Resurrection on Easter

April 3rd, 2017

Resurrection is the central theme of Easter, but it is often misunderstood. Resurrection is literally living again after death, in the exact same way Jesus lived after He died (1 Cor 15:20-28). We often recognize that Jesus literally lived three days after He died (though in a weird semi-physical/semi-spiritual body), but when we talk about the resurrection for Christians, we assume it means dying and going to heaven. This is a massive misunderstanding of the resurrection.

Most of us have noticed how, in the gospels, Jesus’ resurrection changed everything (Thomas, anyone?). However, when I was growing up, my churches didn’t talk much about why it changed everything. When we did talk about it, we conflated it with going to heaven or going to hell after death. Sadly, my churches missed an opportunity to shape my worldview. They missed an opportunity to orient me towards the Christian hope. Make no mistake: the resurrection of the dead is central to the Christian hope, because it is a core part of the New Creation. In our youth groups, we should orient our youth to what Jesus is doing in the world. We need to teach our youth to hope, and exploring the resurrection is a great way to do that.

A Historical View of Resurrection

Belief in the literal resurrection of dead people didn’t always exist in ancient Judaism, and it was almost unheard of in the other religions of the Mediterranean. This can be disorienting for Christians, since we often assume Judaism always was concerned with the afterlife. Especially in the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible, it wasn’t. However, for the sake of space, and your patience, I’m going to skip explaining this. Just take my word for it, or check out the N.T. Wright links at the bottom of this blog post for an explanation!

A belief in the resurrection seems to have developed in the Intertestamental period (around 160 BC) in response to the problem of evil. Why does God allow bad people to win? Don’t worry, after everyone dies, at some point in the future, good people will be resurrected and live forever! Remember, this is not hoping that good people will go to heaven, it is a belief in a literal resurrection of dead people at the end of time. Think fully capable zombies, not ghosts! One of the first clear references to a belief in the resurrection of the dead is found in 2 Maccabees 7, in an account of the Greeks torturing seven Jewish brothers. One brother says to the soldiers, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by Him. But for you, there will be no resurrection to life (2 Macc. 7:14, NRSV)!”

This shows two things that are important for students of the New Testament to understand. First, only the righteous were thought to be resurrected. If you are of middling righteousness, or deeply evil, you will not be resurrected, like this Greek soldier. For those people, there is a continued assumption that death is the end of the line, as everyone has always believed. Most scholars think this belief was most common among Pharisees, and it clearly shaped the expectations of lots of people Jesus encountered. Jesus believed in the resurrection and built on it. However, the idea had been around in some strains of Judaism for a couple hundred years.

Resurrection in the New Testament

In the New Testament, debate about the resurrection takes on central importance. In Mark 12:18, the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) debate Jesus about the resurrection, and Jesus finds Himself allied with Pharisees (who did believe in the resurrection). When Jesus goes to Lazarus’ family, he first starts to talk to Lazarus’ sister. Jesus tells Martha, “your brother will rise again,” and Martha thinks Jesus is referring to the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. She responds coherently, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day (Jn 11:24-5).”

We can see in Martha’s comments that Jesus’ followers believed in the resurrection of the righteous. They believed the righteous would be part of the New Creation, or the Kingdom of God, and Jesus was both the primary spokesperson for this and the way to access it. In 1 Corinthians, when Paul says, “let me remind you what the Gospel is (15:1),” he discusses the resurrection of the dead at length. Read this chapter! In short, the resurrection is the Christian hope. Death is the final enemy (15:24), and Jesus defeated it three days after He was crucified! Yes, Jesus paid for your sins (and the penalty was death), but that is awesome because it means we can be resurrected. It means we can be part of the New Creation.

