This article is adapted from a talk given at Reformation Fellowship on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007.
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Across the land today, in churches everywhere, people are proclaiming the hopeful, happy message of Easter. And well they should. Easter does carry a message of profound hope. But it is important not to get the cart before the horse. Before Easter can proclaim a happy and hopeful message, it first must proclaim a frightening and unsettling message. We must not glibly and easily speak of the hope of Easter. Yes, it is a hopeful message—but only to those who have first survived the shock of Easter.
We must overcome a difficulty: nearly 2,000 years of Christianity. For nearly two millennia we have believed, proclaimed, and celebrated Jesus’ resurrection. But it is possible to believe, celebrate, and proclaim something too much; we can believe it, celebrate it, and proclaim it until it becomes way too familiar to be meaningful. We must avoid this danger with respect to Jesus’ resurrection. To avoid it, we must—in an act of imagination—transport ourselves back and become contemporary with the event itself. What would it have been like to be an eyewitness to the resurrection?
Imagine that you are Mary Magdalene or one of the other women going to the tomb that amazing morning. What would it have felt like to step into the tomb where you had seen Jesus’ lifeless corpse laid and see the body gone and the grave clothes left behind? What would it have felt like to step outside and have two supernatural beings announce to you, “He is not here. He has risen from the dead”? Would your first response have been joy? I don’t think so. I submit that your first response would have been fear. You would not have been overjoyed; you would have been unsettled. You would not have been comforted; you would have been thrown into confusion. You would not have been delighted; you would have been scared. You would not have had a sense that everything was falling into place; you would have had a sense that everything was being turned upside down.
The Gospel accounts confirm my hunch here. I would encourage you to read the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection for yourselves. Two things, I think, will strike you: (1) the difficulty Jesus’ disciples had in understanding and believing what had transpired; and (2) how troubled, disturbed, frightened, and confused they were by what they were experiencing.
In Matthew’s account of the women’s visit to the tomb, an angel instructs the women, “Do not be afraid.” Mark (16:8) describes the women’s emotional state explicitly: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Matthew (28:18) tells us that their emotional state involved both fear and joy: “And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.” This response of fear was not limited to the women. Luke (24:36-38) describes the fear of the inner circle themselves when the risen Jesus appeared to them directly: “He (Jesus) Himself stood in their midst and said to them, `Peace be to you.’ But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, `Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?'”
To empathize with what these men and women were experiencing, join me in a further thought experiment. (I will describe the thought experiment for you women. You men can make the necessary adjustment.)
Imagine that your husband has died suddenly in an automobile accident. You sat in the hospital for hours, facing the prospect that your husband might die. The doctors came and broke the terrible news. They did everything they could, but your husband didn’t make it. He was gone. You sat dazed for minutes that seemed like hours as the realization sank in—”My husband is gone. He is no more.” You return home to an empty house. You expect your husband to be there in his old familiar ways, but you face disappointment and grief over and over again as you face the reality—he is gone, never to return again. You ride an emotional roller coaster for days. Then, on Sunday morning, you arise, descend the stairs, and see your husband sitting on the sofa in the living room.
How would you feel? What would you say? “Oh, good. You’re back”? I submit that you would respond the same way the disciples responded to Jesus’ resurrection. You would be discombobulated. You would be frightened. You would be insecure. You would be confused.
Everything you had always known would be turned upside down. Your husband’s appearance from the dead would be challenging the very order of the universe. It would be demonstrating to be false everything that had been sure. It would be proving unreliable the one thing everyone could count on; the one thing around which your whole life had been organized and defined would be a lie. Death had always been a certainty—an awful certainty, but a certainty nonetheless. How could you absorb an appearance that called into question the most certain of all human certainties?
Most of us define our existence and organize our lives around the assumption that we live within brackets. My existence is bracketed by birth on the front end and by death on the back end. If I am to find happiness, I must find it within the bracketed space we call “now.” We have always lived for “now” because “now” is my time. I have lived to find fulfillment “now” because “now” is the only chance I have. I have lived to prolong my “now” because beyond “now” there is no me. I have planned to maximize safety and security “now,” for death is final.
In brief, I have understood everything about my existence in the light of the finality and certainty of death. Accordingly, if my perspective toward death is not true, then everything about my existence has been founded on a falsehood. If death is not final and certain, then I no longer know who I am. If death is not the end, then I must completely rethink and redefine who I am. I have been living not to die. I know how to do that. That is familiar. How does one live as a being who will never end? I have been living to find satisfaction now. I know how to do that. That is familiar. How does one live as a being who can wait to find satisfaction later?
The resurrection of Jesus is frightening and unsettling because it is revolutionary. It requires a complete transformation about how I view God, created reality, and myself. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then God is not just a good idea; He is a personal being with the power to give life and existence to whomever He wills. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then reality is more than just the everyday physical, material universe we inhabit. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then death is not the end of my existence; it is merely the beginning of the next phase of my existence. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then the eternal existence that will begin at my death is more important than this present phase of my existence that ends at my death. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then there is no final, irremediable harm that can befall me. If death has lost its sting, what else is there to sting me? If Jesus was raised from the dead, then I was not made and intended for “now.” I was made and intended for an entirely different mode of existence. I was made for Life in the Age to Come.
Furthermore, all of these revolutionary implications resolve themselves into one practical implication: if Jesus was raised from the dead, then I cannot go on living the way I am inclined to live. I cannot go on living as if now is all there is. I cannot go on living as if the disappointments of this present existence are robbing me of happiness itself. I cannot go on living as if the suffering of this present age voids my existence of all purpose and meaning. I cannot go on living as if I dare not deny myself any pleasure or comfort—as if I “only go around once.” I cannot go on living as if being entertained (and not bored) is the most meaningful of human attainments. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then all the futility and suffering of my life right now is just a momentary, light affliction not worthy to be compared with the glory that is eventually to be mine. Inversely, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then this life is all there is; and this life stinks.
As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus today, my hope is that the fact of what we celebrate today can shock you and me. I hope that our familiarity with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection will not numb us to its terrifying actuality. Jesus really and actually did pop up alive from his tomb! As a consequence, my life really and actually must be lived in the light of an entirely different concept of what reality is. Jesus’ resurrection is not just a beautiful fairytale that Christians tell themselves every Easter so they can feel hopeful in the midst of a hopeless existence. Jesus’ resurrection is an actual historical fact. That is good news; but it is disturbing news. It is good news because it means that the meaning of my existence will not be nullified by death. It is disturbing news because it means my whole life has been wrongly focused and I cannot go on living as I have.
Jesus is risen! Therefore, I must change my life. Everything must be made new. Nothing can stay the same. The familiar must disappear. I must embrace what is unfamiliar, invisible, abstract, and barely believable and make that the defining focus of how I live. That is a disturbing and frightening prospect. Most of us will be daunted at the prospect and will not change. We will shout out “He is risen indeed!” But we will continue living our lives as if Jesus were still in the grave. I hope you are among those who take the resurrection of Jesus seriously—who take it as a revolutionary, disturbing, historical fact—and not as a beautiful fairytale.