Dead No More
Why Jesus’ physical resurrection changes everything.
By Winn Collier
With Easter approaching, I recently found myself thinking back over the last several years. A trio of experiences in particular came to mind. Each in a unique way made me ask what difference it makes whether or not Jesus’ resurrection was physical in nature.
One: As we shared conversation over tea, a local skeptic leveled his burning question at me. “Well, if what you say about God is true, how do you deal with evil, war, and violence?”
Two: One Easter season, on a morning ride to his kindergarten, my son Wyatt asked, “Dad, when God raises us from the dead, are we going to be really alive? Or just alive in our head?”
Three: A few years ago, in the dark hours, I sat on a cold couch, facing suffocating fears while my family slept. With tears and anger, I assaulted heaven, “Will this ever end? What is wrong with me?”
The unifying concern through this handful of very different conversations was this: Is God really going to act? Is God really going to do anything about the world we actually live in? Really?
Most of us are aware of an ache, a sorrowful lamenting over whether our world will ever be right. We know deep in our bones that something has gone wildly awry.
We feel the dark weight of injustice and loneliness and social fractures rife in our world. We watch helpless as a famine ravages East Africa and as unrest cycles again and again through the Middle East. We know our own teetering economy, along with the poverty and hardship it creates for the most vulnerable among us. We hear the despair of our urban centers (and rural locales, too) where young girls—often under duress—peddle their bodies on the street. Many of us endure heartache within our own families, and too often there’s little we can say, little we can do, when our neighbors carry grief or pain.
The question haunts us: Will God do anything about all these sorrows? Really?
The Scriptures answer with an unflinching yes, basing this conviction on one simple declaration: Christ has risen from the dead.
Over and over again, the gospel writers want to be resolutely clear with their proclamation that Jesus’ body walked out of that garden tomb. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus reverently placed His corpse in the grave, and then three days later, He again breathed Judean air. This steady insistence that Jesus’ corpse returned from the dead was not a subtle metaphor carrying other spiritualized truth.
It is not as though the gospels, if we could only understand them properly, used resurrection language to refer to how Christ’s eternal memory endured in the hearts of His followers. Rather, the gospels say plainly that Jesus was dead. And then He wasn’t.
John shows us Jesus talking with His disciples in the upper room, then appearing particularly to Thomas and offering His hands and His feet for Thomas to touch. Luke recounts how He walked and conversed with His disciples on the road to Emmaus. The gospel witnesses tell us that He spoke with the women at the tomb and ate fish with His followers on the seashore. These are things people do, not ghosts.
The disciples were bewildered and, to be sure, often slow to recognize their friend and Lord. However, it was this same Jesus they knew and loved who came to them—the One who taught them and laughed with them and, to their horror, died on a cross for them. It was this same Jesus who now, most improbably, stood in their midst.
Scholar N. T. Wright reminds us in his book Surprised by Hope that to the Jewish mind, resurrection did not refer to an ethereal, disembodied second existence (much less to the resuscitation of one’s ideals or memories). Rather, resurrection meant that death had been reversed. A miracle had occurred. One who was dead was now (impossible as it may be) fully alive.
We might ask why this matters. What difference does it make if it was merely His invisible spirit that came among the disciples
instead of an in-the-flesh Savior with hair and bone? It matters because the death and ruin in our world is not merely an idea, but a fissure running through every home and heart. We do not merely need for our minds to be made right (though we certainly need that). We need everything broken—every individual, every neighborhood, every injustice, all of creation—to be made whole.
We are desperate for a God who can take dead things and make them live again.
And this is exactly what the apostle Paul tells us Jesus’ resurrection provides. When He crushed death and walked out from His cold grave, His resurrected body signaled God’s intentions for the rest of the world. Jesus, Paul says, was the “first fruits” of what would follow (1 Cor. 15:20).
Christ had conquered death and risen to new life, and now He would conquer death for all of humanity and offer new resurrection life to us all. And not only to us but to the entirety of creation. God’s intention is to make all things new. All things.
For by Jesus “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth,” Paul says. “And through [Jesus, God intends] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:16, 20 NIV). Resurrection is for physical people. Physical places. Physical death. God’s victory and healing delve as deep as our need.
Several years ago, I was in South Carolina for a conference when I received the tragic call. Matt King, a PhD student and vital part of our church, had been killed.
After finishing his normal Monday morning rotation working at The Haven, a homeless day shelter, Matt hopped on his bike for the short trek to class. Distracted, Matt crossed in front of a large city road-crew truck. The ambulance arrived promptly, but Matt died en route to the hospital.
I rushed home to a house of people distraught and grief-stricken. Two days later, several from our church helped Matt’s parents pack his belongings and clean his apartment. Each item they touched pushed the disturbing question again: Is this it for Matt? Is this the end?
When we gathered for Matt’s memorial, the room overflowed. The tears ran free. I read Paul’s words promising that though we grieve (and we do grieve), we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Instead, we stare down death with the assurance of God’s bold promise. We know hope because “we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thess. 4:14).
Jesus’ resurrection vindicates Him as Israel’s Messiah and announces His triumph over Satan, death, and evil. The resurrection also demonstrates that God is the true ruler of this world, and it fuels our anticipation that one day all that is dead will be restored to beautiful, beautiful life. This includes my friend Matt. And it includes you and me, if we’ll have it.
In the Son of God’s physical resurrection, we encounter jaw-dropping good news. Death might be everywhere, but death does not have the final word. Jesus has come, and death (of every sort) will one day be emphatically undone. And life will dance free in the streets. As author Frederick Buechner said, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
Because of this good news, I was able to tell my kindergarten son, “Yes, Wyatt, we’ll be really alive. Really.”
Illustration by Jeff Gregory