Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Resistance is Fertile: Christ is Risen and Death has Died -- Brad Jersak

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tomb bestowing life
- Paschal Easter Hymn

"Resistance is Futile" - the Borg
Contrary to the boasting of most fictional alien invaders, resistance is not always futile. In truth, sometimes resistance is fertile.

Case in point, a new friend was resisting the idea—even the possibility—that at the point of death, there may still be hope. Is death a locked door beyond which there is no further opportunity to hear and respond to the good news? My friend is sure of this. He cited the two classic texts, long known as deal-killers for any hope of a ‘second-chance’ at salvation:

“… it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment [κρίσις]”
(Hebrews 9:27).

And of course from the mouth of our Lord himself,

25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence (Luke 16:25-26).

That should just about wrap up the conversation, right? But resistance is fertile!

I suggested that early Christians—in proclaimingthe harrowing of hades—believed and taught that on Holy Saturday, Christ descended into hell (or hades), preached to the dead, and conquering death, led a parade of captives out of the grave. This idea was originally drawn from Ephesian 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:19-21 and 4:6, then affirmed in the Apostles Creed. Jesus too proclaimed that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and they who hear shall live” (John 1:25-26). This reality is written beautifully into the Eastern icon of the Harrowing of Hades, where Christ has descended to find Adam and Eve, his lost children, and to lead them out from the hades into paradise.

The Harrowing of Hades
Not that this means all are automatically ‘saved’ … Jesus continues in verses 28-29, saying that while all are raised, some will be raised to a resurrection of life and others to a resurrection of judgment [κρίσεως]. On the other hand, nor does it mean all are condemned forever. To quote an ancient Holy Saturday homily and used in the current, official Catholic catechism:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began … He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him—He who is both their God and the son of Eve.. “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son… I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.[1]

My friend continued to resist. He felt these passages were too obscure and difficult to pin such hopes (the Apostles’ Creed notwithstanding).

I went on to suggest that Revelation 20-22 may possibly imply an ongoing invitation beyond the final judgment. I noted that in Revelation 20, the nations are destroyed and the wicked are cast into the Lake of Fire (and the types of wicked are listed). But in chapter 21-22, when the New Heavens and New Earth become one and God dwells with his bride in the New Jerusalem, what do we see?
  • We see the wicked outside the city walls (again, listed, now in Rev 22:15).  Apparently the Lake of Fire was relocated? Or perhaps we just have different imagery for the same judgment?
  • We see that the gates of the city are never shut.
  • We see that the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’
  • To whom? Dare we say, to those outside the walls? To those, it says, who are thirsty.
  • To where? Dare we say, in through the open gates? To the waters of life that flow from the city!
  • To what? To partake of the tree of life where the leaves provide healing to the nations!
  • We see the kings and the nations, previously deceived by the beast and destroyed at Armageddon, hearing the invitation, entering the gates, bringing their gifts and joining the Bride.
To me, this seems very hopeful. And again, not that all are automatically ‘in.’ They must still choose to respond to the invitation. They must still have their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. There is no bypassing the redemption of the Cross … but there it is. Revelation 21-22 appears to hold open the possibility that death does not shut the door to the Gospel or bar the wicked forever from the presence of God.

My friend remained unconvinced. But he also surprised me with his own convictions, and not the usual objections of those who resist postmortem salvation. First, he said, “I am absolutely convinced that God is both all-powerful and all loving and that he is unlimited in his grace.” 

Well good, so we agree. “But,” he continued, “because of the parable (of the rich man and Lazarus), I also believe that once we die, there is no longer any further opportunity to be saved.”

I responded, “So then you really believe God’s grace, his love and his power are limited – by death.

“But let me finish,” he said, “Since God is all-powerful, all loving and without limits, I believe everyone gets a real opportunity to respond to the Gospel in this life, and (quoting Job 33),

29 “God does all these things to a person—
    twice, even three times—
30 to turn them back from the pit,
    that the light of life may shine on them.

My friend is convinced by hope: absolutely everyone gets to hear and respond to the Gospel in a real way—a clear and viable opportunity—whether through natural revelation or the preaching of the Gospel or direct intervention. He repeated, “I am completely convinced: in God’s limitless power, love and grace, everyone must receive this opportunity …” [YES! I’m nodding] But again, he repeats emphatically, “in this lifetime.” [I stop nodding … and probably look puzzled].

 I just don’t really see that happening in real life. Thinking of Plato. Thinking of the Muslim girl in Yemen who dies in a drone attack. Worse, thinking of those who’ve heard a distorted gospel by spiritually abusive preachers who inoculate their listeners and drive them to atheism. 