The Great Christian Hope

N.T. Wright, a big-deal New Testament scholar, wrote a fantastic book on this subject called Surprised by Hope. He says most of us misunderstand the resurrection, thinking it refers to dying and going to heaven. It may be true that your soul waits in Heaven after you die, but that is not the great Christian hope. The great Christian hope is that one day, God will bring about a New Creation (Paul calls this the Kingdom of God in 1 Cor 15:50), and the righteous dead will rise to live in it. This is the hopeful conclusion to Revelation: the heavenly city comes down, and “God makes His home among mortals…Death will be no more (Rev. 21:4, NRSV).” God defeated death, and we will literally live forever in peace and unity with God.

Why the Resurrection Matters in Youth Group

The reason discussing the resurrection matters in youth group is because it helps our youth orient themselves toward what God is doing. As youth leaders, we have a crucial ability to help our youth form worldviews. We help them develop understandings of how the world works, and what God is doing in the world. God does not simply help us to go to heaven, or escape hell. God is creating a new world where evil is destroyed!

If we only talk about God in specific things, we foster lopsided worldview development. This is why many of us grew up thinking that God was about sin-avoidance: many of our youth groups focused on sin avoidance! This is what makes legalistic adults who focus on rules. Of course, sin and holiness are extremely important, but they are important because of what God is doing in the world. They are important because, as Paul says, Jesus is destroying all of God’s enemies, including death (1 Cor. 15:24-5).

Discussing theology is not the most pressing thing you will do in youth group. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that means it is less important. Relationships are (probably) the most pressing need in a youth group, but fostering a hope in the God who came to save us is what makes disciples. We do not want to make well-behaved young people, we want to make disciples of the Risen Christ.

[bctt tweet=”We do not want to make well-behaved young people, we want to make disciples of the Risen Christ.” username=”ys_scoop”]

Tips on Fostering Hope in Your Youth Group:

  1. Occasionally, doing a Bible study on resurrection, the Kingdom of God, or the New Creation will be helpful. However, don’t expect this to be transformative on its own.
  2. More than that, it is helpful to ask youth periodically “why something matters.” For example, if you are doing pre-trip meetings for a mission trip, ask youth, “why do Christians go on mission trips?” The answer will probably be something like, “because we are supposed to love our neighbors.” That’s a great answer, but if you push beyond it, you might find “because Jesus is creating a new world, and we are learning to live in it.” To be sure, the details on how you want this worked out will vary depending on your eschatology (or your church’s eschatology), but an answer on this level helps to form worldviews and foster an understanding of the big picture in Christianity.
  3. During Easter, asking about the significance of the resurrection can be powerful. For example, you might ask why it matters that Jesus was resurrected. There are lots of great answers to this, but one central answer is, “because it shows Jesus is more powerful than death,” or maybe “because it shows Jesus is defeating all evil, including death.” That is, the hope in Rev. 22 is possible!
  4. If your church is Dispensationalist (if you believe in the rapture, a Great Tribulation, etc), be careful to talk about the New Creation a lot. In my research on this topic, dispensationalist theologians totally believe in the New Creation. However, it’s actually pretty difficult to find them writing about it, as their understanding of the Great Tribulation is a lot more interesting! Youth feel the same way. Also, be careful that, if you talk about Left Behind type stuff, you don’t let the spectacle of that overwhelm discussions of what comes afterward. The point of Christianity is not a war in the valley of Megiddo or the specific identity of the Anti-Christ. The point of Christianity is that Jesus wins, and Jesus makes a place for us where all evil is eliminated (in the New Creation/Kingdom of God). One of these fosters hope and another fosters fear.

Further Reading

N.T. Wright has written a good deal on the resurrection. As a relatively conservative English bishop, he has deep concern for both Bible study and pastoral questions. Check out his book, Surprised by Hope, because it is fantastic.

Alternatively, you could check out this article he wrote, “Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as Historical Problem.” It goes over what we discussed here but in more depth. It’s also much shorter than a book!

One of the more important theologians of the 20th century was a German named Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg wrote extensively on the nature of God’s revelation as a part of history. For him, the resurrection of Jesus was a tiny preview (prolepsis) of the end of time. I struggled to find an easy, online introduction to this idea, and couldn’t find one. However, wrestling with his ideas is an excellent use of your time. You can start with his biography on Wikipedia!

Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.