The Meaning of Easter – Part I
I have set out a vision elsewhere on the significance of resurrection in new creation in more detail elsewhere in the context of eschatology (technically the ‘last things’, more broadly God’s direction for creation – see my Christian Eschatology), but I am convinced that this is the key to understanding Easter. For many, it will seem natural to give a treatment of the crucifixion first, thinking about the cross as an act of atonement and then reflecting on the significance of the resurrection. My problem with this is that it can all too easily make the resurrection a bonus, something which is not all too important in itself but which adds the icing on our Easter weekend cake. Jesus has done the important bit in dying for our sins – his resurrection just rounds off the story neatly. After all, he would have gone to heaven after dying anyway, right?
I find this inadequate, and I think we ought to. I think that a treatment like this gives inadequate and sometimes disabling views of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. Consequently, I will begin with the resurrection, arguing that it holds the key to at least a partial understanding of the crucifixion.
We often say that Easter is about new life, and some of us may be able to relate a commercialised Easter into this analysis – our chocolate eggs represent the new life that comes from an egg, etc. But what does this really mean? Does it mean that Jesus has been raised? Well yes, that is part of it, but what significance does it have beyond that?
What God has been doing so far
Our understanding of the world, our vocation, and where we are heading must change drastically. From Genesis to Revelation (and it is conveniently these two which particularly emphasise this point), the Bible is an overwhelming affirmation of the ultimate goodness of creation. Of course, it is one that has been corrupted and one which cries out in agony (cf. Romans 8:22), and there are no neat answers given for why this is so. Sometimes this is from humans’ uncooperation, at other times the righteous are inexplicably held captive and persecuted (e.g. the Israelites in Egypt, the suffering righteous one in deutero-Isaiah, Daniel, and particularly characters in the inter-testamental literature like the Maccabees). But the entire story of the Bible is one of redemption – time and time again, God’s purposes for creation are thwarted for whatever reason, but the consistent response is one where God promises, through covenant, to redeem that situation. This is so in smaller narratives such as the story of Joseph at the end of Genesis, more prominent themes in Israel’s history like the Exodus narrative and, I will argue, the meta-narrative of Scripture, the whole story of God’s plan for creation.
We often ignore the Old Testament context for Jesus’ ministry in order to affirm, on the basis of a few New Testament epistles and perhaps slightly too much attention to a monocultured, Westernised Church history, that Easter is primarily about Jesus dying as the punishment for our sins. I think the Old Testament and New Testament both provide us with more than that. To understand this, we must go back to Abraham. Genesis opens with a few disjointed tales of human disobedience and arrogance, and these are quite profound. Whether they offer an exhaustive account of evil is not the issue here, what is important is that they have set the context of a world desperately in need of redemption. In chapter 12, God calls a nomad, Abraham, and promises to bless the whole world through his family. This theme is repeated throughout the Old Testament, with God promising to restore creation to its purpose, using Israel as his vehicle of redemption. Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles, and the Old Testament context of this theme finds its fulfilment in the Gospels, with Jesus being heralded as that light, Israel’s representative to bless the nations. More of that particular fulfilment later. As we move through the Old Testament from Abraham to the inter-testamental period, the problem of how God will use Israel becomes more complex, as Israel itself decides to turn away from God individually and on a corporate level. But what is so striking about all these narratives, and this is the important point, is that God always remains faithful to his covenant, and he does so in order to bring the world back to its original purpose. When Israel are exiled from the promised land, God does not decide that the land has become too corrupt anyway and try to find a new abode. He leads them back to the promised land, always trying to find a new way to continue his plan of redemption.
