Results tagged “resurrection” from Reformation21 Blog

If Christ is Not Risen...

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I've always had something of an aversion to the "if Christianity is not true what do you lose" sort of apologetical approach--precisely because Scripture is God's word and because it is perfect in all that God reveals in it. To raise the question almost seems to inadvertantly jeopardize the veracity of it. Nevertheless, that is precisely the kind of reasoning that the Apostle Paul utilized in 1 Corinthians 15 after he appealed to the clear teaching of Scripture about Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-3). Writing to a church that was in danger of allowing false teaching to creep in, the Apostle tackled the issue of what was at stake if we deny the resurrection. Beginning in verse 12, Paul raises eight "ifs" (following them up with some of the weightiest of all theology) in order to explain the significance of the resurrection for the life of the believers. Consider the following eight "ifs" about the implications of denying the resurrection:

  • If Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (v. 12)
  • If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen...If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. (vv. 13, 16)
  • If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. (v. 14)
  • We are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up--if in fact the dead do not rise. (v. 15)
  • If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (vv. 17-18)
  • If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (v. 19)
  • If the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (v. 29)
  • If the dead do not rise, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!" (v. 32)
According to the Apostle's argument, one can categorize all that is lost--if the resurrection never occurred--under the following heads:

1. The Apostolic Message. The first thing that is lost, if we deny the resurrection, is the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Apostolic message. That is the central message of Christianity. How can some profess to be Christians and deny the central message of Christianity? The resurrection cannot be said to be a mythological or analogical story. It was an historical event that turned the world upside down. This, Paul, said--at the outset of the chapter--was an essential part of what was "of first importance." In essence, Paul is saying, "If there is no resurrection, we have nothing left to preach because our message centers on Christ having been raised from the dead." 
2. A Living Redeemer. Next, the Apostle heightens the argument by insinuating that if there is no resurrection from the dead then "Christ is not risen." We not only lose the central message of Christianity, if there is no resurrection--we lose the central figure of Christianity, namely, the living, reigning and returning Lord Jesus Christ. 
3. The Efficacy of the Apostolic Word. As Paul proceeds with his argument, he told the Corinthians that the resurrection ensures the efficacy of the word of God. If Christ is not risen, there is no power behind the message proclaimed and there is no power in the life of those who receive the preaching of the Gospel. Paul uses a form of the word κενος in verse 10, 14 and 58 in order to bolster this argument. He tells his readers in verse 10, "God's grace to me was not in vain." Then in verse 58, he reminds them that the resurrection of Christ ensures that their "labor is not in vain in the Lord." Couched in between these bookends, Paul emphasizes that if Christ is not risen then his preaching and their faith is in vain (i.e. empty and powerless). 
4. Apostolic Trustworthiness. Moving on to another aspect of the resurrection, Paul explains that if Christ is not risen from the dead then he and the other apostles are false witnesses. He goes so far as to say that they would then be "false witnesses of God," because they "bore witness of God." There is an inseparability between the apostolic testimony and the testimony of God. Not only would the apostles be found untrustworthy--God would be found to be untrustworthy. The resurrection of Jesus secures the covenant faithfulness and absolute trustworthiness of God and His appointed witnesses. 
5. The Forgiveness of Sins. Perhaps the greatest of Paul's arguments is that which he sets out in verses 17-18. If Jesus is not raised then no one has their sins forgiven. The logical implication of this is that those who have professed faith in Christ but who have already died have perished because they would not have had their sins forgiven. The forgiveness of sin is the greatest of all needs that we have. If Jesus was not raised from the dead then we would have to conclude that His sacrifice was insufficient to atone for the sins of God's people and propitiate the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin. The writer to the Hebrews captures the connection between the atonement and the resurrection so well when he writes, "The God of peace brought again from the dead the Lord Jesus...through the blood of the everlasting Covenant" (Heb. 13:20). The blood of Jesus is the efficacious cause of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the validation that His blood was sufficient to atone for the sins of His people. 
6. An Everlasting Hope. The Apostle began to introduce the idea of eternal hope when he claimed that those who have "fallen asleep in Jesus" have perished if He has not been raised from the dead. Now, Paul shows another side. He focuses on the hope that believers have in this life. He speaks of this hope elsewhere, when, speaking of the death of beloved Christians, he tells believers that we do not sorrow "as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). 
7. Union with Christ. Everything in 1 Cor. 15 centers on the believer's union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Our resurrection from the dead is guaranteed on the basis of our faith-union with Christ. When the Apostle asks the incredibly confusing question, "Why then are they baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise," he appears to be speaking of the union that believers have with Christ (represented by their baptism into Christ). If this is correct, the argument would run thus: "If the dead do not rise--and Christ then belongs in the category of the dead--why then are you baptized into union with the dead." Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards espouse this particular way of explaining the Apostle's argument
8. Joy in Tribulation. Finally, Paul argues that if there is no resurrection then he and the other apostles suffered for nothing. It was joy in the truth about the risen Christ--and the hope of the resurrection of believers--that drove the Apostles forward to endure all of the persecution that they bore for the sake of the Gospel and the building up of the people of God. Paul reasons that, if there is no resurrection, we should give ourselves entire to hedonistic living--because that would be all there would be in which to find joy in this empty, futile and passing world. 

There is so much more that Paul brings forward in this chapter to show the significance of and inevitable consequences of the resurrection; however, these are the explicit arguments that he puts forth to establish in the minds and hearts of believers what we lose if we do not hold firmly to the biblical truth about the resurrection from the dead. In short, we have everything to lose if we don't preserve the truth of the resurrection and everything to gain by constantly abiding in it.

