By Jason Hutchcraft
One of the problems with fictional stories is that certain elements of these stories may be predictable and even cliché. There is the fairy tale where the handsome prince saves and marries the princess and they live happily ever after. There is the old western where the good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy a black one. The good guy always wins the final confrontation and saves the day. We have become so familiar with these plotlines that we roll our eyes when we recognize them and a drama turns into a comedy. Of course we know that these stories are not only predictable but are unreal. Many of our familiar stories are idealized projections of human desires. We really want the prince and the princess to fall in love. We want the good guy to win. But in reality that is not what happens. In real life the prince divorces the princess to marry a younger princess and the bad guy gets out of prison on a legal loophole.
You have probably heard that truth is stranger than fiction. Truth is messier and less predictable than fiction. But fiction is quicker and cheaper, which is why fiction is often preferred to real life. aTruth is just the way things are and reality is unwilling to compromise with our personal opinions or desires. And so many people fear the truth.
These Gospel accounts of the Resurrection do not read like fiction. We see all of the strangeness of truth and the messiness of humanity. If the Resurrection was a made-up story then we would expect the disciples to be the good guys who do everything right, but they don’t. The disciples don’t have a clue about what is really going on and it seems that the last thing they expected was a resurrection, even though Jesus had told them ahead of time that He would rise from the dead. They just didn’t get it. And so their first response to the empty tomb was fear, not joy, as we might expect. And their first response to the women’s report of the Resurrection was doubt, not faith. The Gospel writers are telling the truth, not weaving a fairy tale. The truth is that the disciples were not the heroes of the story, Jesus is the hero. Don’t misunderstand me, the disciples really loved and followed Jesus. But they were also normal men and women who responded as people tend to respond to a shocking truth: they were afraid and they doubted it, at least at first. The Gospels record their movement from fear and doubt to faith and then to joy at the fact that Jesus was really alive. So we should not be too hard on their initial fear and doubt because there is nothing easy about faith. God has given us some hard things to believe! But there are wonderful things. By nature we tend towards fear and doubt, not faith. And like the first disciples who witnessed the resurrection of Christ, we must also move from our initial fear and doubt to faith in the risen Lord. And when we have moved from fear to faith we can then live with the joy of the resurrection.
Fear, Doubt and Death. Experiencing some kind of fear is such a common feeling we tend to remember those times when we were NOT afraid as a little vacation from the normal stress of life. Much of human life is dominated by fear. This includes what we call anxiety or worry. When we are not occupied with being worried about something we are preoccupied with worrying about something that MIGHT happen but hasn’t actually happened yet. Or, we have angst about those things that are inevitable, like the death of a loved one or our own death. All of us experience fear to some degree, though not always to the same degree, depending on your personality and living conditions. Some people just seem to be predisposed to worry. Others may live in difficult circumstances where there is fear that the basic necessities of life will not be available. Some of our brothers and sisters in other countries have anxieties we have not considered. We are concerned about eating too much and being overweight. They are concerned about going through the day with nothing to eat. We are concerned about getting a Sunday afternoon nap. Some of our brethren are concerned about a terrorist’s bomb on a daily basis. But fear does not consist only of moments of extreme terror, which are relatively rare. The kind of fear that is most often experienced is the daily grind of ordinary life and all its concerns that creates a constant undercurrent of anxiety. In our society this undercurrent of anxiety shows itself in nervous breakdowns, depression, ulcers, drug use, and even suicide. But all of our fear can be reduced to two basic categories or causes: 1. something we cannot control. 2. Something we do not understand. Fear sets in when human ability or wisdom ends. And we soon find out that our ability to cope with life is more fragile than we like to admit. And so the self-help section of the bookstore keeps growing. The lines in front of the psychologist’s office gets longer. It seems to me that people today are more willing to admit that they do need help than folks of an older generation. Admitting you are afraid and that you need help is a step in the right direction. But where to go to actually find that help continues to be another problem for our culture.
