When Easter Means Nothing
With Easter Sunday now behind us for yet another year, I fear that for many Christians, we still miss the glorious point of Jesus’ resurrection.
The Lord Jesus did not rise from the dead to merely give you life-after-death in some spiritualized, disembodied, “when-I-die-hallelujah-by-and-by-I’ll-fly-away”-type experience. No, the point of the resurrection of the Lord is quite clear: as believers, we will also be raised from the dead.
If we bypass Easter with an understanding that Jesus’ resurrection merely means that our souls live forever with him while our body rots in the ground forever; we have missed the point of Easter and the resurrection entirely.
Christian Escapism and Southern Gospel Music
The revivalism that became nearly synonymous with rural evangelicalism in the middle of nineteenth century brought with it a renewed emphasis on eschatology. The American Civil War followed by World War I not fifty years later solidified a more pessimistic, cataclysmic view of the end of the world. This end now seemed closer than ever. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 (lasting for nearly ten years), many Christians further entrenched themselves in apocalyptic theology. The answer, then, for dealing with the hardships of this life (war, poverty, famine, etc.) was simply escapism.
Perhaps no product of this era for evangelicals and fundamentalists more accurately illustrates their working theology of death, judgment, and the after-life more than Southern Gospel Music. Known mostly today through quartets and the Bill Gaither Homecoming series; most trace the birth of modern Southern Gospel Music (proper) to Albert E. Brumley. Although certainly hard to pinpoint, Brumley’s classic, “I’ll Fly Away,” is often hailed as the quintessential Southern Gospel song. The core of the song is fairly simply defined by the chorus:
I’ll fly away, O glory!
I’ll fly away (in the mornin’).
When I die, hallelujah by and by,
I’ll fly away.
But perhaps the most telling (and defining) lines in this classic song come as Brumley defines this present, physical life (and body) as, “prison walls,” and, “iron shackles.” In fact, the myriad of songs that Brumley penned feature this constant theme. The “victory” spoken of in Brumley’s, “Victory in Jesus,” comes ultimately, “some sweet day… up there;” and “He Set me Free,” clearly depicts our departure from this life as being “Glory bound, my Jesus to see.”
Now let it be said up front that I believe in the orthodox, Christian, evangelical doctrine of life-after-death. That upon death, we will face God who will then gather our soul to himself in bliss or will send it to Hell to await the final judgment at the end of time. This sentence is of course based on our response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who believe, “to die is gain,” and to be “absent from the body [is to be] present with the Lord” (Heb. 9:27; Phil. 1:21, 2 Cor. 5:8).
But… this is not the end. This is not the victory in which Christians are to hope.
Something Better Ahead
Brumley, like the rest of us, was a product of his time. His theology, like anyone else’s, was formed and re-formed in a historical, cultural, political, and social context. None of us come to faith in a historical vacuum; but are just as influenced by our surroundings as anyone else. For Brumley, “The War to End All Wars,” and a ten-year depression certainly had an impact on his view of God, the gospel, and our hope as believers. Most assuredly, when every material “hope” comes crashing down around us, God has a unique way of pointing believers toward their true hope that is, “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet. 1:4). Brumley, along with many disillusioned, disenfranchised, outcast, impoverished, and poor Christians could only ever hope for something better to come; if not in this life, then in the next.
To simply throw out a term like, “escapism,” might be a bit irresponsible. I have no doubt that many Christians during this era were hard-working, laborious, God-honoring stewards of their time and minimal resources. I have no interest in painting the entirety of Christianity as an escapist culture during this time. However, there is a real sense of eschatological escapism that grips evangelical Christianity during this time; a grip that still holds for many to this day. That “grip” is clearly defined in the ideas that life is hard, “this world is not my home,” this body will get sick and die, but something better is waiting in Heaven for me. To many, life-after-death is the finale, the end of the story, and the hope of the gospel.
Surely such a message is central to Christianity.
But we turn a dangerous corner when we begin to see the physical, tangible, and earthly as merely “prison bars,” “iron shackles,” and a tomb from which we want to be free. This is especially true when it comes to the nature of our physical body and what it means to be a human being.
