We say we believe in the resurrection, but do we practice it? Here are three reasons why resurrection fails to make a real impact in our lives, along with three practices to help us practice resurrection.
The Discovery is a 2017 film about a scientist who makes a find so significant it drastically alters the world. He discovers brain waves continue to emit from the mind after a person is dead. What’s so significant about that? It’s scientific proof of an afterlife. Somehow, someway, the deceased’s brain continues to function after their heart has stopped.
People respond by committing suicide, millions of them, all around the world. Why? With definitive proof of an afterlife, they now have hope for a better life. They don’t have to linger in loneliness or struggle with cancer. All they have to do is pull the trigger, and they can be reunited with their loved ones.
If you had definitive proof of an afterlife, how would you respond? If you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you’d enter another life after you die, what would you do? Would you pull the trigger?
PULLING THE TRIGGER
St. Paul also made a powerful discovery that radically altered history. He encountered a person from the other side, the resurrected Christ, and came to believe that Jesus was not only raised from the dead, but all who hope in him will be raised to eternal life.
But his response was different. Instead of taking his life, he gave his life. Instead of leaping to find what’s on the other side, he transformed his life on this side. You could say he “pulled the trigger” on his old life, and his old life wasn’t too shabby.
He formerly went by Saul and, according to the standards of Judaism, Saul was no slacker. He was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5). In other words, he wasn’t a newbie in the faith; he was circumcised so early he was raised in the faith. And of all the ethnicities in the world, he was from the chosen people. And out of all of Israel, he was from a special tribe, the tribe that furnished Israel with their very first king. Saul had a great pedigree, but he had even more.
His zeal eclipsed many of his contemporaries, aligning him with some of Israel’s greats (Moses, Elijah, Phineas). An expert in the Law, Saul was esteemed by many. You might say he was the Steve Jobs of Judaism, with a passion for perfection to go with it. Saul arrested and persecuted Christians who perverted his Jewish faith. No one questioned his commitment, until his encounter with the risen Christ.
Then something switched, and his zeal ran toward Christ in a life of hopeful self-denial. He traveled unreliable roads and weathered seas throughout the Mediterranean to share the good news about Jesus, all while living off of his tent business and the support of friends. He wrote letters to struggling churches, and his writings eventually comprised half the New Testament. Along the way, he encountered misunderstanding, ridicule, rejection, prison, flogging, and even shipwreck. Yet he persisted. Why? The resurrection of Jesus had radically changed his notion of success.
If you’ve been around successful people, you know how suddenly small and insignificant it can make you feel. A tiny voice pops into your head and starts interrogating you. What have you accomplished? What do you have to show? Why is that?
Sociologist Ernest Becker says it’s a response to death. Sensing our ephemeral nature, we create what he calls “immortality projects.” We might get a higher degree, establish a family, start a business, engage in philanthropy, or take a selfie, all in an attempt to avert death. We’re haunted by questions like, “What will people think about me after I die? What will they say at my funeral? Will anyone remember me?”
Becker says this undeniable impulse is an attempt to deny death. To construct a way for us to live on, long after we are gone. Paul comes along and puts a gun to his immortality project when he says, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:7–8). Resurrection fundamentally alters the meaning of success.
Paul looks back at all his accomplishments and describes them as loss—three times he uses the word. What would compel a person of his stature to throw shade on his success? Christ. Each time he mentions loss, he pairs it with a gain: loss for the sake of Christ, loss because of the surpassing worth of Christ, counting achievement as rubbish to gain Christ.
The word surpassing means “above the mark.” He’s saying when I stack my accomplishments next to Jesus, they can’t even see him. The risen Christ is so good he’s off the scale, valuable beyond measure. By comparison, my accomplishments are rubbish.
Instead, success is this: “knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10). It’s knowing the one who holds all things together, the God who swallows death, the rider on the white horse who will judge the quick and the dead, the King of a renewed creation. Knowing him is the greatest discovery—ever. And when you’ve got the greatest thing, you can live without a lot of things.
GLORY IN REGRET
Eventually, the scientific crew working on the “the discovery” realizes the post-mortem brain signals are actually connected to episodes of a person’s past, not to an afterlife. When they convert the waves into images, they observe the episodes actually are moments of regret in a person’s life. Unknowingly, the suicides are waking up, not to a circle of loved ones but moments of intense regret. The central character gets stuck in a loop trying to prevent the suicide of a woman he loves.
Faith in Jesus, however, does not lead to an eternal loop of regret. Rather, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, it allows heaven to work backward. The meaning, love, joy, and goodness of heaven are transported back into the heart through union with Christ, which helps us weather things like loneliness and cancer.
