Easter is the biggest celebration on the Christian calendar. But what exactly are we celebrating? More specifically, what are the concrete ways in which the resurrection actually matters in this world here and now? This is a question that N.T. Wright addresses head on in his book “Surprised by Hope”, and he does so with such precision and eloquence that one cannot help but to reconsider what they think they know about Easter.
The main objections Wright has with how Easter is currently understood (esp. in the contemporary West) is how the church treats Easter either as a guarantee that believers will go to heaven when they die OR as an inner subjective reality unrelated to a real physical event. Easter as understood in the early church and in the New Testament is neither of these things, in fact, not even close. Both adopt a pseudo-Gnostic and Platonic worldview wed not to biblical precedent but to the dualism of Greek philosophy and the ‘modern’ West. Dualism separates the spiritual from the physical and this is precisely what the event of resurrection deconstructs. It is because Jesus Christ rose from the dead that the physical and spiritual are wed in such a way that it points us forward to a time where God intends heaven and earth to collide as one. The bible calls this “new creation”.
This isn’t bad news for people who believe in heaven, its just that heaven isn’t the point and never was. At least not heaven in the sense of a sweet, bye-and-bye, pie-in-the-sky. New Creation is the point, when heaven meets earth, all things are set right, and God by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead raises all people bodily for judgment and the renewal of all things. Wright understands that words like “judgement” and “bodily resurrection” can sound off-putting and mythological to the ‘modern’ West, but he exposes our attachment to false categories and illogical reasoning. Judgment is a necessary ingredient to justice: a world set right, a world where God rights all wrongs, heals all hurt, and releases the weak from tyrannical and unjust oppression. Bodily resurrection, no matter how fanciful and ‘out-there’ this may sound, is precisely the hope of all Judeo-Christian belief, that death is defeated not simply from a spiritual or disembodied point of view but from a physical and bodily point of view. A disembodied life in ‘heaven’ is incomplete. A new world, just and true, populated by physical bodies (albeit, transformed physicality) is the vision of Scripture. And Jesus’ resurrection, Easter Sunday, is the signpost, the promise-maker that this day is not just a hopeful possibility… it is our destiny.
This, of course, raises all sorts of questions about specific Bible passages (like the ‘paradise’ spoken of on the cross) and theologies (Wright takes Rapture Theology to task with no apologies), as well as questions related to the how, when, and so what. Wright doesn’t pretend to know how or when, he simply points out that the physical resurrection of Jesus points us forward to a new world that stirs a hope within us for the here and now (he also addresses disembodied life after death in a way that really knocks around our categories). The ‘so what?’ is that God’s people, the church, and all those touched by resurrection hope can become now what God intends all creation to become – new, whole, transformed, missional.
More importantly, Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t simply tell a story about what will happen some day, far and away, but what is happening now. When he rose from the dead, it was the dawn of a new day, a day when new creation was inaugurated. A just, true, and whole world isn’t just something that is going to happen (although we do look forward to the ‘day’ of complete and radical renewal) … it is already happening, peaking out like the light that emerges before sunrise.
The ‘new day’ that dawned that first Easter means that you and me can involve ourselves in the stuff of new creation right now. And because it’s new ‘creation’ (heaven meeting earth) and not just a spiritual, immaterial quasi-paradise, like harp-playing-cloud-dwelling-chubby-angels might suggest (how most people think of heaven), everything we do in the here and now matters. Politics, education, family, church, business, relationships, and yes, the healing and wholeness of our inner selves is all the stuff of new creation. All the stuff that has possibility even now of being touched by the new reality Jesus’ resurrection introduces.
True, not everything is perfect, in fact, in the last century we have witnessed atrocity (hell on earth) time and time again. But theodicy (the problem of evil) doesn’t negate inaugurated eschatology (God’s new world breaking in here and now). The new world may be a hidden reality, and people, by turning their backs on a just and true God and inaugurating their own selfish and twisted projects, may go on stirring up hell; but God’s goodness, mercy, and transforming grace are still ever-present. There are places in time, matter, and space where we may indeed experience a glimpse of new creation – a place where the curtain between heaven and earth seems thin.
Further, those ‘thin’ times and places can be pursued, brought about by those who have been kissed and enlivened by God’s Spirit, as they work (and it is work) for justice, mercy, wholeness, and healing in a dark world. This is Wright’s message and application: that though the darkness can seem thick, the dawn has broken, the resurrection of Jesus is the light of the world. And we, through faith, hope, and love can turn toward the darkness with the courage and stamina of people awaiting the renewal of all things, empowered by the Spirit, seeing today in a completely new light. That is the message of Easter.