And yet, from my friend’s perspective, all of these are able to respond to the light they have in this life, and that would be enough. Jesus revealed himself to the Greek philosophers as the Logos; Jesus hears and loves and saves the Muslim girl who has blindly reached out to Allah; Jesus counts the rejection of idolatrous counterfeits of himself as true worship.

He reminded me of Billy Graham, when in 1997 on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, he shared these (now somewhat infamous) thoughts:

Schuller: Tell me, what do you think is the future of Christianity?
Graham: Well, Christianity and being a true believer--you know, I think there's the Body of Christ, which comes from all the Christian groups around the world, or outside the Christian groups. I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they're conscious of it or not, they're members of the Body of Christ. And I don't think that we're going to see a great sweeping revival, that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. I think James answered that—the Apostle James in the first council in Jerusalem—when he said that God's purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that's what God is doing today; He's calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they've been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their heart that they need something that they don't have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they're going to be with us in heaven.
Schuller: What, what I hear you saying is that it's possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they've been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you're saying?
Graham: Yes, it is, because I believe that. I've met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they've believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they've tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.
Schuller: This is fantastic! I'm so thrilled to hear you say this. There's a wideness in God's mercy.
Graham: There is. There definitely is.

Interesting. Hopeful. 

Still. I left the conversation wondering if everyone truly and practically receives a viable revelation of Christ in this life. I wondered about the ‘god of this age who blinds the minds of unbelievers so they cannot believe’ (2 Corinthians 4:4-5) and whether God actually says, ‘Let there be light’ in every heart (vs. 6) in this life (of course not, say my neo-Reformed friends … only the Elect).

And this is where resistance, for me, became fertile. These questions—the seeds of convictions—began to sprout with fresh vigor:

If God is all-powerful and all-loving—if his grace is truly without limits—then why must it only be so in this life? Why is death the great and insurmountable show-stopper—God’s limit? Why must the “mercy that endures forever” (and unto ages of ages) and the “loving-kindness that is everlasting” be aborted at the point of death? Or impotent over the grave? Is that the testimony of Scripture?

Is death really the final bell? Our last hurrah? Is it the great and terrible pendulum swinging over our heads? Is it an absolute ultimatum in that sense? Hasn’t Christ, through his resurrection, not only escaped death, but also fundamentally altered it forever? Haven’t the intractable conditions of the grave—its permanence, its inescapability, its ironclad gates—been shattered permanently by Christ? Hasn’t the uncrossable chasm now indeed been crossed, trumping the truth of the parabolic Lazarus with the greater reality of the actual Lazarus? And isn’t Jesus not the only one to cross the chasm, but the Firstborn of many brothers and sisters who would follow in his wake?

Of course this is true ‘only for believers’—but only believers in this life?

I don’t know. I don’t presume. But here is what I read—Christologically.

Put me like a seal over your heart,
Like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as death,
Jealousy is as severe as Sheol;
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
The very flame of the Lord.
(Song of Solomon 8:6 NASB)

10 There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death,

Prisoners in misery and chains,
11 Because they had rebelled against the words of God
And spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12 Therefore He humbled their heart with labor;They stumbled and there was none to help.
13 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble;He saved them out of their distresses.
14 He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of deathAnd broke their bands apart.
15 Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,And for His wonders to the sons of men!
16 For He has shattered gates of bronzeAnd cut bars of iron asunder.

(Psalm 107:10-16 NASB)

The Prophet Hosea
I will deliver them out of the hand of death.
I will redeem them from death:
O death, I will be thy death;
O hell, I will be thy bite: comfort is hidden from my eyes.
(Hosea 13:14 Douay-Rheims)

On this latter passage, we have the extended testimony of the great commentator, C. F. Keil:

But in order to preserve believers from despair, the Lord announces in Hos 13:14 that He will nevertheless redeem His people from the power of death. Hos 13:14. “Out of the hand of hell will I redeem them; from death will I set them free! Where are thy plagues, O death? where thy destruction, O hell! Repentance is hidden from mine eyes.” The fact that this verse contains a promise, and not a threat, would hardly have been overlooked by so many commentators, if they had not been led, out of regard to Hos 13:13, Hos 13:15, to put force upon the words, and either take the first clauses as interrogative, “Should I ... redeem?” (Calvin and others), or as conditional, “I would redeem them,” … But apart from the fact that the words supplied are perfectly arbitrary, with nothing at all to indicate them, both of these explanations are precluded by the sentences which follow: for the questions, “Where are thy plagues, O death?” etc., are obviously meant to affirm the conquest or destruction of hell and death.