An Old Heresy Repurposed
Brumley, and many others, in picturing Heaven as merely the place we go when we die and that as the ultimate hope for the believer, err in much the same way as the Gnostics of old. By calling the physical, “bad,” and the spiritual, “good,” we create a dichotomy that God did not intend and Jesus did not embody. When we see our physical human bodies as simply, “tombs,” and “prison bars,” which are to be escaped; we miss the point of God’s created order, we miss the point of Christ’s resurrection, and we ultimately miss the point of the gospel.
When God created mankind as a union of physical and spiritual, soul and body, he said, “it is good.” This shows us that, from the very beginning, God’s design for humanity was that it would be a divinely designed combination of material and immaterial, spiritual and physical. The physical did not become bad when Adam and Eve fell into sin; nor is the physical unimportant to what it means to be human. Far from it! To be human is to have a body; a physical, material body. This body is divinely conjoined to an immortal soul. This is how God designed it. Furthermore, this is how our Lord Jesus came to us. He did not come as some hybrid in which the spiritual and physical were separated, rendering the physical as, “man,” and the spiritual as, “God.” No, but Jesus came as fully God and fully man with, “two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably,” linked as divine and human (Chalcedonian Creed), soul and body.
When Jesus died on the cross, he died a literal death as a human being whose spirit went to the hands of his Father (Luke 23:46). We as Christians obviously believe that this man, Jesus, who had just died on the cross, arose form the dead three days later showing his victory over sin, death, and Hell. This resurrection points to a future victory; a victory that can only be realized when our physical bodies are raised to life and reunited with our disembodied souls. Without that, there is no hope and things will never again be as God intended them.
The Victory God Intended
But how easy is it for us to miss the point here? If we understand our own, “victory,” in Heaven as simply being rid of our earthly, physical body; what are we really saying about Christ’s resurrection? That he only resurrected spiritually? That he escaped the, “iron shackles,” of his physical body and was, “set free,” to now live as a perfect, spiritual person? BY NO MEANS!
But this is exactly what we are inadvertently confessing when we sing songs that carry that idea. This is exactly what we are confessing when we think of death as a, “victory,” and freedom.
Yes, the death of the Christian is precious and is the gateway to seeing our Savior face to face in heavenly peace and bliss; but it is not the end! This is not the “New Heavens and New Earth,” we are not yet in the, “New Jerusalem,” we do not yet have our new bodies, and the ultimate “victory” we have in Jesus has not yet been realized. That is because, “the last enemy is death,” as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:26. And, at least for now, death is still a reality.
In 1 Corinthians 15, often known as the, “Resurrection chapter,” Paul clarifies for the eschatalogically-confused Corinthians, the importance and centrality not only of Christ’s resurrection (which is of “first importance”), but the resurrection of the body for every believer.
Surely we understand that our own bodily resurrection is dependent upon the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead; but Paul makes a powerful claim when he turns the tables:
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”
-1 Corinthians 15:13.
Did you get that? Not only is our own resurrection dependent on Christ’s resurrection; but Paul says if we will not be raised, then even Christ is not raised. The truths go hand in hand. To say we believe in our own bodily resurrection without believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is absurd; but it is clearly equally absurd to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ without believing in our own bodily resurrection.
Most Christians would obviously agree that the dead in Christ will be raised, “imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). But how often do we betray this clear doctrine by singing about and imagining an over-realized eschatology, viewing death merely as some kind of finale whereby we are at last free of our physical bodies (as if that’s what God intended)?
We must clearly understand that death is our enemy. He has been de-fanged and doomed through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, but it still stinks. We must clearly understand that death does not bring our ultimate victory or freedom. Though it does carry believers into the immediate presence of God and Christ, it is an enemy that is yet awaiting the final judgment. But the resurrection of Christ from the dead tells us for sure that that final judgment is coming when at last the “Seed of the woman,” crushes the head of the serpent and death itself is, “swallowed up in victory” (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 25; 1 Cor. 15:54).
May I suggest a small change in the lyrics to Brumley’s classic that may help us out?
When I RISE, hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away!