The Holy Apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Christian faith when he wrote to the Corinthians: “And if Christ is not risen, then is our preaching is empty, and your faith is also empty” (1 Cor. 15:14). It would be fair to say then that one who does not believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ cannot be called a Christian.
But what does it mean to believe in the Resurrection of Christ? What is resurrection in the Christian understanding and what are the undeniable and essential theological implications of the Resurrection of Jesus as reflected in the Holy Scriptures and the historical teaching of the Church?
The Resurrection is Present Not Future
In a conversation with Martha of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, our Lord Himself revealed the true nature of this resurrection when He corrected and expanded Martha’s limited understanding. When the Lord assured Martha that her brother would rise from the dead, Martha responded in this manner: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn. 11:24).
In other words, Martha understood the resurrection as a future event, a reality that would occur (only) at the end of the age. As a typical, pious Jew, she could not conceive of the resurrection as something to be participated in now. In her mind the resurrection was a static event relegated to some “time” in the future, not an organic reality made possible through relationship with the God-Man, Jesus. And so the Lord reorients her thinking, seeking to change the whole paradigm of her understanding, saying, I Am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (Jn. 11:25).
Among other things, Jesus was telling Martha that in Him the Resurrection is a reality available in the present to those who are joined to Him. By His death He would destroy Death as it had existed up to that time, transforming it from the inside out, filling up Death with Life by entering into it Himself as Man and overcoming it as God through His Resurrection. Through Him, resurrection would be a function not of time but of relationship. And so, by His death and resurrection, Death is overcome nowand always by all those joined to the Resurrected Humanity of God!
Implications of the Resurrection
In His incarnation, the Lord Jesus did not become “a man” but Man, that is, He took human nature itself and joined it to His divine Person, the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. What He accomplished in His Humanity was accomplished for every human person, inasmuch as human nature is one.
“For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” (Rom. 5:15).
We should not be surprised then that the immediate consequence of Christ’s Resurrection is that “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:52-53). This raising of the righteous was not a mere “show” of God’s power to bolster the ranks of his disciples. Rather it reflects the new Reality of the Resurrection, the transformation of the condition of death and of human nature through Christ.
The appearance of the “dead” to those in Jerusalem as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew is the very same phenomenon which occurs so often in the life of the Orthodox Church typically, but not exclusively, with those recognized as Saints. Therefore, in recent times we hear of appearances by Saint John Maximovitch of San Francisco and Saint Nectarios of Aegina to “many” in need of healing or help, or for some other purpose in the will of God.
Yet many who claim to believe in the Resurrection unknowingly share a similar understanding of resurrection as did Martha of Bethany. Some believe in “soul sleep,” the idea that people are unconscious after death, only to awake at the Second Coming of the Lord. Others hold there can be no relationship or communication with the dead, even with those who are “dead in Christ” (1 Thess. 4:16). Somehow these Christians have placed a barrier between heaven and earth that is not found in the New Testament.
Resurrection: The Unity of Heaven and Earth, Living and Dead
Quite the opposite, the New Testament proclaims the unity of “both things which are in heaven, and things which are on earth” (Eph. 1:10). If no such unity exists, and if it is not a unity that is actualized and made present in the Church of God, we must wonder what in the world “an innumerable company of angels,” and “the spirits of just men made perfect” were doing in the Church of Paul’s time (Heb. 12:22-23). After Jesus’ crucifixion the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, but not just to show the abolition of the Law. It was torn “from top to bottom” to show that the separation of heaven and earth was abolished in Christ. Speaking of the worship of the Church, the great Christian bishop and preacher, John Chrysostom, speaks in concord with the Apostle, when he says,“This Eucharist of ours liberates us from earth and transports us to heaven.” In Christ, the “curtain” that separated the heavenly from the earthly has been ripped apart, exposing heaven to earth and earth to heaven in and through the Church, Christ’s Body.
Mother Gavrilia, an undeniably holy woman of the 20thcentury, was once asked to speak to a Protestant Christian group in America. Of all things, she chose to speak about the role of the Virgin Mary in Christ’s incarnation and thus in the Church. After her talk, time was allotted for question and answer. One man got up and, with great indignation, said, “How can you ask Mary to pray to Christ for you? After all, she’s dead!” Mother Gavrilia immediately quipped, “Oh, but we believe in the Resurrection!”
While her answer may seem to some overly simplistic, it could not be more profound. If we follow to their logical end the implications of the Resurrection of Christ, who is the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), we will not be able to separate those who are “living” and those who are “dead” in Christ, for His Resurrection has changed everything! Rather we can only allow for separation between those who are in Christ and those who are not. As our Lord testified to the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). And the Apostle teaches the same: “For to this end Christdied and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the deadand the living” (Rom. 14:9).