Striving to Escape the Fall

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Marathons, mud runs, CrossFit, Yoga, diets, non-GMO and gluten-free foods, Christian financial programs, anti-vaccination and homeschooling have--each in their own way--taken over the driver's seat of the lives of so many in the church. While all of these things, in and of themselves, may be good things and have their proper place in a believer's life, they often hold too prominent a place. It is fairly easily to gauge whether we have given these things too prominent a place in our hearts and lives; we can be sure that we have when they become the overwhelming subject of conversation we have at church, when we get together with others and in what we spend out time reading or writing on social media. After all, Jesus taught us that we speak most what our hearts value most (Luke 6:45). So, what do these things--that seem so completely unassociated with one another--have in common? They can all be ways that we try to control our lives in order to escape the misery that is the effect of the fall.

"The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery." So wrote the members of the Westminster Assembly in Q. 17 of the Shorter Catechism. Everything negative in this life falls into one of these two categories--namely, sin and misery. The catechism goes on to explain the estate of misery when it says, "All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever." Sin and misery are the all-encompassing and inescapable realities of this life in this fallen world. Christ came into the world to redeem us from our sin and the misery of this fallen world, and to give us eternal holiness and happiness. While Jesus bore the curse in our place, took the guilt and power of our sin upon Himself at Calvary and reconciled us to God (thereby, definitively dealing with our sin), the misery that came into the world on account of the fall remains until the resurrection. We are all subject--no matter what physical, dietary, monetary, medical and educational decisions that we make--to "all miseries in this life, to death itself."

The Scriptures actually have quite a lot to say about the things that we foolishly trust in order to escape the misery of life. For instance, the Apostle Paul explained to Timothy that "bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4:8). All forms of exercise may "profit a little;" however, they are not paramount in the life of the believer. The pursuit of "godliness" in light of "the world to come" must be of chief importance.

Concerning foods, Jesus Himself made the audacious statement (i.e. audacious in light of the temporary dietary restrictions of the Old Covenant era), "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Matt. 15:11). The Apostle Paul followed this with a warning about the danger of falling into the false religion of dietary asceticism when he wrote, "If you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations--'Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,' which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men" (Co. 2:20-22)? The danger of being susceptible to these things is that they "have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, humility, and neglect of the body." However, when considered spiritually, "they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:23).

The Apostle also warned the members of the church against loving money when he wrote, "those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition" (1 Tim. 6:9). By way of contrast, he commanded "those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17). For ever one verse in Scripture about God's desire for believers to be financially responsible there are two words about the ever present danger of greed. Often only the Lord knows whether we are being "financial responsible" or hiding greed behind the idea of "financial responsibility." Money is one of the greatest ways that men and women try to escape the fall, because in our minds money can purchase safety and satisfaction--happiness and health. 

No matter how health conscious men and women may choose to be, the Scriptures make it clear that no one can escape the reality of sickness and disease in this fallen world. We read that King Asa, "in the time of his old age was diseased in his feet"..."his malady was severe; yet in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but the physicians" (1 Kings 15:23; 2 Chron. 16:12). This isn't teaching us that we should avoid medicine or homeopathic treatment. Neither is it teaching us that "if we just have enough faith God will heal us." Rather, it is teaching that the use of secondary means for healing is in vain if we are not trusting the Lord. No amount of sensitivity to the intricacies of medicinal or homeopathic practices can ever give what the Lord alone can give. For many in the church, a preoccupation with health practices is nothing less than an attempt to seek to avoid the effects of the fall--for themselves and their children--by natural means and measures.

In the same way, (and, I write this as someone who homeschools) many who chose to homeschool have (perhaps unknowingly) convinced themselves that this is how we are to protect our children from the world. While we should be absolutely committed to the Christian theistic education of our children, no environmental or situational form of education was ever instituted by God to safeguard our children from the world or to change our children's hearts. I have known plenty of children who were homeschooled by competent and godly parents who are now "off the spiritual reservation."
Education should never be embraced as a way to escape the effects of the fall. Education (even Christian education) is a good servant but a bad Savior.

We learn from the book of Job that the wisest and godliest of men and women is still subject to the most severe suffering and the greatest of miseries in this life--even when they have not done anything foolish or sinful to deserve that suffering. When we trust in exercise, diet, financial programs, medical practices and educational reforms to escape the fall, we will ultimately find ourselves to be frustrated with the outcome. God has promised to deliver believers from the guilt and power sin and the miseries of this life and the life to come only through the last man, Jesus Christ. 

In so many ways, we are all striving to escape the fall; yet finding it to be a futile enterprise. There is a day coming when everything that men inconsequentially strive after in this fallen world will become the confident possession of the believer; but, only in the resurrection. So, while "physical exercise profits," it profits little. While caring about what we eat matters, it matters little. While seeking to be fiscally responsible matters, greed is always lurking at our door. While pursuing wise medical choices matters, it is no sure safeguard against sickness; and, while wanting to give our children the best form of education we can give them matters, it cannot ultimately protect them from the evils of their own hearts. Only Christ can give what we are so often foolishly seek after in these things. Only Jesus will deliver us from the effects of the fall in the resurrection on the last day. So, "it's better to trust in the Lord" than in any of these fleeting and fading things (Ps. 118:8-9).

