Like many of you, this Easter, I celebrate a radical truth—that Jesus died and rose to pay the price for our failures and affirm he is in fact the Son of God. But this is a different Easter for me. My father died this past Monday night. After a few days in the hospital and a weekend in hospice care, his life on this earth ended.
When you face death with family, you realize you are in a journey in some darkness and some mystery, lots of mystery. What happens next is suddenly more poignant. Resurrection becomes much more relevant. I found myself talking more candidly with dad about the future. Like many in his generation, dad has been pretty private about feelings and faith. But imminent death changed all of this. What was clear was that he was ready to be released from machines and medications—and his worn-out body!
Now, if we were a Hindu family, our hope would be that there was a rigorous outworking of karma in dad's life. Dad would return in a different existence to pursue his next stage in the next cycle of life. If we were an Orthodox Jewish family, we would trust that by our pedigree and our commitment to Torah would lead to eternal life. If we were Buddhists, our assumption would be that dad would be absorbed into the formless beyond. If we were Secularists, with no real conviction of a God, we would have no real hope. We are just an episode between two oblivions. I would probably tell dad, "Let's explore every medical procedure we can to extend life,"—for that is all there is.
I believe there is a far better answer, and we celebrate it today. If there is no Easter—there is no better message, no better answer. We may as well choose from the aforementioned categories. The message of Easter reminds us that there is hope beyond death—there is resurrection! Resurrection is more than a pie-in-the-sky wish—it is proven by the fact that Jesus rose from the grave. No text unpacks the mystery of the resurrection—and answers the questions one faces at death—as 1 Corinthians 15.
The reality of the resurrection
In the initial verses, Paul underscores that Christ's resurrection is not some strange idea invented by imaginative minds; nor some symbol of the flowers coming up every spring. It's a core belief verified by history and confirmed by a gallery of credible witnesses. Christ's resurrection is God's irrefutable statement that Jesus is the Messiah, that he alone has all authority. It is a confirmation that when we die we too will one day rise. For Jesus is the prototype for all of us. He is the beginning of the harvest, which is us, who will also rise. The same Spirit who raised him from death will raise us from death.
This was something the church at Corinth found hard to believe—perhaps like some of you. It is why Paul writes this chapter. He is not merely providing some emotional catharsis for those facing death. He is confronting wrongheaded thinking and wrongheaded living! If you take away Jesus' resurrection, you destroy the mainframe of our faith. It would negate the hope of our own resurrection. There would be no life beyond the grave for Jesus, nor for us.
It would be like coming to Good Friday service and at the end of the service saying, "Let's call it a weekend." To give our lives to this truth would be like investing all of our capital in Kodak. Denying the resurrection is to deny hope. If there is no resurrection, Paul is saying, there is no future.
My last words to dad might have been, "Well, death wins. Dad, you might as well order some hard liquor from the nurse." This is what Paul explains. You may as well have partied like there is no tomorrow—for there is no tomorrow. You might as well have gorged yourself on Paula Deen's Butter Bacon Burgers. You might as well have gone on one long binge—for that is all there is.
But hope in the resurrection changes everything! It impacts how we go through life. It also impacts, as I was reminded these last few days, how one goes through death.
Still, "resurrection" is a confusing term. What does it actually mean for us? Paul, seems to write this chapter in anticipation of these questions from the skeptical crowd. Paul is answering some questions, questions my dad had, questions we had to sort out—maybe questions you have.
What happens in resurrection?
Are we talking a mere upgrade, a makeover? Dad wondered. Does it involve resuscitation of the body or something far greater a transformation? To explain this concept Paul has to use metaphoric language, for there is mystery. Paul uses a metaphor from the world of botany, in verses 35-44. Think of it as like a seed. Like a seed that must be buried in the ground, in order to be transformed into a plant. Meaning that something radical happens.
Verse 42 shows us that our bodies will rise to no longer face destruction. One day we will rise with a body that no longer has any decay. There will be no more death. My dad's future body will no longer be subject to diabetes, congestive heart failure, and severe vertigo. No more pills—Lipitor, Claritin, Vicodin, Rogaine. No more frailty, emergency procedures, life support systems. No more hospitals and hospices—they are all out of business! Our bodies will rise incorruptible, imperishable.
Paul says in this same part of the text that our bodies will be raised in glory. We will be filled and animated by the Spirit. We will bear the image of Jesus. The image of God, that we are created in, that has been marred and defaced by sin like graffiti on a wall, will be restored and renewed. People will clearly see Jesus in us.
At the same time, there will be a certain continuity. Just as there is continuousness between a seed and a plant, we will continue to be us, only in a far more heightened way. What we were made to be in the first place, before sin will be even greater. What happens shifts to a second question: When will the resurrection take place?
When will the resurrection take place?
Most people assume that when we die we will immediately receive new bodies. It's the language we have been taught, it has been hard wired into us. I am certain it was my dad's expectation. I would hear different people say, "Well Paul, you will soon be liberated and playing golf in your new body." The apostle Paul tells us we will not experience resurrection until somewhere out into the future when Christ returns.
