Theologians sometimes try to simply the meaning of the resurrection by packaging its essence into one sentence: In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus, his life, his message, and his fidelity. What does that mean?
Jesus entered our world preaching faith, love, and forgiveness but the world didn’t accept that. Instead it crucified him and, in that crucifixion, seemingly shamed his message. We see this most clearly on the cross when Jesus is taunted, mocked, and challenged: If you are the son of God, come down from there! If your message is true, let the God verify that right now! If your fidelity is more than plain stubbornness and human ignorance then why are you dying in shame?
And what was God’s response to those taunts? Nothing, no commentary, no defense, no apologia, no counter-challenge, just silence. Jesus dies in silence. Neither he nor the God he believed in tried to fill that excruciating void with any consoling words or explanations challenging people to look at the bigger picture or to look at the brighter side of things. None of that. Just silence.
Jesus died in silence, inside God’s silence and inside the world’s incomprehension. And we can let ourselves be humbly scandalized by that silence, just as we can let ourselves be perpetually scandalized by the seeming triumph of evil, pain, and suffering in our world. God’s silence can forever scandalize us: in the Jewish holocaust, in ethnic genocides, in brutal and senseless wars, in the earthquakes and tsunamis which kill thousands of people and devastate whole countries, in the deaths of countless people taken out of this life by cancer and by violence, in how unfair life can be sometimes, and in the casual manner that those without conscience can rape whole areas of life seemingly without consequence. Where is God in all of this? What’s God’s answer?
God’s answer is in the resurrection, in the resurrection of Jesus and in the perennial resurrection of goodness within life itself. But resurrection is not necessarily rescue. God doesn’t necessarily rescue us from the effects of evil, or even from death. Evil does what it does, natural disasters are what they are, and those without conscience can rape even as they feed off life’s sacred fire. God doesn’t intervene. The parting of the Red Sea isn’t a weekly occurrence. God lets his loved ones suffer and die, just as Jesus let his dear friend, Lazarus, die and God let Jesus die. God redeems, raises us up afterwards, in a deeper more lasting vindication. And the truth of that statement can even be tested empirically.
Despite every appearance sometimes, in the end, love does triumph over hatred. Peace does triumph over chaos. Forgiveness does triumph over bitterness. Hope does triumph over cynicism. Fidelity does triumph over despair. Virtue does triumph over sin. Conscience does triumph over callousness. Life does triumph over death. And good does triumph over evil, always. Mohandas K. Gandhi once wrote: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”
The resurrection, most forcibly, makes that point. God has the last word. The resurrection of Jesus is that last word. From the ashes of shame, of seeming defeat, failure, and death, a new, deeper, and eternal life perennially bursts forth. Our faith begins at the very point where it seems it might end, in God’s seeming silence at Jesus’ death.
And what does this ask of us?
First of all, simply that we trust its truth. The resurrection of Jesus asks us to believe what Gandhi affirmed, namely, that in the end evil will not have the last word. It will fall. Good will eventually triumph.
More deeply, it asks us to roll the dice of our lives on that trust and that truth: What Jesus taught is true: Virtue is not naïve, even when it is shamed. Sin and cynicism are naïve, even when they appear to triumph. Those who genuflect before God and others in conscience will find meaning and joy, even when they are deprived of the world’s pleasures. Those who drink in and manipulate sacred energy without conscience will not find meaning and life, even when they taste pleasure. Those who live in honesty, no matter the cost, will find freedom. Those who lie and rationalize will find themselves imprisoned in self-hate. Those who live in trust will find love. God’s silence can be trusted, even when we die inside of it.
We can live in faith, love, forgiveness, conscience, and fidelity in spite of everything that suggests that they aren’t true. They will bring us to what is deepest inside of life and love because God vindicates virtue. God vindicates love. God vindicates conscience. God vindicates forgiveness. God vindicates fidelity. God vindicated Jesus and will vindicate us if we remain faithful as Jesus did.