Laying R.I.P. to Rest

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I have great admiration for non-Christians who have contributed to the improvement of society through their inventions, production, leadership, literature and art. My wife and I were recently reflecting on the remarkable ways in which Steve Jobs' labors helped changed the world in which we live. I love so many of the beautiful works of art and music that have been the product of secular artists; and, I do not, for one second, believe that we should sequester ourselves from the use and enjoyment of the contributions of self-avowed unbelievers in the world arounds us; otherwise, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "you would need to go out of this world" (1 Cor. 5:10). There is a common grace principle at work in the world by which God allows men to benefit their neighbors, making life in this fallen world a little less painful than it would otherwise be.

That being said, I've noticed something of a concerning trend over the past several years. It is the way in which believers speak about culture-impacting individuals at their deaths. Instead of simply expressing appreciation for their life and achievements, it has become commonplace for Christians to use the shorthand R.I.P. ("rest in peace") on social media when speaking of individuals--in whose lives there was no evidence of saving grace--at their death. At the risk of sounding ill-tempered, I wish to set out several reasons why I am troubled by this occurrence.

First, when we employ the abbreviation R.I.P. we are inevitably admitting a state or condition inseparably linked to the idea of the afterlife. We are not speaking of something indifferent to the truth of the hereafter. Someone might push back at this point, suggesting that R.I.P. is nothing other than a way of expressing appreciation for an individual's life and achievements. However, while certain words and phrases can be fluid in their meaning (e.g. "goodbye" has taken on a different meaning than its Old English sense, "God be with you"), "rest in peace" gives the sense that the deceased are "in a better place"--a place of rest and peace. If we care about the eternal salvation of men, and whether or not they are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life, then we should painstakingly avoid giving the sense that we believe in any form of universalism whatsoever.

Second, as Christians we should revolt at the idea of "praying for the dead," since there is not a single ounce of biblical support for such an idea. By saying "rest in peace," we necessarily run the risk of giving the impression that we are saying a prayer for the deceased--whether for self-professed unbelievers or self-professed believers. This alone ought to give us pause as to whether we should seek to abandon the practice.

Third, the Scriptures teach very clearly the costly nature of both rest and peace. The biblical narrative is one of the redemptive rest that God has promised to provide through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession and return of Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-10). The eschatological rest that Jesus has purchased for believers comes at the costly price of His blood (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Peter 1:19). Additionally, the Scriptures are clear that there is "no peace for the wicked" (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). The LORD warned, through the prophets, of the false prophets' message of "Peace, Peace!" when there was no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that God has purchased peace only "through the blood of the cross" (Col. 1:20). The rest and peace for which we should long--both for ourselves and for those around us--is grounded on the nature of the Person and atoning death of Jesus. If men have spent their lives rejecting the Gospel and have not professed faith in Jesus, we should not be offering them posthumous well wishes. It puts the nature of the exclusivity of Jesus and the Gospel in jeopardy--even if that is not our intention.

This does not mean that believers are to be hasty or uncharitable in the way in which we speak of the death of those who most likely died in unbelief--or that we are to speak in such a way as to indicate that we know with certainty where someone has gone when they have died. Surely, we have comfort and joy when someone who has professed faith in Christ--and in whose life there was fruit that they are in Christ (Matt. 7:16, 20)--departs from this life. It is the great comfort of believers to know that their fellow believers are now "resting in peace," as they "rest in Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:14). The Old Testament speaks of believers as being "gathered to their people" at their death (Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:29, 33). This is reserved only for believers. It is set in contrast with how the Scriptures speak of unbelievers at their deaths. However, when asked about those who never professed faith in Christ--someone who has spent the better part of his or her life adhering to some particular false religion--we should remember that none of us knows what God the Holy Spirit has done in the hearts of men and women moments prior to their death. None of us knows whether the regenerating grace of God has come at the final moment; and, therefore, we should only now be seeking to warn the living of the wrath to come in order to hold out the hope of redeeming grace in Christ.

In a day when the biblical doctrine of Hell has virtually disappeared from pulpits across the land, and the social conventions of the time demand more seemingly congenial speech than the Scriptures exemplify and require, we should give great personal examination to what we are saying and why we are saying what we are saying. We should weigh the implications of our speech, both in verbal and written form, remembering that the same Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 1:28-29) also said, "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36).

On Burials and Bargains

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Upon the surface, Genesis 23 seems rather curious in its choice of emphases. In the terse space of a single verse it records Sarah's death and Abraham's mourning (Gen. 23.2). The remaining twenty-odd verses (Gen. 23.3-20) of the chapter summarize Abraham's efforts -- admittedly intriguing but seemingly less significant -- to secure a proper place of sepulture for his deceased wife. "It is remarkable," Calvin comments, "that Moses, who relates the death of Sarah in a single word, uses so many in describing her burial."

Nevertheless, the Reformer, far from judging said account of Abraham's efforts "superfluous," finds in it critical fodder for reflection on two matters: human burial practices and the equally common if less grave (no pun intended) human art of haggling over prices.

To note the latter first, Calvin draws some significance from Abraham's careful and repeated insistence upon paying "full price" (Gen. 23.9) for a burial plot for Sarah. There is, Calvin believes, theological significance in Abraham's refusal to receive said plot as a gift: Abraham knows that this plot constitutes one piece of the land promised to him by God, and he will not receive from the hand of a heathen that which God ultimately intends to deliver to him. But Abraham also, to Calvin's thinking, exemplifies a properly moral approach to financial transactions more generally in his insistence upon paying "full price" for this land. Abraham essentially refuses, on moral grounds, a bargain -- and so Calvin implies (to our great discomfort I'm sure) should we in our own financial affairs.

