Thinking Through the Creed, Part 5

On the third day [Jesus] rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead. . . .

[I believe in] the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ . . .

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. . . . (Rev. 21:1-4; 22:1-2).

Here's the deal.  I believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.  By "rise from the dead," I mean that on Friday afternoon He was dead in precisely the same way that everyone else who has ever died is dead, and then by Sunday morning He was not dead.  The precise nature of this "not dead-ness" and what it was like from the standpoint of the folks who interacted with Him is much fuzzier, but I believe He was alive in a way that is at least analogous to the way you and I are alive.

Some will say, "well, people don't rise from the dead."  You know that, I know that, everyone who lived in 1st Century Palestine knew that.  And yet those 1st Century Palestinians insisted that He rose from the dead.  I believe them.

Some will say that, "well, the resurrection means that the disciples understood that Jesus was still with them in a spiritual sense."  I have no time for that argument.  Grandma is with me in a spiritual sense, but she has not risen from the dead.  I'm with St. Paul on this one--if that is all that the resurrection means, then Christianity is idiotic and a waste of time.

No, Jesus had to actually rise from the dead in order for Christianity to be worth taking seriously, for two basic reasons.  First, the resurrection is the final and ultimate vindication for Jesus's message, and in particular for the way Jesus faced the cross.  People like to say, "Jesus has some great moral teachings, and you should follow those, but I can't believe in any of the rest of it."  But what did those moral teachings get Jesus?  A brutal, painful, humiliating death at the hands of the Romans directly and His own people by proxy.  Why should I sign on to that?

As I mentioned in the last post, taken in isolation, the cross is a story of failure and defeat.  Without the resurrection, all of Friedrick Neitzsche's critiques of Christianity are completely and totally correct.  Turning the other cheek and loving your enemies makes you a sucker and a weakling, a person who deserves to be ground down under the heel of the ubermensch.  After all, that's what happened to your teacher, didn't it?  Why should you expect anything different?  Only a fool would "respect Jesus as a moral teacher."  Without the resurrection, Jesus is a loser, and you are a loser and a weak person for listening to anything He has to say.

But if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then everything changes.  The resurrection is proof that Jesus was right--we no longer need to be run by death, we no longer have to buy into the scapegoating and all of the complex superstructure of the Sacred system.  There is another way to live, and He has shown us the way. The cross is a victory over the power of sin and death, as the old formulas state, but only in light of the resurrection.

And not only that.  These 1st Century Palestinians insisted that this resurrection was, in essence, a sneak preview of coming attractions.  Just as Jesus rose from the dead, so to will we, someday, do the same.  That's what a 1st Century Palestinian by the name of Paul insisted, and I believe him, too.  Said another way, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the resurrected Jesus has been to the mountaintop, and as such He gives us a window to see the Promised Land.  This promise of a future resurrection is the best part of the Good News.

But this resurrection from the dead is where Christianity has gotten itself all fouled up.

In Jesus's time, the idea of the resurrection from the dead was part and parcel of the idea of a Messiah.  When the Messiah comes, the dead would rise and the Earth would be made new.  By rising from the dead, Jesus provides a "sneak peak" at the final resurrection at the end of time.  The promise of Jesus's resurrection is that we will rise in a manner that is at least somewhat analogous to how Jesus rose, and we will be a part of a "New Heaven and a New Earth," as described at the end of the Book of Revelation.  As N.T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope, both the earliest Christians and the Church for the first Millennium understood salvation in physical terms.  A transformed physicality, to be sure, but a physicality nonetheless.

Along the way, though, this physical dimension was lost, and Heaven became re-interpreted as a disembodied, non-physical state--someplace "up there," either literally or metaphorically.  It is certainly the way it was portrayed to me.  In doing so, Christianity becomes an "evacuation theology."  If we are all headed for a "different place," then everything is secondary to making sure we get to that different place.  Christianity becomes reduced to a series of tactics for securing the Golden Ticket.  The life of a Christian becomes basically a giant board game--accumulate Victory Points according to a set of clearly defined rules so that you can win the game at the end.  This "board game" logic brings with it all of the other behaviors associated with playing a board game--an obsession with the rules of acquiring and losing Victory Points, a concern for how many Victory Points other people are acquiring (or not acquiring), etc.

