Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Looking for Resurrection

"We look for the resurrection of the dead”
The Nicene Creed

This statement, and the affirmation that Christ will come again, form the core of what theologians call the doctrines of Last Things.

In a week that began with yet another of this present world’s horrors, it is important to acknowledge that life is fragile and precious.  It is important to look to a variety of aids and helps for coping with the aftermath.  I found two collections of useful information especially to the point.  Click here for how to identify normal reactions in ourselves and others.  Click here for suggestions about our interactions with children.  These and other resources are important.

But it is also important to reflect on what the Christian Faith has to say about our place in God’s ultimate purpose.  It is still Easter, and Christ’s resurrection points us ahead.

The resurrection of the dead is very closely tied to our ultimate hope, which is the life of the world to come.  However, there are a few things to be said specifically about resurrection before we look into the nature of our ultimate hope.

Resurrection is a uniquely Hebraic concept, and it is intimately tied to the culmination of human history.  What will be the final outcome of our history?  Will it be an endless cycle of birth, death and reincarnation, as some religions maintain?  Will it be a simple journey to oblivion, as most materialists see it?  Is the physical universe a kind of spirit generator, converting matter into spirit, which then survives in an altogether new kind of universe?  Is everything finally absorbed into a sea of pure consciousness?  Christian thinking always differs from these ideas, though in some of its particulars it may resemble one or another at certain points.

This is not a subject that lends itself to detailed description.  Scripture is filled with short references to the reality which is our destiny, but it also cautions us that it is, in the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him."  We have highly evocative images, promises of creation's fulfillment, warnings of rebellion's consequences, but Scripture does not even try to describe in detail that which is beyond our knowing.

There are, nonetheless, some things we can infer from Scripture.  First is that the resurrection of Jesus is a kind of prototype of what awaits us.  The Risen Christ is called the "first fruits" of the new creation.  We are told that as he is, so we shall become.  We are told that we will be raised, righteous and unrighteous alike.  From this we can surmise a few other particulars.

We will not be disembodied spirits, or ghostly shades of our former selves.  There will be a new world to inhabit, which will be quite different from our present world, but enough like it that the lessons learned in this life will be critical to our life there.  The life of the world to come involves a radical change and transformation of this world; infused with the dimension we now call “heaven.” 

Resurrection is not, however, an automatic "promotion to glory".  There is a new world to be won, but also to be lost.  Justice, thwarted so often in our fallen world, will be perfected; those who have been victims will be consoled, and those who have been victimizers will be dealt with, not by arbitrary human standards, but by God's standards.

Much will need to be forgiven even the redeemed, and no one will finally succeed in mocking God.  Matthew 25:31-46 preserves Jesus' description of the Judgment, when the Shepherd King separates His lambs from the goats.  This passage stands both as an encouragement and as a warning: both the blessed and the condemned are surprised by the King’s words, and finally understand that the only One who is competent to judge has judged them.  They further understand that there is no possibility of an error having been made.  That realization simultaneously comforts the spirits of the blessed and sears the spirits of the condemned.

To be vindicated in the resurrection is not to pass into a kind of permanent vacation or retirement, however.  Neither is it to have our identity absorbed into a misty generalized consciousness.  It is to be called by name.  It is to know once again those who were important in our life on earth.  It is to be more completely and authentically ourselves than we have yet been.  And according to Jesus' parables recorded in Matthew 25:14-30, and Luke 19:12-27, it is to be given greater responsibilities than any we have yet held.  In other words, life in the resurrection is more substantial, more complete, more fulfilling than anything we now know.

For the present, the Last Things are a hope.  They are utterly beyond our control, and largely beyond our imagining.  This is where faith enters the picture.  If we belong to Jesus Christ we have no need for a complete bill of particulars.  He has assured us that there is a place at the table for all who will come; that His Father's house has room for all; that the talents we invested wisely in this life will be returned with interest in the next; and he has promised that he will accompany us now and in the world to come.

Howard  MacMullen
© April 2013

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