Calvin assumes that all items should be bought and sold for their actual, inherent worth, utterly regardless of issues like supply, demand, or concern for profit margin. This conviction informs rather harsh words on his part for both retailers and consumers and their intuitive stance towards the other: "Where is there one to be found, who, in buying, and in other business, does not eagerly pursue his own advantage at another's cost? For while the seller sets the price at twice the worth of a thing, that he may extort as much as possible from the buyer, and the buyer, in return, by shuffling, attempts to reduce it to a low price, there is no end of bargaining." Thus "avarice" trumps "equity and justice."

Needless to say, perhaps, such morally loaded thinking about the practice of purchasing spells likely disaster for capitalist economies (no matter the notable efforts of some to enlist Calvin as an early modern champion for the same). It also likely stands to dampen considerably our enthusiasm for whatever bargains we (naively) believe we have bagged at whatever recent sale. On a more positive note, it might provide much-needed moral dimension to our outrage at inflated medical costs or bewilderment at fluctuating petrol prices.

Moving on. Calvin's comments on human burial practices are relatively surprising in light of his notorious insistence some years later that he himself be buried in an unmarked grave. One might anticipate Calvin taking a dour view of all ritual and custom whatsoever connected with burial of the dead. And, to be sure, Calvin does take a jab at both pagans and "papists" for their efforts "to outdo each other in various superstitions" and "ceremonies" attached to burial of their deceased. But the most basic (and ceremonial) act of burial itself -- an act Calvin perceives as "common" to every culture and civilization -- testifies not, in Calvin's judgment, to "foolish curiosity," "the desire of fruitless consolation," or universal "superstition," but rather to "the natural sense with which God has imbued the minds of men; a sense he has never suffered to perish, in order that men might be witnesses to themselves of a future life."

Calvin, in other words, believes that humankind's innate inclination to place their dead six feet (or so) under reflects some deeply imbedded, inherent, universal recognition of an "hour... coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Christ's] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5. 28-29). Thus, while Calvin warns his readers against overly elaborate burial rituals, he will not let burial per se be stripped of its fundamental religious significance. "It cannot be denied that religion carries along with the care of burial." Burial is, in biblical-theological terms, a type (to which resurrection answers as the antitype). Every concrete act of placing a body in the ground, Calvin judges, witnesses to some future moment when that body will rise from the ground.

But Abraham's peculiar approach to burying his wife contains further religious significance in light of the peculiar promises that God has made to him. Abraham, it must be remembered, has been promised the land he currently traverses as a stranger as a permanent possession for his posterity (cf. Gen. 17.8). Abraham's insistence upon burying his wife in that land, and his concomitant refusal to see her buried indiscriminately among the heathen occupying that land, testifies to Abraham's faith and conviction of her share in that exclusive promise. Calvin discovers particular significance in this regard from the fact that Abraham proved far more concerned to secure a place of burial for Sarah (and ultimately himself) in the Promised Land than he did a place for them to dwell while Sarah was living (see Heb. 11.9).

Calvin writes: "[Abraham] bought a cave, in order that he might possess for himself and his family, a holy and pure sepulcher. He did not desire to have a foot of earth whereon to fix his tent; he only took care about his grave; and he especially wished to have his own domestic tomb in that land, which had been promised him for an inheritance, for the purpose of bearing testimony to posterity, that the promise of God was not extinguished, either by his own death, or by that of his family; but that it then rather began to flourish; and that they who were deprived of the light of the sun, and of the vital air, yet always remained joint-partakers of the promised inheritance. For while they themselves were silent and speechless, the sepulcher cried aloud, that death formed no obstacle to their entering on the possesses of it."

In sum, then, Abraham's care regarding Sarah's burial reflected Abraham's understanding that such provided concrete witness to two realities: first, that Sarah would rise again; and second, that Sarah was an heir of the land in which she was interred.

Of course, if Calvin's reading of Abraham's thinking (or rather, faith) on the matter of Sarah's burial is correct, Gen. 23 assumes much significance for how we approach burial in our own time and place. Much like Abraham and his family in Gen. 23, we are currently subject to death but anticipate resurrection from the same (cf. 1 Cor. 15.12-57) and we are heirs of a rather concrete piece of terrestrial real estate ("Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Matt. 5.5; cf. 2 Peter 3.13). Much like Abraham, then, our own approach to burying loved ones (or, for that matter, planning for our own burials) should reflect our faith in and longing for these two concrete promises of God.

To put the matter another way, we should, if Calvin is correct, approach burial with acute sensitivity to the message burial (or, alternatively, the lack thereof) communicates to others. Burial is fundamentally an act of witness and confession (both to God and others). Elaborate tombstones arguably testify to an over-investment in the riches and honors of this present world. Contempt for burial whatsoever (cremation?) likewise communicates, in its own discrete way, a failure in expectation for the resurrection and eternal possession that God has promised his people. A modest burial sends just the right message: this body, even in death, constitutes (together with the soul) one with whom God is decidedly not finished; one who stands (together with God's people) to possess the very land in which he or she now rests in all its transformed beauty and glory.

What Should Christians Think about Cremation?

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Over recent years, I have noticed that more and more Christians are opting for the cremation of their bodies after death. The primary reason for this seems to be financial, as cremation is considerably more affordable than the pricey cost of caskets, plus the other amenities of a funeral, visitation, and memorial service. The assumption seems to be that cremation versus burial is a matter of complete indifference, a subject about which the Bible has little or nothing to say. Let me admit, up front, that the Bible does not forbid cremation and loved ones have no reason to worry that a cremated body will be ineligible for the future resurrection. After all, bodies that have been in the ground for centuries have likely disintegrated as much or more than a cremated body. Moreover, the future resurrection is a miracle from start to finish. We may trust God, who made everything out of nothing, to sort out the molecules when it comes to the coming resurrection of our bodies. My own parents asked to be cremated, and we their children honored that request. So in raising the subject of a Christian view of cremation, I do not believe that ultimate matters are at stake. 

