That’s how it is with the Christian claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead. If it is true, then the nature of reality is very different from what we commonly suppose it to be. The difference comes about, so Christians believe, because God is involved in our world not, as is sometimes crudely suggested, by randomly dipping a finger into the world and reversing the laws of nature. Rather, God is involved in our world as the one who gives life, who sustains the world’s very existence, and whose purpose for all creation is that it should flourish and be brought to completion in loving communion with himself. The resurrection of Jesus ought thus to be understood not as a random intervention by God but as a dazzling glimpse in the midst of history of the final outcome of God’s creative intent. “The creature shall have life and have it abundantly” is a succinct statement of the Christian understanding of God’s purpose for the world. The resurrection therefore is, among other things, the decisive confirmation that God’s promise of life will not be defeated by humanity’s sinful determination to go its own way—it will not be defeated by brutality and violence; it will not even be defeated by death. The God who gives life has declared his ultimate purpose for the world by raising Jesus from the dead. Precisely because of this, it has been confirmed once and for all that the death-dealing ways of human beings have no future. That is the ground and content of Christian hope. God has overturned the human verdict that we should live in defiance of God’s good purposes for creation. He has answered the human clamour to crucify his beloved Son with forgiveness and new life.
These, of course, are claims of faith. They cannot be proven through any historical enquiry as has sometimes been attempted because they are concerned above all with a future reality: they are concerned with the ultimate realisation of God’s purposes. In the meantime, disbelief has evidence upon which it can base its claims. Evil does seem to triumph, suffering and pain appear to be an inevitable reality, and death often appears to have the last word. Why should anyone believe otherwise?
Christians have generally come to believe otherwise, first because they have found compelling the human life lived by Jesus himself, and second because they experience in their own lives the continuing presence of the risen Christ. There is a moment in the resurrection narrative of John’s gospel that provides, I think, a poignant disclosure of what it is that occasions belief for many Christians. Mary Magdalene had gone to Jesus’s tomb early on the first day of the week. She saw that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. Rather than concluding, however, that Jesus had been raised, she supposes that someone has removed Jesus’s body from the tomb. That, of course, is the obvious conclusion to draw. In her distress, Mary runs to tell two of the disciples who then return with her to Jesus’s tomb. The two disciples enter the tomb to confirm that it is indeed empty. But Mary stays at the entrance and begins to weep. The disciples leave her, and Mary again stoops to look inside the empty tomb. Then, she sees two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary says to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Mary then turns around and sees Jesus standing beside her, but she does not recognise him—she mistakes him for a gardener. And then Jesus says to her, “Mary.” That’s the moment when everything changes for Mary. Jesus calls her by name, and she recognises the presence of her Lord. It is a moment like this, I suggest, that has prompted belief among generations of Christians ever since: a moment when we are called by name and so recognise that we are known and loved by the one in and through whom all things came to be and in whom all things will be brought to completion at the last. Such belief is not the outcome of some process of logical deduction. It is a moment of personal encounter when the truth shines forth for us like never before in the presence of the risen Lord.
In the midst of a world that often appears to be hell-bent on destruction and which is deeply disfigured by human greed, selfishness, and violence, Jesus presents us with a radically different conception of what human life ought to be. He presents us, so Christians believe, with human life as it is intended to be by God. It is a life characterised by compassion, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and a profound trust in the goodness of God. The exemplary character of Jesus’s life notwithstanding, however, Christians testify that Jesus is not merely a past historical figure. They testify that Jesus encounters us still and calls us to follow him. He encounters us as the one who has been raised from death.
Talk of such encounters may be dismissed as merely subjective or delusional. But, as already noted with respect to the Copernican revolution, many a scientific breakthrough has been dismissed in the same way. It is only when we are prepared to let go of past certainties that a new way of seeing becomes possible and a new truth can come into view. The first disciples took some persuading that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They exhibited, perhaps rightly, a healthy scepticism to begin with. But, on encounter with the risen Jesus himself, they were enabled to see that their old view of the world was profoundly inadequate. The reality of resurrection couldn’t be accommodated within their old certainties, and so, confronted with the risen Jesus himself, their old certainties had to be abandoned. They discovered, as Christians continue to do today, that God’s purpose to give abundant life to his people is not defeated even by death. We should note here, in case there is any misunderstanding, that abundant life is not a reference to material goods. The so-called “prosperity gospel”, typically proclaimed by pastors who accumulate great wealth for themselves, bears no resemblance to the good news proclaimed by Jesus himself. The abundant life that Jesus speaks of is a life lived in deep communion with the Father, a life filled with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, and a life lived in loving service of our fellow creatures. Put simply, it is the kind of life that Jesus lives.
