Today, we follow up yesterday’s post on The Most Vexing Question. To me, the fundamental quandaries raised in the piece were:
Who would have thought that the life of Jesus’ church in “the last days” would span a history as long as Israel’s before Christ? And that our history would be as checkered under the risen and reigning Christ? Is there any indication of this in the New Testament?
Perhaps one way of coming to grips with this conundrum is to reimagine the shape of history and the mission of the church and to distinguish “hope” from “optimism.”
That is what Alan E. Lewis has done in his monumental study, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. In brief, Lewis suggests that our perspective on history and the future should be shaped by the church’s experience of the Great Three Days: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is our core narrative and it lays down the pattern by which we live and view life. It is a cruciform perspective in which resurrection follows death and despair and recognizes the place of all three as essential movements in the way God (and therefore, history) works.
However, the church has not always recognized this. Lewis writes, “Much has happened since the first Easter Saturday to dull the keenness of the questions facing Christian faith and life concerning history and its future” (p. 262).
He notes that the early Christians, living as they did in the midst of trials, persecution, and social exile, had a vision of the end and their own resurrection that would be attained only through sharing in Christ’s sufferings (see, for example Philippians 3:10-11). However, Lewis continues, once the Empire was Christianized and the church became more comfortable and optimistic about its own future, apocalypticism with its dark shadows was largely jettisoned, replaced by sunnier, more linear theologies of progressive victory until the glorious end. Lament was transformed into complacency; the cross into a symbol of triumphalism.
Nevertheless, not even the best-informed, most responsible reading of Revelation, or the most Christocentric and trinitarian discussion of the “end days” can evade the haunting implications of the church’s identifying three-day narrative, centered upon Easter Saturday. For that insists — and nothing in our contemporary experience contradicts its awful truthfulness — that the God of Jesus Christ does not intervene to prevent catastrophe and rupture. As grace abounds only beyond sin’s great magnitude and increase, so resurrection and consummation do not cancel or impede but strictly follow after termination and annihilation, for God and humanity alike. The very promise of the eschaton confirms rather than refutes God’s freedom to be death’s victim, the defenseless quarry of predatory evil; and the only hope and power for a divine redeeming of humanity and history rest in a Lamb who has pathetically been slaughtered: the embodiment of hopelessness and helplessness. (p. 282)
In Revelation, remember, the Lamb on the throne is bloody.
In other words, Lewis says, we must conceive God’s creative and re-creative power “from the standpoint of the grave, as dynamic surrender to suffering and restriction” (p. 297). If God exposed himself to destruction by abandoning his beloved Son to death, the One in whom all creation holds together, in order to save that creation, it gives us a much different view of how the people who follow the Son shall attain to perfection. We take up our cross, and follow him.
To see God self-exposed thus to destruction between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, for the sake of history’s deliverance from destruction, is to recognize that the creative and redemptive omnipotence of God, far from invulnerable and impervious to opposition is in fact an exquisitely perilous power which does not protect itself against the catastrophe and boundless sorrow which would be creation’s devastation and time’s annihilation. (p. 298)
In other words, God only exercises his rule in a context where evil triumphs (if only for a season).
Here is an extended quote, summarizing Alan Lewis’s perceptive thoughts.
Not the least sobering implication of the triduan story we have now both heard and thought is that the Christian gospel requires of those who live by it unflinching discrimination between hope and optimism. For if our narrative encouragingly promises that at work within us and around us are energies greater than the powers of death and evil which menace and destroy life and empty it of meaning, purpose, and justice, still the story gravely identifies those energies with the wispy, intangible defenselessness of love. And love’s power is actually powerless to impede huge triumphs of egregious evil and unrighteousness in the world. Only through vulnerable victimization at the hands of sin and death, and not by blocking, crushing, or annihilating those agents of destruction, does the triune God of righteous love flourish yet more abundantly than the luxurious barrenness of hate and wickedness.
To hope, therefore, in love as tomorrow’s guarantor, as even more creative and enduring than the great destructiveness of lovelessness, is itself to banish shallow optimism for the future of the world. Hope itself embraces the proposition that evil may increase, death have its day of triumph, and history be terminated. Certainly any sunny supposition that the world cannot be lost, nor death be finally victorious, that evil at worst is inept and its success provisional and passing, is cancelled by a darker hope, grounded in Easter Saturday, which confesses that the only victory in life is won by going beyond, not by thwarting or reducing, the expansive magnitude of death and the surd reality of its ascendancy. Faith’s assurance of the final consummation of the cosmos does not preclude but makes space of fearsome amplitude for the future loss of history, just as the Son of God’s third-day resurrection did not forestall ahead of time, nor cancel retroactively, the end of himself and of the world on the second day.
• Between Cross and Resurrection, p. 261f
In other words, God did not and does not win by winning. Neither will the church. We attain to Easter only through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. There will be no resurrection, no consummation, without intervening death and despair. “. . . if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
The cry “How long?” will continue to the very last day.