This does not mean, however, that a fully biblical perspective will be indifferent when it comes to creation or burial. Rather, as I will argue, the Bible presents a strong argument in favor of burial over cremation. The Bible has a lot to say about death, after all. 

From the earliest times in Scripture, burial was the normal means of dealing with dead bodies. When Abraham's wife Sarah died - and this is the first formal burial we find in Scripture - burial tombs were used (Gen. 23:4-6). Abraham's family were all buried in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre (Gen. 25:9). Many years later, when the first high priest, Aaron, died, we are told that he was buried (Deut. 10:9). The death of Moses is perhaps particularly instructive: "And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is" (Deut. 34:5-6). It was God who dealt with Moses' bodily remains and he buried him in the ground. In Deuteronomy 21:22, a stipulation is made that even a capital criminal who is put to death is accorded the right to be buried. Of course, the great example in the Bible is the record of the burial of Jesus Christ. Matthew 27:57-59 tells of Joseph of Arimathea gaining permission from Pilate to bury our Lord's body in a new tomb cut out of the rock. 

From very early in the Bible we also find the use of perfumes and spices to prepare the body for the grave. 2 Chronicles 16:14 observes that this happened for the body of King Asa. The intent was not really preservation, as in Egyptian mummification, but purification of the body. John 19:39 tells of the great amount of myrrh and aloes and spices used by Joseph and Nicodemus for the preparation of Jesus' body. The body, though dead, still warranted love, care, and honor. 

What about cremation? The Bible does mention it. In Joshua 7, Joshua proclaimed that whoever was found with the dedicated items stolen from Jericho "shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him" (7:15). When it was discerned that a man named Achan was the guilty party, the Israelites stoned and cremated his entire household, including his animal livestock (Jos. 7:25). Leviticus 20:14 calls for the burning of a man who marries a woman and her mother. The same was true for any priest's daughter who became a prostitute (Lev. 21:9). There are other examples, but you get the picture. Burning of human remains spoke of judgment on sin, which also will be, the Bible says, by fire. 

It is always the case that our views of the afterlife will influence how we handle the bodies of those who have died. This is true not just of Christians but of everybody else. Our theology will shape the way we approach all of life's great events, be they childbirth, marriage, the coming of the annual harvest, etc. 

Let's first deal with the theologies aligned with cremation. In the ancient world there were a variety of reasons. Some peoples seem to have feared the dead and so they wanted to get rid of them. More sophisticated people, like the later Greeks and Romans, who greatly favored cremation, seem to have been guided by philosophical views that downgraded the body in comparison to the spirit. Just about all the ancient philosophies had little use for the body. In general, cremation reflects a low view of the body after death, however one may view the fate of the liberated soul. 

What about today? I earlier stated that the primary motive for cremation seems to be financial. But we can also observe that a new age mysticism is motivating, however vaguely, renewed interest in cremation today. 

Some time ago, I ran across a touching story regarding the spreading of a loved ones' ashes. The man who had died was a mountain climber and his friends carried his ashes to the top of Mt. McKinley, the highest spot in North America. That is no small feat and it surely expressed real devotion. With great reverence, the friends observed a moment of silence, after which they let his ashes go so that "his spirit could float above the mountains." Then they turned around and left. 

On one level, I am touched by the gesture. But Christians should also be grieved by the despair and meaninglessness that attends death apart from faith in the resurrection. The best we can do is 15 minutes of afterlife fame followed by nothing but warm memories and annihilation by dispersion. 

Christian burial is motivated by a far different view of life after death. The New Testament describes those who have died as being "asleep" (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51). This is not a description of the soul or spirit, for the believing dead are not asleep but with the Lord in heaven. It is the body that sleeps, and sleep is a temporary condition. The bodies that sleep are awaiting their wake-up call on the resurrection morning. I like to think in these terms when I find myself in a cemetery, especially the kind of church graveyards that one finds attached to older churches. This graves are not merely the place where long-dead bodies lie but also the ground on which those glorified bodies will rise to meet the Lord on the resurrection morning! What a valuable place a cemetery is! 

Without doubt, it is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body that has motivated the Christian practice of burial and the Israelite practice before it. Everywhere Christianity has spread, cremation has given way to proper and respectful burial. Christians have a robust view of the body, both in life and in death. One of the great comforts that we have in this life as we face disease, sickness, and death is the knowledge that they will not have the last word. These bodies that are so integrally a part of ourselves will be resurrected in glory, imperishable and immortal. And though we acknowledge the physics of the grave we are not in alliance with them, nor with death at any level. The apostle Paul writes, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16: 

"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him... For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first."

Everything about this description tells us to honor, to preserve, yes, even to dedicate real estate to the bodies of our beloved family and friends who having died are with Christ in the spirit, whose bodies remain in union with Christ even in the grace, and which await their resurrection in glory at the dawn of a new and undying age when Jesus returns.


Related Resources

Nick Batzig "A Biblical Theology of Burial
David Murray "Was Jesus Still God in the Tomb?"
David Jones "To Bury or To Burn: Cremation in Christian Perspective"

Anticipation

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Last weekend brought with it all the brouhaha that seems to be the sadly-increasing norm among evangelicals with regard to 'holy week' and Easter Sunday. Now, I will deny no man the opportunity to preach about the risen Christ on any day that he chooses. Furthermore, if there is a possibility in a particular place and time that people's ears might be more readily tuned to a certain emphasis, I think it might be wise to take advantage of that. Perhaps there were some stolid brothers who ploughed on with their current expository series last Sunday, preaching their third sermon on the too-often-overlooked significance of Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, who judged Israel after Abimelech but before Jair, of whom an equal amount can be (and shortly - if that is the appropriate word, given that it might require a good month or two to address it - will be) said. I am sure that, in doing so, they have been and will be careful to draw out the redemptive-historical significance of Tola. Nevertheless, for myself, I gladly preached a sermon on the need to remember what the Lord Christ said about the empty tomb for our present and future hope.