Where we are going
And so it is now. To ignore that covenant is to neglect all that God has been doing to redeem our world, and it can disable us from taking part in that covenant. Jesus, arguably, saw himself as recreating a new Israel (e.g. by choosing twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel), in order that they might be a light to the world (cf. Matthew 5). Paul takes this further, effectively interpreting the church as constituting a second incarnation – we are the body of Christ, he says, effective to bring about massive change in the here and now. It is impossible to overemphasise this point – we as the church are called to embody Christ’s will, to be part of the same covenant God made with Abraham so that we might redeem this world. And so, understanding this principle of the covenant people mediating redemption, we might now suggest that the answer to where we are heading is nowhere. Our vocation is to renew the world we live in, as was Abraham’s vocation, as was Israel’s, and as was Jesus’. We are under the same covenant God made with Abraham to bless the world, and we forget that at the greatest cost. There is no talk in the New Testament of us going to heaven when we die, much less of us leaving earth permanently. It is illuminating that all talk of an afterlife in the Judeo-Christian tradition came after hundreds of years of focussing strictly on this life. Until the very latest Old Testament books (e.g. Ezekiel, Daniel), Jewish afterlife was pretty non-existent. The dead went to the grave (Sheol), and had a pretty shadowy existence. The real message of the Old Testament covenants and prophets was a call to action now. Let us have justice on earth, let us live out God’s calling to bless the nations, let us live out God’s calling to renew the world; this is the vocation of a pre-Christic believer (and, of course, of a post-Christic believer).
All of which brings us to Jesus. As with the prophets in the tradition preceding him, Jesus’ concern was ultimately in making the Kingdom of God manifest here. This is the proper sense of ‘parousia’, often translated in terms of Jesus’ second coming to whisk away the elect to heaven. No, ‘parousia’ means, literally, ‘presence’ – Jesus is to be present with us in the renewed creation. When Jesus talks of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew is using ‘Heaven’ as a reverential synonym for ‘God’. Thus, Jesus is not preaching a Gospel of leaving Earth to go to heaven, but of a renewed Earth where God’s reign is clearly manifest. We are to be co-creators with God, we are to bring about his Kingdom on Earth (have we forgotten that line of the Lord’s prayer?), and we are to bring the new creation of the future into the present.
This, I propose, is (some of) the context and significance of Jesus’ resurrection. It is not a bonus to our salvation as already bought by the crucifixion, it is not just an excuse for us to aimlessly yell about Jesus still being alive. No, it is a symbol of that new creation, of God’s future Kingdom of justice and love being brought into the present to empower us for action. And how empowering it is! The crucifixion and resurrection are not events that remain in the past, having done something important for us and now staying tidily out of our way while we aim for heaven. To the contrary, says Paul at the end of his magisterial chapter on the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), it is precisely because we have the hope of new creation in us, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, that we are able to strive for justice and for God’s Kingdom here and now. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”
Let us return to the overarching theme of the Bible of God’s covenant to bless and renew a broken world, and let us be empowered by the resurrection and its promise of new creation. Let us focus on bringing justice and peace, on offering mercy and forgiveness so that God’s Kingdom may be manifest through us on Earth as it already is in heaven. As a Church, we are not to do good deeds merely for our individual salvation, or even as an expression of our salvation. We are to do all these things, by the power and promise of the resurrection, in order to bring Heaven to Earth, that all the Earth might be blessed. The call of the Gospel is no less.
(Part II on the crucifixion hopefully coming soon. This is by no means exhaustive of the significance of the resurrection, but I have tried to point towards the theme and context I find particularly empowering).
1. Due to time constraints and the fact that I have already attempted some justification for this elsewhere, forgive me if I tend to state things dogmatically here.
2. This is contrary to the insistence of some that suffering is always a result of punishment, or that the free will defence sorts everything out. The Bible is so diverse in its explanation of the origin of evil that whole books argue for different perspectives (and, of course, give different perspectives within themselves). Scattered around is the affirmation that suffering can be a result of God’s wrath – not necessarily as an active damning punishment, but God’s decision to allow humans the natural consequences of their own misconduct. A slightly more tame form of this is found in the everyday wisdom of Proverbs – act stupidly, and you’ll get in trouble. Job is dedicated largely to the repudiation of using sin as an explanation of evil as a whole, as is Jesus’ remark in John 9:3, and, in fact, most of the Bible. Ecclesiastes seems to give up altogether, finding no hope in the ‘suffering-from-sin’ model… or, indeed, anything at all.
3. It may be argued that some Old Testament authors denied an existence after death at all.
4. Passages traditionally interpreted as referring to hell are, I would argue, in the most case referring to something quite different, a judgment on Israel and the contemporary sacrificial system as it stood then, not the eternal fate of unbelievers for all future generations.