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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

The Meaning of Easter

Painting of the resurrection of Jesus Christ
Resurrection of Christ, by Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926)

For Christians, Easter is a time to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus—his resumption of bodily life after death.

However, before I started attending Knox Presbyterian Church, most Easter sermons I heard belonged on Good Friday. They'd mostly feature the cross and atonement for sin, accompanied by disconnected excitement over the resurrection. One Easter service, at the crescendo of a raucous song about the resurrection, the worship leader encouraged the congregation to trade high-fives; my wife and I performed an ironic chest-bump instead.

Easter Sermons

When Easter sermons do take up the resurrection, I generally hear one of three readings. First, the resurrection is sometimes said to enable a relationship with Jesus; after all, how could we have a genuine relationship with someone dead?

But the kind of spiritual relationship preachers have in mind, here, seems more consistent with a platonist view that Jesus's disembodied spirit survived his death. Why bodily resurrection when we don't have a relationship with the bodily Jesus? The possibility of human relationship with the invisible God seems more a theme of Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit, than a theme of Easter.

Second, the resurrection is sometimes said to show there's life beyond death. I see this view in 1 Corinthians 15, the most extended treatment of the resurrection in the New Testament. In verses 30 through 32, Paul writes,

And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day!...If I fought with wild animals at Ephesus with a merely human perspective, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'

Without Christ's resurrection, suggests Paul, belief in life after death would be foolish, and we'd thus have no reason to risk death. But with Christ's resurrection, he implies, we can trust there is life beyond the grave. The resurrection is a sign that Paul, too, will one day rise, and so he pursues his dangerous apostolic work, free from fear of death.

Third, preachers sometimes interpret the resurrection as a vindication of Jesus, a demonstration he wasn't just a messianic dreamer who got himself killed, a sign that his death was, in fact, God’s strange plan to deal with human sin, despite appearances to the contrary.

Again, I see this view in scripture. In Romans 1:4, Paul says Jesus "was declared to be Son of resurrection from the dead." And in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised,…you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). According to these passages, the resurrection shows Jesus was, in fact, Son of God, Son of Man, the Messiah, and that his death did, in fact, atone for human sin—that the cross was, as N.T. Wright puts it,"a victory, not a defeat" (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, p. 126).

Christ's Resurrection: Sign Versus Substance

However true these last two views might be, they don't seem sufficient. If we say nothing more, the resurrection is an act of communication by God, a mere sign that is helpful for humans but nonessential to God's rescue plan.

Consider: without Christ's resurrection, there could still be life after death. In fact, before Jesus’s resurrection, many first-century Jews believed as much (albeit foolishly by Paul's lights). If Christ's resurrection is mere proof of life after death, it is helpful for human belief, but it's not critical to the fact of an afterlife. Whether there is life after death is one thing; whether God proves it to us is another.

Similarly, without the resurrection, Christ's death could still atone for sin; we just might not know it. The resurrection is a helpful sign that the cross atones for sin, but it doesn't do that atoning work. Rather, the cross does it, whether we know it or not.

Thus, if all there is to the resurrection is proof of life beyond the grave and vindication of Christ's ministry, it stands as a mere sign pointing to other theological realities and not as theologically substantial in its own right.

But, of course, Paul thinks the resurrection is theologically substantial. “If Christ has not been raised,” he says, then "your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection is essential: without it, Paul thinks faith in Christ comes to nothing. The resurrection must have a deeper meaning.

The Deeper Meaning of Easter

In the first century, the Pharisees, a Jewish sect, believed God’s plan was to usher in a messianic age in which God would throw off the forces oppressing God’s people (Rome), restore justice and peace, and through the divine Messiah once again rule the whole world (cf. Daniel 7:13-14). This restoration of God’s rule was sometimes called the “kingdom of God.” Jesus referred to it this way in his proclamation of the gospel (e.g., Mark 1:14-15).

The Pharisees believed the kingdom of God would begin with the resurrection of all God’s righteous people who had died (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, p. 112). This collective resurrection would end the old age of oppression, and begin the new age of justice, peace, and the reign of God.

First-century Jewish followers of Jesus understood his resurrection in these terms, but with an important wrinkle: God resurrected only one righteous dead person on the first Easter—Jesus—and not all righteous dead. Moreover, it was obvious the Roman oppressors remained in power, and the era of complete peace and justice had not yet arrived.

The message, then, was one of overlap: while the old age of wickedness and oppression continued, its grip had slipped, and the new age of justice, peace, and the kingdom of God had begun. The resurrection of Jesus began the in-between age of "already and not yet": God has already inaugurated the kingdom but has not yet consummated it. Or, as Wright puts it, Jesus’s resurrection revealed “God’s future as having already arrived in the present” (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, p. 118).

We see a sketch of this view in 1 Corinthians 15:20-24. There, Paul, a former Pharisee, writes,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human, for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in its own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

On Paul's story, Christ's resurrection is the first of what will be a collective resurrection "at his coming," i.e., when Christ returns. Wicked rulers will be destroyed and the kingdom of God will be complete.

Here, then, is the deepest meaning of Easter: with the resurrection of Jesus, God inaugurated the kingdom, the restoration of all things. This message is no addendum to Good Friday, no side-car bolted onto forgiveness of sin. Quite the reverse: it's the central message of the gospel—that God is restoring peace and justice to all creation—and it shows the cross for what it truly is, the vehicle by which God reconciles people to himself and begins their transformation, as part of the restoration of all things. The resurrection is no mere sign of God's new age; it is the inauguration and first restorative act of that age.

Easter and Dispensationalism

Why, you might wonder, is this interpretation of Easter absent from so many American churches? Why, in so many churches, is the resurrection an afterthought to the cross? I suspect it’s due to the continuing hold dispensationalist theology has on the American church, consciously or not.

Dispensationalism is the view that God’s story includes multiple eras, or “dispensations,” in which God deals differently with different people. At the heart of dispensationalism is the view that followers of Jesus—the church or “spiritual” Israel—are distinct from "physical" or "national" Israel—descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who reject Jesus as Messiah. According to dispensationalism, the current era of the church will end before a period of tribulation, in which God begins to deal with national Israel. Before this tribulation, God will remove the church from the world by way of “the rapture” (Left Behind novels, anyone?).

But if the church simply escapes our broken world before the tribulation, there’s not much purpose or scope for its restoration. The dispensationalist gospel becomes not about restoring God’s world, but rather about saving souls before the special-ops extraction mission. And on this theological picture, “saving souls” amounts to people accepting the forgiveness available through Jesus’s death. Thus, dispensationalism shrinks any theological space for the resurrection, and makes it subordinate to the cross. Easter fades into the shadow of Good Friday.

While I won't try to refute dispensationalism (this article already does a decent job of it), I will say the view seems crazy. I’m much happier with the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism, according to which God’s people are one, God is restoring the world from its sorry state, and Jesus’s resurrection began that work. Here, finally, is a theology of resurrection that explains the prominent place afforded to it in the New Testament. Here, finally, is Easter theology worthy of a (non-ironic) chest-bump (though my wife will not be participating).

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