And so the brouhaha dies down, at least until next year. After all, this next one is just an ordinary Sunday, isn't it?

If that is your attitude, might I suggest that your view of the Lord's day is sadly deficient and probably damaging. I hope you would not need to be a full-orbed sabbatarian to recognise the significance of the first day of the week, the day on which the Lord Jesus rose from the dead, the day on which he met again and again with his disciples, making himself known to them and impressing upon them the realities of his resurrection.

Christ did not leave his people with an annual opportunity to enjoy that distinctive fellowship with him which is enjoyed by the people of God gathering together for worship on the first day of the week. There may be regular Sundays, in one sense, but there ought to be no ordinary Sundays. Every first day of the week is a commemoration of the risen Christ, a day of worship and praise. The same truths are equally true, the same realities are equally real, the same themes are equally relevant.

Do not let this be the Sunday when you step down. Let it be another step up, another waymarker on your heavenly pilgrimage, another resurrection day. Preach no different sermon, in that sense, certainly no different Christ. Let the same sweet assurances cloud the day, the same underpinning certainties bear up the soul, the same glorious hopes inform the worship. Come to worship this coming Lord's day with just the same eager anticipation as you did last week, and - I hope - the week before that, and before that. Come with the same earnest request of the ministers of the gospel: "We would see Jesus." Come with the same joyful prospect of a fresh sight of and renewed fellowship with the risen Christ, and may he draw near to you as you do so.

With the Lord

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I doubt that many readers of this blog would know a brother by the name of Johnny Farese. Johnny was born with spinal muscular atrophy. By the time I had the privilege of meeting him in person, he had been unable to sit up for about ten years. He was paralysed in both arms and legs, his body twisted and passive. But, for a man who the doctors prophesied would not live beyond his eighth birthday, Johnny led a remarkably productive life. The quote which adorned almost all his emails was this: "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. What I can do, I should do. And what I should do, by the grace of God, I will do."

With these words understood in the light of God's saving grace in Christ Jesus, Johnny set out to serve as he was able. He learned to code and for years maintained a mailing list for and a directory of Reformed Baptist churches, generating much mutual interest and fellowship. All this he did using an intricate arrangement of technology operated through a small tube.

I met Johnny when preaching at a conference in Florida. He listened to pretty much everything he could online, and - the day after the first sermon, when I went to see him - he gave me a lovely illustrated copy of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to which I had referred in passing, which evidently coloured my preaching in Johnny's eyes, and which he had immediately ordered as an expression of kind appreciation. We spoke about some of his labours, his hopes and his fears, the struggles and the joys of his condition. I spoke to his brother, Paul, and his wife and children, with whom Johnny lived, and whose selfless care of him brought its own challenges and burdens.

Johnny's brief written testimony is here, and a few years ago he was featured in a television programme:


The Sovereignty of God from Johnny Farese on Vimeo.


Johnny fell asleep in Christ last Lord's day afternoon. He went to be with Christ, which is far better. His soul has left that battered and twisted body in which he sought to serve his Lord so faithfully and fruitfully. He is present with the Lord, his soul made perfect, his joy entire. He is now looking forward to the day when Christ returns, when his soul shall be reunited with his body, but not as it goes into the ground.
So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed - in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (1Cor 15.42-54)
On that Lord's day morning, I was preaching to the church which I serve on Peter's mother-in-law (Matthew 8.14-15). This woman was saved (and there are parallels with our deliverance from the fiery fever of sin); having been delivered, she served. Johnny knew what it was to have his soul delivered from sin, and he knew what it was to serve. The next time you are tempted to excuse yourself from duties, shirk present responsibilities, and let opportunities pass you by, you should remind yourself of a man who could move only his mouth and his eyes, and offered them readily and constantly to the Lord.

Johnny is still serving his Saviour. He will serve him forever, soon with a restored body to match his striving soul - full of strength and vigour, every capacity and faculty thoroughly enlivened and invigorated, knowing no hindrance or obstacle - in the new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells, and where sickness, sorrow, pain and trouble are long past.

Dangerous ideas

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A friend drew my attention to an Australian programme called Q&A in which four figures engage in a moderated discussion responding to audience questions (for British readers, think Question Time; not sure what the American equivalent would be, if there is one). The panelists on this occasion were Germaine Greer, Peter Hitchens, Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage. This particular episode can be watched here (with a complete transcript). Please take into account that the language of a couple of participants is sometimes vulgar and a little graphic.

Peter Hitchens, as many will know, is the brother of Christopher Hitchens, and seems (I hope that this is fair to him) as provocatively and intelligently to the right on the political spectrum as his brother was to the left. I watched with interest as Hitchens fought his corner for the duration of the programme. My point here is not on what topics or in what way or to what extent I might agree (or not) with Peter Hitchens, and I do not think his tone always does him many favours, but I appreciated his clarity and courage. I also cannot speak to his personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as a Saviour and King.

