A Matter of Death and Life
We live in strange times. It used to be said that the only two things we could be certain of were death and taxes. You still can be pretty sure of taxes, but death recently has become rather more cloudy. With the advent of assorted technological wonders in the field of medicine, we can watch as a patient’s heart continues to beat even while his brain shows no activity. With the advent of widespread organ transplants, we are all the more eager to say that the recipient is dead in one sense, even while we keep him or her “alive” in another for as long as we can. Add to this the strange reports we read from those who claim to have “died” and “returned.” They say they were dead enough to be embraced by the light, but nevertheless they walk among us.
Death has become for us more like dusk than that dark night. There are, however, limits to this lack of clarity. While dusk seeks to evade the question (is it night or is it day?), we know that midnight is night and noon is day. And while the comatose, brainwaveless, but still-breathing patient may confuse us, we know that the nurses who tend to the patient are alive and the bodies that have been in cold storage for days down in the morgue are dead. That the bridge across the chasm is shrouded in fog doesn’t change the reality that there are two distinct mountains.
It’s important for us to understand this truth so that we are not drawn into the beard fallacy (in which one argues that the removal of one, then another, then another whisker will provide no definitive moment of change from beard to non-beard). It’s important because central to our faith is this conviction: Jesus died. We are not affirming that the brain-wave monitor went blank for a while. We’re not arguing that the Roman medical authorities broke their own rules and continued administering CPR for more than a half-hour. Jesus was all the way dead, midnight dead.
God ordained that the Messiah should hang from a tree before anyone had heard of crucifixion. We now know what crucifixion does to a person, the slow suffocation that makes the nails seem like child’s play. God ordained that Jesus would be pierced on His side. We see the water and the blood flowing out, a sign of a burst heart, both literally and figuratively. And then, three days in the ground. That is the one that has always puzzled me. God didn’t need three days to put Jesus back together again, any more than He needed six days to make the universe and all that is in it. It doesn’t take three days for God to muster the strength for such a miracle. But it might take three days to prove that the Resurrection was a miracle, to make us see that this death was not just dusk, but midnight dark.
Paul tells us, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Cor. 15:17). If there is no Resurrection, our faith is vanity. And if there is no death, there can be no Resurrection. The death and resurrection of Christ are inescapably bound together. You cannot have one without the other, and you have no Christianity without both. Our faith is a historical faith, grounded not in our own efforts, not in the mystical powers of an object-less faith, but in historical events. We have peace with God because of what we believe about events that happened on a particular hill and in a particular tomb outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
We affirm first, contra the ancient docetists and their modern heirs, that Jesus was born a man. To die, one first must be alive. Jesus was no ghost, no phantom who only appeared as a man. Second, we affirm that this Jesus not only lived in complete obedience to the law of God, but that He did so in history and in full view of His enemies, who could lay no charge against Him. Next, we affirm that this Jesus wrought miracles in particular places and for particular people. The water was truly water, and it became truly wine. Jesus even brought life from death, most dramatically in the life of Lazarus, dead four days, decomposing, and not merely flatlined for a moment. Then He who had the power of life in Himself died, laying down His life for the sheep. He did not swoon. He did not fall into a coma. He died. There was only darkness.
He did not, however, stay dead. Three days later, this same Jesus (having a glorified body, one that was in one sense continuous with His old body, but in another sense very different) threw off the bonds of death and emerged as the first fruit of the new creation. It was not that “hope” was raised, as too many unbelieving liberal wolves will proclaim on Resurrection Sunday. It was not some sort of spirit body, as gnostics both ancient and modern have claimed. As Thomas discovered, it was an altogether human body—once dead, but now alive.
These historical truths also have soteriological meaning. The life He lived He lived vicariously for His elect. He obeyed so that we might have His righteousness. And He died for our sins, taking upon Himself the wrath of the Father for us. He was raised in vindication to prove His own innocence, to begin the new creation, and to ascend on high to put everything under His feet. When that work is complete, this same Jesus, with this same glorified body, will return to consummate His kingdom. The soteriological meaning not only does not undo the historical reality, but requires the historical reality in order to have meaning. This is the light of Resurrection Morning, a light so brilliant as to be unmistakable.
A Jesus who did not die, a Jesus who was not raised, is a Jesus who cannot save. Such is a Jesus who is foreign to the inerrant Word of God. To negotiate with these truths is to negotiate with our own souls, with our own eternity. And that is neither right nor safe. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Here we stand. We can do no other.