But what did this imply to them? So far, just one guy had come back from the dead (I'm not counting Lazarus and other resuscitations--I mean permanent resurrection), and he didn't even stick around all that long. Granted, Jesus' followers would certainly be happy to see him return from death, but why would that have created a worldwide movement?
Well, it didn't simply mean that there was life after death after all, and that if we believe in Jesus then we can live with him in heaven forever after we die--and yet that is what most contemporary Christians believe today. That idea reflects the view that we are really spirits trapped in earthly bodies in a corrupt world, and what we are longing for is release from this corrupt world so we can live spiritually--that is, non-physically--forever, all of which reflects Platonic philosophy more than it does the Bible.
The biblical view is that Jesus' resurrection was not an isolated incident, however pivotal or unique. It was rather the spearheading of a new age coming into being in our present one. "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man" (1 Cor 15:20-21). "Firstfruits" is an agricultural term meaning the beginning of a harvest. Its importance is not so much in itself as in the promise of the full harvest to come. The "harvest" of which Jesus was the firstfruits is not merely a harvest of souls to be saved (although it includes that) because Jesus didn't need saving. Jesus' resurrection was the firstfruits of a new age, a new creation, what Jesus and John the Baptist had called the Kingdom. God's plan is simply much larger than simply rescuing a few of us sinners off of this wicked old earth. He plans to bring into resurrection life the whole first creation:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.Christians generally look forward to being with God eternally in heaven, often looking to Revelation 21:1 for a new heaven and a new earth (although they are not really much interested in the new earth), especially noting that "the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." Let's not worry about this world, because God's going to scrap it anyway. But in the above passage from Romans, creation itself is eagerly longing and groaning like a woman in labor, not for its own destruction, but rather for liberation from its bondage to decay and for being brought into freedom and glory. God isn't going to scrap the old creation and start fresh, any more than he was willing to scrap us sinful human beings and start fresh with a new Adam and Eve on Venus. Just as God's desire is to renew and transform us, his plan is to renew and transform the old creation. If you will, the "new heaven and the new earth" are going to be made out of the old ones. God's not opposed to physical reality. He created it.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:19-24)
That's where the resurrection of our bodies fits in. Why are we going to be resurrected? Because we're going to inhabit the new physical reality that God is going to create by redeeming and transforming the old one. And just as we are still ourselves, but redeemed, purified, and changed, so also the creation will still be the same creation, but redeemed, purified, and changed. The last chapter of the Bible doesn't speak of us going off to heaven, ridding ourselves of this awful physical universe once and for all; rather, it speaks of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth. It's not us going off to live with God, but God coming down and inhabiting earth with us. The passage is worth quoting:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." (Revelation 21:2-3)God's plan is to come to earth and be with us eternally in an incorruptible world which will be born out of the world we are presently in. While you may go off to be with God in heaven after you die--for a while--your ultimate destiny, if your trust is in Jesus, is to be an eternal resident of this world, once God is through remaking it. Jesus first, and then those of us who trust in him, are the beginnings of that new creation. And therefore, Paul's challenge to us is to live as though we were resurrected people right now:
Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:55-58)Here's the point: if we know we're going to be resurrected, we need to begin living as though we were resurrected; and if we know that this present creation is going to be redeemed, then we need to live in it as though we were an agent of that transformation.
[HT: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.]