A couple from my former congregation in New York State recently passed through Dallas. We went to dinner at a restaurant in Uptown near my new apartment. They are musicians; she is a classical pianist, he is a jazz trombonist, arranger, and composer with a master’s degree from the jazz program at the University of North Texas in Denton. I got to know them well over the years; they came to my Bible studies, Brad was on the vestry, and he and I played music together. But I really got to know them one Palm Sunday when I got a call from Brad early in the morning before church, asking me to come over. Jane’s parents had been killed in a car accident the night before.
I spent a lot of time with them in the weeks that followed. Jane was utterly grief-stricken. It took close to ten years for her not to be ambushed by periodic bouts of depression and anguish. At one point I gave her a book that I thought would be encouraging. It was a thin volume by N.T. Wright entitled, For all the Saints. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to think seriously about the Christian message of resurrection. But in this case, it was bit of a misfire.
N.T. Wright asserts that many Christians have got it all wrong when it comes to what we call “life after death.” They have invested everything in the conviction that when we die, our soul will go to heaven where we will dwell in bliss and glorify God forever. I expect many readers will think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before – this is basic Christianity, right?”
N.T. Wright’s point is: “No, that is not right.” The message of the Gospel is NOT that if we believe in Jesus, we get to go to heaven for ever. The New Testament invites us to be joined to Jesus in an act of complete trust – signified in Baptism. In our union with Jesus we share in his death, so that in a mysterious but very real sense we are on the cross with him, and he literally bears our sins – as Paul says in Colossians, our sins are actually “nailed to the cross.”
United With Christ in His Death
The crucial point – and St. Paul is very explicit about this – is that if we share in his crucifixion, we also share in his resurrection. “Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death...if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3, 5)
This is why Easter matters. The resurrection of Jesus is not a novelty. It is not a one-of-a-kind miracle that God performed merely to vindicate Jesus as the Messiah. Every Jew knew what Martha tells Jesus about her brother, Lazarus, in the Gospel of John – that the dead will “rise on the resurrection on last day.” (John 11:23) The disciples knew that if Jesus was raised, this was just the beginning, the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of a harvest that would include them – and us. Jesus’ rising, body, mind, and spirit, from the tomb on Easter is a guarantee of our own resurrection to come.
The resurrection of the body is actually a more outrageous claim, and in my view, harder to believe, than the idea that soul is taken up to an eternal spiritual realm, leaving the body behind to decay into nothingness. The notion of a mere ascent of the soul is less awkward, less provocative, because it leaves the world unchanged and does not challenge us to think through the nature of God’s creation and his redemptive purpose for the world – nor compel us to question the determinist legacy of modernity. Why then would we believe that such a thing as resurrection is even possible?
To begin with, Old Testament speaks of resurrection. As Isaiah put it, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!…the earth will give birth to the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19) But the principal reason is this: we already have “Example A” in the actual event, in real time and space, of the resurrection of Jesus.
An Intermediate State
Suppose, however, your parents have suddenly died and you have found comfort in the assurance that their souls are up in heaven waiting for you to join them forever. Then all this talk of resurrection of the body seems to throw a wrench in the spokes. That is what Jane thought, anyway. She said, “I always had the image of my mom and dad in this beautiful place surrounded by a great crowd of people dressed in white robes.”
I said, “Jane, that’s not all wrong – that is actually in the Bible too.” I showed her the passage in Revelation where John writes, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) This is a vision of Heaven – and as the angel says to John, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Readers of Revelation have met them before. In the previous chapter, John says “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne…they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” (Rev. 6:9, 11)
These are the martyrs who have gone through the great tribulation. We might be inclined to ask, “what does this have to do with us and the comfortable placid lives we lead?” I believe that the “ones coming out of the great tribulation” include us as well. To cling to our faith in Jesus through the ups and downs of daily life is to defy powers and principalities of this age that deny the goodness and sovereignty of God and his triumph over death in Jesus Christ. We, too, go through the great tribulation; our robes are indeed washed white in the blood of the lamb.
Yet the setting depicted in this vision is provisional – it is only temporary. The text says that souls of the martyrs are “to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” Then what? Then comes the final act: the Resurrection of the Dead. Yes, at their death, the souls of the faithful are gathered into the presence of God in Heaven. Theologians call this “the intermediate state.” Joyful and glorious it may be, it is penultimate; it is not the last word, and it falls short of the Resurrection, and the New Heaven and New Earth.
N.T. Wright has a catchy phrase. He says the ultimate promise of the Gospel is not life after death, it is “life AFTER life after death.”
In the end, my parishioner recognized that the image of her parents gathered with the souls of the blessed in heaven had not been snatched away from her after all, but that this was only part of the picture; there is more! The Apostle Paul tells us that God’s power working in us “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) This is especially the case when it comes to the resurrection and our eternal future – it is greater than we can ask or imagine!