The Resurrection in a Secular World

Alan Noble
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is inarguably the cornerstone of the entire Christian faith.

And I think for a lot of non-Christians in the West that’s pretty clear because we (rightfully) make a big deal out of the resurrection. We love to tell the story of the empty tomb every chance we get, even though most people we know have already heard this story. But what if all our Easter pageants, our sunrise services, our dramatizations of Carmen’s 1985 classic song, “The Champion,” and all our sermons and messages about Christ’s resurrection don’t make sense to people anymore? And it’s not that these methods aren’t relevant enough; it’s that we’re all just a little too modern to understand what it means for Christ to rise from the dead for our justification, as Paul writes in1 Corinthians. The resurrection has always been a stumbling block to faith. From the beginning there have been some, like the Apostle Thomas, who took Christ’s death to be the final word on his divinity and the resurrection to be wishful thinking on the part of the overly devout. But unlike St. Thomas, our contemporary disbelief comes less from skepticism than from a habit of seeing the world from a particular, modern frame, one which has no way to conceptualize Christ’s resurrection except as historical fact or an inspirational ur-myth of rebirth.

Here’s the scary part. What if, when we preach the resurrection, we think that we have spoken accurately and our hearers believe that they have received the good news of the resurrection, while in reality, they’ve received something much less’something thin, airy, and emotive, something thoroughly inspirational? Christians are called to preach Christ crucified and raised from the dead, but the way our culture conceptualizes spiritual truths has radically changed from the first century, or even from the early twentieth century, so that it is incumbent upon believers to help their hearers conceive of the resurrection as the potent, immanent, and transcendent event that it is; to help them see the resurrection in all its starkness. To do this, we must understand the ways in which our contemporary habits of thinking work to buffer us from the rich import of this event and the duties it creates for us. Our understanding of the body, the transcendent, the supernatural, death, and spiritual meaning deeply affect the way we interpret the words “He is risen.” And if we are not careful, we may not communicate that “he is risen indeed.”

The secularism I’m trying to describe here isn’t usually a conscious choice or even a comprehensive worldview. It’s more like a reflex’unconscious, habitual, and natural’and as a result, it affects all of us alive in the West today, in some way or another. I’m trying to describe how people hear the resurrection, even when they aren’t hostile to it. They hear it the way they are taught to interpret miracles, the way they understand history and know their bodies. This is not secularism as a worldview, but as a default way of interpreting the world. It’s not that most of our neighbors consciously believe that there is no God and that miracles are impossible. For now, the majority of Americans still identify as Christian, and most would probably say they believe God can intervene in our world in supernatural ways. But when we hear the Easter story or are reminded by a worship song that Jesus rose from the dead, our default way of interpreting the story is through a secular imagination. In that vision, the resurrection is a great spiritual truth, a tremendous inspiration, and maybe forensic evidence of Christ’s divinity. But it’s not the firstfruit of the redemption of the world, it’s not an event transcending but yet not denying the immanent, it is not a supernatural event, and it is especially not a reality with spiritual results reverberating even to today. And so, the challenge for Christians in the twenty-first century is how to help our hearers go beyond their secular reflex to hear the resurrection anew. Put differently, how do we overcome the failure of the secular imagination to understand the resurrection?

The Body

In the wake of theological liberalism in the early twentieth century, it became important for evangelicals to speak about Christ’s “bodily resurrection.” The body had to be emphasized because for some liberal theologians, the truth of the resurrection was in its symbolic meaning, not in Christ’s rising from the dead “in space and time,” as Francis Schaeffer liked to say. As long as we believe the spiritual truth that Christ conquered death, then it is immaterial if Christ really rose from the grave, so the argument went. Of course, such things are still debated among theologians, but for the most part, evangelicals accept as an essential truth of the faith that when Christ was raised from the dead his physical body was actually raised, and had we been there with Mary Magdalene we would have seen the empty tomb and the risen Lord. It’s still difficult for modern people to accept that Christ rose bodily. But for contemporary hearers, we struggle to imagine the body mattering. It’s not that we don’t believe that there’s evidence of the resurrection; it’s that we don’t see it matters much, except as evidence of Christ’s divinity. The idea that a redeemed body might have implications for how we live is hard for us to grasp. We like to keep our spiritual truths and our physical truths neatly separated.