Closely related to our fear is our natural tendency toward doubt, skepticism, and even cynicism. Again the degree of doubt does depend on personality and circumstances. Some people are optimists while others are dark and morose. But if we remove the extreme cases, I would still argue that we tend to be afraid because we believe that the worst possible scenario is going to be what befalls us. Bad stuff has happened before and we just assume it will happen again. We think this way because we learn things through experience. Many of these experiences are unpleasant. We live in a world where tragedy, pain, sickness, violence, evil, and death are daily realities and it becomes almost impossible to rise above what we see in the news each day and expect something good to happen. Why don’t the news reporters focus only on the good things? Because that’s not how we think about life. Human reasoning begins with experience, which is usually bad, and so we can’t bring ourselves to expect the world to suddenly change and give us only good things. So when something good does happen we celebrate that as an unusual and out of character kind of event in the world. But life also teaches us not to expect these good times to last. All good things must come to an end, even if we want them to last forever. The party ends and reality sets in again. We must go out and face the world again. And so people may become so cynical that they refuse to believe any good thing that they may see. We would rather disbelieve than be disappointed all over again. Or, being skeptics, people will instantly demand some kind of proof that such an unusually good thing really could happen in a world like this.
I am aware of the fact that in spite of everything I have just said about human nature and the world around us there are still those starry-eyed dreamers and eternal optimists who talk about changing the world and making it a better place. While their intentions may be good, this is mostly just talk. The world doesn’t change. And there is one life event that can always bring a fast end to all the boastful, humanistic talk in the world: a funeral. Death has a way of bursting our bubble and instantly bringing us back down to earth. No one is noisy at a funeral. Everyone is quiet, serious, and thoughtful. Death is that great silencer, leveler, and limiter of humanity. It is the reality of death that made Solomon say about human life that it is all vain and a chasing after the wind. Death should cause us to stop and think about life instead of just tearing through it like a fox in a chicken coop. The trouble with our culture is that we avoid thinking of death, which means that we also fail to examine our living! The poet Henry David Thoreau famously said that men live lives of quiet desperation. But Thoreau did not live to see the modern world. It was the American satirist James Thurber who corrected Thoreau’s observation and said that “nowadays men lead lives of noisy desperation.”
But remember that it was God Himself who blocked the way back to the Tree of Life. It was God Himself who subjected His good world to the bondage of corruption and death. God imposed a sentence of death on the world. This sentence of death was imposed AFTER the parents of the human race had eaten from the forbidden tree. That knowledge of good and evil came at a high price. Now the man and the woman knew what it was like to be on their own and to do their own thing, making their own decisions. If man wants to live on his own and do his own thing apart from God, then man must also accept the limitation and the imposition of death. We were not made to die, we were made to live. But we were made to live with God, not apart from Him. With God there is life. Without God there is nothing but death. That was the great lesson of Eden and the Fall of Man.
Believe in the Goodness of God. But God did not impose death on the creation because He just wanted to punish and hurt us. There are those who think that God is nothing but a cosmic killjoy who just wants to ruin all of our fun and enjoyment in life. It is one of the Devil’s oldest lies about God. But we must begin to see the true goodness of God and His good plan. There would be a way back to the Tree of Life. But God Himself would have to make a way. We were not meant to live forever with God. That would be a kind of living death, which is exactly what Hell will be.
But God was going to overcome sin and death and He made a promise to the first man and woman. The seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s death and his heal would be bruised in the process (Gen. 3.15). This was the first prophecy about the resurrection of Christ! God meant to undo what sin and death had done. He would do it through a member of the human race. Later God made another promise to a man named Abraham that the world would be blessed through his seed. Another veiled prophecy fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ. Abraham believed God’s good promise. Fear and doubt ends and faith begins when we come to know the living God and hear His word. God always keeps His word and the empty tomb is the supreme illustration of this fact. All of the promises of God are fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. God did not abandon Jesus in the darkness of the tomb and so we are not abandoned to the slavery of fear and death. When Jesus was raised so was the whole human race!
The challenge now is for us to believe that fact, we who are so used to the finality and hopelessness of the Grave. But our belief in the empty tomb does not come first and it does not come by itself. Our faith must first be in the living God, the God of Abraham, who raised Jesus from the dead. When we come to know this God we come to understand that nothing is impossible, not even a resurrection. This is the God who called the world into existence from nothing. Is anything too hard for Him? This is the God of Abraham, who brought life to a dead, barren womb so that Sarah conceived the Child of Promise and learned to laugh again. This is the God of Abraham, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17 ESV). Is anything impossible with God? Our faith in the resurrection of Christ is based on our faith in this God.