To redeem or ransom from the hand (or power) of hell, i.e., of the under world, the realm of death, is equivalent to depriving hell of its prey, not only by not suffering the living to die, but by bringing back to life those who have fallen victims to hell, i.e., to the region of the dead. The cessation or annihilation of death is expressed still more forcibly in the triumphant words: “Where are thy plagues (pestilences), O death? where thy destruction, O hell?”[2]

Speaking of Isaiah and Paul, let’s follow Keil to the root passage in Isaiah:

6 The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine.
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering [shroud] which is over all peoples, Even the veil which is stretched over all nations.
He will swallow up death for all time … For the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 25:6-8 NASB)
Paul picks up on both these prophets (Hosea and Isaiah), linking Christ’s formative resurrection with the final resurrection at the end. Back to Keil,

The Apostle Paul has therefore very properly quoted these words in 1 Cor 15:55, in combination with the declaration in Isa 25:8, "Death is swallowed up in victory," to confirm the truth, that at the resurrection of the last day, death will be annihilated, and that which is corruptible changed into immortality. 

But in order to anticipate all doubt as to this exceedingly great promise, the Lord [in Hosea 13:14] adds, “repentance is hidden from mine eyes,” i.e., my purpose of salvation will be irrevocably accomplished.[3]

And so the Apostle lays it out in order:
20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. … 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
(1 Corinthians 15:20-28 NASB).
Now we come to Revelation 1—now is not the time to skim Scripture! So carefully:
17 When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
(Revelation 1:17-18 NASB)

Now when I preach the Gospel, I like to ask, “If Jesus Christ now holds the keys of death and hades, what do you think he’ll do with them?” Note in this text that hades is distinguished from death. Sometimes we translate this word, ‘the grave,’ but surely it is also in parallel with the hades of the rich man’s fate, right? So when Jesus told the parable, the rich man was in hades where the door was locked and when the devil held the key.

But with the resurrection of Christ, the door and its keys are now under new management! We have a completely different situation. So Hebrews says:

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
(Hebrews 2:14-15)

So no, Jesus was not wrong in putting words in Abraham’s mouth: the rich man was indeed stuck. The devil had (had) the power of death. He was the ‘strongman’ who owned the house of death (Matthew 12:29) … but only until Easter. After that, everything changed. Death changes, the grave changes, hades is broken open, trampled down and plundered of its prisoners. Something shifted on Holy Saturday … shifted forever. Something permanent that calls into question the power of death before the love, power and grace of God.

Sure, we still die. And death is still an enemy. But if Jesus holds the keys … what do you think he’ll do with them? We certainly have a foretaste in Revelation 20:

13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
(Revelation 20:13-15)

It’s still pretty ominous if you think of it: Jesus saves everyone in hades just so he can cast them into the Lake of Fire too? I would only stipulate that if we make that move, we must also take seriously the reappearance of the wicked outside the city in chapter 22, where the Spirit and Bride are still calling. We don’t get to pick and choose, right?

But this is not an article about universal reconciliation. We’re focusing instead only on the radical overthrow and deep-level alteration (or transfiguration?) of death and hades through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The nature of death and the grave is now such that Jesus is forever in charge, so the possibility of hope thereafter should not be ruled out because of pre-resurrection descriptions of the afterlife.

Dare we hope for our loved ones beyond the grave—those who may not have responded to the Gospel we preached or the light they had? Could God, even then, in his limitless power and grace, still declare, “Let there be light” in their hearts to open their eyes to the revelation of the Gospel of Christ?

I don’t know. I hope so. I pray so. But my hope is not just wishful thinking and my prayers are expectant, because they are set on the all-merciful One. Last night, at the Ash Wednesday service, I took to heart the message from Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, who described this hope in these ways: At the last day, we will be in awe of his glory and majesty, but also and perhaps more so of his embracing compassion, his co-suffering, unselfish and compassion love, which is the very power of his shed blood. Perhaps even then, many will open their hearts and hands to receive his gift—the gift of his own self—and partake of the life-giving spring of his blood. 

We’re told that on that day, every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God (Philippians 2)—sounds like worship to me. Perhaps in that moment, even our resistance will be fertile!

I close with the testimony of a Western and then an Eastern father:

First from Jerome:
Moreover the Lord liberated everyone, and redeemed them through the suffering of the Cross and the shedding of His blood, when His soul descended into Hades, and He did not experience corruption to His flesh; and He speaks of the death itself as well as Hades: “I will be your death, O Death!”  For that reason I have died so that you may die through My death.  “I will be your death, O Hades” for you devoured all with your throat.[4]

And the finale, from Chrysostom’s paschal homily:

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.[5]

[1] Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: PG 43, 440A, 452C; LH, Holy Saturday, OR.
[4] Orthodox Study Bible, footnote to Hosea 13:14.