Years ago, as part of my process for ordination, I was being interviewed by a committee. My interlocutors and I were talking about the resurrection of Jesus. One of them asked me, “How do you see resurrections in your own life?” It wasn’t a bad question, and I know the person who asked it meant well, but I balked at the way it was framed.
At the risk of irritating my committee (several members of which were, I think, already irritated with me), I replied that I don’t understand the resurrection of Jesus primarily as a metaphor. It is not just a story that we apply figuratively to various aspects of our lives. It is an event in history that has real implications for this life and our eternal lives. A couple of my committee members looked at me with a quizzical, pitying expression. It was like that of someone regarding a child who hasn’t yet learned basic manners and is about to get spanked on the hand.
So perhaps that wasn’t my most politically astute moment. In retrospect, however, I’m not sure I could have given an honest answer that was much different. If I simply understand the resurrection as a metaphor, I might apply it to all kinds of “new beginning” moments in my life. For example, if I go through a particularly rough patch in my life and then come out of it with a renewed sense of identity and purpose, I might liken this to a “resurrection.” In this scenario, the resurrection stories of Jesus form an interpretive backdrop against which I can understand the events of my life. I suppose there’s nothing too terribly wrong with this sort of thing. It just doesn’t go far enough.
Think of it this way: Imagine I wrote a story about how I discovered cold fusion, an inexhaustible source of power that could change the world. If I were a good writer of narratives, the readers could see aspects of their own lives in the story. In this sense, the story might be compelling because it would help them to think in new ways about themselves and the world around them.
What if this were a true story, though? Now we have a whole different ballgame. I’ve not just written a story. I’ve written about an actual event that will affect the lives of countless men and women for ages to come. In one scenario I’ve written a story about a source of power, and readers can relate the story to certain aspects of their lives. In the second scenario, I’ve told you about something so important that the world will never be the same again.
We can think of the resurrection of Jesus in the same way. Is it simply a story, or is it a true story? If it’s simply a story, it might help us to reflect on our lives in the same way as any other compelling piece of literature. Depending upon what kinds of things we like and our values, we might find a compelling narrative that illuminates our lives in, say, Macbeth, Fahrenheit 451, or Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Narratives can be powerful and can in important ways help to shape our worldview. In that sense, the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are no different.
If the resurrection of Jesus is a true story, however, it doesn’t just shine light on various aspects of our lives. Rather, it changes our lives forever. It is a demonstration of the real power of God over sin and death. In the resurrection of Jesus, God was actively at work bringing life out of death and victory out of defeat. In the same way, God can work in my life and your life, bringing joy out of sorrow and praise out of lament. That joy and praise, moreover, are not just for today or for a certain season of our lives. They are for eternity, because just as Christ has been raised from the dead, so will all who believe in him.
Paul puts it this way: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11, NRSV). God will give life to your mortal body. What does this mean? It means that the Spirit of God will come into our lives in the present, bringing our hearts into alignment with God’s heart. It also means that after these mortal bodies have failed, God will breathe life into us again. “We will not all die,” says Paul, “but we will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51).
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
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, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:43-46).