Nevertheless, his answer to the final question of the night (found at 57 minutes and 48 seconds on the video) is illuminating (although the discussion about epiphanies at 00:52:28 is also fascinating). The final question was:

Which so-called dangerous idea do you each think would have the greatest potential to change the world for the better if where [sic] implemented?
Watching and/or reading the various answers alongside and in contrast to one another, and the reactions of the other panelists, is instructive.
TONY JONES: Dan, let's start with you.

HANNA ROSIN: Oh, that's a hard one

DAN SAVAGE: Oh, my [deleted].

HANNA ROSIN: You got to give us a minute to think about that.

DAN SAVAGE: Population control. There's too many [deleted] people on the planet. And I don't know if that's a - you know, I'm pro-choice. I believe that women should have the right to control their bodies. Sometimes in my darker moments I am anti-choice. I think abortion should be mandatory for about 30 years. That's a dangerous idea. She wanted a dangerous idea. So throw a chair at me.

TONY JONES: That is a very dangerous idea.

HANNA ROSIN: I actually have to think about it for a minute. I have to think about it.

TONY JONES: Okay. Let's go to Germaine.

GERMAINE GREER: Well, I'm always in the same place. The most dangerous idea, the one that terrifies us the most, is freedom - to actually be free - is, to most human beings, disorientating, terrifying but it's the essential bottom line. If you want to be a moral individual you must be free to make choices and that includes making mistakes.

TONY JONES: Peter?

PETER HITCHENS: The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son [sic] of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.

DAN SAVAGE: I'd have to agree with that.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because I think you can't really leave it there, why dangerous?

PETER HITCHENS: I can't really leave it there? Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject It, it alters us all was well. It is incredibly dangerous. It's why so many people turn against it.

TONY JONES: Hanna Rosin?

HANNA ROSIN: I'm tempted to say something about the Jesus Christ but being the Jewish one on the panel I'll let that one go. Given our conversation today, I think I'm going to go with we should watch our children less. We live in a culture which follows our children around, is obsessed with safety, decides everything for our children, doesn't let them have any freedom. Doesn't let them wander. Doesn't let them go anywhere or do anything by themselves and we should, in fact, do less with our children, not more.
I am currently working on a piece for an upcoming conference about public Christianity, and found this helpful statement from Herman Bavinck: "Christians need not hide from their opponents in embarrassed silence; the Christian faith is the only worldview that fits the reality of life." Whatever your political convictions and affiliations, and whatever Peter Hitchens' true spiritual allegiance, he is right about this: if Christ Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again, everything changes. It is the most dangerous idea. The people who ought to be most clear about this, by what we say and how we live, are true believers.

Fair prospects

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Robert Candlish on the prospects for the resurrection body:
And when all is spiritual, and all immortal, what an opening is there for the spiritual and immortal soul, possessed of a kindred body, and ushered into a congenial world, -- first, to express itself in communion with all holy intelligence, unembarrassed [and unclogged] by any perishable chains, -- secondly, to receive pure light from the light that shines all around in "the new heavens and the new earth," and, thirdly, to go forth, with strength proportioned to its own untiring aspirations, on the errands of God's holy righteousness and love, over all the realms of creation!
That, brothers and sisters, is something to look forward to!

Giving up Lent

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Because, judging by the annual jamboree, this piece on Lent (and other festivals) is still relevant.

Hope in death

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Not long before Christmas, a father in the Lord went home. For those who lived in my part of the world, Mr Cherry - as he was almost invariably known - was an institution. He died at the age of 95, declining health having kept him only for a few months from his beloved task of preaching the gospel. A keen birdwatcher, his eyes were keen to the end, though his ears had begun to fail him. My two abiding memories of him are of his sitting on the front row of a local ministers' fraternal, so ensuring that he would not miss a word, with those clear eyes fixed on the preacher from underneath a quite phenomenal pair of eyebrows, and of his magazine renewals at the Banner of Truth Conference each year until recently. He would look at me quite seriously, quite gently, and ask for one year's subscription: "Yes, just one year. At this point in my life, Jeremy, anything more would not be wise stewardship." My abiding sense of him is the fragrance of Christ that he brought with him. To hear Mr Cherry pray was to be carried quickly and surely into the presence of a familiar yet hallowed God.

I was not able to be at his funeral. We had a service that day for senior citizens, and we could not imagine that Mr Cherry would wish us to cancel or postpone that for his sake. My parents, however, who knew him well, were able to go. A few days later, my father and I were discussing a passage in Joseph Ivimey's History of the English Baptists, in which Ivimey describes the funeral of another aged servant of the Lord, Dr Andrew Gifford (1700-1784), a pastor at Eagle Street, London. Gifford knew George Whitefield well and loved him dearly. Going to hear Whitefield preach on one occasion, godly Gifford is reported to have said, "I am going to light my farthing rushlight at his flaming torch." That rushlight of Gifford's nevertheless proved a good guide to many, for it was reported of him that when he was more than eighty years old he was more active and zealous in his master's work than many young men of twenty-five.

