Do Not Resuscitate
For his Easter column, “President Carter, Am I a Christian?”, The New York Times journalist Nick Kristof interviewed former President Jimmy Carter. In the column Nick asked, “With Easter approaching, let me push you on the Resurrection. If you heard a report today from the Middle East of a man brought back to life after an execution, I doubt you’d believe it even if there were eyewitnesses. So why believe ancient accounts written years after the events?”
While Jimmy Carter’s response was he did, in fact, believe in the physical Resurrection as well as the virgin birth, it was the question that puzzled me. Not because Nick asked it or because it implied that he does not believe in the Resurrection. (Actually, if he did not believe in the Resurrection, he would be in a growing number of American Christians who would join him. Only 64 percent of American Christians believe in Christ’s physical Resurrection and that number has decreased consistently year over year. Twenty percent of self-identified Christians now believe in reincarnation.) No, the reason I was interested in the question is how we have come to redefine resurrection and why that matters.
There is a difference between resuscitation and resurrection. Lazarus was resuscitated because he returned to life in exactly the same body as he left it. He was brought back to the old life and then died again. That is not resurrection. Christ’s Resurrection (and ours) means we have a totally different life that is far more than simply returning from the dead.
Look at the stories of Christ’s resurrected appearances and disappearances. Look at his “shape shifting” and hiddenness and ability to suddenly become familiar. That is not resuscitation. That is not a second chance or an extension of an old life. Asking if we believe someone can return from the dead is the wrong question. The question for us really is, “Do we believe in a resurrected life – not simply a resuscitated or extended life?”
Why does it matter? Why should a belief in the Resurrection be a non-negotiable for Christians? After all, the believers in Ephesus who had received only the baptism of John were still considered Christian. Why should belief in the bodily Resurrection be essential? Why not be content with the ethical teachings of Jesus as the basis of our religion? After all, it seems increasingly sensible to people – even Christians.
I would not say it is for doctrinal purity as much as for the way it shapes our lives. What does this life become if we no longer believe in the Resurrection? Paul says it best in 1 Corinthians 15: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. Why live a pitiful life? Why turn loose of the one thing that gives this life hope?”
I know we need to make room for many religious beliefs and variants in a pluralistic society – not just orthodoxy. I would not want to live in any other kind. However, I have to remember that faith without the Resurrection is futile. It does not mean it is bad – only a dead end. It does not mean it is evil – only a pitiful substitute for Christ. There is nothing in it that dazzles or surprises. Yes, it is the best we can do and, yes, sometimes it calls out of us the best we can be on our own, but that is not what it means to live a life of the Spirit.
As well, we have to be careful that we do not make our faith in Christ so practical and focused on being a way to make this life better that we lose the one thing that makes it real. Our faith in Christ is not simply a way to improve this life. The problem is we put off thinking about a resurrected life after death to improve our lives in the here and now. I know it is hard – almost more than we can do. Eric Hoffer said, “It is the around the corner brand of hope that prompts people to action, while the distant hope acts as an opiate.”
We want that around the corner kind of hope, and the resurrected life is so unknowable. We want the world to change for us now. In some ways, it is the “hope around the corner” detached from our greater hope that shapes much of our philanthropy today. Our frame has become almost exclusively the here and now.
I like the way Philip Yancey puts it: “In many respects I find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept. Easter makes him dangerous. Because of Easter I have to listen to his extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from his sayings. Moreover, Easter means he must be loose out there somewhere. Like the disciples, I never know where Jesus might turn up, how he might speak to me, and what He might ask of me.”
He is not only risen but he is loose.