It’s that time of year again, when Christian believers attend Easter services and hear the story of Jesus’ resurrection. People of other faiths have their own ways of speaking about the nexus between life and death, many of which provide opportunities for respectful and mutually helpful interfaith conversation.
And then there are those who suspect that words like “resurrection, afterlife or immortality” are vestiges of ancient mythology that provide ways to escape the reality of death. The truth be told, there are many people attending religious services who harbor plenty of doubt about the literal, metaphysical resurrection as well.
If you are one of those for whom the whole idea of “resurrection” is suspect, I commiserate with you. The usual course of resurrection-speak lessens the value of life by arguing that, since there is life after death, death itself is simply a passageway from a lower form of being to a higher one.
That, in turn, diminishes the meaning and value of life-as-we-know-it into nothing more than a necessary step toward that passageway. In the end, such an approach to resurrection leaves us with no reason to care about the environment, or health, or justice, or anything beyond doing what it takes to get through the door to resurrection.
There is a better way of understanding resurrection, and it is grounded in an obscure argument that Jesus had with some of his folk who believed the Scriptures but not in the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27). It takes a while to unpack the nuances of this conversation, but the upshot is this: Jesus treats resurrection less as a doctrine from reading the Scriptures and more as a lens through which one can read the Scriptures. I would suggest that resurrection is not only a lens for reading the Scriptures, but can also be a lens for viewing the world.
Let’s mark out in broad strokes what the Scriptures can mean when interpreted through the lens of resurrection. Creation stories show death to be part of a larger story of the fertility of life — the seed must fall to the ground and die to produce abundance. The stories of the covenant that God made with Abram and Sarai shows how two persons, whose own capacities for fertility were dead, bring life through which all nations will be blessed.
The law becomes a dying and rising reality, not a dead letter etched in stone. The rise and fall of kingdoms, the suffering and return of exiles, the despair of the suffering servant, the hope of the one “coming in clouds,” the expectation of Elijah’s return — are all stories of how inasmuch as God lives, so do God’s promises. Resurrection makes all the difference between seeing the Scriptures as accounts of things that happened but are not happening anymore, and as accounts of how God continuously brings new life where no life is expected.
And let’s wonder in broad strokes what the world can mean when interpreted through the lens of resurrection. In a time when the ecosystems, species, and the sustainability of life-as-we-know-it itself are imperiled, resurrection does not say, “It’s OK, once this world passes we’ll all be in heaven.”
Instead, resurrection gives us the courage that this world itself can be the dead stump that sprouts new life, so we can live with hope for renewing the earth. In a time when we are tempted to write off homeless persons as hopeless persons, resurrection invites us to see the redemptive possibilities of their lives and to treat them as neighbors.
In a time when our only solution to gun violence is to arm more of us and ramp up the violence into a localized version of mutually assured destruction, resurrection enables us to see that living with constant vigilant fear is not really living. Just as the early Christians found resurrection to be a power that disarmed the Roman Empire’s culture of death, resurrection today can redefine the powers that threaten to undo us, which diminish the nature and value of life itself.
Our celebration of Easter this weekend need not be all about providing an escape route from life’s troubles or from a world that is headed toward disaster. It is about believing that even in our deepest despair God brings new life.
MARK DAVIS is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.