What will Resurrection be like?
You might argue that for something so important as resurrection, God might have made it all a bit more understandable and transparent. After all, whether it is just about your own personal resurrection or the resurrection of everyone, it is the most significant thing to consider as we live out our lives and, if we are blessed with long life, as we reach later years. St Paul was a very clever highly educated Jew turned Christian. He understood this point very well. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 'But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost'.
There were first century Christians in the Church in Corinth who doubted the nature of the resurrection and Paul gave the best answers that he could. Now he had had a personal meeting – you might say a confrontation - with the Risen Jesus and it was so factual that it changed him completely. Also he could and did meet and discuss the matter of resurrection with Peter and John and the other disciples turned apostles who had met Jesus and had seen him in his resurrected state. At our distance from them and in the kind of society and climate of scientific knowledge and opinion that we live in, it is not so easy to have a full grasp of what resurrection may be.
Paul was aware that he could not lay the resurrection out on a table an analyse it publicly. Human intelligence is not great enough to articulate what is inexpressible. Saints and mystics have had visions of resurrection and taken together they form a decent body of evidence but the only way any of us will understand resurrection is when we experience it for ourselves. Paul thinks that the transformation of a less than promising looking seed into a beautiful flower, plant, vegetable or harvest of grain is a good way to think about resurrection. He is pointing out that before our eyes in nature – in the way the earth works - there is a process of significant change. It helps because he is thinking of physical burial of the body. Today, of course, many people have their bodies cremated. How does Paul's analogy work for this?
St Augustine writing his epic City of God in 409AD said 'Perish the thought that the omnipotence of the Creator is unable, for the raising of our bodies and for the restoring of them to life, to recall all their parts, which were consumed by beasts or by fire, or which disintegrated into dust or ashes, or were melted away into a fluid, or were evaporated away in vapours'. We see almost daily on our television screens the aftermath of suicide bombings and explosions in which the bodies of human beings are fragmented into smithereens. Some people lose their lives at sea. Some people are murdered and their bodies are never found. Augustine is saying that they are all within the overarching providence of God. Other thinkers of the early Christian Church shared their thoughts on the matter of resurrection.
Pope Clement I writing about 80AD said 'Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which he has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises'. Justin Martyr wrote in 153AD 'Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the person, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh. What is a person but a rational living being composed of soul and body? Is the soul by itself a person? No, it is but the soul of a person. Can the body be called a person? No, it can but be called the body of a person. If, then, neither of these is by itself a person, but that which is composed of the two together is called a person, and if God has called each person to life and resurrection, he has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body'. What he is saying in effect is that the proof of the resurrection is your own life, a combination of body and soul, physical and what we'd call spiritual. You yourself are the evidence for your own resurrection, your thoughts, your love of God, your knowledge of Jesus Christ. It's quite a convincing case.
Irenaeus writing in 189 AD said 'For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in . . . the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity, in order that to Jesus Christ our Lord and God and Saviour and King, in accord with the approval of the invisible Father, every knee shall bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue shall confess him, and that he may make just judgement of them all'.
The authority of the apostles, including Paul, and the teaching of the Church ever since is evidence for the resurrection as a fact. Christianity is about resurrection. No other faith or philosophy is. It is its unique contribution to human knowledge. That many today do not accept it as true or real is a difficulty for us. But Christians over the centuries have tried to provide answers for these issues as well. The world is not a solid state. It is dynamic. There is development. Within the Bible there is a progression of knowledge of God and in Jesus Christ this progression makes a radical connection between our human living and living beyond physical death. It is part of the pattern of creation and it makes sense.
The fantastical Book of Revelation offers John's account of his visions of the here and now and of the hereafter. It is descriptive and in places very specific. It presents a scenario of cosmic conflict – the Star Wars of the Bible. Good eventually triumphs over evil. Suffering Christians are avenged and live eternally in the presence of the Living God and of the Lamb – Jesus. There is purity and peace in the Heavenly City of Jerusalem.
Paul's explanation as we find it in 1 Corinthians 15 is firstly that we will be changed. Maybe that will be into the perfect person we aspire to be but actually never manage to become. This thinks Paul will not be a gradual process but an instantaneous one. He mentions an awakening trumpet. The trumpet is used by armies to wake up troops. Ross uses the trumpet on the organ to wake you all up after my sermons. In the Old Testament the trumpet was part of the liturgy of worship, central indeed. It is still used in Jewish synagogues today.
In the Book of Revelation we read 'Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever'. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, 'Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others'. In Thessalonians Paul specifically connects the trumpet with the Second Coming of Christ. 'For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord'. In Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan describes Mr Valiant for truth thus: 'When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, 'Death, where is thy sting?' And as he went down deeper, he said, 'Grave, where is thy victory?' So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side'.
In Christianity then the trumpet is a means of signalling spiritual awakening specifically into eternal life. For Paul there will be a complete change from the limitations of the physical for us as there was for Jesus after His resurrection. When Captain James Kirk of the Star Ship Enterprise commanded 'Beam me up Scotty' that was a science fiction picture of a future possibility of humans being able to dematerialise and rematerialise. Maybe resurrection will be a bit like the first half of that process. We will dematerialise but we will not come back here. We will have bodies made up of sub-atomic particles in a different form from this flesh and blood. It will be a higher existence than this. The Christian promise – indeed – it is the promise of Jesus Himself – is that we will see him face to face. There will be personal recognition too - that is a Christian promise
Evangelical Christianity teaches a final individual judgement for all of us when we die. That is based on Hebrews 9:27 'Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement'. Other church traditions stress that everyone will be resurrected and as final judgement will be made. Reform Protestant teaching is that the basis of this judgement will be trust in the Grace of God through Jesus Christ, not on how good a person you and I might have been. Liberals say that God is love and will not sentence anyone to Hell. They like to think that Judas Iscariot is forgiven but they are less sure about Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.
Lots of people are apprehensive and even fearful of dying. Even some of those who have attended their Church all their days are afraid. The famous Dr Johnson was afraid of death. He said, 'No rational person can die without uneasy apprehension'. He thought that we spend our whole lives trying not to think about dying and death. Even a universalist thinker like William Barclay who thought that everyone would be saved says that this fear is caused by two things, fear of the unknown and the sense of sin, but these, he writes, are overcome through faith in the love and grace of God. Paul followed Jesus is advising and encouraging every Christian to be faithful and to be alert and aware. All the speculation about resurrection and eternal life comes back to practicalities. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that anything you do in the Lord is not in vain. That's an encouraging thought indeed.