Christians have almost universally pointed to John 3:16 as the core statement of their faith. It declares that God, the Creator of the universe, is a loving and a giving God. God’s gifting nature extends all the way to a sacrifice of himself for the sake of a world broken by the rebellious actions of human beings – from long ago up to the very present.
Good Friday is the annual event that highlights this loving action of God. Christians declare that in some way that cannot fully be explained, Jesus of Nazareth, God in human flesh, overcame the power of sin by his death at the hands of Roman authorities. Various words are used to describe this act – “conquered, cancelled, ransomed, atoned” – all suggesting that a problem that has plagued humanity was resolved in this self-giving sacrifice.
But Good Friday without Easter does not resolve the problem of sin and evil in the world. Without Christ’s resurrection, we would only be observing a day where a good person died a martyr’s death for what he believed and taught. We would not have a Christian religion. Countless persons have died heroically for what they believe. Some like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose death we will solemnly observe this month, will long be remembered; but none have come close to creating a faith system that has answered eternal questions. No, it takes a resurrection to establish a new covenant, a new path to God and eternal life.
First, Jesus’ resurrection validates the remedy that God has designed for the problem of sin. A human being MIGHT be able to compensate for his/her misdeeds in life by some sacrificial act like suffering and dying. But at best it would only compensate [atone] for that one individual’s misdeeds. An atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humans who have ever lived must be a God-act, something done by One who was powerful enough to create the world in the first place. And a dead God who does not rise again suggests a God who is not powerful enough to save. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he was taunted by his enemies who challenged him to “save yourself if you are truly the One sent from God” (Luke 23:35). They rightly assumed that a ‘god’ who could not save himself from death was no god at all. Therefore, a crucified God had to rise again to establish that He had the power to save sins and set the world aright again.
Furthermore, death has always been associated with sin. The warning given to the first humans in the Garden of Eden was “if you eat this, you will die” (Genesis 2:17). The last pages of the Bible point out that the ultimate weapon that Satan, the enemy of God, has at his disposal is death. The resurrection of Jesus is the clearest evidence we have that Satan’s power is broken; we do not live in a dualistic reality where good and evil are in an eternal struggle with neither able to break the stronghold of the other. Once the iron-fisted hold that death had on humanity from the very beginning was broken –even if only once by the resurrection of Jesus – we know that God has the power to destroy the entire empire of evil. He will do that in His time and in His way even though it may seem that it is a long time coming.
There is a cosmic dimension to the Easter event that we have described above. The resurrection of Jesus has established that God is ALL-powerful. He has overcome sin and death, the tools of his Adversary, by rising from the dead. But there is also a very personal aspect to the resurrection. The power that brought Jesus back from the dead is a power that is now available to every believer who is “in Christ.” It provides us with two great opportunities – the hope of our own resurrection and the power to live an everlasting life right now.
First, we have the great hope of all Christians that we, like Christ, will someday overcome the scourge of death and live again. Christ’s resurrection was not simply a resuscitation, like those persons who claim to have had near-death experiences. Jesus did not exit the grave with the same human body that was placed there by the disciples. His risen body was human, to be sure; but it was a transformed humanity, free of all the defects we associate with being “just human.” As the God/man who punched a hole through the wall into a new eternal reality, we have every reason to think that by our faith and His power, we can crawl through that same hole of physical death into a new realm of existence that will capture all the best of what it means to be human plus a multitude of new dimensions that we cannot even describe or imagine from this side of the wall.
But this eternal life that is promised to all followers of Jesus is not just a future hope. It is a present reality even while we still live in these bio-degradable packages. Jesus told His followers that those who believe in Him have eternal life now in this present life (John 11:25). It is not the full power we will experience in the world to come, but it is sufficient power to enable us to live a godly life – patterned after the Christ who rose again. It is a life that allows us to see –and occasionally do—miraculous things. Easter is about the power that dwells within us now.
A Savior who died for us is a story of amazing grace. But a Savior who has risen again is a story of amazing power and amazing hope. That is why once a year, persons of faith, greet each other with the proclamation “He is risen!” and wait for the reply “He is risen indeed!”
About the Author:
Clarence (Bud) Bence is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has devoted his career to a teaching ministry in various institutions affiliated with The Wesleyan Church. He holds a doctorate in Historical Theology from Emory University. His published works include a commentary on Romans and numerous articles about the theology of John Wesley.