Many converging forces have worked to create this climate in our society where the basic assumption about life is that what constitutes “real” is either outside of us and objective (empirically verifiable using the scientific method) or deep inside us and subjective (emotively verifiable using a test of authenticity). In this way, it’s easier for us to understand the resurrection either as a historical event we could have recorded on our smartphone, had we been there, or as an intimate, personal truth’something that aesthetically resonates with us, that moves our emotions and inspires us to become better people. Undergirding the way we interpret the modern world is the unspoken belief that “real” things are physical, measurable things or internal, emotive things. But the resurrection is more than a historical reality or an inward truth. It speaks to our collective anthropology, the way we value and care for our bodies in this life, because we know that God cares about bodies.

For the resurrection to be sensible to modern hearers, we need to know our bodies matter. Not that the endless preservation of our bodies matters, or the autonomy of our bodies, but that because of Christ’s bodily resurrection, our bodies are valuable and good beyond this life’and that is difficult for a secular people to imagine.

While we struggle to imagine a redeemed body, we also long for it. Bodily resurrection is the only adequate response to the inward groan we all feel at death and decay. This groan is universal and powerful, but we are also terrified of it. For modern people, it represents the absurdity of existence’that we innately and profoundly know our need for bodily redemption, but we also believe such redemption to be fundamentally impossible, unthinkable. The fundamental law of the natural world is that things die and decay. We cannot think of physicality without decay and death. Yet, absurdly, such a physicality is exactly what we long for, so that there is no limit to our efforts to combat death, reverse aging, and redeem our bodies secularly. The transhumanist movement is evidence of this desperation, as is Google’s Calico program, an entire department devoted to discover ways of extending our lives. But this ache we all feel for redeemed bodies cannot be accepted as representing something true about our lives. We can imagine a future of immateriality, spirits floating on clouds and playing harps, before we can imagine one of physicality. But when Christ offered his hands and side to a doubting Thomas, he offered a body that was really there and was in some meaningful sense the same as the body that hung on the cross.

To communicate the resurrection to modern people, we must disentangle the longing for immortality that manifests in things such as Calico, anti-aging cream, and the promise of a deathless future given by science, while recognizing that this basic longing for life is not merely an evolutionary drive for self-preservation. It reflects a basic truth about us: we were created to live for eternity with God, in our bodies. In Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore writes, “Christians respect the body because we believe our material bodies are part of God’s goal for us and the universe” (62). Christ’s risen body tells us something important about our bodies today and their ultimate state for eternity, and this knowledge cannot be discovered either through careful scientific study of the human body or reflective contemplation about our inward state. There is a kind of knowledge that comes with the resurrection that the modern mind will struggle to categorize, always preferring to reduce it to either evidence of the historical resurrection or confirmation of some inward revelation. Even more difficult for us to conceive is the reality that the resurrection produces an ontological change in believers.

A Sign

In Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, he notes that one of the major shifts that occurs from the old order of the premodern world to our secular age is the creation of “buffered selves.” What he means by this term is that modern people think of themselves as protected in some sense from outside forces. Things may happen to us, but ultimately we are the ones who decide how they affect our lives and what they mean to us. We are even buffered from our bodies, able to distantly observe and judge our existence in the world. Taylor contrasts this with the premodern world when we thought of ourselves as “porous,” meaning that forces outside of us could affect us. This was a world of angels and demons, where cause and effect could not be explained entirely by natural processes. And while many of us continue to believe in such a world, it requires a conscious effort to overcome the basic assumptions of our society.

The challenge of the resurrection is that modern people really don’t have a good category for this kind of event. If the point of the resurrection is to simply be evidence of Christ’s divinity, then we can comprehend it. Evidence is something we get. Or if the point of the resurrection is to inspire us to overcome our deepest fear of death, we can get that too. But we don’t have a category for historical events outside of the standard, closed physical world, let alone historical events that affect us specifically and personally. And that’s what the resurrection does. In the resurrection, I was raised with Christ as a new creation. And while the particulars of this new creation may yet come to fruition, the fact that I was affected is an objective reality.

Again, we just aren’t accustomed to recognizing something having the effect on us that the resurrection does. We don’t have the ability to categorize it. For instance, although we believe that we are the product of history, we don’t readily understand how an event that occurred two thousand years ago could directly alter our being today. We can understand the event as an influential cultural moment, or a dramatic projection of God’s love, but it’s something else to know that we were buried and raised with Christ’that in some profound, immeasurable, and yet completely objective and real way, an event in the past acts upon us today.

