Why did Jesus need to rise from the dead?

I was asked a very good question the other day. Why did Jesus need to rise from the dead? It’s a good question because it is not the sort of question we normally ask. We tend to think “Oh it’s Easter! Great! God is good! Let’s have a happy time and eat chocolate and cake!”  Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, for we are meant to celebrate, but as Christians it would be quite a good idea if we had more idea what exactly the celebration is all about.

In a way, you could say that Jesus does not need to rise from the dead, indeed that he does not really need to die! After all God is great, and he could simply say to us “Death is defeated. I offer you eternal life in Paradise” and that would be that. The problem is that we could go on from there and say that neither did God need to come to us as Jesus, a human being like us. God could also simply have said, “I love you human beings and I will always be with you” and it would be the case.

There are, of course, some believers who actually hold that view (I will not name them but you might work out whom I am talking about) so we need to work out why they hold that view, and why we think that what they believe is not enough. Their argument is based on a very high understanding of God. They say “God is God. He cannot become a human being and he certainly cannot suffer or die and so has no need to rise from the dead.”  

We Christians believe that this is a limited view of God. Indeed it limits God. In effect, in Jesus, God surprises us. God comes much closer to us than we can ever imagine in our wildest dreams. And why? Because God knows what we are like. He made us and he knows that we need not just to know that he has defeated death but also need to have this demonstrated to us. Just as he demonstrates his love to us, by becoming one of us, born as a human baby to a human mother, so he demonstrates to us that he is with us as we face death, and can and has defeated death for ever. As St Peter says in our 2nd Reading (1 Peter 1:3-9) “God.. in his great mercy has given us a new birth as sons, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, so that we can have a sure hope, and the promise of an inheritance that can … never fade away.”

What is central here is that by these actions God has drawn us much closer to him than merely listening to him with our ears or even seeing him with our eyes. I stressed this last Sunday when I pointed out that St John believed that Jesus had risen from the dead without seeing anything except an empty tomb. His love for Jesus, his relationship with Jesus was enough. Today, St John goes on in our Gospel (John 20:19-31) to tell of some of the experiences of the risen Jesus that the other disciples had. He leads up to the most stubborn of all, dear doubting Thomas, who would not believe unless he actually saw. St John knows that for many of us, Thomas is a great help, for we too have our doubts and uncertainties, but he also wants to remind us that we do not have to actually see the risen Jesus in order to believe.

But although we do not need to see the Risen Jesus to believe, we do need to know that he actually has risen from the dead, that he actually is alive in this new transformed way. Thus God demonstrates his saving love. Now “demonstrate” is a word used by scientists to prove that what they say about the world is true. Most of us have never seen these scientific demonstrations, in fact in some cases such demonstrations cannot be seen by the human eye, and yet they are essential to our belief that what scientists say is usually true.  In the same way, God, who is outside and totally different from his creation, actually chooses to enter into his creation to demonstrate his relationship with it, and thus with us. Thus the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus are all God acting in this way to make these truths about himself and his relationship to us as clear as such a mystery ever can be clear.

It is worth remembering finally, that like the demonstration of the scientist, these things are true whether people believe in them or not. As St John says “These are recorded that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ”. He wants us to believe in order to get the full benefit of God’s saving love and gift of eternal life. But the love of God for us exists whether we believe or not. It was the same at the first Easter and thereafter. Some saw the empty tomb but preferred to believe that the disciples had tricked everyone by stealing the body. Others, like Thomas, refused to believe until they were given some experience to convince them. But others, whom St John praises, like us, mostly believe without seeing anything at all. In the end, we believe because if God, the creative power underlying the Universe, is not a God of love, does not offer eternal life beyond death, is not shown to us in Jesus,  then life for us is no longer worth living. “What good would life have been to us had Christ not come as our Redeemer?”  (from The Exsultet sung at the Easter Vigil)

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