men saw the resurrected Jesus in a single event (15:6a). Of even greater significance is the fact that most of these men were still alive when Paul crafted his letter (15:6b). Skeptics were free to interview every one of them.

But the reality of Christ’s resurrection was not Paul’s primary objection with the Corinthians. They had received and believed Paul’s preaching; they stood firm in it and were thus saved by it (15:1-2, 11). The problem was that they were Greek.

A Good Greek
I’ve been digesting N.T. Wright’s 800-page brief, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Key thoughts from an early chapter on the ancient world include:

  • Greeks, like most ancient cultures, firmly believed in “life after death.”
  • The soul existed before the body and would continue to exist after the body was gone. It was innately immortal.
  • The soul was the true person. It was set free from “the prison-house” of the physical body through death.
  • The road to the place of the dead was a one-way street. No one ever returned.
  • This place was not a place of gloom, but a “far better place” to be.

As I’ve restudied the Bible this year in light of Ann’s death, I’ve con¬cluded that my image of heaven and my theology of life after death had been rooted more deeply in Platonism than in God’s Word.

Life after Death?
“Life after death” is not the goal of the Christian faith. As heretical as it may sound, our ultimate hope is not in “going to heaven when we die,” as awesome as that was for Ann and will be for us.

Our ultimate hope is the resurrection of our bodies. And by definition “resurrection” is not synonymous with “life after death.”

Because Ann relied on Christ’s death as complete payment for her sins, she is alive now and with Jesus Christ in heaven. We can only imagine what she is experiencing in her glorious “life after death.” But, she has not been raised from the dead. She has not been ultimately healed; she is not whole. Certainly her spirit is in heaven, but her body is still in the grave back in Iowa.

The universal meaning of “resurrection,” beginning with Homer, was “a new embodied life which would follow whatever ‘life after death’ there might be.” Wright intentionally and repeatedly uses the phrase “bodily life after life after death.” Resurrection has always been about physical bodies after a state of death. It was not until the second-century AD, when some Christian writers began to redefine the language, did “resurrection” begin to mean a “state of blissful disembodied immortality.”

Paul’s beef was that some of the Corinthian believers didn’t believe in their own bodily resurrection (15:12). As good Greeks, they couldn’t.

The universal belief concerning “resurrection,” apart from Judaism and Christianity, was that it was impossible. Wright indicates that the ancient world was divided into two camps:

  • Those who said that the resurrection couldn’t happen, though they might have wanted it to, and
  • Those who said they didn’t want it to happen, knowing that it couldn’t anyway.

Paul’s Argument
Paul passionately argues for the certainty of our own bodily resurrection (15:12-19). He hits twice with the same two-fold argument.

1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians 15

Notice that Paul started with the general resurrection, not with Christ’s. The Corinthians believed that Christ had been raised from the dead (15:11). After all, he was the Son of God; he could do anything. However, at least some of the Corinthians could not fathom bodily life after being dead for a time. They probably wouldn’t have wanted it anyway.

Paul was writing to Christians like my Grandpa. I remember a discus¬sion, perhaps at Thanksgiving in his farmhouse’s dining room, in which he indicated he didn’t say “and the resurrection of the body” when recit¬ing the Apostle’s Creed on Sun¬day mornings. I’ve concluded, as I’ve pon¬dered his hesitation these last months, that he was just being honest with what many of us unwittingly think. If God is spirit and invisible, and if heaven is a spiritual place up in the sky, and if our soul is immortal and our true self, and if our bodies cause us to sin…then how does a bodily resurrection fit in to all that? Paul was writing to Christians who had been subtly influenced by a Greek named Plato. Paul was writing to correct me.

Resurrection is no longer an essential doctrine for me to believe.

Resurrection is my anchor.
It redefines my future.
It’s everything I’m banking on.
It’s why I haven’t quit.

Resurrection will give us strong, young, healthy bodies, more fit than Michael Phelps. Our minds will always be sharp and our motives always pure. We will have intimacy only dreamed of in this life, with relationships never marred by selfishness or destroyed by separation. We will have unending time to enjoy old friends and make new ones, to remember joys and trials from our present life and to create new adventures in the next one. We will serve and honor Jesus Christ in perfect obedience, never again tempted to sin. We will have life as God originally intended and long ago promised. And this real, physical and truly human life will never end. It’s tough to imagine.

Now here’s a question. Where will we live when we are resurrected with our physical body? Will it be up in heaven or could it be in a place better than heaven?

I Will Rise
I anticipated this year’s Easter worship service like a kid counting the days until Christmas. I knew that our praise band would be leading us in I Will Rise by Chris Tomlin. It would be my chance to publically affirmmy rede¬fined hope in the bodily resurrection.
Tomlin has it right. We have incredible hope…

There’s a peace I’ve come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail.
There’s an anchor for my soul.
I can sing, “It is well.”

Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed.
The victory is won.
He is risen from the dead.

And His resurrection guarantees ours.

And I will rise when he calls my name.
No more sorrow. No more pain.
I will rise on eagle’s wings.
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise. I will rise.

Somewhat mysteriously, there seems to be a big difference between listening to a song on my iPod while sitting at my desk, and singing that song with fellow believers while standing together in public worship of the risen Christ. Though normally more reserved, I felt compelled to raise my handfor perhaps the second time in the last twenty-five years.

If I could go anywhere in the world to celebrate Easter, I would travel back to Iowa, to a small town named Minburn. I would drive a mile west to a hill overlooking the Raccoon River, just a couple miles from where I grew up on my Grandpa’s farm.

I would visit my Grandpa’s and Grandma’s graves, as well as other relatives in Christ from five generations and proclaim,

“You will rise when he calls your name.”

I would stand over Ann’s grave, like we did at Christmas, and confidently affirm,

“I will see you again.”

To understand the true meaning of Easter, to feel its significance and to appreciate its promise, you really need to be in a cemetery.

Where is Hope?
Ann’s death has forced me to come to grips with the reality of the resurrection.

Our resurrection hope reaches into the grave and overwhelms the devastation of death.

Resurrection will restore what was amputated,
compensate for all that was stolen
and reverse the irreversible.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [i.e. died], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
And so we will be with the Lord forever.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Therefore encourage each other with these words.”