This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Most ancient testimony

Assigned to read Herzog by Saul Bellow, a college student encountered these thoughts on death:

What is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that period was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated death is God. This generation thinks — and this is its thought of thoughts — that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.

Did Bellow capture the spirit of his time? Published in 1964, Herzog gained a reputation as one of the great novels of the 20th century. Today, 55 years later, many of Bellow’s generation have died, as Bellow himself did in 2005.

And what of today’s generation? The hopelessness Bellow perceived runs deeper than the fear of death. If nothing faithful survives, not even a righteous legacy endures to fill a finite life with purpose.

If this is true, we are no better than Bellow’s light bulbs. The cement floor awaits.

Death is God?

No, death does not have the final word. “Short the dominion of death and the grave,” as the ­Easter hymn says. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has seen to that.

No philosophy of despair that casts a shadow over any generation can match the power of the resurrection.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). These triumphant words sum up the Christian hope.

This declaration of victory over death stands at the pinnacle of the apostle Paul’s discourse on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The chapter contains what might be the earliest written testimony of the risen Christ. Instructing the church at Corinth at least a decade before Mark, the first Gospel, was written, Paul presents his theology of the resurrection.

He begins with a confession of faith that he “received”: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve (verses 3-5).

Scholars detect in these words a “pre-Pauline tradition” — one of several quotations from creeds, poems and possibly even hymns that appear within Paul’s writing and the Book of Acts. In its original form, scholars think the doctrine Paul cites was even more concise, structured as two sets of four parallel phrases:

Christ died / for our sins / according to the Scriptures / and he was buried.
Christ was raised / on the third day / according to the Scriptures / and he appeared to Peter.

By the time Paul embedded this “Easter egg” (as people today call a hidden message or secret feature in a movie or video game) in his letter to the Corinthians, a second generation of Christians was emerging. Twenty-five years or so had passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. Within a couple of decades, the writing of Gospels would begin, meeting the need for “orderly accounts,” as Luke said.

But for the first Christians, a few simple words were enough to describe the miracle and what it meant. Within a couple of centuries, the Good News of the risen Savior would spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Twenty centuries later, all who worship Jesus Christ as Lord join with the saints who went before us to celebrate that “in Christ all will be made alive.”

Joyful amazement at the resurrection of Jesus Christ animated the first generation of Christians. It was the spirit of their age, and it has lost none of its power.

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