The resurrection of Jesus is the center of Christian faith. If Christ is not raised, Paul says, our faith is worthless and we’re still in our sins. Unless he’s raised, Jesus’s life and death were utterly fruitless. If his body decayed in the tomb, Death won the battle with life and remains on the throne of this world. If he never rose, the hour of Darkness has endured down the centuries, without hope of dawn. Or worse: If Jesus never rose, Christians have been duped by the biggest hoax in human history. If he didn’t rise, his death wasn’t the titanic event Christians believe it to be; he was just one of thousands of pathetic Jews crucified by Romans in the late first century. Paul says it bluntly: If we’re following a dead savior, we are “of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:16–19).
Jesus’s resurrection is the center of Christian faith not only for what it says about Jesus, but for what it does to and for us. Death has lost its sting; it’s no longer permanent. One day, Jesus will trample Death altogether. That’s the crux of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15: If Jesus is raised, we will be raised too. Resurrection has its order: “Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23). As Charles Wesley put it, “Soar we now where Christ has led / Following our exalted Head / Made like him, like him we rise / Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” Jesus is the seed that dies in the ground so it can bear fruit, like the seed-bearing grasses raised from the ground on the third day of creation.
And our participation in resurrection isn’t merely in the future. Jesus says repeatedly in John’s Gospel that whoever believes in him has eternal life. What happened to Jesus in the resurrection happens to us now, because we’re united to the risen One by his Spirit. Jesus was proclaimed Son of God by the resurrection, and in the risen Christ we’re sons. Jesus was justified in the Spirit at his resurrection, and we’re justified in him. God has brought us out from death in transgressions and sins, and we’re united with him even in his ascension to heavenly places (Eph. 2:4–10). Jesus is himself resurrection and life, and anyone who clings to him receives a share of his life. As the late Nicholas Lash put it, Christian faith is about “Easter in Ordinary.”
Here things get murky. Christians often believe we enjoy “spiritual” resurrection now, while we hope for a future bodily resurrection. In this age, resurrection happens in our hearts, minds, and souls; someday, it’ll happen to our arms, legs, fingers, knees, and toes. That’s perfectly commonsensical. Christians get sick and suffer disability. Christians have children born with congenital deformities. Christians grow old and die. Faith in the risen Jesus isn’t a magical rescue from the slings and arrows flesh is heir to.
Paul doesn’t favor that kind of common sense. In Romans 6, he says that through baptism, we’re united with Jesus in his death and burial, so that “as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Some of what Paul says in that passage points to a future resurrection: “if we have become united with the likeness of his death, we shall be also of his resurrection” and “we shall also live with him.” But it’s clear Paul doesn’t regard resurrection as merely future. Through baptismal union with Jesus, we die to sin and are freed from it. Death no longer dominates Jesus, and so it can’t lord it over us either. Therefore, “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul immediately goes on to talk about bodies. Since we’re dead to sin, we shouldn’t let sin reign in our bodies by succumbing to bodily lusts. Because we died in Christ’s death, we stop “presenting the members of [our] body to sin as weapons of injustice.” Instead, we now present ourselves to God “as those alive from the dead” and our members as “weapons of justice to God” (Rom. 6:13). Paul doesn’t just talk in generalities about the “body,” but about corporeal “members,” about organs and limbs, about eyes and ears, tongues, hands, fingers, arms, legs, knees, and feet.
Our deliverance from death has psychological dimensions, as we’re delivered from the fear of death. Jesus’s resurrection gives life to our souls and dispels the darkness of our minds. But it’s not merely psychological or spiritual. Now in the present, our bodies share in Jesus’s bodily resurrection. Empowered by the resurrection of Jesus, we use the members of our Easter bodies to promote the justice and love of God’s kingdom. By the resurrection of Jesus, we’re delivered from the debilitations of idolatry, from genuflecting to lifeless images. We see Jesus in the least of his brothers. Our tongues are freed to speak words of truth and life. Our ears are opened to hear the voice of Jesus and the cry of the poor. Our tight fists are loosed to give with generosity. Feet that were once swift to shed blood become the beautiful feet of those who proclaim good news. Our legs carry us the second mile, and we give our cheek to the smiter. In the consummation, we will receive Spiritual bodies, bodies subjected to the direction of the Spirit of Jesus. Even now, our bodies are transformed by the Spirit into weapons of Jesus, weapons by which he carries on his war against death.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by Sotheby's on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.