[April 2012 Synchroblog] Is There a Christianity without the Resurrection?

This month’s Synchroblog explores the question: What if Jesus never rose from the dead? If there were no resurrection, would there still be a religion known as Christianity?

My first thought is, without the resurrection I don’t think Christianity would have survived. After all, after the crushing blow of Jesus’ death, there had to be something big that happened to have caused those first century Christians to risk their lives and endure 300 years of intense persecution and torment at the hands of Rome. Something happened that opened up a whole new way of seeing life, hope and the Kingdom of God. And as a result, the Church has survived for 2000 tumultuous years.

However, it seems it’s been really hard to recapture the early passion of the church. I sat with several friends this week for whom the Easter season felt flat, even sad. “Why bother?” they asked. There’s tons of historical and psychological explanations to explore, but in a nutshell what I see in our present day is major memory loss on the part of the church.

The liberal theology that has flourished since the 18th century de-emphasizes the supernatural events of Christ’s life such as the virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection in favor of an earthy, incarnational faith that concentrated on feeding the poor, caring for the sick and imprisoned, and outcast, and treating the least of these as Christ Himself. This became known as the social gospel, a Christianity to make a difference in the world. To be fair, not all denied basic orthodoxy as truth, but there was and is a definite concentration of the actions of Jesus and his command that his followers do the same. It’s cool stuff really, however, there is a major problem. This liberal reductionist theology has not produced on its promises: that humanity alone can change this world for the better. It cannot change the human heart. In its blindest moments, it allows evil to remain unchecked.

Conservatives on the other hand, have inexplicably thrown out the social gospel in their fervor to preserve the basic tenets of orthodoxy (virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection). On this end, the faith has become dangerously more about having an accurate Christology than about Christ. The actions and life and teachings of Jesus are seen primarily as a means to the Cross and personal eternal salvation, over against having a significant purpose of their own. The emphasis then has shifted from caring for the world to personal and social morality. This has overshadowed the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in and among us, a subject about which Jesus spoke frequently. Though a creedal understanding of events like the resurrection is a necessity (and I’m grateful for the preservation), the words of Peter Rollins come to mind: “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.”

The problem with both “ends” is that extreme wickedness remains throughout our human societies. The social gospel is not able to diminish it in this hurting world, and the emphasis on eternal salvation and creeds has not diminished it in the hearts those of us who call ourselves “saved”. Both poles seem to act as though the resurrection never happened (except as an assurance for heaven perhaps) and it’s not working out so well. True transformation does not seem to happen much when we live in extremes.

If resurrection is to be believed, it must be about much, much more than doing good stuff or believing the right stuff, no matter how sincerely these things are done. The resurrection happened within this world, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it then, that it has a whole lot to do with this world. It is not merely a hope that lies in the future outside of this world but a renewal right here, right now within it.

NT Wright says,

[The resurrection is] the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new one. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a NEW CREATION. (emphasis mine)

To paraphrase Wright, there is a new world being reborn in Jesus, and in this world Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. God’s saving rule is breaking in. As my pastor often says, Jesus didn’t come to make us good, He came to make us new. There’s something beautiful and powerful and real enough to change the intractable narcissism of our hearts. And, it’s not just about us, it is about the renewal and healing of everything. Old things have passed away, the new has come.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of striving. We’ve all blown it in some way. We’ve all decided that we’re right and our way of doing religion is better than that of “them over there”. And I’m not going to give a “10 steps to the Resurrection Life” schpiel because I don’t have one. I hope that is a relief. I think the way is simply like that of the early church: Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth.

Richard Rohr says,

Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all of that private, ungrieved, unnoted suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we believe in God at all? How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another? Jesus is the blueprint, the plan, the pattern revealed in one body and moment of history to reveal the meaning of all of history and each of our lives. The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God. The resurrection is the banner of what God does to us in return. Easter is the announcement of God’s perfect and final victory.

He is God’s life-affirming yes to the universe. And yes, Resurrection says, this is not the end.

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10 comments
  1. Ellen, this is awesome. I didn’t post because I guess I thought, “Why even ask the question?” But, I love how you looked at the extremes. I believe it is all a balance and maybe we need to come more towards the middle, unify, “love one another”. As I’ve told you before, I’ve seen amazing beautiful transformed hearts on each side. I guess I want to try and ride the middle of this even though I teeter back and forth once in awhile. In a nutshell for me, I see the good as sacrifice vs. discipleship and I see the bad as unchecked authority to biblical truths vs. the narcissim that you talk about. I don’t know the answer, but I know that I need to do my best to surrender to the Holy Spirit and allow that transformation to take place. One of my favs is Romans 8: transformed minds(which I believe includes hearts), transformed lives!
    Oh, and by the way, LOVE the peeps! ;-)

  2. Where did Christianity first begin? To this the answer must be: “Only one spot on earth -the city of Jerusalem.” But this is the very last place it could have started if Jesus’ tomb remained occupied, since anyone producing a dead Jesus would have driven a wooden stake through the heart of an incipient Christianity inflamed by His supposed resurrection.

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