Our world feels contaminated with disease. And yet, precisely in light of this contagion, perhaps we can learn more about the breadth and depth of Christian resurrection hope. Indeed, our cultural imagination may be more in tune to a reality that has a great deal to do with Eastertide season: the way in which the whole world is in need of healing, in need of a Deliverer.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, a central cultural point of reference for resurrection hope was simply the hope in the afterlife of the individual. Indeed, despite the much-reported increase in Americans who have no religious affiliation, belief in an afterlife seems to be very popular. About a third of those who do not believe in God still believe in life after death. A University of Chicago study indicates that, while belief in God and affiliation with a particular religion have been in decline in the United States in recent decades, a growing number believe in “life after death.”[1] Whatever the reasons for this growing belief, stories about the afterlife continue to have a prominent place in Western culture, even in contexts where religious hopes are proscribed from polite conversations.

This hope in an “afterlife” in the popular imagination is usually directed toward a vision of individuals continuing to live their lives after death, in some kind of paradise. One bestseller after another claims to give testimony (through near death experiences) to individuals who “visit” heaven and return. At other times, the gospel itself is framed as God’s plan for how an individual can go to heaven after death. In both cases, the focus is on the individual. In both cases, resurrection hope is for when we are reunited with the mother or son that we lost all too early — it’s a post-mortem family reunion. Alternatively, resurrection hope is for me as an individual to get delivered from hell, enabled to spend more time with Jesus.

Both narratives miss that the primary biblical vision of resurrection hope is a cosmic one, involving the whole of creation. Christ is risen, and in him, there is hope of resurrection, judgment, and renewal of the creation. As Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor. 15:22-23). And this hope for resurrection involves a hope for Christ’s judgment and dominion as well. For in the culmination of this resurrection hope, Christ destroys “all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24-25).

In the end, Easter hope is not just about individuals, but the whole creation—which is good but is now corrupted and diseased. By the risen Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation, the whole cosmos will be judged and cleansed, so that “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Perhaps, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, we can see more clearly why we need more than an “afterlife.” The world is ill, and it needs healing; it is contaminated, and it needs cleansing. “If poisonous contamination has been released into the air and water,” Fleming Rutledge writes, “it must be permanently eliminated in order for God’s new creatures to breathe and have eternal life.” Precisely because God is a God of love, he is also a God who judges, who sets things right—not just with individuals, but with the whole creation. Indeed, God’s judgment is an expression of his love.

The world feels contaminated right now. It is good, but it has been corrupted. Making the world right during a pandemic involves much work and is broader and deeper than any of us as individuals can take on. We can each do our part in helping to prevent the pandemic from spreading, or to help treat those afflicted with disease. But the sum of our individual efforts is not enough. Likewise, we need God for more than an individual afterlife. We need the cosmic Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation, the Deliverer bringing light to a dark world, tearing down all powers and forces that corrupt God’s good creation.

Perhaps rather than expecting the thundering voices of the Hallelujah Chorus this Eastertide, we need to rediscover the Bass Recitative in Handel’s Messiah, with his solo taken from the prophet Haggai:

Thus saith the LORD of Hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come. (Hag. 2:6–7 KJV)

The bass singer slides his pitch from one note to another, returning repeatedly to the word “shaking,” as his voice sways in singing of this hope. This “shaking” in Haggai looks forward to the coming appearance of the Lord, which brings a kind of earthquake as the Lord returns to his holy temple, his dwelling place (Hag. 2:6–9). In Genesis, God made the whole world to be his dwelling place. Now, in this good but contaminated world, we wait in hope for the Lord to appear again, in the risen Christ, to reclaim creation as his dwelling place. It will take some shaking, on that day, the day of the Lord. But shaken by the merciful Lord, the new creation will be without contamination, without disease—a fit dwelling place for the covenant Lord.

As we continue to live and pray from our separate homes in this Eastertide season, we can also bring our ache for the risen Christ to meet us in our contagious world. We need a Deliverer. We need a Healer. We need nothing less than the risen Christ who comes to shake and renew the whole creation. In lament, petition, and praise we can pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

  1. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/wellness/fewer-americans-believe-god-yet-they-still-believe-afterlife-n542966.

Posted by J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos, September 2020): http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/the-end-of-the-christian-life/392000