Why did Jesus have to rise bodily from the dead? Why not just return spiritually to the Father?
Of course the song of resurrection inspires us. It harmonizes beautifully with all our other commonplace choruses, “It’s darkest before the dawn,” “Spring follows winter,” and “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” I once even heard a preacher conclude his Easter sermon with, “So Christ rose in our hearts.” The idea of resurrection feels good.
Such choruses are simply sappy, sentimental attempts to feel good in difficulty. But Paul claimed, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus didn’t really, physically, bodily rise from the dead, our faith is just horse manure.
The resurrection is a big deal. But why? Isn’t the real gospel that he died for our sins?
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went on a church retreat in the middle of January. The temperature was below zero. With friends I crossed a low bridge that spanned a four-foot-deep stream. We wrestled a bit, and I accidentally fell off the bridge into the stream.
I was plunged into a pool of stabbing cold; I gasped in shock; the bitter chill astonished me. The icy water began to suck all heat from my body (though technically, I’m told, my tiny body tried to heat hundreds of gallons of ice cold water). It felt unbelievably cold. And so did I.
That is the condition of humans after sin; our life is being sucked away in an icy river of death. Sin is not just bad behavior (“I lied,” “You cheated”). Sin is the power of death that ceaselessly, relentlessly, inexorably drains every unit of warmth of every cell from every human being.
It’s not just our bodies that are dying. Theologians use the term Total Depravity to express sin’s ruthless corruption of the entire nature of humanity so that every part about us is dying. Nothing of our true selves is left undamaged:
- Of course our bodies are dying; we used to see great and now we need bifocals.
- Yes, we love others, but even our best love is a bit selfish, slightly “What about me?”
- Our few moments of genius are mere ghouls taunting us with what we cannot grasp.
- Our most profound thoughts and feelings frustrate us as we feebly fail to express them.
We have been plunged into the icy river of death, and every part of our nature is being sapped of life. Great artists admit that even their greatest masterpieces are mere drafts of what might have been. Everything in our lives—from life to love to art—is disfigured, spoiled, and dying.
God’s hatred of death
Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He was absolutely right. Death is a monster to be hated.
And God does hate death. His white-hot wrath burns against the wanton cravings of a Death that slurps every morsel of life from his creation. Make no mistake; God’s dreadful anger at death is a blazing furnace of heated hatred.
So why isn’t the crucifixion enough?
If Jesus had only died for us, it means he was plunged into our same icy river of death until he succumbed. But we would be left freezing in the glacial grip of that life-sucking stream. If Jesus had simply died for us—unbelievably loving as it seems—we would still be slowly freezing.
After I fell in the stream, my friends dragged me from the water, immersed me in a steaming shower, and let it bathe me with its warmth. My tiny body simply couldn’t heat the hundreds of gallons of icy river on its own.
The crucifixion means Christ was plunged into the icy-cold river of death. But the resurrection means he absorbed into himself all the freezing evil of that icy river.
Let’s linger here a moment longer
Jesus alone endured to the very end. You and I have only withstood suffering to a degree. Maybe we endured a marathon, or survived a painful divorce, or persevered through the death of a child. Our endurance may have been horrific, but none of us have had to endure with every fiber of our being until every fiber is spent.
We all eventually reach our limit and we can run no more. We reach the boundary of our will and are saved by sleep, a conversation with a friend, a movie, or a glass of wine.
Jesus alone endured to the very end. And he did it alone. Jesus gave all, not just his body. He absorbed in his spirit the torment, suffering, and shame of every bully, deceit, rape, pillage and oppression of millions of people for thousands of years. Having suffered it all, he stayed fast.
But he didn’t stop there
Jesus didn’t simply suffer death. He conquered it. He absorbed in his body the billions of gallons of wintry sin, oppression, and selfishness; and then Christ’s eternal goodness boiled the oceans of cold indifferent sin inflicted on creation by all of humanity through the centuries. (My tiny body couldn’t heat up a hundred gallons.) Then he rose, exploding from within the tomb.
Death didn’t overcome him. Jesus absorbed it all and overcame. Jesus didn’t come simply to forgive sin. He came to wage unlimited warfare and so subdue—and conquer—sin and death.
So what does that mean?
If the resurrection is true (and it is), it means that Jesus not only reached the limit of endurance, he pushed beyond it. Bathed in the icy river of death—like some cosmic nuclear reaction—he used his last ounce of greatness to reheat those frigid waters. What once was the river of death has now become the river of life.
The resurrection means the clock is running backwards, warmth is returning, the spoiled is becoming unspoiled, and that death that worked in us is now dying.
The real you—the you that was slowly being drained by death—is returning. All that false you—the you that was failing from exposure—is now dying. The parts of us that we hated are being buried while the truest parts of us—what we always longed for—are being raised.
Someday the final old part of us—our body—will be buried and our true bodies raised. Someday you will write that poem you always dreamed of or that symphony that lies just beyond your grasp. You will be who you always knew you could be. The thief has been robbed.
Out of us now flows a river of life, unstoppable and unbeatable, heating the waters of the world around us with warmth-giving life. We have become emissaries of heat.
Is the resurrection a big deal? More than we can imagine. The resurrection changed everything.