Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? … For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15.12, 16–20).
This apostolic message, however, has little resonance among many of today’s Christians. Not many rejoice in Easter as the beginning of the resurrection of the dead. Few look upon Easter with a sense of anticipation and wonder that life of the world to come is indeed coming.
Why might this be? It is easy to say that preachers of the Word and teachers of the Faith have neglected this. They are the “usual suspects” with problems like this.
But it is a little too easy to chalk this problem up to simple neglect. The problem is more involved.
What, then, would be another part of the explanation? It would be, to borrow from Ernest Becker, “the denial of death.” Resurrection from the dead doesn’t make any sense and won’t be a source of hope if “death” is not really death, that is, the end of one’s life. But that is the prevailing understanding even among Christians. For example, I was behind a car recently that had the fish symbol on one side and on the other side a decal with “Dad” inscribed inside a pair of wings and what must have been the years of his birth and death written beneath. “What do you think that means?” I asked my child. “That Dad’s an angel now,” he responded instantly. This is one common sentiment among Christians about the “dead.” Others are reflected in views that they’ve been “called home” or “gone to be with their Maker.” What these have in common is that they in effect deny that death is the end of life. It is simply translation into another mode of existence.
Someone may ask, “But what about the intermediate state?” I affirm an intermediate state between death and the resurrection of the dead, but that is what it is: an intermediate state between death and theresurrection of the dead. A lot of popular piety, however, in effect denies not only death but also the intermediate state—it isn’t in between anything.
For people who think like this, “resurrection” will not make sense and therefore cannot give hope. And if this is the case, then Easter as a celebration of the resurrection of the dead will not make sense and cannot give hope.
This is why it is not enough to think that we have only neglected preaching and teaching of the resurrection of the dead. We must also realize that we have neglected death itself. Our preaching, teaching, and pastoral, taken as a whole, have not done enough to make it clear that death is the end of life, that it is “the last enemy,” that apart from rising again there is no hope.
Some may call this “bleak” or “pessimistic.” I would call it “biblical” and “confessional” and “Christian.” Of course, it is not the whole of the Christian message. There is good news, and that is, “Christ is risen!” And it is good news because, “as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15.21 ESV).
And in this way, Easter will be a celebration of the resurrection—his resurrection and ours.