Even the Dead Will Not Be Safe: An Easter Meditation

One of the few things the three great monotheisms agree on is the resurrection of the dead. All of these great Abrahamic faiths envision a day when every human being who has ever lived is re-created in order to be judged, then rewarded or punished. The afterlife is not a matter of a disembodied soul or ghost or “becoming an angel.” The joys of heaven are bodily joys, and the pains of hell are bodily pains. And the true afterlife is not the fate of the individual after death, but the fate of all human beings after the end of all earthly life as we know it. A new heaven and a new earth, bodily and material, to replace what will have become the hollowed out husk of the old — death and resurrection on the grandest possible scale.

In Christianity, the death and resurrection of Christ is supposed to be the inauguration of this apocalyptic process. Paul teaches that Christ is the firstfruits from among the dead, and it is clear in 1 Thessalonians that he expects the general resurrection to follow within his own lifetime. In Matthew, the death of Christ sparks a resurrection of some unspecified saints, as if by anticipation of the general resurrection. And no matter how much the teaching of the resurrection has been overshadowed by the fate of the individual soul in Christian piety, the expectation of the general resurrection remains very much on the books — most notably in the final line of the Nicene Creed: “And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”

The celebration of Christ’s resurrection is also the anticipation of our resurrection — and here, by consensus of all monotheist faiths, we can say “we” and “our” in the broadest possible sense. As James Joyce (and after him, Thomas Altizer) would say: “here comes everybody.”

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The Feast of the Death of God

Christ died and then rose on “the third day” — counting the day of death itself as day 1, and the day of resurrection as day 3. Since he dies in the afternoon on Friday and rises before the women come to tend to his body very early in the morning on Sunday, Christ is only dead for maybe a day and a half, but he definitely lies dead in the tomb for one full twenty-four-hour day: Holy Saturday, today.

Liturgically speaking, God is dead today. That is not a heretical provocation, but a fully orthodox proclamation. Before Nietzsche declared that God is dead, Luther did so. According to orthodox Christology, the human and the divine are fully united in Christ, though without confusion. Christ does human things and Christ does divine things, but Christ does them all. So it is equally orthodox to say that Jesus of Nazareth created the heavens and the earth as it is to say that God had a poopy diaper. That’s the mystery of the incarnation — everything Christ does and suffers, God does and suffers. On Good Friday, God dies. On Holy Saturday, he lies dead in the tomb for a full twenty-four-hour day so that there can be no confusion about the fact that he is really dead. He didn’t survive the crucifixion and stumble out of the tomb. He died. He really died.

It’s puzzling, in a way, that Christianity does not have a carnivalesque festival on this one day when God is dead. That moment is instead displaced to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before the Lenten period of reflection and asceticism that leads up to Easter. Of course, the Christian God is not supposed to be one you want to get away from. Unlike the mean “Old Testament God,” we continually hear, the Christian God is loving and forgiving. He’s not a stickler for rules. He just wants us to be our best selves. In fact, he loves us so much that he gave his Son for our salvation! Amazing. But who is he saving us from?

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The Cross: That’s How They Get You

Long-time readers may know that part of my path out of evangelicalism involved a Catholic phase. I went so far as to convert and was very devout for several years, then slowly let go of it after starting at Chicago Theological Seminary. It’s not part of my life or identity anymore, except for one thing — I use the prayers of the rosary as a kind of calming mantra, for instance when I’m having trouble sleeping. I sometimes even keep count of five “decades” for a full rosary, though I don’t meditate on the “mysteries” (which have somehow inexplicably changed in the meantime? They can do that?). One night recently I was having a lot more trouble sleeping and was trying to remember what the specific “mysteries” were. I calculated that it was probably a “Sorrowful” day and then remembered the sequence: the agony in the garden, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion itself (i.e., nailing him up), and his death on the cross. And something within me said: No. This is not what I am going to direct my attention toward. This is disturbing and wrong.

To me, that felt like a watershed moment, showing how alienated I had become from Christian piety and its deep presuppositions. I was rejecting, at a gut level, the most theologically and emotionally charged moment in the Christian story — a moment that serves as the affective “hook.” The old me, even the early post-Christian me, would have heard a response like I was now giving and seen it as evidence that I just didn’t get it. The cross is precisely the most liberating and radical and anti-imperial thing about Christianity! It’s the thing that’s just too real to handle. In fact, the real problem with Christianity is that people don’t take the cross seriously enough.

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