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Resurrection, Zombies, and Life beyond the Grave: four facts about the resurrection

July 17, 2011

an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will . . . come out.”

No, John 5:28-29 is not the basis for another bad zombie movie (is there any other kind?).  Rather, it speaks to one of the central, yet not always well understood, tenets of the Christian faith: resurrection.

The word “resurrection” means to live again—that is, to have been dead and then to be alive again. And the promise of the resurrection gives us hope in the midst of a fallen world that is given to corruption and decay. You don’t have to be a Christian to observe this kind of decay. We have bodies that don’t always work the way they’re supposed to. We have relationships that don’t always last. Our possessions, sooner or later, are fleeting. Indeed human sin has left its mark on God’s good creation, such that this entire world was given over to decay in direct consequence human rebellion against God clear back at the beginning of time (cf. Gen. 3; Rom. 8:20-22).

But it is in the face of such decay that Bible points us to the hope of resurrection, summarized beautifully in David’s words in Psalm 16:10: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

So how does the promise of resurrection give us hope amid the decay? What follows are four facts about the resurrection in Scripture.

First, resurrection is bodily. We’re not just talking about souls here. Jesus rose bodily.  His body was buried in the grave, and he rose three days later: same body, but now transformed.  The marks from the nails were still there (that’s how some of the disciples identified him, cf. Luke 24:36-43), but this body was no longer subject to the decay of this world. It was a renewed body, a resurrection body—a body fit for eternal existence in a new earth (cf. Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4). And it is in this same body that Jesus now sits in heaven at the right God, waiting to return (Eph. 1:20-21). If resurrection is not bodily, then death has not really been conquered. But resurrection is in fact bodily.

Second, resurrection is for everyone. When we hear the term, most of us think almost exclusively of Jesus Christ. But resurrection was the hope of all ancient Israel and the early church. In John chapter 11, when a man named Lazarus was sick and his family had sent word to Jesus that he might come and heal him, Jesus intentionally delayed his trip in order to show them that the resurrection they hoped for was available only through him. Lazarus dies before Jesus gets there, and when Jesus arrives, Lazarus’s sister Martha says to him: “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again’” (11:21-23). Look at Martha’s response: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24). For ancient Israel and the early church, the resurrection was something all God’s people were looking forward to. This is what Jesus is talking about in John 5: “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [God’s] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29; cf. Dan. 12:2).

The resurrection is for everyone. Martha understood this. What she didn’t understand is how Jesus took something that was waiting for the end of time and broke into the present with it. That’s the third point.

Third, in Christ we experience resurrection in part now, and fully when he returns. Jesus continues his conversation with Martha in John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). In Jesus, death is not the end of the story. Though we will face decay and death in this life (as long as he waits to return), yet we shall live. And whoever already lives and believes in him, whoever already has eternal life, shall never die. The resurrection is already at work in us.

When someone places their faith in Christ, something about them dies and something about them is born anew. They die to sin, to this world, to their old selves, and they are born again, given the Holy Spirit and new and eternal life in Christ. This is what the phrase “born again” refers to in the Bible, what theologians call “regeneration.” And it is resurrection language—to die and live again. This is how 1 Peter 1:3 describes it: God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” So the resurrection is already at work in us, giving new life to our heart and soul, the eternal life with God that we’ll enjoy forever.

But it’s not yet complete.  It’s not even complete when a Christian dies and goes into the Lord’s presence in heaven. They are there with God, enjoying his presence and gazing on him face to face in all his glory and majesty. But we’re still waiting for Christ’s return to earth to receive our resurrection bodies, like his. As Paul says in Philippians 3: “we eagerly await a Savior from [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who . . . will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). What is already true of our souls (regeneration) will be true of our bodies as well (resurrection).

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes our future hope like this: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:21-23). So Christ has already been raised; in the end, we’ll join him. That’s what the imagery of “firstfruits” depicts. It’s a harvest analogy: when harvest time came, ancientIsraelwould take the first batch of it to the temple as an offering, in anticipation of a greater harvest yet to come (cf. Exod. 23:16). Jesus’ resurrection was the firstfruits—that means there’s more to follow. All who are in Christ will share in his bodily resurrection and enjoy lasting satisfaction in God’s presence in a new heaven and new earth—a renewed creation fit for resurrected bodies and the very presence of God (cf. Rev. 21).

Therefore, fourth, resurrection means that death and decay do not win. If the death and decay are the result of human sin, then that human sin needs to be dealt with. That’s precisely what Jesus came to do on the cross—to take the holy anger of his Father against our sin onto himself, paying the price we owed, in order to restore our relationship with our Creator and King. And yet, not only do we need someone who will deal with the cause of the decay, but with its effects as well. That’s what the resurrection is about. Bringing newness and wholeness to what sin has shattered and broken. This means that death and decay don’t get the last word. Life gets the last word. Life and resurrection through Jesus.

This does not however mean that death and decay do no harm—that they’re not real, or that the pain, loss, and suffering they cause aren’t real. It does mean that they will not prevail—not for those in Christ. And that gives us hope. God will keep his promise in Psalm 16—“for you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your holy one see decay.” He will show his sufficiency in preserving and satisfying our lives despite this decaying world. And the evidence of this is his eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

The promise of Psalm 16 also functioned as a prophecy of how God would preserve and satisfy Jesus’ life, not by avoiding the grave, but carrying him through it and raising him victoriously over it. In Acts 2, as the Apostle Peter says to the crowds:

“[T]his Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:23-32).

Related Articles: Psalm 16: The Sufficiency of God in a Decaying World

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