In the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31), a “great gulf” separated the rich man (in heaven) from Lazarus (in hell). However there is no such gulf mentioned between heaven (“the bosom of Abraham”) and earth, only that the rich man’s brothers would not believe even if someone came to them from the dead. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, our Lord conversed both with Elijah, who did not die but who was taken up bodily into heaven in a fiery chariot, as well as with Moses who died and was buried with his fathers.
The unity of the heaven and on earth is nowhere more obvious than in the Revelation of St. John. For instance in chapter five we are allowed to peer into the liturgy which continually takes place in heaven, where the church in heaven is actively praying for the church on earth:
“Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures [i.e. angels] and the twenty-four elders [in heaven] fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints [i.e. the Church on earth]” (Rev. 5:8).
Rupture and True Resurrection
Not long after the Great Schism, many Christians in the West began to forget the nature and significance of the Resurrection as a result of a myopic focus on the Crucifixion. Thomas Aquinas, revered as one of the greatest saints and “doctors” of the West, wrote that the Resurrection was only necessary as a proof that Christ is God. In this framework the Resurrection has no real existential meaning or organic connection with the salvation of human beings through the glorification of human nature in Christ. Aquinas also believed that through the sin of Adam, man’s will had become fallen, but not his mind (i.e. his reasoning). This further contributes to the perception that faith is a function of thought, of logic, of philosophy, rather than being a function of the transformation of human persons through their contact and union with the Resurrected Humanity of Christ.
It is easy to see how such a position can devolve into mere “belief-ism,” the idea that “if we believe in Jesus we get to go to heaven when we die.” Such a stance has little to do with the good news reflected in the Holy Scriptures, because real Christian belief and faith is more than an intellectual assent to certain doctrines; it is a union and communion with the Resurrected Lord through His Body, the Church.
We are not saved by embracing beliefs or ideas, but “by grace” (Eph. 2:8), which is the real life, power, and energies of God flowing through the Body of Christ. The doctrines, and our belief in them, are necessary to promote and nurture this union with God’s saving grace. Therefore, the Lord Jesus connects life and salvation to the Sacrament of Sacraments, Holy Communion. “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” The life that comes through Holy Communion is a result of being joined to His Resurrected Humanity, which of course is joined to His Divine Nature. Only inasmuch as we incorporate organically into our souls and bodies this life of resurrection, nowin this life, can we say we are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15).
If salvation is not a real participation in the resurrected life–i.e. the glorified, grace-filled Humanity of Jesus Christ–then we are left with a man-made religion of “ideas” limited to the conceptual world, and a cerebral “faith” and mental philosophy about God. But that is not the God of St. Veronika, the woman with the issue of blood, who physically touched the Lord’s grace-bearing garment and received healing through the divine power that flowed from Him (Lk. 8:43-48). Nor is this the God who can truly touch, transform and save us by His divine grace.
If our God exists in the realm of ideas and “doctrines” we will have no need of “asking, seeking, and knocking” (Matt. 7:7) as a means of actually receiving the resurrected life of grace into our own humanity. There will be no compelling reason or need for prayer, fasting or even love of neighbor (all stipulated by the Lord), for these are all prescribed only to open us “to acquire the Holy Spirit,” as St. Seraphim of Sarov articulates it. Finally, there will be no need for the Church or Her Sacraments. Without this organic relationship of grace in the Church, “Christianity” becomes a mere morality of do’s and don’ts’s for life in this world, something completely external to us and to reality but by which we can view ourselves or others as “good” or “bad” people.
But Christ did not die and rise again to give us a moral teaching, but to give (or to restore) real life to His human creatures. He rose again to give new life to those who “by grace through faith” would be joined to His resurrected Humanity, would have a real communion with Him, and thus would become vessels of His divine grace. If indeed Christ is risen, “faith” can never be reduced to an assent to certain religious ideas or to a mere mental “belief” in God.
The Resurrection means that the power of sin and death has literally been swallowed up by Life, and that this same life can and must be incorporated and assimilated into the lives of those who have come to believe. Jesus Christ was incarnate to restore and recreate our human nature; He died in order to absorb and overcome Death itself, and He rose again to glorify our humanity and raise it to the right hand of God.
Christianity is more than the forgiveness of sins or the erasing of a stain of guilt. It is the assimilation of the life of God Himself into our lives through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Resurrection is not only a show or proof of Jesus’ Godhead–a divine “See, I told you so!” It is the re-creation and divinization of human nature in the Person of Jesus, the God-Man, and the potential for His creatures to share in that same transfigured and sanctified Humanity by grace. And so, the Apostle Peter confirms that by “His divine power…you may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).”
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!