Years ago, a close friend of mine who was going through a marriage breakup described to me how painful it was to hope for something he was convinced would never happen. He wanted to hope but couldn’t allow himself to do so.
Many people of our world are like my friend. They’ve lost hope in the future because they are convinced it can only end in darkness and destruction. But is that all we can hope for?
The message of Easter, the death of Jesus on a cross and his resurrection two days later are the Christian claim against such despair.
The gospel accounts of the events of Easter are told in spare and stark language. The trial of Jesus before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, the accusations of the religious authorities, the mocking, the braided crown of thorns, the flogging, the decision to release a known criminal Barabbas instead of Jesus, the painful walk to Golgotha, the humiliating and agonizing hours hanging from the cross and finally the death. The entire scene conveys a terrible sense of darkness.
Yet even here, one senses glimmers of hope. The gospel of Luke has a Roman soldier "praising God" as he observes the scene and saying, "Surely this man was innocent." Other gospels quote him saying, "Truly this man was God’s Son!" As spectators were abandoning the site in consternation, followers of Jesus, mostly the women who had followed him from Galilee, "stood at a distance watching these things."
When the soldiers around Jesus’s cross assessed he was indeed dead, his body was taken down and put into the unused tomb of a man named Joseph of Arimathea, described by Luke as "a good and righteous man." On the day after the sabbath, when some women went to the tomb to place spices and ointments on the body, as would have been the custom with bodies that had begun to smell, they found an empty tomb and radiant men who told them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen."
That’s the story told in Scripture. Even though no one among the disciples of Jesus appears to have expected to see him alive again after his death on the cross, they became convinced he had truly been raised from the dead. More importantly, they came to believe it meant everything in the world for our future as human beings. When the Apostle Paul who hadn’t met Jesus during his earthly life wrote about it later, he says Jesus appeared first to one, then to 12, then to more than 500 followers, "most of whom are still alive." Indeed, Jesus seems to have been at pains to show he was more than a ghost: He ate with his disciples and had them touch his wounds. The implication is the whole world can look forward to a future that is somehow affected by that resurrection.
Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright, who has written at length on the resurrection, asked by Newsweek editors in 2008 what the resurrected body might look like, said, "Obviously we don’t know. But it will probably be more like our present bodies than we imagine. The analogy I might use is this: If you are with somebody who is very sick, you say, ‘Poor old so-and-so, he’s just a shadow of himself.’ He’s still recognizable as the same person. Who we are at the moment is just a shadow of our future selves. There’s a real you, a real me, which will one day be there and we’ll say, ‘My goodness, you’re looking well.’ There’s a sense of ‘like but more than.’ "
One of Wright’s favourite passages and mine as well in Scripture is found in the 8th chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome. There, looking forward to what’s still ahead for the universe, the apostle says "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God." That’s a hope rooted in the resurrection of Jesus.
Says Wright, the world Christians look forward to because of the resurrection is not the one Christopher Hitchens and Friedrich Nietzsche railed against, who saw God in the world as some "celestial tyrant imposing his will on an unwilling world and unwilling human beings."
Rather, as the gospels show us, "the coming of the God’s kingdom on Earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God — the God recognized in Jesus — who is radically different from them all, and whose justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness."
It is this hope for the realization of the kingdom of God that Easter — the cross, the death and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead — points to. Or as Presbyterian pastor Peter Leithart puts it, "Hope looks to a living Lord, an active God who works and reworks, who moulds a pot, breaks it and moulds it again... The world will not forever remain as it now is."
Harold Jantz is the retired editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald and ChristianWeek.