Much ink has been devoted to the project of trying to prove that Jesus has been raised, usually by employing the tools of historical enquiry, but the results have never been conclusive. That inconclusivity does not mean, however, that the ink has been entirely wasted. Historical investigation of the circumstances surrounding the original proclamation that Jesus had been raised from the dead have yielded genuine insight into what the first followers appear to have meant by declaring that Jesus had been raised and, indeed, what difference it made to their own lives. Historical inquiry has also made clear that the Christian proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection cannot be simply dismissed as nonsense. Something happened that generated a movement that has been remarkable in its subsequent impact and extent. I remain convinced, however, that the recognition that Jesus has been raised depends, ultimately, not on the well-considered results of historical inquiry, valuable though they may otherwise be, but on encounter through the Spirit with the risen Lord himself. It is in consequence of such encounter, as Mary’s experience at the tomb and as the apostle Paul’s testimony make clear (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:8–10; Galatians 1:11–17), that minds and hearts are converted to a new understanding of the world, an understanding that is founded upon and is shaped in its distinctive particulars by the resurrection itself.
What is more, it was no part of the New Testament writers’ purpose to offer proof that the resurrection had happened. Their purpose was simply to proclaim the good news that Jesus is risen, to explore how the world has changed in light of that fact, and, above all, to understand the call upon us to participate in the emerging reality of a world transformed. That is also, I suggest, the purpose of Christian witness today. Those who hear the proclamation that Jesus has been raised from the dead and confess that they too believe are then invited to learn and to practice the gestures of resurrection life.
What might those gestures be? Following the resurrection, when the first disciples of Jesus looked back upon the time they had spent with him and his ministry through the regions of Galilee and then on to Jerusalem, they began to see the resurrection as the decisive clue to what had been going on all along. They looked back and saw that Jesus was about the work of his Father, renewing creation, giving new life to the world, and releasing it from its bondage to sin and death. The signs of new life that emerged in the company of Jesus—the healing of the sick, the forgiveness of sin, the good news delivered to the poor and to the outcast—began to fit together now into a comprehensive vision of creation made new and of God’s purposes for the world being brought to fulfilment. The resurrection provided confirmation that the way of Jesus truly reveals what God has intended for the world and for human life from the beginning. Theologians often say that the resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. Against those who wanted to shut him down and rid the world of Jesus, against those who orchestrated his death, God vindicates Jesus. God vindicates his teaching, his proclamation of the kingdom, and his compassion for those cast aside by society. God vindicates Jesus’s critique of those who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, and who see the world in cold, legalistic terms and show up with stones to hurl at those who have stumbled. God vindicates Jesus’s declaration of forgiveness for the sinner and his promise that the meek will inherit the earth. God vindicates Jesus’s command to put away the sword and his blessing of the peacemakers … and so on. In sum, God vindicates Jesus’s way of being human, and he also vindicates Jesus’s declaration that whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
What then does it mean to learn the gestures of resurrection life? At one level, that is a very easy question to answer. We need simply recall the signs of resurrection life that become evident through the course of Jesus’s ministry: the sick are healed, the hungry are fed, and the resources of creation—loaves and fish, for example—are shared equitably among all who have need while the surplus is gathered up for use another day; the ill-gotten gains of a wayward tax-collector are repaid fourfold, workers in a vineyard are paid at the end of the day enough to provide for their families, prodigal sons are welcomed home, and women weighed down by oppressive social conditions are given the dignity and the freedom they deserve. This is what resurrection life looks like. This is the nature of the divine economy established on the firm foundation of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. This is the new reality in which we are called to share. We may put it simply in colloquial terms: the challenge of the gospel is to get with the programme. But here’s the rub: the cross comes first. Dying comes first. We are to die to the old order, an order that confuses abundant life with the accumulation of wealth, an order that gets things done in the world through violence and the exploitation of others, an order that lays creation to waste, and an order that seeks revenge and is oblivious to the divine economy of grace. That is the order to which we must die for it is an order that has no future; it is an order that is passing away. Only then may we truly share in God’s purposes for the world and live into the fullness of Christ’s new way of being.