The thing with having a buffered self is that we get to decide who we are and what defines us. The right to create and craft our own identities is not merely a basic belief of our society, but it’s also the dominant theme of all our stories, the drive behind consumer culture, and the number one hobby in America. There is no outside force that can define us unless we choose it first. But the resurrection doesn’t ask permission. It fundamentally changes our being, whether we want it to or not, whether we live accordingly or not. In Romans, Paul exhorts us to stop living in sin because we have been united with Christ through his death, burial, and resurrection, in which we participate in baptism. Paul tells his readers to recognize what is already true about them: they are “alive to God in Christ Jesus” because they were raised with him.

How can we communicate this truth to modern people, people for whom “Christ rose from the dead for our justification” is at best a spiritually touching story? Part of our task will be to draw attention to the starkness of the resurrection. Our hearers need to understand how unsettling this event was and continues to be. The resurrection is not merely a sign of Christ’s divinity (although it certainly was that), but also an event in the distant past that fundamentally changed us today and who we will be in the future. The pageantry of an Easter drama, the swelling emotions evoked through a passionate reading of the Easter narrative, the boldly sung declaration that “our God is alive and risen” may do much to remind us of the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection and inspire us with a story of triumph; but unless we preach the resurrection as the transcendent and perpetually potent event it was and continues to be, we are not preaching the resurrection. We are preaching an empty sign, not an empty tomb.

“Let Us Eat and Drink for Tomorrow We Die”

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses those who had been teaching that there is no resurrection from the dead. Aside from the evidence he gives that this resurrection was in fact a real historical event, witnessed by those the readers could meet and receive confirmation, Paul argues that without the resurrection, Christians are “of all people most to be pitied” because we have “hope in this life only” (15:19). Indeed, if Christ was not raised, then we shall not be raised, and therefore “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32).

But the resurrection did happen, and our resurrection will too. So, we must eat the bread and drink the wine, for tomorrow we live. Through eating and drinking, we partake in a different future, a future of hope. The terminus of our lives is lifted up from the plate toward the horizon. We eat and drink toward a future of eternity rather than of nothingness, so that all of our actions in this life are renewed and infused with significance because they are grounded in a significance outside of ourselves. The regular practice of the Lord’s Supper can remind those within the church how to interpret the resurrection rightly, since it’s in that Supper that we physically partake in a spiritual sacrament that reflects our objective forgiven state because of a historical event in the distant past. Properly led, the Lord’s Supper is a regular reminder of the economy of our faith, which transcends the mechanistic and individualistic logic of our modern, secular age. The Lord’s Supper is a sacred ritual that produces a real effect within us, outside of the measurements of science, and not reliant upon our inward belief.

To those outside of the church who cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper, our desire must be to challenge the secular imagination. The pressure of our secular society will always push us to shift the meaning of the resurrection away from what it is: a transcendent event with continuing meaning and potency to change people. Our task is to identify this pressure and push back against it. One way to do that is to be careful about what we emphasize when we tell the story of Christ’s resurrection. While it is important to preach the historical resurrection and to remind the church, as Paul did, of the numerous witnesses, we should take care not to give them the impression that the primary significance of the resurrection is to provide evidence of the existence of God or Christ’s divinity. Likewise, the resurrection should cause us to wonder at our marvelous God; but if we choose to foreground Christ’s uniqueness among the world religions, rather than the meaning and significance of his empty tomb, we may be unknowingly reinforcing the popular idea that Christianity is merely one of many faith options we can choose from. What we emphasize when we speak of the resurrection will either confirm or challenge our hearer’s expectations. Knowing that most of our hearers will have secular expectations about what constitutes the significance and effects of the resurrection, believers must learn to identify and betray those expectations.

We need a teaching of Easter that reveals the failure of the secular imagination and offers a compelling alternative. The nature of the resurrection has not changed in two thousand years, and neither has the need to preach Christ crucified and risen for our sins and justification; but how we understand this event has changed, as we have moved from a premodern world of porous individuals to one of buffered selves. Christ’s resurrection does something and means something that cannot be captured empirically and is not dependent on our inner assent. This is a resurrection worth declaring.

Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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