And, if everything is about securing the Golden Ticket of escape from the physical, then almost inevitably there will be a duality between the spiritual and the physical, with the physical as something lesser, even perhaps something evil.  If our ultimate end-point and promise is to become non-physical, then it becomes easy to think of the physical as something that is basically bad, or at least lesser.  The physical world is meaningful only insofar as it helps or hurts us in the acquisition of Victory Points to get the Golden Ticket.  So sexuality is bad because it might lead to problematic moral situations, the natural world is irrelevant because I'm going to get out of here anyway--all of the things that non-Christians (rightly) critique modern Christianity for espousing.

I think that evacuation theology, and all of its symptoms, is a fundamental distortion of the Gospel message.  We have hope of a New Heaven and a New Earth, true.  But, while we wait for that to come, we are charged with what Judaism calls tikkun olam--the repair of the world.  The coming of the New Heaven and the New Earth is ultimately God's project, but we have a part to play in facilitating it in coming to pass.  When we damage the natural world, when we harm others in body or spirit, we delay the coming of the New Heaven and the New Earth.  When we do these things, we are actively working against God's plan and God's purposes.  We need to not do that if we want to follow Jesus.

The resurrection is not about escaping from this world; the resurrection is a sign that God's purposes and God's plan will ultimately prevail.  We can live our lives focused on doing good in the here and now and walking with each other because we know that those actions will not be in vain, that the ultimate reconciliation of all things is coming.  Part of that reconciliation, as Christianity has always understood, is the promise of eternal life.  Again, the early Church always understood that eternal life to be physical in some manner, though a thoroughly transformed physicality that we at this point can't fully comprehend.

Nevertheless, we are left with the ever-thorny question of who gets to be a part of this resurrection, and how that's going to work.   I think the best answer to the question of "who will be saved?" is "everyone who wants to be." If the resurrection is a sign that God's purposes will ultimately prevail, and God loves everyone equally, then the total fulfillment of that purpose would be universal salvation.  But God's love is not coercive.  We will not be forced into a salvation we don't want.  Part of true love is honoring the choices that the person you love makes.

Why would anyone not want salvation?  There's an old story/joke about a person who just got to Heaven, and is getting the tour.  The heavenly tour guide shows the new arrival several large rooms with happy, celebrating people, before the new arrival comes up to a completely enclosed room with infinitely high walls.  "Who's in this room?" the new arrival asked.  "That's the Baptists," the tour guide responded; "they think they are the only people here."

That's not salvation; part of salvation is recognizing that we are going to have to share eternity with everyone.  We are going to be real surprised with who else we find when we get to where we are going.  Can we let go of our resentment that all sorts of other people are going to be given the same mercy that we received?  Are we ready to sit down at the heavenly banquet with murderers?  Rapists?  The ISIS fanatic who beheaded children?  Hitler, maybe?  Because that's very likely what we are going to be facing.  Nothing that those people may have done make them beyond the reach of the mercy of God.  God still loves them, and wants them to join in eternal life.  Are we going to be OK with that if they take God up on God's offer?

Because, if not, I believe that God will allow us to exist in our windowless room, thinking we are the only one's there.  Forever, if that's what we choose.  That experience, of being in a windowless room, separate from our fellow man, separate from the mercy of God; I believe that's what theologians have traditionally referred to as Hell.  Hell is not something we get "sent" to by a vengefully God, nor is it some kind of default space we inhabit if  we lack the Golden Ticket.  Hell is a reality we fully and consciously chose for ourselves.  I don't think, however, it is a permanent reality.  We may not be 100% ready to accept the infinite expansiveness of God's mercy upon our death.  We may have work to do; we may spend some time in the windowless room.  But it is really up to us--we can always knock on the wall and say "hey, I think I am ready to join the party now."  And there will always be welcome once we open the door from the inside and step out from the windowless room into the sunlit country.

All of this is a round-about way of saying that I believe in Purgatory, but not in Hell.  Or, saying it another way, Hell exists but it is really more like Purgatory.  Or maybe Hell and Purgatory are the same thing.  However it is described, I do not believe that God "sends" people to "eternal, conscious torment," as the classic formula has it.  Nor do I think this is a rigged game, where people who are born in the wrong circumstances or have the wrong ideas about God on earth can find themselves stuck outside of God's love and mercy.  That mercy is always available, if we are ready to receive it.

All of that is made possible because Jesus rose from the dead.  It's a good reminder for us, here in Holy Week.

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