Something’s happened to the resurrection of Jesus in modern times, and Reformed people are partly responsible.
Here’s the story: In the late c.19th – early c.20th scholars like Vos and Ridderbos pioneered a new way of reading Scripture: they read it as a theological story. The message (or theology) they found in Scripture was the message of the Bible’s narrative, rather than the more abstract and propositional theology which had prevailed in the Western Church up till then. This new approach came to be called Biblical Theology. In Biblical theology the links between things are first and foremost narrative links, rather than logical ones. Biblical theology tied our understanding of the Christian faith more closely to the history of redemption, or salvation history as it is often called. I.e., the story of the OT and NT.
The content of Christian theology was not much disturbed or challenged by this new approach. But the shape and structure of theology was. In fact, Biblical theology presents us with a changed theological landscape: all the old elements, but in new places and relations to each other.
In particular one category has emerged as more important than previously realised: the eschatological. The arrival of the future kingdom of God has come into the spotlight in a new way as central to the apostolic message. And one event has emerged as central to that eschatology, and thus central to the apostolic gospel: the resurrection of Jesus.
For most of the history of the church, Jesus has been primarily connected with the event of the crucifixion. Since the 4th century or earlier, the Cross, not the empty tomb, was the standard symbol of Christian faith. The RC church uses the crucifix – the cross with Christ hanging on it. The resurrection was important – but the weight of our theology fell on the death. Jesus was the one who died.
Biblical theology has challenged that structure. Jesus’ death is vitally important, but the event most connected with Jesus, the event uniquely distinctive for the Christian faith, is his resurrection. This was the event the apostles preached, which brought the Christian church to birth (see Acts). God ‘gave us [his church] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.’ (1 Peter 1). The resurrection of the dead is one of the ‘foundations’ mentioned by the writer to the Hebrews (ch.6). It is what one must believe to be saved: ‘if you…believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9). Indeed it is the meaning of the most basic early Christian confession: ‘Jesus is Lord’. To say Jesus is Lord was to say with Peter that God has made Jesus Lord by raising him from death to his right hand (Acts 2:33-36). It is a resurrection confession. The resurrection of Christ was such a defining event for the early church that they began to meet on the Sunday, instead of the Jewish Saturday. For Sunday is Resurrection Day.
How does resurrection come to hold centre stage in NT Theology? It’s like this: biblical eschatology divides history, not into a series of dispensations or covenants, but into two: the old age and the new. The old age is characterised by what Paul calls ‘flesh’: corrupt humanity, distorted creation-order, and above all, death. The old age is symbolised by its founder or father, Adam. “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
The new age is characterised instead by what Paul calls ‘Spirit’: a new mode of living in which God fills everything and glorifies and empowers his whole creation: “The earth will be filled of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). Above all, the new age is the age of resurrection, the age of life. It too is summed up by its founder or pioneer, Jesus. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” And it is Jesus’ resurrection that inaugurates the new age.
So strong is this connection between Adam, the old age and death on the one hand, and Christ, the new age and resurrection on the other, that this can be called the large-scale story of the Scriptures. If you pan out far enough to get the big picture of redemption history, the two big events since the creation are: Death – in Adam, and then Resurrection – in Jesus. This is just what Paul does in Romans 5:
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. Romans 5:18.
In fact the Old Testament is full of images of death, the most powerful being the ‘exile’ theme. Whereas the New Testament is saturated with the language and imagery of resurrection. There are significantly more NT references to Jesus’ resurrection and new life than there are to his crucifixion and blood. And most of the references to Jesus’ death are immediately followed by reference to his resurrection.
This is not to say that the death of Christ is displaced from the heart of things. It is still central to our faith and confession: ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ is one of the two ‘things of first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15). It still carries core theological weight. But in the structure of the apostles’ thought about Jesus, his resurrection gets more prominence and weight. It is the great new achievement of Christ, the turning point in the whole story of redemption, the great eschatological moment at which the new age arrives. So after the verse just quoted on the death of Jesus, Paul goes on to spend fifty four verses on the other thing of first importance: Jesus’ resurrection. Get the idea?
Jesus is first and foremost the Risen One. And his Father is ‘the one who raised up Jesus from the dead.’
So then, for Christians to live by the sign of the Cross could be considered misleading: the empty tomb, though harder to hang around your neck, would perhaps be a better symbol to reflect the shape of biblical theology.