The staff of The Western Journal is working a reduced schedule over Easter weekend to allow our employees the opportunity for rest and worship with their families if they so choose. We are re-publishing this article as a service to our readers, who reacted strongly to it when it first ran.
A version of this article previously appeared on the desiringGod.org website on April 7, 2015.
Today people are more likely to believe in a zombie than the resurrected Christ. People watch hours and hours of zombie flicks and television episodes, while neglecting resurrection literature altogether.
The zombie belief isn’t mere science fiction. Numerous origin theories float around the web, along with real communities who anticipate a zombie apocalypse. You can even buy a “zombie shelter” to protect yourself from the aggressive walking dead.
Do these theories have any biblical warrant?
After Jesus died, we’re told, “The tombs also were opened. Many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52–53). No other Gospel writer includes this detail. What does it mean, and why is it here? Even renowned Gospels scholar N.T. Wright struggles to make sense of this text: “Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.”
Could the resurrection of the many pose a threat to Jesus? After all, these men and woman also beat death. When they went into the city, appearing to many, were they competing with Jesus’s messianic claim?
Do Other Resurrection Bodies Compete with Jesus?
Let’s take the questions in order.
First, does the resurrection of other bodies compete with the uniqueness of Jesus’s death and resurrection? Reading Matthew closely, he records, “after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared.” The reconstituted saints rise after, not before or even simultaneous to Jesus’s resurrection. But does this really make a difference? After all, Lazarus was raised before Jesus. What does Jesus have to say about Lazarus’s resurrection? “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). The express purpose of Lazarus’s resurrection was to bring attention to the Son of God, not to the sons of men.
The “Son of God” was a title held by Caesar and Jesus alike. Caesar’s claim to deity arose out of questionable Roman mythology, which held sway in occupied territories, but not back home in Rome where people actually knew better. So how was Jesus’s claim different? In Judaism, the Son of God was attached to a story of deliverance among the Jews.
The story went something like this: At the end of time, the Son of God would come to earth and overthrow the enemies of Israel. Then, he would raise everyone from the dead to be judged, destroying the wicked and delivering the righteous into God’s newly renovated creation. In God’s fully realized kingdom, the Son of God would rule securing joy and peace forever and ever.
But Jesus puts a premature wrinkle in the story. He comes from the future to put resurrection in the present. There’s a mini-mass resurrection to go with it. The true Son of God steps right into the middle of history, where he raises Lazarus from the dead to declare, “Resurrection is here! The kingdom has come. The new age has begun!”
This flies in the face of secular Rome and the religious elite. Caesar can’t command the dead to life, and the Jews can’t put Life to death, as hard as they tried. The true Son of God exposes humanity’s shame for wanting God’s glory. Whether it’s ascending secular social circles, climbing the vocational ladder, or building a spiral platform that reaches to the heavens, we all clamor for his glory.
But don’t you see? Jesus is a cut above. He not only possesses the power of life over death, he is life over death: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Jesus generates resurrection. Your new followers, more likes, increased influence, book deal, or speaking fame can’t do that. Neither can your persistent social action or your mass evangelism. Try as we may, we’ll never generate life. We need the redemptive wrinkle.
Instead of zapping the world with a zombie apocalypse, where we are resurrected dead, Jesus raises Lazarus for another end, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
Jesus’s resurrection, unlike Lazarus’s and the temporarily raised saints’, offers shame removal. How? He’s the panacea to our pandemic. Why? No other body can absorb humanity’s virus. At the cross, our judgment is also rolled back into the middle of history to fall on Jesus. Our death becomes his death, so that his life can become our life. In a mid-history stroke of grace, humanity can receive a verdict that prevents apocalyptic doom.
So you see, there is no competition. Jesus’s resurrection is so unique it triggers other resurrections.
Saints in the City
So if the resurrected saints aren’t competing with Jesus in the city, what are they doing? The saints go into the city “appearing to many.” The word for “appear” can also mean “to explain.” This preview of the end-time people of God goes into the city, not to show off, but to explain that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own resurrection and is making all things new, and that you too can get in on the mid-history stroke of grace. It’s available to all, secular and religious alike. The risen are proof that Jesus brings not just a new verdict but a whole new day. They are walking gospel explanations.
May the Easter resurrections compel you to be a gospel explanation. The Son of God is cut above all sons, but lifts up all who would receive him (John 1:12). Plus, he offers a categorically greater alternative to a zombie apocalypse.
Jonathan Dodson (@Jonathan_Dodson) is pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, and author of “The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing,” and “Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection.”
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