We are all going to die! That is a blunt start to a blog post, but the statistics are compelling. It is the one thing we all share whether rich, poor, black, white, good or bad.
The Scriptures tell us this is a good thing to keep in mind. For example, Psalm 39:4-6 is a prayer to keep one’s mortality at the top of the mind:
“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.
Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.”
Given that death is common to all (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4), burial practices are an interesting window into the beliefs and values of people and cultures. Interestingly, pantheistic cultures or cultures with a strong body and spirit dualism tended to cremate because they believed the body was either illusory or the “prison” of the soul. Many modern westerners cremate because it is economical. A new burial practice based on a naturalistic worldview has gained some attention, where loved ones are buried in biodegradable pods with a tree planted on top. The idea is that the decomposing body or ashes serve to fertilize the tree and complete the natural cycle.
For our purposes, we note that ancient Christians typically practiced burial because of the belief articulated in this week’s piece of the Apostles’ Creed. That is, they believed in the “resurrection of the body.” The core creeds of the Christian faith express explicitly the belief that there is a still future resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead and so will the believer.
Christ and the “First Fruit”
The Apostles’ Creed and all Christians confess Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In the first verses of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes this as the essence of the Gospel message (verses 1-8). What the Apostles’ Creed and the Apostle Paul say — but many Christians do not understand — is that we will, too. A little further in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says:
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” — 1 Corinthians 15:20-23
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed.” — 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
So, the resurrection of the body is not a Jesus-thing alone. It is the hope of the believer, too.
Adam and the “First Fruit”
One may ask: why the resurrection of the dead? Isn’t it a little embarrassing? There are more mainstream conceptions of life after death that are easier to swallow. It is easy to believe that life ends at death full stop because that is what we observe. It is easy to believe that our immaterial selves (i.e., spirits) reincarnate, continue as ghosts or go to Heaven because you cannot prove otherwise. These can be comforting thoughts in their own way, but they do not take much boldness to confess.
The resurrection of the dead, in contrast, is a daring claim! It demands the belief that history is moving toward an event where every cemetery will give up its residents. The bodily resurrection of believers becomes comprehensible when we understand salvation in the context of the biblical story.
It all begins with creation and the first man and woman.
It Is Very Good
The Bible begins with God creating the universe for no good reason. We do not know why. We may suppose it is simply because he was delighted to do so. What we do know is the conclusion of God’s creative work, he looks upon it and declares that “It is very good.” In other words, it is exactly as he purposed it to be. The biblical worldview, in contrast to others, views the material world as good. Humanity, who God made from the stuff of the earth to bear his image, is good!
The Wage of Sin Is Death
The biblical story continues with the fall of humankind. First man and woman disobey God’s command concerning the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. The curse of this sin is death and alienation. Man and woman are cut off from the tree of life and sent eastward from the garden. Death enters and God’s good creation experiences its first “not good.”
New Heaven and Earth
The resurrection of the believers is God’s affirmation of the goodness of creation, the overturning of the curse of death and the reconciliation of God and man. Where Adam’s fruit resulted in the dominion of sin and death in God’s good creation, Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit of our salvation.
Revelation 21 provides some powerful images when considered in the context of this story. It begins with a vision of a new, renewed “heavens and earth” echoing but transcending the original creation (Revelation 21:1). A voice declares, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). Sin results in death and alienation. God’s salvation ends in the resurrection of the believers and God dwelling once again in unbroken communion with his people.
Belief Drives Out Fear
The believers' belief in the resurrection undermined the fear of death for the early Christians. This empowered them to face persecutors and plagues with love, peace, hope and even joy. The fear of death no longer enslaved them.
In a time where the fear of death is dominating us in unique ways, it is as important as ever that we recover our belief in the resurrection of the body. If we are able, we may be able to embody a better way for a skeptical, cynical and fearful world.
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