How does the Resurrection work? When we die, do we immediately go to heaven or do we all lie in some sleep-like state until Christ comes again to raise everyone together? Is the Resurrection individual or is it general?
To support the Resurrection as more immediate, some reference the interchange Jesus has with the criminals who are crucified with him. One of the criminals derides Jesus and challenges him to save them all if he is the Messiah. The other criminal rebukes the first, says they are deserving of death while Jesus is innocent. He then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. (Luke 23:43).
Often we comfort each other when a loved one has died, by saying, “He is in a better place”, which certainly seems to indicate we think of the resurrection as more immediate. People die but we still experience them as somehow being present. It’s not like they have totally disappeared even though they aren’t with us in the same physical way as they once were. The Book of Hebrews (12.1) speaks of a cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the communion of saints who have gone before us and now supports us as we seek to be faithful in our earthly lives.
Others insist that the Resurrection is to be carried out on the last great day and may use passages like Acts 17.31 which speaks of a day on which God will send his Son again to raise the faithful departed, those who have died in years past and those who are yet still living. The Second Coming of Christ seems to suggest a more general and later Resurrection.
Those who adhere to the General Resurrection theory would remind us that time is an earthly construct rather than a heavenly one. If we die and are awaiting a later resurrection, it’s not like we are aware of the years as they pass. We are at rest and will be joined triumphantly to one another at the last great day.
The older I get, the less I know, and I catch myself going back and forth on this question of the Resurrection. It seems helpful to imagine it as an immediate sort of thing after we die. And, yet, waiting and all creation being raised “with the call of God’s trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) seems to ring true. Hope is a current reality, yet hope bespeaks something that can only completely become true in the future.
We live in the hope of the Resurrection without the ability to know exactly what it looks like. Probably we should be leery of those who seem so certain about what only God himself can fully know.
Maybe we get lost in the question of how the Resurrection might take place and forget to appreciate deeply the great gift that it carries. The Resurrection is God’s proclamation, rooted in our scriptural heritage and our everyday experience, that suffering and death do not ultimately have the last say. We know that in our own lives. We look back on the times of our suffering, times when the very worst has happened and things have completely fallen apart. In time, we have a sense of somehow being saved, transformed, and made new. The worst times in our lives are somehow used to form a greater appreciation for life itself. It’s not that we get over the hard times. It’s more that the hard times are made into our healing and salvation.
Christ himself goes through the worst of human existence and then comes again to show that he has not been destroyed. By itself, we may conclude only that he was the perfect one and he alone is raised to eternal life. But his resurrection is not an isolated event. It goes alongside our own experience of salvation and redemption, our own experience of new life being given after the little deaths we go through while on earth. And so we apply Christ’s resurrection to ourselves and all of creation. We hope and trust that all things, though destroyed here, will be made new in the eternal kingdom.
There, we may imagine, will be some immediate and long-awaited new life. The Resurrection, immediately or later realized, is not earned by those who are good. The Resurrection is gifted to us through Christ. What that means is that we don’t make eternal life. Some scoff at the idea. But the notion that we will be taken to a heavenly kingdom where we are at one with God and all of creation is no harder to accept than the reality that we were placed here in this life. We did not make this life. Nor do we make the next. Yet we live.
God has created all that is. And God will create all that will be, so we believe and proclaim for Easter. It is the truth that makes each day worth living.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.