The word “catastrophe,” especially in literature, carries the idea of a sudden and unexpected disaster in the narrative. A drastic drop off in the story. The catastrophe is an all-too-common experience, not just in literature, but in our own lives. Sudden and unexpected death in the family. A medical diagnosis that makes your stomach drop. The discovery of betrayal from someone you love and trust. All catastrophes.
We are well acquainted with the “catastrophe.” But J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of the fantasy world, Middle Earth, and the author of the Lord of the Rings novels, coined an antonym for catastrophe: the eucatastrophe. This is the sudden and unexpected turn of sorrowful tides. The punctuated uptick in the storyline that begins the happy-ever-after. In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, there are several eucatastrophe moments, but my favorite is the one he writes for his character, Sam. After masterfully articulating catastrophe after catastrophe over the scope of three novels, you, as the reader, are ready to curl up in a ball and hide forever. The fact that you know how the story ends (thank you, New Line Cinema!) does little to alleviate this impulse. The feeling of despair as Frodo and Sam are on the side of Mount Doom, settling in to die next to one another, is nearly overwhelming. And then it happens. Sam gets his eucatastrophe. He wakes up and is greeted by Gandalf—his friend and sage, who died in front of him two novels back in one of Tolkien’s most tragic catastrophes—who informs Sam that “a great shadow has passed,” with a laugh that sounded like “music, or like water in a parched land.” Sam’s eucatastrophe epitomizes the question that bubbles up from sheer bewildered ecstasy and joy: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Now that is a great question. So great, in fact, that Sally Lloyd-Jones borrows it from Sam and puts it right into Mary Magdalene’s mouth when she gets her eucatastrophe—when she is greeted by the resurrected Christ (cf., John 20:11-18).
The Resurrection as the Secret Ingredient of Christian Theology
This resurrection of Jesus is the eucatastrophe. The archetypal eucatastrophe. More than that, it is the secret ingredient to Christian Theology. In fact, Christian theology isn’t Christian without the resurrection! Here are just five doctrines that need the resurrection in order to sing.
1. The Resurrection and Redemption from the Fall - In Romans chapter five, Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (v. 12). All of humanity has been plunged into the muck and mire and mud of death in Adam. To wade through this thick sludge and climb out is impossible. Humanity is stuck; enclosed and swallowed whole by death. This is what the sin of Adam brought: he dragged humanity into the throws of death. But in the gospel, the Second Adam plunged headlong into this miry pit. He plunged so deep into death, in fact, that for three days the surface lay still, undisturbed, quietly boasting in victory. But then, on the first Easter morning, for the first time in human history (but not the last) the surface broke! Jesus, the Second Adam, blasted out of death’s clutches, carrying with him a new humanity—the spoils of victory. On that Easter morning, Death’s death blow was dealt. On that Easter morning, Jesus stepped on Death’s face as he stormed out of the tomb carrying with him all his posterity.
2. The Resurrection and Justification - It is no throwaway line for Paul to say that Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In his death, Jesus offers up a sacrifice to God on our behalf. He himself is the sacrifice. He is the pure sacrifice, who was faithful where Adam and Israel and you and I are unfaithful (i.e., active obedience); and he suffers all the effects of the curse of the fall on our behalf, including the perfect wrath of condemnation (i.e., passive obedience). That’s his offering: his perfect obedience in life and death. And he takes that offering of himself and lays it up on the cross-shaped altar, and says, “This is my body, broken for my people. This is my blood, shed for my people.”
And then he dies.
And for three days, the cosmos holds its breath. Will this offering be acceptable? Will this death satisfy the wrath owed? Will this righteous life grant eternal peace to others?
And in the resurrection, the Father says, absolutely, and emphatically, “Yes!” He says, “I gladly accept this sacrificial offering! All who are by faith found in my beloved Son, have the righteous requirements of the law satisfied, the penalty for sin paid, and are accounted as not guilty and righteous!”