Paul is describing an order. Christ rises from the grave. Eventually, those who have already died will rise. Those who are still living when Christ returns will then rise and be resurrected. Finally, the earth and the heavens will have their own resurrection and be made new. Paul speaks again to this progression in verses 51-53. Explaining the what and the when of the resurrection raises a third question: Where are we until the resurrection?
Where are we until the resurrection?
Where's dad now? Where are your loved ones who have finished with life on this earth? What happens in the interim until Jesus returns? There have been lots of proposed answers. Some suggest we are in a long state of soul sleep. It makes some sense. Towards the ends of dad's life, he slept most of the time. Maybe dad is continuing to slumber until his resurrection. Others suggest that we wander like restless souls making an occasional appearance on earth to shake people up. Lots of people have claimed such sightings.
A better scriptural answer suggests we enter into an intermediate state. I like to think of it as a transit hotel. When I flew from Amman back home a couple of years ago my flight got delayed in Beirut. I came to Amman to catch my flight to Frankfurt, but it had already left. I was sent to a transit hotel. Transit hotels are temporary. You don't unpack your suitcase and hang up clothes. You don't go out and buy pictures for the wall or consider some renovation project. You get out the bare essentials because you are moving on. Maybe this temporary period is something like this.
For those on the "heaven track"—for those who have chosen to follow Christ—they are in the "paradise" wing. This is what Jesus promised the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43. Paul seems to have received a glimpse of it in 2 Corinthians 12:4, when he was transported to the third heaven and heard inexpressible words he was not permitted to tell. I like to think of it as Oahu times one million. I like to think this is where dad is, for he was a follower of Jesus. It is merely a pause button.
For those on a different track, (we'll call this the "hell track")—for those who have rejected Jesus—they are in the dead wing, a holding cell of sort. A place for those under punishment (2 Pet. 2:9).
Some have argued for another wing in this transit hotel, the "remedial track." It is commonly referred to as purgatory—for those who need a little "soul work," some purification to be made fit for heaven. A half-way house of sorts to work off debts. It is hard to build a biblical argument for purgatory. What we know for sure—whatever its length—the intermediate state is temporary. Which leads to then a fourth resurrection question, one Paul answers in this text: What will it be like when we are resurrected?
What will it be like when we are resurrected?
It will be a world absent of corruption because our bodies will be without debasement, we see that in verses 42-44. Think of it as a world without the marks of sin—without any evidence of decay. A world of forests without disease, streams without litter, air without smog, gardens without weeds, and cities without decadence. A world absent of strip mines, strip malls, and strip joints. Think of a world where predators on this present earth become companions in the next. It's no wonder in Romans 8, as Paul writes about the future, speaks of creation as groaning in the present. Groaning, why? Groaning in anticipation, in enduring, waiting this side until the resurrection. It's a world, described in Isaiah 65:17, that so eclipses the present that the first creation will not be remembered. See what the resurrection does is it corrects our thinking—it is not us going to heaven but heaven coming to earth.
We also know this, that in this resurrected world, it will be a world under one rule—God's. There is one resurrected city—the city of God. There is one kingdom and there is one King. We will have perfect access. It will be like being with the most fascinating person in the world—someone you can't get enough of. Or think of it this way, a lover you can't spend enough time with, only better! It will be a world without death. This enemy will be swallowed up. It will be a world where there is no emptiness, for God has filled everything. It will be a world where dad and I will enjoy a relationship without the encumbrances of ill health and difficult speech and mindless outbursts.
All of this is leading to one final question: What should we do with our remaining moments on this earth?
What should we do with our remaining moments on this earth?
Should we just relax? After all, we have a certain and a wonderful future. Should we simply live with our bags packed, and remind ourselves once a year of these resurrection truths on Easter? Paul replies to such nonsense in the final verse: "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
What Paul says is this: If everything we have talked about this morning is true, then you must live a life that stands firm. Don't waffle when it comes to your conviction regarding Christ's resurrection—and your own resurrection. Holding to this will put you at war with the powers of darkness—whose primary weapon is death. When you speak life, preach life, and live life—you will be up against stiff head winds. Every time Paul spoke of the resurrection, he was challenged—even to the point of death.
He speaks of abounding, as if to say, "If all of this is true, then make your present life count! Whatever days, whatever moment, hours, months, years, you have left, make it count!" I couldn't say that to dad, for his time had run out. But for all of us who still live, the truths of the resurrection tell us not to drift or squander the days merely existing. Whatever decisions you have left to make in your life, make them in light of eternity. Don't just think of the here and now, because the here and now is just a moment and it passes. What you do in this life should have an eternal trajectory. Give yourself to speaking truth, living truth, calling for justice, creating beauty, living the gospel, receiving the gospel, sharing the gospel! Like Moses, we must pray, "O, Lord make permanent the works of my hands!"
Years ago, a friend of mine lost his daughter in a tragic accident. Months later, Easter came, and I can still remember a letter he sent out. He said, "Easter means so much more. Without the resurrection, I would have no hope of seeing my daughter." Without the resurrection, we have no hope.
John Johnson is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary and he is pastor of Village Church, a multicultural church on the west side of Portland, OR.