Of course, our experience of heaven working backward is uneven. We are, after all, still on earth so to speak. And once we reach heaven, Lewis notes that even a past agony, and I’ll add even a regret, will turn into a glory. Why? Because that old pain will serve to intensify the present, everlasting comfort of Christ’s nail-scarred hands. Our regret will be faint, but a vivid reminder of the grand discovery—the remarkable mercy of Christ, who rose to forgive and renew all things.
Jonathan K. Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, TX which he started with his wife, Robie, and a small group of people. They have three children. He is also the founder of GCDiscipleship.com and author of a number of books including Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and Here in Spirit: Knowing the Spirit who Creates, Sustains, and Transforms All Things (IVP, 2018).
We wrote this book out of our love for skeptics and respect for the questions they help us ask. We also write as believers who oscillate in real belief in the resurrected Christ. We hope it proves to be an insightful, stirring reflection on the resurrection.
We are giving this book away in the hope that churches will make the eBook or hardcopy available to their people, especially to all their visitors on Easter. We are praying God would use it to spark gospel conversations, equip believers, and help people meet the risen Jesus.
Download artwork, slides, and the book at: www.raisedbook.com
One in five Americans don’t believe in a deity. The “none” category in religious polls has doubled over the past ten years. Less than half of the population attends religious services on a regular basis. As statistics rise on the decline of Christian faith in America, you may find yourself wondering if Christianity is really worth believing? After all, the Christian faith makes some audacious claims.
Audacious Claims of the Gospel
Some of the most audacious claims are made right at the center of the Christian faith—in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though some particulars may vary, the gospel is something all Christians agree on: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Now, there are some big assumptions made in this verse: that we sin; that Christ was strong enough to deal with sin, and that he was stronger than death—he was raised from the dead!
If this is all true, Jesus calls us to respond by faith in him to receive forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Romans 6:23). Here we have four big concepts—sin, faith, Christ, and eternal life. Followers of Christ have, at times, communicated these concepts terribly. As a result, there is a general misunderstanding, even among some Christians, as to what these terms mean. For instance, eternal life (or resurrection life) is often mistaken as an escape from life in order to get into a cloudy eternity. How boring! While we address this error throughout the book, it gets particular attention in chapter four. In chapter three, we examine the meaning of sin, faith, and Christ. These are misconstrued to mean bad behavior, wishful thinking, and great teacher. Way off target. All of these concepts lack deep appeal apart from a greater narrative to fit into. In chapter two, we trace the bigger story of Scripture to see if it resonates with human longing. In this chapter, we hone in on an audacious gospel claim—that Jesus was raised from the dead.
At first glance, the death of Jesus is easy enough to embrace. It is well documented and the Roman authorities crucified people regularly. The god-sized claim beneath his self-sacrifice is what ruffles feathers. The claim that his sacrifice was on behalf of all humanity troubles both our pride and our intellect. Jesus, represented all of us? What gives him the right? Who says we need a representative or sacrifice anyway? The gospel gets crazier. The bull’s eye of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. We don’t have to dive deep to surface doubt with the resurrection. Its surface value is, well, incredible. The notion that a first century Jewish man, crucified between two common thieves, was actually God and rose from the dead is unbelievable. To the modern mind, resurrection is utterly implausible. People don’t beat death, especially after being in the grave three days. In light of recent horror trends, we might be more inclined to believe in a zombie emerging from the dead than a resurrected and fully restored person. Yet, at the center of historic Christian faith is the belief that a Jewish man named Jesus was “raised.”
If you doubt the resurrection, I’m glad. Anything worth believing has to be worth questioning, but don’t let your questions slip away unanswered. Don’t reduce your doubts to a state of unsettled cynicism. Wrestle with your doubts. Find answers.
If you call yourself a believer and a skeptic, don’t settle for pat proofs, emotional experiences, or duty-driven religion. Keep asking questions. Those who haven’t questioned their faith can easily become doctrinaire, even detached from the everyday struggle of faith. Whether you are a skeptic, believer, or somewhere in between, press into your faith or push into your doubt. Question your faith and question your doubts. Determine good reasons for believing or not believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If he really did defeat death, it changes everything. Doubt well and you can walk away from skepticism, cynicism, or blind faith into perceptive belief, intellectual security, and deeper commitment. You can know that you have honestly questioned the resurrection.