The kind of faith that justifies us before God is believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. Christians believe in a bodily resurrection, which is why the tomb of Jesus was empty, and not just in a spiritual afterlife or the immortality of the soul. Christian faith is in the One God raised. The women went to the tomb that first Easter morning to honor a dead Jesus. But that is not what we are doing on Easter Sunday! We don’t worship a dead martyr but a living Lord who was shown with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection (Rom. 1.4). The resurrection proves that Jesus is the Son of God. We worship and honor the Son as we worship and honor the Father. Our hope of eternal life is in the One God raised from the dead. There is salvation is no one else because no one else has been raised from the dead!
Jesus is Lord. It would be almost impossible for us to fully understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus without some kind of further explanation beyond what we find in the Gospels. The Gospels give us the facts, but not much else. After His resurrection Jesus appeared to His disciples and begin to explain what had happened, who still did not understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead to fulfill Scripture. The problem was that they did not understand the Scriptures concerning Jesus. This shows that understanding these things concerning Jesus and the Kingdom of God are not as easy as we sometimes think it is and no one arrives at these conclusions unaided. Understanding these things becomes even more challenging for us because we don’t have the living Christ here to explain things. He has ascended into heaven.
Historically speaking, the resurrection and the ascension are two different events. But theologically speaking these are one thing. The appearances of Jesus after the resurrection are really just Jesus giving His disciples a fleeting glimpse of Himself as He moves from earth to heaven. Few Christians today seem to understand the significance of the ascension of Christ and its connection to the Resurrection. The ascension finishes Christ’s earthly work and then takes it to a whole new dimension.
The problem seems to be in our lack of understanding of Heaven. Heaven is God’s space and it is separated from the earth, which was given to mankind. Heaven is God’s Throne because God rules the earth from heaven. So heaven is always up because God is over all. Heaven is not a part of this creation and could never be reached in a spaceship. But there are places where heaven and earth touch one another, as Jacob saw in his dream at Bethel of a ladder from earth to heaven, or in the Tabernacle. But Heaven is always the superior place and is kind of like the control-room for earth, just like the cockpit of a jumbo jet or the bridge of a battleship. Christ entering the heavenly control-room means that He went to rule on our behalf. Jesus is Lord, and that is the post-resurrection message of the Church. The Gospel does not declare that Jesus will reign sometime in the future but that He has entered heaven and has begun to reign. The book of Revelation reveals that He is sharing the Throne of God and there is no higher place. Jesus’ coming again does not mean that He will have to become some kind of astronaut and travel down to earth, but that He will appear. We can’t see Him reigning now because He is in heaven. But He will be seen because at the end of time the veil of separation between earth and heaven will be taken down, just as the veil in the Temple was ripped apart when Jesus died. Then every eye will see Him and know that He is King of Kings and every knee will bow.
It is obvious to us now that every knee has not bowed. There are still enemies running loose in the world. They are under the control of the risen Christ, but they are still here in the world where we are too. The Devil is still here, though His head has been bruised. Death is still here, being the last enemy to be defeated for good. Meanwhile, the earth in which we live is like a city under siege, encircled by powerful enemies. But news has reached us that the war has been won by our King on a field of battle and it is just a matter of time before the enemies surrounding us must withdraw.
The Resurrection is a preview of things to come. Jesus’ Resurrection is the first-fruits of the New Creation. The first-fruits are the initial gleanings of the harvest that are a foretaste of more to come. The tomb of Jesus was really a womb from which is being born a New Creation.
Conclusion. We are groaning as in the pains of childbirth, along with the Creation, as we wait and long for this New Creation to come. When Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachael, was giving birth to her second son she had great pain because she was dying. With what was perhaps he last breath she named her newborn son “Ben-oni,” which is “Son of Sorrow.” But Jacob quickly changed his name to “Benjamin,” or “Son of my Right Hand.” When Jesus was on the Cross, He became the Son of Sorrow, dying for our sin so that we could be born again. But on that first Easter Sunday Jesus became the Son of God’s right hand!
When a woman gives birth she is in great pain, but it is usually not the sign of death but a sign that a new life and great joy is coming. The pain is real and it is excruciating, but it is a hopeful pain. Something good is on the way. That is the believer’s situation in the world. There is pain, but do not be afraid, not even of death. Something good is coming. The Resurrection set us from fear so that we can serve the Lord while we are in this world until He comes. He is in heaven but His Body, the Church, is still in this world to continue His work. He has given us His Spirit to be with us until the end of the Age.
The Resurrection promises peace and joy, but only to those who believe. There is no peace for the wicked.