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A Pea-Sized Resurrection? Why the Cross Is Not Enough

Monday, 9 July 2012  | Philip Johnson

Most Christians find it easy to understand the cross but struggle to grasp the meaning and significance of the resurrection.  We slip into the error of viewing the cross as a stand-alone event. Jesus’ death is taken as the central saving event while the resurrection becomes a postscript to the story. We often emphasize life as following Christ in his suffering but the power and joy of the resurrection is almost forgotten.

If you have a pea-sized resurrection then you are galaxies away from how the apostles lived and preached. The apostles believed that Jesus suffered in agony and died on the cross but check what they said in the Book of Acts. Every speech and sermon has the Risen Christ at the heart and not the cross. When we reflect on what they preached we find that they chose the resurrection as their central symbol because its spiritual significance and effects are all-encompassing.

We seem to be habituated into thinking about the cross as the lynchpin of Christianity. John Stott certainly believed in both Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection but favoured a cross-centred approach. In his helpful book The Cross of Christ he said that the cross stands at the centre of biblical faith: “the gospel emphasizes the cross since it was there that the victory was accomplished.” He saw the primary effect and significance of the resurrection in vindicating Jesus and authenticating our forgiveness at the cross.

The defeat of death is not accomplished just by Jesus dying on the cross. God says “no” to death by Christ’s resurrection. It is God’s unique sign that all the forces of chaos, sin, and decay are contradicted by the sign of a new day, a new life, and a new world that starts with Christ being raised from the dead.

When we acknowledge the resurrection we stop short of telling a story about Jesus as a religious or even political martyr. Yet, once Easter Sunday passes we seem to take the resurrection for granted. It fades from view or is eclipsed by over-emphasizing the cross. It is as if we have come to see the resurrection as a postscript to a letter about the cross. When the resurrection becomes an appendix to the cross we end up with a pea-sized Risen Christ.

Revisit the epistles where the apostles do reflect on the meaning of the cross. They do not relegate the resurrection to the status of a footnote. Everything they write about is looking back at the cross through the prism of the resurrection. In Paul’s way of thinking the Christian life of discipleship would be meaningless without the resurrection. Everything hinges on the resurrection: future hope, forgiveness of sin, and the coming reign of Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-25). He also saw that the key theme of justification is not limited to the effect of the cross but also hinges on the resurrection (Rom. 4:25). For Paul the resurrection is the lynchpin of Christianity.

In 1 Peter the theme of hope and life-style are grounded in the resurrection. The apostle calls us to lead an ethical life in light of the resurrection because God has “given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). Interspersed between other reminders about the resurrection (1:21; 3:18, 21) the apostle outlines the manner of our living a holy life (1:13-16), relating to one another (2:12-17), and understanding persecution in light of Jesus’ sufferings (2:18-25).

Martin Luther once remarked that the resurrection is “the chief article of the Christian doctrine.” He preached that it is “not sufficient to know and believe that Christ has died” and been resurrected. Luther said we need to believe in the “spiritual significance of Christ’s resurrection, realizing its fruits and benefits.” Luther was interested in the effects of the resurrection on the Christian life in the here and now, not just for eternity.

What kinds of fruits and benefits does Christ’s resurrection have on our worldview, our discipleship, and Christian practice? Ross Clifford and I argue in The Cross Is Not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection (Baker Book House, 2012) that the resurrection of Christ is the lynchpin. We do affirm that Jesus’ death on the cross is very important but we insist that it is Christ’s resurrection that changes everything about how we live today.

Here is just one theme that flows from Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection confirms the future renewal of the earth (Rom. 8:19-22) and encompasses animals. It is the guarantee that animals and creation will be transformed. That future hope directly impinges on how we live now. Paul taught that the whole creation was made by and for Christ (Col. 1:16-17). As the earth and all animals belong to God (Pss. 24:1; 50:10-11; 104: 24-25), then we will be held accountable for our stewardship.

Sir Matthew Hale, who was Lord Chief Justice in seventeenth century England, understood we have a “moral trust” to care for the earth and for all living creatures. After reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the Good Steward and on the Genesis narratives he wrote: “I have ever esteemed it a breach of trust, and have accordingly declined any cruelty to any of thy creatures, and as much as I might, prevented it in others, as a tyranny, inconsistent with the trust and stewardship that thou hast committed to me.”

That kind of thinking about being accountable to the Risen Christ for a moral trust prompted British parliamentarians like Sir Richard Hill, Lord Erskine and William Wilberforce to repeatedly push for laws against cruelty to animals. It motivated Reverend Arthur Broome to call the meeting together that created England’s RSPCA in June 1824. Today animals—wild, agricultural and domesticated—are subjected to cruelty on a shocking scale. Are your ethical decisions concerning animals—including the very food you eat—shaped by the effects and values of Christ’s resurrection?

We see our non-church culture looking for role models who live authentically. Switch on the TV or go to the movies and take notice of the resurrection analogies in the messiah-like lead characters in Doctor Who, Torchwood, Harry Potter, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The swing into vampire spirituality and the stories told in pop cult-TV shows like Being Human and Sanctuary involves characters groping for a resurrected life. Could it be that people beyond our faith gatherings are looking for the resurrection without all the dead-weight baggage of a moribund church? Audit your spiritual priorities: What are the unpaid bills of living by a pea-sized resurrection? Without the resurrection there is no authentic Christian life: are you a genuine beacon for the Risen Christ?

Readers can dialogue with the authors of The Cross Is Not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection (Baker Book House, 2012) at http://thecrossisnotenough.wordpress.com/


Brian Bayston
July 10, 2012, 12:05PM
Resurrection is not enough. The Creed says "resurrection of the body". Too often even in the funerals of Christians the confession of bodily resurrection is not made or sot-pedalled. Tom Wright in his book on Hope says that our formularies are deficient in stopping at resurrection.i
Byron Smith
July 13, 2012, 5:20AM
Thanks for this piece. The resurrection is indeed the living heartbeat of our hope. And a bodily resurrection (I entirely agree Brian!) speaks powerfully today of our continued solidarity with the rest of creation. Our hope is not redemption from the world, but the redemption of the world (including our bodies). Indeed, our bodies and the groaning creation share a common future, according to Romans 8. In world where the dominant paradigm treats the created order instrumentally as a single-use pile of resources to be developed for wealth creation, hope in resurrection and the renewal of all things places Christians as a people of hope who will not be willing to treat our fellow creatures so thoughtlessly.

We look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Alasdair Livingston
May 7, 2013, 5:10PM
"Lynch-pin" indeed, and not only at the spiritual level. It is the event on which the truth of Christian belief stands or falls. If it occurred, it is the only good evidence we have that this visible touchable world is not all that there is. If it did not, Jesus's claim that he would "rise again" was false, and there is no good reason to take seriously anything else he said. If it did not, the astonishing advance of the early church was based, at best, on mistaken perceptions of the Risen Christ, and at worst on a fraud of huge proportions. Either way, all of us should be working hard to extinguish Christian belief — and some of "us" are. Christianity without miracles, of which the greatest is the resurrection, is not Christianity.

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