The resurrection: more than just miraculous power
I think it is often surprising to people when (if ever) they realize that the main reasons the New Testament writers thought the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead was “good news” was not that it was a great show of miraculous power. Of course, power over death is essential to this being “good news,” but the emphasis tends to lie elsewhere as they reflect on what God has done. I wish it would for us today as well.
As we look at some of what so deeply impressed the writers of the N.T., I would like to note that many of these concerns were also being explored by other Jewish believers and rabbis, and were not unique to Jesus, nor to his followers. (See books such as Jon D. Levenson’s Resurrection and the History of Israel and to some extent Joseph Telushkin’s Hillel: If Not Now, When?)
1) GOD’S CHARACTER IS FAITHFUL/TRUSTWORTHY
Perhaps as much as anything else, God raising Jesus from the dead was the beginning of God vindicating God’s faithfulness to his purpose for the human race, and to his promises to be with us. If death is the ultimate power over human life, most of what God’s people have believed to be God’s promises will never be experienced by most of the people who ever live. All of us die without experiencing anywhere close to a fullness of all of the exciting and delightful promises that the great prophets and leaders have claimed God is making. And, Jesus staked his life on God being faithful to him personally, beyond his experience of death. So, is God faithful and trustworthy? Only, if there is a resurrection of individual humans! Jesus is God’s guarantee in the middle of history that God intends to be faithful to all of these promises.
2) GOD CARES ABOUT JUSTICE
God raising Jesus shows that God cares about justice. One does not have to be very observant of human history and human societies to know that most people die without experiencing very much justice, and with a lot of injustices unresolved. If this age of history is all there is, there will never be justice for most human beings. This includes Jesus. I often hear people say, “Well, even if Jesus was not raised from the dead, he was a great teacher and a good model.” This is a problematic perspective. It suggests not only that Jesus was misguided about what he thought God would do, but perhaps more importantly, if Jesus stayed dead, he would become a model for the tragedy of human reality. He would be “proof” of the validity of our most cynical moments: “If you are really good, they kill you; and that’s all there is.” Only if there is an age of justice beyond this age, does God really care about justice for all.
But, if we are allowed to share in Jesus’ vindication over injustice, and his joy in that vindication, then there can be justice after all, even in the midst of all this brokenness and injustice.
3) GOD CARES ABOUT THE INDIVIDUAL HUMAN & ABOUT HUMAN SOCIETIES
God Raising Jesus shows that God values individual humans—that he really loves us and really wants to be with us. If humans do not have the opportunity to continue being with God, then God doesn’t really love us and doesn’t really “want to be with us.” Ask yourself a simple question: If you had any power over life and death, and you really meant it when you said to people around you that you loved them and loved being with them, would you leave them dead?
Even if someday we humans could create a perfect and just society—which there is no indication we can do—it would still never be experienced by or mean anything to any of the billions who died before that day came. Nor would it in any way preserve most of what has occurred in society throughout human history, since it is easily demonstrated that we have already lost the memory of most the genius and wonder of earlier societies. Only if there is a coming kingdom—one that not only transcends, but also incorporates all of the best from past societies—does it make any sense to claim that God cares about the best of human cultural achievements. On the other hand, if God does really care, and God is planning to let all of the cultural gifts be brought to the feet of Jesus and incorporated into the kingdom of God, what a community that will be!
4) THIS STAGE OF GOD’S CREATION WAS NEVER MEANT TO LAST – but, GOD WANTS ONE THAT WILL
Raising Jesus from the dead was a double statement from God. This age of history, as it stands, cannot ultimately survive, and it was never meant to. Throughout the Judeo-Christian history with God, there has been a real and growing understanding that this creation is a temporary stage in a bigger purpose and project that God is pursuing. God’s ultimate purpose is in process, and this is a stage along the way. This is certainly not the “best of all possible worlds,” but this is a step on God’s way to “the best of all possible worlds.”
What the biblical writers knew intuitively and by revelation, our scientific knowledge now verifies at an entirely different level. This entire creation/universe is unable to sustain itself. Scientifically, it is not a matter of whether the earth will at some point be destroyed, but only a question of which system destroys it first—asteroids, sun flares, dying galaxy, moving plates, etc. etc. etc.
God raising Jesus was God saying, “I have it covered.” There is a sphere of life and reality that can include ongoing human life beyond “this decaying age” of creation.
5) GOD’S PURPOSE IS THAT THE BEST OF HUMAN HISTORY IS YET TO COME!
Every New Testament writer believes that Jesus’ life now is more real, more delightful, and more human than his very real, delightful, and deeply human life was in Israel 2000 years ago. And, they believed that this guaranteed, that in God’s hands, we too can trust that the best of human life and culture is yet to come—and, we can be included!