By Ian Olson
Where is the substance of hope for the future found? Is there a basis for believing that justice will ever be served for marginalized and downtrodden? Is it found in humanity’s general good will? In the arc of the moral universe inevitably swinging upward? In the global promulgation of liberal values? Or must the hope of such public and incontrovertible vindication be grounded in something not less than human and historical yet more than merely that?
A Christian conception of hope finds its grounds in God’s self-consecration to secure a future for his creation. This pledge constitutes who God is and who he will be and thus determines the shape of the history he will share with his image bearers. That is because this pledge is not an optative utterance but a commitment which would be and has been actualized in space and time. Anything less would not suffice to bring about this future. The eschatological resolution glimpsed by the prophets and apostles hinges on this action of God to undo the abiding damage done to the cosmos at its deepest level, the deformation sin has wrought in the fabric of our being as individuals, societies, and members of our world’s ecosystem.
According to the Christian confession, God has accomplished this in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel reveals a counterintuitive vision of God overturning the disorder and decay of his creation by submitting himself to death as a creature undergoing forsakenness. For contrary to our abstract conceptions of what “God” must mean, God is not above defeat or ashamed of it. In the wisdom the world calls foolishness, God makes use of defeat to transfigure it into its opposite. But the victory of God isn’t the crushing punishment the rulers of our world exact upon their enemies — it always bears the marks of its prior suffering and death.
The resurrection is a reversal, not an erasure. For in no way does Jesus’ resurrection purge history of the occasion or means of his death. The cross could easily be conceived as a noble defeat: a moral victory enveloped within the collapse and overthrow of the Jesus movement. As an instrument of Roman imperial might, crucifixion reduces the human subject to nothing, a non-entity obliterated from history. But the counterintuitive marvel of this particular crucifixion is that it is a genuine defeat reconfigured into the decisive victory over the forces of its own defeat. The God who raises Jesus Christ from the dead suffers no anxieties compelling him to substitute any revisionist history in place of what really happened. That history is not a burden to be suppressed or concealed with alternative facts.
In his death as a political subversive Christ becomes one of the dispossessed. His crucifixion is the historical moment in which the divine life assumes the predicament of the hopeless and downtrodden. The fulcrum upon which the hope of a just future rests is the wholly other God who unreservedly binds himself to such ones by participating in their status and affliction and their destiny under the tyrannical powers of our world.
But this ends in a nihilism if God’s purpose terminates in Jesus Christ’s execution and nothing more. For God’s promises to be true, for hope to be anything more than an anesthetic against the brutal and often victorious injustice of our world, the gospels’ Easter narratives must be derived from historical fact. These things for which we hope are utterly dependent upon the dead Christ no longer remaining dead but rising again.
It is a naive, bourgeois belief that expects justice to triumph over corruption, prejudice, and violence given enough time. For the myth of progress is no more than a fairy tale with no basis in history. Short of a dead man returning to life, there is absolutely no evidence that love will triumph over hate. A resurrection in which a mythological construct — a legendarily transformed propaganda device divorced from history — “rises into the kerygma” would be rightly dismissed by Rome, indeed, by any imperial power, as a delusion, and a pathetic one at that.
For such a “rising to life” is no resurrection at all: it is a euphemism whitewashing a dead Christ, the corpse of our messianic dreams, the corpse of any hope for future restoration. The one who objects that it is impossible for a dead human being to be restored to life overlooks the impossibility of transforming hatred into love; of redressing generations of internecine warfare; of righting systemic injustices invisible to those who benefit from those systems.
This mythologized Christ is a fraud. A resurrected Christ which serves as a symbol of the self taking responsibility for herself is a commandeering of a falsified history. Short of a concrete empirical instantiation of that which epitomizes a concept, a thing cannot simply bypass the actual and become a symbol. Poetic imagination divorced from history and ontology is nothing more than an opiate in the face of annihilation.
If Christ is not raised from death then the downtrodden truly are vanquished forever. Defeat is permanent and total. There is no consolation in having been right; no weight of righteousness exerting pressure against the evil of the present. The toll death exacts upon us renders winning the moral or ideological battle of no ultimate worth.
Christ has died, but Christ has also risen. His resurrection is God’s taking up of death and judgment into his own life to negate their devastation. It is the accomplishment in time of God’s righteous judgment upon sin. That future judgment consummates what is inaugurated in Christ’s victory over the powers of sin and death. Christ’s death is the rectification of the wound in ourselves and our world made on our behalf when we were helpless and in collusion with those powers.
The materiality of the resurrection empowers a material engagement with the enslaving and death-dealing structures of our world. A Christianity which evades the embodiment of those it seeks to serve and of the principles against which it must contest is only fit for a fictional resurrection. To profess that Christ has risen should impel the announcement and manifestation of his kingdom through evangelism, through prayer, through our acts of service to one another, to advocacy for the downtrodden and oppressed wherever they are found.
But all of this is bound up with and dependent upon the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. For the empty tomb is the aporia for which all worldly regimes must answer, the gap the rulers must explain but cannot contain. The powers and principalities rightly perceive that the nullification of Christ’s death is the public nullification of their power to enforce their will. The resurrection erodes their credibility as it exposes their final powerlessness. The futures they have promised they cannot deliver on, for they cannot stand in the way of the future initiated in the resurrection. The man Jesus Christ is God’s future arriving palpably into the drab conditions of the old age of the powers’ rule. The corporeal reinstatement of the vehicle of God’s eschatological purposes is the acid eating away at the assurances of invincibility the powers broadcast to the world and whisper to themselves. They know their time is short.
The rhetoric of resurrection is useful for enduring hardship. But it is only with a Word who defies death itself and takes up corporeal life once more can rhetoric be anything more than mere words, uttered today and forgotten tomorrow. Only with a resurrected Christ unsettling the quotidian categories of possibility can words become lastingly, militantly potent.
The possibility of prior impossibilities becomes plausible if the dead are raised. The empty tomb is the fissure in the fabric of our collective life under the powers and principalities. Futility becomes redescribed: that which is latent in every campaign, in every effort to rectify and restore, however seemingly insignificant on the world stage, is caught up in the swell concentrated in the reign of the resurrected Christ. In him a new scope and range of action becomes available to us as our fear of setback or defeat is negated by its perdurance in Christ’s kingdom. Paul exhorts us all to just such action given the reality of Christ’s resurrection:
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58)
Christ’s reign gathers up history’s failures, history’s officially forgotten attempts at reform and aborted revolutions. Even a cup of cold water is channeled into the forward movement of the kingdom. All these efforts and ours, these prayers and groanings for recompense, are swept up into the reign of Christ who is putting every enemy under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Proclaim the resurrection and persevere in the work of the kingdom, for the Christ who died is the Christ who has risen, and he will bring it to final completion.
Ian Olson is an Anglican lay student living with his wife and three children in southern Wisconsin, enraptured with W. H. Auden, David Foster Wallace, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and resisting the gravitational pull of the world’s despair with re-enchantment.