Professor John Swinton, a former psychiatric nurse-turned practical theologian at Aberdeen University, reflects on the significance of the resurrection and its impact
Three years ago, I would have said that Western society, in particular, lived in a death-denying culture. We were constantly running away from the idea that we are going to die sometime.
In the Middle Ages everything was understood in relation to God - you had a story that explained death and what happens after death. Then you had the enlightenment, where people believed that human beings, through intellect and reason, could do everything God used to be able to do.
Then you have 100 years where human beings have killed more human beings than any other period in history and people begin to see that maybe it’s not working out quite the way we wanted it to. And you have no story to explain what’s going to happen after your life, so your current life becomes really, really important. Your health becomes important, your looks become important, your vitality becomes important and you become a death-denying culture because you have no story to explain that.
With the coming of the pandemic, we talk about death all the time. There’s still not necessarily a coherent cultural story, but there’s constant talk about death, because suddenly, globally, we’ve realised we’re mortal. There’s also the fear of nuclear war, possibly, in Europe and suddenly death is on our horizon again.
No more fear
What I think the resurrection does is take away that fear, it takes away that anxiety, and it gives us back the story that actually, death is not the end. That we don’t have to simply shape and form our whole life for the present, that we can actually have a story that enables us to live our lives in a way that, yes, we will die, but there’s something beyond that.
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That urgency of trying to hold onto life, trying to make yourself look younger, make yourself more powerful, that urgency is taken away from you. And suddenly you can live your life with a peacefulness that enables you to live faithfully, to live joyfully and to live, hopefully, in the light of the resurrection. I think that’s one way in which we can understand what the resurrection does.
Why I believe in the resurrection
I believe in the resurrection because I have faith. Often people say that if you believe these kinds of things, you have to leave your brain behind - to have faith is somehow anti-intellectualist. But that depends on how you describe faith.
The writer to the Hebrews, in Hebrews 11, describes faith as being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot know. That’s not a matter of ‘I’ve got to really understand this’, it’s a matter of handing yourself over to God.
I don’t have to have a rationale for believing in the resurrection, which sounds ridiculous, because culturally, it is ridiculous. It just makes sense to me in light of what I know about Jesus. It makes sense to me in light of what I know about the Gospels. It makes sense to me in the way that I know about those Christians around me who love one another, who behave in particular ways.
I believe because I have faith, because I’m sure of what I hope for and certain of what I do not know.
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How the resurrection brings hope
At one level, the hope Jesus brings is that you’re not alone in your suffering. Because I think suffering can be a really lonely place, particularly if you’re in pain, or you’re losing things that were giving you hope and purpose and meaning before.
I think the presence of Jesus and recognising that Jesus himself has gone through certain things and is able to identify with you and you with him, it doesn’t fix the problem, but it begins to break down that loneliness and open up that space for thinking about God as a companion in the midst of suffering, rather than somebody who will necessarily take us out of that, because God doesn’t always take us out of our suffering.
It’s very clear from scripture - just read the Psalms of lament - that sometimes we’re just left there. Not left in the sense of abandoned, but left in the sense of our suffering is not going to go away. I think that sense of companionship, that sense of being with God in the midst of this is a beginning point for dealing creatively and faithfully with suffering. It doesn’t take it away, but it helps.
This is an adaptation of Ruth Jackson’s Holy Week conversation with Professor John Swinton on Unapologetic. To hear more from John, check out this episode.