Monday, March 04, 2013

Resurrecting Real Hope

[I wrote this article when I first started work with Australian Evangelical Alliance as Director of Public Theology. It was before the appearance of Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope, a book which happily made this view much more popular. It had various reactions. On the hand, I had angry or despairing letters decrying my theology (misunderstanding it as a liberal social gospel - it's not) and other very encouraging letters explaining how 'the penny had dropped'. Let me know what you think...]

You don’t need to loiter among Evangelicals for very long before undoubtedly you’ll hear strong affirmations of the authority of the Bible and declarations of confidence in its testimony. Pick any story or truth and you’ll elicit a resounding ‘amen’. Yet it is one thing to believe certain truths ‘because the Bible tells me so’ and quite another to understand how they fit together. I am constantly astounded by the disjunction between a strong affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus and quite muddled thoughts about what it actually means. In fact, in churches and classes, I regular encounter befuddlement about what the Christian hope entails and its relationship to the resurrection of Jesus.

So, Christian apologists regularly roll out a succession of impressive arguments to take seriously on historical grounds that the empty tomb of Jesus is best explained by the claim ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’. ‘Yes, it happened!’, we hear and affirm. But why is this important? It is not enough to simply reply, ‘It must be important, because, after all, Paul says, ‘if Christ is not risen, we are still in our sins’.’ Why does Paul say that? If we were to believe many sermons, we would struggle to give a coherent answer. “Jesus rose from the dead so that we could go to heaven”, I hear. Or, ‘He rose so that we would know the atonement worked.’ Or, ‘He rose as a proof of his divinity.’ Strikingly, none of these conclusions are drawn from the New Testament. Neither is it clear how these ideas couldn’t instead be resolved or achieved by some other extraordinary sign or vision.

When resurrection is believed but not understood, its fundamental connection to Christian hope (‘eschatology’) tends to disappear and ‘hopes’ of a different character arise. For instance, browsing through the shelves of a Christian bookshop one day, I came across one of the last books to come from the pen of the ‘late great’ Hal Lindsey, the bestselling populariser of old-style, Cold War era, dispensational theology. The title was Vanished into Thin Air with the startling subtitle, ‘The Hope of Every Believer’. Undoubtedly, you and I both know people we would hope might ‘vanish into thin air’ sooner rather than later… but as a description of the Christian hope, this is quite disturbing. Mind you, one wouldn’t have to find someone subscribing to Lindsey’s particular brand of ‘Rapture theology’ to locate similar elements of escapist ‘hope’—‘escapology’!—among Evangelicals. In sermons and books, in Bible studies and prayers, many Evangelicals express the hope of departing the earth to live in heaven forever. There are undoubtedly a few texts and phrases (e.g. kingdom of heaven, eternal life) mistakenly read as completely otherworldly yet this is to read against the flow of the whole Biblical story. That story is not one of creation abandoned but creation restored; not an earth destroyed but redeemed and healed and ‘filled with the glory of the LORD’.

As the apostle Paul declares, the creation ‘waits with eager longing’ for the revealing of the children of God, to be ‘set free from its bondage to decay’ to ‘obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. Along with the creation, we do not look forward to escaping our bodies but rather the ‘redemption of our bodies’ (Romans 8:18-25).

The connection between resurrection, creation and history is just as clear when one returns to the roots of the idea in the scriptures of Israel. There, in texts like Hosea, Isaiah and Ezekiel, resurrection emerges as a metaphor for the expectation that God will reverse the fortunes of the covenant people in history rather than some escape from history to another realm. Its development at the end of the book of Daniel into a hope for ‘the righteous’ for bodily resurrection to ‘glory’ is not a departure from the corporate promises of restoration given to God’s people but its application to men and women who have passed from the world so that they too can share in a future where God’s will is truly done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

In short, the hope of resurrection is a hope for this world, that God’s ways and will shall finally triumph in God’s creation. It is the hope of a new order, a new aeon, a new or renewed creation. This hope has been set in motion and guaranteed by God’s act raising the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. In Jesus, the new creation has begun and the Holy Spirit, God’s personal, glorious presence has been poured out in anticipation of God’s final act of restoration and more. The call not to seek the ‘things of the earth’ is not a denial of creation but to see it in its proper perspective in light of the one who ‘sits at the right hand of God’, the very place from which we anticipate the arrival of our final salvation and transformation (Philippians 3:17-4:1, Colossians 3:1-4).

How does that change the character of our lives now? As theologian John Howard Yoder put it, it calls the people of God to live now as a sign, an agent—even a foretaste—of God’s promised future. It gives us confidence that God’s future will indeed become the ‘new world order’ in contrast to the power plays of the world. It gives us strength in following the way of the cross, knowing that in the resurrection, God already vindicated that cruciform life of our Lord that we are likewise called to follow. This is the eschatology and hope of the ‘now and not yet’ which changes the character of our lives now and encourages engagement with all of life; not the ‘escapology’ of ‘not yet and elsewhere’ which treats present engagement with the world with indifference or selects a few issues to engage with.

Only the hope of resurrection, made possible by the truly human one who was raised ahead of us, overcomes the ‘vanity’ and futility of a world marked by death with the triumph of a loving God. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, we are indeed left marked by sin, futility and death. But he was. And with that firm resurrection hope, Paul can encourage us now with our ‘holy worldliness’:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58).