This is what it means to be justified, and without the resurrection, it doesn’t exist. Without the resurrection, the cross of Christ is at worst just another example of Roman execution and is at best an uncertainty. Without the resurrection, we have no hope that our sins are actually forgiven on account of the death of Christ. Nothing to assure us that his sacrifice on our behalf is acceptable. “And if Christ has not been raised,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:18, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” But in the resurrection, God the Father has shouted a word of assurance, and his voice echoes throughout all human history: “Justification is surely, objectively, definitively offered in this God-man, Jesus Christ!”
3. The Resurrection and Reconciliation – This is what our new status as justified means for us: reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). The sin that stood between us and God has been removed. Every reason for enmity between us and God has been undermined—we now have peace, and the resurrection assures this.
Allow me to illustrate. Remember Luke’s account of the crucifixion, when he tells us that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” when Christ died (Luke 23:44-46)? That is to say, the curtain that separated the holy presence of God from the unholy presence of man was, in the death of Jesus, torn. This is truly an amazing thing! But let me ask this question: who among us would dare to walk through it if Jesus is not our forerunner? Would anyone of us volunteer to walk into the holy of holies simply because the veil is torn? Would we not all be like John at the tomb, timidly peeking in (John 20:5)? But in the resurrection, Jesus takes us by the hand and, with a quick and determined pace, walks us into the throne-room of grace, and places our hand in God the Father’s, who looks down at us with eyes full of acceptance (Hebrews 10:19-22).
4. The Resurrection and Union with Christ – Could you imagine how hopeless of a doctrine union with Christ would be if he remained in the tomb? Just imagine how the Systematic Theology textbooks would read: “In the doctrine of union with Christ, the Holy Spirit mysteriously unites you to a man who dies for sin… Next doctrine…” And we would all be left thinking, “Do I really need that? Do I need to be united to a man who dies in the penalty of sin? Won’t I do that all on my own when I die?” But you throw the resurrection into the doctrine of union with Christ and it begins to sing! It sings, “The Spirit of God has united you to Christ, such that his righteous life becomes your righteous life, and in his death, you die for your sins, and in his burial, you are buried in the grave with all your sins, but in his resurrection, you are resurrected with him, leaving your sin and the condemnation thereof to rot six feet under (Romans 6:1-14)!”
5. The Resurrection and the Resurrection – That is, Jesus’ resurrection and everyone else’s. Do you remember the conversation Jesus had with Martha back in John chapter 11 after Lazarus died? Jesus says to Martha, “You know, Lazarus will live again.” “Yeah Jesus,” Martha replies, “I know he’ll be resurrected in the last day when everyone else will be resurrected.” Do you remember what Jesus says to her in response? “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:17-27). This is why Paul describes Jesus as the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18) and “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20): Jesus Christ blazes a trail out of death! He has paved the road that you and I will walk. He guarantees the real, physical resurrection of all people with his own real, physical resurrection. Some will be resurrected for eternal life and some will be resurrected for eternal judgment, but you can be sure of this: no person buried will stay that way (Revelation 20:11-18, 21:8; Acts 24:15; Daniel 12:2)!
Resurrected, Awaiting Resurrection
We can experience a tremendous amount of intimacy with the Trinity right now by virtue of our resurrection life. The Holy Spirit facilitates this communion offered us (John 14:18-24), and it is real and deep. But one day the down-payment of the resurrection life we enjoy now spiritually God will enjoin and complete in a glorified dimension. Our resurrection life, in other words, has a bodily component we still await. The resurrection life you know now only in part you will experience in full, with a resurrected body fit for handling such ecstasy. And on that day, God will take all of the sweet moments of communion you experience in this life, and will transport them to a higher plane. Where you once loved him without seeing him (1 Peter 1:8-9), that love will merge with faith-retiring-sight. You will stand before Jesus and look upon his glorified flesh, and he will look upon yours, and you will feel absolutely no shame. You will hug him, and you will feel infinite power enfleshed in the arms of Jesus embracing you. Your eyes will well with tears of joy and gratitude and relief, and he will tenderly reach a hand to your face and wipe your cheek. You will open your mouth and choke out a “thank you,” and he will say, “Come, sit down. This seat is yours. Let’s eat.”