Resurrection isn’t something that just happens. We know it, and people in the ancient world knew it too.
As N.T. Wright notes, almost no one in the ancient world thought that genuine, bodily resurrection was a legitimate option for what happened when people died; dead bodies stayed dead. Many Greeks and Romans spoke of Hades as the shadowy place where the essence of the person went after they died (if, indeed, there was any continuance of existence post-death), and many Jewish people, in the times when the Hebrew Scriptures were written, spoke in similar terms about Sheol.
With the exception of the Book of Daniel (possibly one of the latest texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to be written), it’s really in the inter-testamental literature that the theme of resurrection takes shape as we know it. Though some Jewish groups (notably the Sadducees) denied an afterlife altogether, and some tended towards a disembodied reality, an ever-growing hope was built around the idea that the God of the Israelites would act decisively in history, judge the oppressive pagan empires, and resurrect the righteous in bodily form. It was this hope that fuelled the Maccabees in the second century BCE, and so many of the resistance movements around the time of Jesus, that there would come a day when all would be set right.
This hope for resurrection was central for the first Christians — and has remained central for Christians ever since — but there was one big difference in the early Christian hope compared to the Jewish form: the Jewish version focused on resurrection on ‘the final day’ but, for Christians, it was all based on something that had already happened in history, guaranteeing that which was to come.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, we find Jesus being informed that one of his closest friends, Lazarus, was gravely ill. By the time he makes his way to Lazarus’ home village (after an unexplained delay), Jesus is met with the news that his friend has already died — in fact he’s been in the tomb for four days (which means there’s no doubt about the fact that he’s properly dead). Martha, Lazarus’ sister, approaches Jesus on the road and says to him, “If only you’d been here, I know he wouldn’t have died.” Jesus tells Martha that her brother will surely rise again and, as one of those Jewish people who believed in the coming Day of the Lord when all things would be set right, Martha affirms her belief that her brother will indeed take part in the general resurrection ‘on the last day.’
And it’s at this moment that Jesus says something that must have sounded ridiculous. He says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” With this, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, this man who, beyond all shadow of doubt, has truly died, orders the stone to be rolled back and calls him to come out of the grave. And he does. Life comes back into Lazarus’ dead body — not yet in a full resurrection kind of way, but in a way that suggests that Jesus has access to a power greater than death that hasn’t previously been seen.
This, then, becomes a foretaste of Jesus’ own story when, after taking the weight of the brokenness of the world onto himself, Jesus once and for all breaks the power of death when he is raised to resurrection life — full, bodily resurrection life not on the last day but ‘in the middle of history’ (as Wright is fond of saying). Jesus, true to his word to Martha, is himself resurrection life. And the beauty of the Gospel story is that we are invited into this resurrection life with him, in him — life not just ‘into eternity,’ but fullness of life that we begin to experience even here, and even now.
And this changes everything.
It means that, as we look out at the world around us, though we do see pain and corruption and oppression, and, yes, even death, we know that it’s not the end of the story. When we see that deep brokenness within ourselves, we know it’s not the final word.
Out of this despair, we begin to see a glimmer of hope. Out of chaos we begin to see order emerging. Out of death, we see life breaking through. It may not seem like much — maybe just a ‘broken rose giving bloom through the cracks of the concrete’ — but life and hope nevertheless.
And it’s into this hope — into this life — that we are called. It’s this life that animates us, as we become the people God created us to be. And it’s this life that animates our work in the world; work for justice and freedom and wholeness. Though all of this will one day come in full (in the reconciliation — or ‘shalomification’ — of all things), it’s not only a future hope. It’s a hope anchored firmly on Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection, and life that we begin to experience here and now through the Holy Spirit. This Kingdom life is, even now, at hand.
This Lent, as we walk with Jesus towards the cross, we realise once again that this journey towards death is actually, paradoxically, a journey towards life.