Ivimey reports Gifford's death thus:
In his last days, while confined by affliction, his friends who visited him said, they found him always in a happy, spiritual, resigned frame; his soul resting on Christ alone for salvation. He often cried out under his heavy pains, but would presently say, " I cannot help groaning, but though I groan, I trust I do not grumble." Three days before his death, being asked how he did; he said, "I am in great pain, but bless God, this is not hell! blessed be God, this is not hell! blessed be God for Jesus Christ." In the last hours of life, being asked whether any of his friends should be sent for, he replied, " I want no friend but Christ; I wish to see no friend but Christ." Some of his last words were, "Oh, what should I do now, were it not for Jesus Christ? What should I do now, were it not for an interest in Jesus Christ?" Thus while affectionately recommending the Saviour to those who were about his bed, he fell asleep in Jesus, about eight o'clock, Saturday evening, June 19, 1784; in the eighty-fourth year of his age; and about the sixtieth of his public ministry. (3:603-604)
Ivimey goes on to report on Gifford's funeral. Some readers may know Bunhill Fields, the old Dissenting burial ground in London where many of the Lord's choice servants are resting. It was here that Dr Gifford was buried. Ivimey records:
The remains of Dr. Gifford were interred on Friday morning, July 2, 1784, in Bunhill-fields, very early in the morning; according to the request of the deceased, who had often wished he might be buried, even earlier than six o'clock, "to testify his faith in the resurrection of Christ, who arose early on the first day of the week, and likewise his hope of the resurrection morning at the last day." It was on this occasion, that the very intimate friend of Dr. Gifford, the Rev. John Ryland of Northampton, while standing on a tomb-stone, delivered that remarkable oration, contrasting the first and second coming of Christ; the powerful eloquence of which has been compared, by no incompetent judge, to the thundering eloquence of Demosthenes. (3:604-605)
Not all of us can dream of preaching on the first and second coming of Christ with "the thundering eloquence of Demosthenes." Not many of us will have the privilege of preaching at the funeral of a man like Andrew Gifford or Harry Cherry. But we can so live and serve as to die the death of the righteous, and - when we have the privilege of preaching at the funeral of a child of God - we can and must preach in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ. Here is Ryland's closing address, ringing out across the tombs of Bunhill Fields, and which in its essence might have been well spoken at the grave of Mr Cherry:
Who can tell the triumphs of our Redeemer's soul, in the prospect he had of this island of Great Britain, of London, and its ministers and churches; of his saving the dear deceased man, and millions more yet unborn!

With respect to our departed friend, who has left our world at the age of eighty-four, it is no hard matter to tell where a man is gone, who has lived almost all his life, or if we can only say fifty years, in the exercise of his faith in Christ, and repentance towards God: in love to mankind, preaching in an evangelical strain through the whole course of his ministry. As to his character I will leave that to be set in a proper light by my younger brother. And now we can with the greatest truth use the common words, in the form of service in the Church of England;-- "We commit this body to the ground, in sure and certain hope of a resurrection to eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Farewell, thou dear old man! We leave thee in possession of death till the resurrection day: but we will bear witness against thee, oh king of terrors, at the mouth of this dungeon; thou shalt not always have possession of this dead body; it shall be demanded of thee by the great Conqueror, and at that moment thou shalt resign thy prisoner. Oh ye ministers of Christ, ye people of God, ye surrounding spectators, prepare, prepare to meet this old servant of Christ, at that day, at that hour, when this whole place shall be all nothing, but life and death shall be swallowed up in victory. (3:605)

The Possibility of the Resurrection

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Each Easter week, the media reminds us that it, too, operates by a church calendar of sorts, returning like a carousel at this time of year to spin out a spate of speculative stories about the life of the human Jesus, the manuscripts of the Bible, or the claim of the resurrection.  Journalists and archaeologists announce the results of their allegedly unbiased, critical-historical investigations in an attempt to "solve the mystery" or "uncover the truth" about a long-standing Christian doctrine or biblical claim.

That these recurring media specials, whether subtly or overtly, invariably bash the Christian faith should not surprise us.  After all, the executives and journalists at the History Channel or TIME Magazine, at least as I am aware, do not believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture.  They do not believe that a transcendent and triune God lives eternally above the sphere of history and condescends to rule over its every detail.  They do not believe this God has bowed the heavens and come down, spoken plainly to His created image bearers, become incarnate, been crucified and raised, or that He effectually calls and regenerates sinners unto faith and everlasting life.

My point, however, is that Christians do believe this.  We wear, as Calvin put it, the spectacles of Scripture to see the world and all it contains--from the catacombs of Israel to the myths of Babylon--under the light of God's self-revelation and redeeming work. 

Maybe this is why it strikes me as odd that Christians sometimes functionally respond to these news stories or a neighbor's inquiry with something less than robust confidence in the declaration that Christ has, indeed, been raised from the dead (together with all that this event means within its theological and historical context).  We speak of the resurrection as the "best explanation" or "the most probable reason" for the empty tomb, or the appearance accounts, or the martyrdom of the apostles, or the rise of the early church.  We marshal the best extra-biblical evidence we can find to prove the reliability of the New Testament and then, sharing an "anything is possible" attitude with our questioners, try to convince them that the Christian explanation for the resurrection is the most reliable.  But if "anything is possible", then even our greatest arguments along these lines leave the bit of chance that, against all odds, the 00.0001% explanation might be true, that we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17).

This weekend, we must remember that "anything" is not possible.  It is not possible that God could lie (Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18) or be pleased with sin (Rom 8:8) or deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13).  It was not possible for Jesus' bones to be broken (John 19:33, 36).  It may boggle the mind, but even what is possible lies under the sovereign rule of God.  Possibility, in the Christian sense (!), bows to God's own character and eternal decree.  This has huge implications, I think, for how we speak about the resurrection.  Peter understood this when he said of Jesus, "God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24)! 

This weekend, let us remember that we worship the God of possibility.  Let us remember, as Calvin put it, that "God by the bridle of his providence turns every event whatever way he wills" (Institutes, 1.16.9) such that it must take place, in the past or in the future, in His way and in no other.  Remember, too, that the resurrection of Christ is not the "most likely" or "best" explanation for the empty tomb.  According to Scripture, it is the only explanation.  And since He has been raised, His Spirit will also give life to our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11) that we might commune eternally with the One whose purpose will stand.  And we can bet on that.