Several years ago, I created a program entitled, “Resurrection, So What?” I invited guest speakers to make a case for the various theories about Jesus’ resurrection. Was it bodily resurrection? Was it a spiritual resurrection? A resurrection of the soul? A metaphoric resurrection? And more importantly, I asked each speaker to address The Book of Common Prayer’s question, “What is the significance of Jesus’ resurrection?”
Of course, the Prayer Book has an answer to its own question. “By his resurrection, Jesus overcame death and opened for us the way of eternal life.” That sounds traditional and comforting, while somewhat vague, which was probably the intention of the writers. But, honestly, what does that statement really mean?
We could look to the Bible for answers to questions about Jesus’ resurrection. The Gospel of Mark leaves the tomb empty with no sighting of Jesus. Matthew reports that Jesus’ appearance was “like lightening, and his clothes white as snow.” Luke tells us Jesus appeared like a ghost. John tells us that Mary Magdalene did not recognize him. St Paul and St Peter both write that Christ “died in the flesh and was raised in the spirit.”
Personally, I’m pretty comfortable with former Anglican Archbishop Rowan William’s answer from his book, “Resurrection.” He says simply that “Something happened.” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel) I don’t know what happened, but something pretty spectacular and even unbelievable must have happened at Jesus’ resurrection.
But I’m still left with the more important question, “So what does Jesus’ resurrection really mean for us, today?”
That is the question I’m often confronted with when someone faces the end of their life and then as the family grieves their death. And the two most popular scriptural texts chosen for funeral services are the 23rd Psalm and John 10:11-18 (which are the readings for the fourth week of Easter).
The 23rd Psalm is the poetic version of John’s mystical text about the good shepherd; the one who protects and guides his flock. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (better translated “the dark shadows”), I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod (symbol of the shepherd’s protection) and your staff (symbol of the shepherd’s guidance), they comfort me. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever (better translated, “as long as I live.)”
Both the psalmist and the writer of John were using symbolic, metaphoric, mystical language to talk about the earthly experience of living in the emotional dark shadows—depression, fear, anxiety, paranoia. Most mystics, like Jesus, have suffered their share of the dark shadows of life. And like most mystics, some of Jesus’ followers thought he was out of his mind. (John 10:19)
But because Jesus had experienced the shadows of life he promised his followers he would be there with them in their times of darkness. He said he loved them and that he would search all of creation to find them, even into the darkest hell of their lives. And Jesus made those same promises to us.
The apostle Peter wrote that, “(Christ) was put to death in the flesh, but was resurrected in the spirit, (where) he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison (the dead in hell.) (I Peter 3:18-20, 4:6) In other words, Christ in the spirit will be present with us in the very hell of our life.
But what about life after death? Is there is a spiritual life after our physical death. Is there a resurrection into an afterlife?
One idea that some early Christians, like the theologian Origen, wrote about was the idea of the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis or reincarnation). Transmigration of souls is the eternal spiritual formation, or maturation, of the soul. You’ve probably heard of the term, “old soul.” That comes from the idea that the soul spiritually migrates through timelessness, constantly in a state of being molded, formed, into its true divine nature. Metaphorically, we could think of the soul as a drop of water in the ocean. The drop of salty water evaporates, rises into the sky to become part of a cloud. It travels over dry land and rains as fresh water on the earth. The drop evaporates again, rises into the clouds, and continues the cycle. We know that our bodies are made of star dust from eons past. That’s a nice idea to consider. And we know we are breathing the air dinosaur’s exhaled millennia ago. We are the sum of the spirits of ancient past. We are the dead. While the philosophy of the migration of souls was not popularized in later Christianity, it has continued through the ages. Seventeenth century Anglican priest, John Donne wrote poems about the transmigration of souls. And today, these ideas are still maintained in some corners of Christianity.
Still, we’re still left with the haunting question, “So what does this all mean? Here’s something to consider. Are your beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife congruent with the way you live your life? For example, if you believe that your beloved dog will be in heaven, why did you have a hamburger for dinner last night? Do you believe that there’s an afterlife? Then, where are the dead? And can you talk to them? Charting our religious beliefs against how we live can be a challenging but worthwhile exercise. And it could lead to some answers to the question, “Resurrection, So What?”
Try this experiment: make four columns on a piece of paper. In column one, make a list of the top ten things you believe are most important to your faith. In column two write why think each of these items are so important. In column three, write about how you came to believe these things. In the fourth column, answer these two questions: Is this one belief I hold congruent with the other nine on this list? Is this belief I hold so dear, congruent with how I live my life?
I tried this exercise and it was challenging. I won’t share my entire list, but here’s one of my top ten tenets.
There is a God.
Why? For me, this tenet is existentially more satisfying than true atheism.
Where? I have experienced God in the dark hell of my life.
Congruent? Indeed, the experience transmuted my life.