Others Who Struggle to Believe
You aren’t the only one to struggle with belief in the resurrection. The story of the resurrection includes many doubters. The resurrection story is rooted in an historical account of events in first century Palestine (modern day Israel). The Gospels (written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) report these events from four different vantage points, narrating the life, ministry, death, and alleged resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel authors tell us that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection years before it occurred (John 2:22). He knew what was coming and went along with it. He didn’t run. One evening, Jesus met his disciples in a garden to pray. Suddenly, he was interrupted by clanging armor and flaming torches. Roman soldiers appeared to arrest him at the behest of the religious right (the Pharisees). The Pharisees charged Jesus with sedition, a charge most unsettling to the Roman Empire. As his disciples scattered, Jesus was left to face trial alone. He was quickly tried in the wee hours of Friday morning and crucified that afternoon. He was buried that night. On Sunday, grief stricken women went to visit Jesus’ tomb. As devoted disciples, they were shocked to find his tomb uncovered. Other disciples joined them, entered the tomb, and found his body gone, with his grave clothes lying there. This is where doubt begins to creep in.
Some claim the body was stolen. Mary thought the same thing, until Jesus appeared to her. Other disciples disbelieved her resurrection report, even after Jesus appeared to them (Luke 24:36-43). They mistook him for a ghost, so Jesus took it upon himself to prove his physical existence. He ate a piece of fish before their very eyes and they all believed, except doubting Thomas. Thomas saw all of this and remained incredulous. He heard the news, saw the man, and even watched Jesus perform an experiment proving he was real. Now, if God really is Jesus, and he’s risen from the dead standing right in front of you, proves he’s not a spirit, and you still doubt, how do you think Jesus should respond? You’d think Jesus would smack him down for doubt, rebuke Thomas on the spot, and call him to fall in line with his now believing friends. But he didn’t. Instead, Jesus entertains his doubts. He invites Thomas to press his hands to his tender crucifixion wounds, charging him: “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).
If you doubt the resurrection, you’re in good company. To the solidly skeptical and those struggling with doubt, Jesus remains ready to receive our questions. Jesus entertains doubts. He also implores belief. (Wouldn’t you if you died and rose from the dead, appearing to your disbelieving family and friends?) And to those who do not see the resurrected Christ, and still believe, Jesus confers a particular blessing (John 20:29). Though a blessing from God sounds nice, it can still be hard to get past the implausibility of someone rising from the dead. Many believe in the historical Jesus, but fewer believe in the resurrected Jesus.
The resurrection is like a river that parts a road. People are on the road approaching the river. Arriving at the river of the resurrection, you look across it to where the road continues, and see quite a few cars are parked there. In your doubt, you can’t imagine how people got to the other side. How did they get across the river? How can rational people come to the belief that Jesus died and rose from the dead?
The Global Perspective
Truth be told, the parking lot on the other side of the resurrection is overflowing. Resurrection-believing Christians are all over the world. Today there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world, almost a billion more Christians than Muslims (who adhere to the second largest world religion, Islam). Christians around the world claim a personal encounter with Christ and a relationship with a resurrected Jesus. Many of them are so devout they have suffered for their belief in the resurrected Christ. These believers are from a broad array of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. What are we to conclude from this?
Because Christianity is the world’s largest (and incredibly diverse) religion, should you jump ship on your unbelief or switch religions? The sheer number of believing, praying, suffering Christians does not make the resurrection true, but it should make it possible. It is possible that Islam is also true; however, Muslims do not put hope in a resurrected messiah. Allah is not a God who suffers for humanity and conquers death. In Jesus, however, we find God crucified and raised to life. According to the Bible, the resurrection is also a preview of things to come (1 Corinthians 15). Resurrection isn’t restricted to Jesus. All who have faith in him will eventually gain a resurrected body to enjoy a “resurrected” world. This certainly is hopeful. If billions of people and thousands of cultures have found hope in the resurrection, then perhaps there is something to it? How did all those ethnic groups come to believe a claim as implausible as the resurrection of Jesus?
The majority of the Christian population has shifted away from the West to the South and the East.The current statistical-geographical center of global Christianity is, quite literally, Timbuktu, Mali. That’s Africa. The largest Christian nation is China. Now, the interesting thing about the current center of global Christianity is that it is in cultures that affirm the supernatural. In fact, the global south encounters inexplicable, supernatural events on a regular basis. Not so in the West, we have ruled out the supernatural. We rarely see such extraordinary things. We begin with the assumption that the supernatural is not possible. Is this position critical or biased? To be sure, some Americans are willing to believe in the supernatural the teachings of Buddha, Vishnu, and Eckhart Tolle, but are we willing to believe in Jesus, risen from the dead? If we are to consider the plausibility of the resurrection, we must begin with its possibility. Critical of our default cultural position, this is the only intellectually honest place to begin. Is it true, as the Apostle Paul summarized: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)? Let’s consider this central tenant of a historic world faith. We will begin by asking other skeptics who were alive at the time of Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Did they find the resurrection plausible? How did some of them get across the river of doubt?