Nothing makes us sound crazier than believing in the resurrection. It is a hard pill to swallow. We know that everyone dies. To say that Jesus raised from the dead is to say that God can raise anyone from the dead. To be a Christian - particularly early on in the decades following Jesus - was to believe in resurrection.
Some more liberal theologians these days have come to an understanding of resurrection as purely metaphorical - that through God we can all become new people - get a new life. I believe in this too. The old self dies. The new self is resurrected.
But I also believe in a physical bodily resurrection - both of Jesus and those who follow him. It is clear that Jesus' early followers believed that they would be physically brought back to life after they died.
Here is Paul's take in I Corinthians 15:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
This issue is foundational to Paul. And there is zero separation between the one-time Jesus resurrection event and the resurrection of all of the rest of us. The two are connected. Paul goes onto say that Jesus was the "firstfruits" - the first harvest of the dead proving that we will be raised with him:
"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
It has hard to read Paul's words here as simply metaphor for a better life. Paul believed that Jesus died, was raised from the dead, will return to conquer evil/injustice including the ultimate evil - death. Then the dead will live again.
Most pop culture Christian Americans at this point will have one of two reactions:
1. I thought I was going to live forever in "heaven?" This coming back to life stuff doesn't sound right. I line up with NT Wright (Surprised by Hope) on this one. I believe in life after life after death. I think that when we die we are in the presence of God. (Call that Heaven if you want - though that word has problems in these discussions because of our cultural baggage with it.) That post-death state is not our ultimate eternal experience though. There is life after life after death. We are raised to be with Jesus in the Kingdom...in my opinion, we live again on earth as our new selves. Jesus so fully redeems this planet that it becomes "heaven." (I told you this stuff makes us sound a little crazy...)
2. The second side-track here is to jump to some sort of eschatological (end times) debate. Some believers, more so in modern America, hold tightly to some specific relatively new interpretations of the book of Revelation and a few other Scriptures. If they have problems working Paul's clear teaching into their view they try to assume Paul means something other than what he said. The problem could be that Paul and you disagree somewhat on eschatology. Another side of this reaction is more common. People respond by saying something like, "I don't know how it is going to end, I just know I will be with Jesus." I think this can be a very appropriate response to the aforementioned silly arguments that occur surrounding the issues of Jesus' Parousia (return), but in my opinion it is not a healthy attitude about the truth of resurrection. You do know how it will end if you believe in Jesus. You will be raised from the dead. Somehow. Someway.
So, at least for this weekend, let's not get sidetracked. Tonight we will mourn the death of Jesus. Sunday he is alive. The story of every Jesus follower will be exactly the same. Someday you will die. Someday after that you will live again. It may sound ridiculous, but it is the hidden hope of every person who has ever taken a breath - that we could live forever within the reality of God's love and justice.
"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." -Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi
1. Please don't try to convert me or my readers to your end-times view. Not the point of this one. I'm a stubbornly simple amillennialist.
2. If you are intrigued by the reusurrection, read NT Wright's Surprised by Hope.