When I was growing up, I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around what my faith tradition taught about the resurrection. This has remained somewhat of a mystery to me until recently, when I read a paradigm-shifting book by the leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. The preceding article will be my attempt to paraphrase what I gleaned from Wright’s book and draw you into the refreshing hope of the resurrection.
“God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and I know that he calls us to live in him and by the power of his Spirit and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven.” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)
My faith tradition taught me that because of the resurrection of Jesus, the disturbing vagaries and woes of this world were entirely sufferable. The belief was that one day, at the appointed time, we would leave it all behind—along with people who were wicked—to be destroyed in cataclysmic fire. In contrast, the faithful followers of Christ, endowed with spiritual bodies, would gather eternally in heaven where there would be no more tears, no more suffering, and we would worship God’s glory without end.
Though I believed this teaching, the truth is that secretly, and quite painfully, I’ve felt all along that this interpretation was unsatisfactory. I feel this way for two main reasons. First, I love this world—I really do! I don’t mean in the hedonistic sense, as “I love this world for the pleasure it brings to me;” but rather I find this earth of ours to be quite marvellous. From the abyss of wonder wrought by gazing into the deep heavens on a starry night, to the serene calm of a canoe on a still lake, I find the vast beauty of it all to be staggering. Notwithstanding the terrors and consequent sorrows that nature inflicts on us from time to time, I have always sensed the deep-down goodness and meaningfulness of creation, and I don’t harbour one drop of awaiting glee for its expiry. Even as a child, I particularly loved our tradition’s creation story, where at the end of each day’s work God looked over all He had done and couldn’t help but remark how good it was, and ended on the last day with what I imagined to be a deep and contented sigh as He pronounced it all to be “very good.”
“…the world is beautiful not just because it hauntingly reminds us of its creator but also because it is pointing forward: it is designed to be filled, flooded, drenched in God, as the chalice is beautiful not least because of what we know it is designed to contain or as a violin is beautiful not least because we know the music of which it is capable.” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)
The second reason why I’ve always felt unsatisfied by my faith tradition’s eschatology (teaching on the end times) is that even though I believe there are people who are truly wicked—and that wickedness itself must be judged for what it is—I actually haven’t met many of them. And I’ve met a lot of people. My work as a singer/songwriter has taken me around the globe several times. I’ve met and dined with, laughed with, and cried with people from different religions, ideologies, orientations and world views…and I’ve found each person to be a gift. I can’t shake the suspicion that every person who has ever lived is first and foremost God’s good idea. Disagreements and mutual hurts aside, each individual is a world of wonders as complex and profound as the galaxies—and that is just the material marvel. There is also the wonder of personhood itself, embodied in music and dance, feasting and love making, labouring and cultivating, and an endless line of meaningful events that are given and received year after year, century after century—and whose glorious exchange culminates in rich memories and traditions which testify to a meaning-drenched universe flowing from the heart of God.
So, what then might resurrection mean?
N.T. Wright has much to say on the meaning and importance of resurrection for the Christian community.
First, resurrection implies there is something in need of re-creating—that something has gone wrong. We are not willfully blind to our history of terrible wars, human brutality, desires corrupted into lust, and adoration devolving into possessiveness. We know well that there is a sinful impulse to devalue and control the other, even nature itself, which we were given to steward, not to exploit.
Second, resurrection also implies divine intervention. Human effort and ingenuity aside, all our science and social innovations, as well-meaning as they may be, will not bring about the utopia that our misdirected hopes presume. Instead, we need a God whose love will not let us go, and who will resolutely prevent the way of death from being the last word.
Finally, resurrection may not imply destruction so much as re-creation. It is interesting to note that the first witnesses, before seeing the risen Christ in the flesh, noticed and recorded that the pre-resurrection body of Jesus was gone, no longer in the tomb. In other words, His glorified body used the material of the previous one, and the earliest disciples understood the significance of this. Quite simply: matter matters. Otherwise, why would we bother at all, in this life, with issues of well-being and justice? Why would we care at all about the despoiling of nature? Why would we give of ourselves for the flourishing of another person or cause except as a witness to God’s redeeming love for the cosmos?
“Redemption doesn’t mean scrapping what’s there and starting over again from a clean slate, but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved.” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)
Could it be that Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” precisely because that has been God’s plan all along? His intent was not the earth’s destruction and our escape to an immaterial bliss, but rather the marriage of heaven and earth, of which Jesus is the first fruit, and we are, as Wright describes, the witnesses in word and deed to God’s “future-arrived-in-the-present,” speaking of what is to come, indeed, of what is already here.
“Christ has risen!” cries the priest on Easter Sunday. “He has risen indeed! Alleluia!” responds the congregation with a mighty shout. And our alleluias are neither naïve nor fortified by false opiates, but are invigorated by our risen Lord, who sends us out with the gospel of repentance and forgiveness so that the new creation may be seen in the flesh, and so there may be real hope and joy now even as we await the final resurrection.
LET BEAUTY AWAKE
music: Steve Bell
lyrics: Robert Louis Stevenson (stanzas 1-2), Steve Bell (stanzas 3-4), NT Wright (stanza 5)
Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams,
Beauty awake from rest!
Let Beauty awake
For Beauty’s sake
In the hour when the birds awake in the brake
And the stars are yet bright in the west!
Let beauty awake from west.
Let Beauty awake in the eve from the slumber of day,
Awake in the crimson eve!
In the day’s dusk end
When the shades ascend,
Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend
To render again and receive!
Let beauty awake in the eve.
While we, the gardeners of creation blessed
Furrow the soil at our saviour’s behest
And bury the seeds of our own life’s death
And suffer God’s glory to grow
Yes we, the priests of all that is made
Gather the greatness of creation’s praise;
That burgeoning freshness of glory displayed
From the depths of the earth below
Let Beauty awake, in the morn from the cool of the grave,
Let Beauty awake from death;
Let Beauty awake,
For Jesus’ sake,
In the hour when the angels their silence break
And the garden is bright with His Breath.
Let beauty awake from death.
“Let Beauty Awake” is from Steve’s new album Where the Good Way Lies