It is a beef of mine when pastors do not get it right. I say this with all humility, knowing there are undoubtedly great planks in my own eye and that there are many times I have gotten it wrong. I say it with great humility because our culture is addicted to relativism, and I can just hear the screams going up in cyberspace, “Who are you to say anybody is wrong?! Who are you to think you are right? It’s a matter of interpretation, after all!”
Well, yes and no… but mostly no. Theology is meant to be a science. That is why it ends with the suffix “ology,” like biology, psychology, archaeology, and geology. It is supposed to be a realm of objective, publicly accessible knowledge for all those who will consider the evidence and work to understand it—that is, all those who accept the Christian revelation. Like every other science, it is meant to be a body of knowledge that successive generations both draw from and add to as their understanding of the evidence slowly grows. It is true that interpreting the data is part of the complex process of the growth of any science, but just as a psychologist or physicist incorrectly interpreting the data in their field does not mean that either psychology or physics is no longer a science but “just a bunch of opinions,” so an individual theologian incorrectly interpreting part of the Christian revelation does not invalidate the objective nature of theological knowledge.
There are many throughout the church’s history who have misinterpreted key points of the Christian revelation—important, influential people like Gregory of Nyssa and Justin Martyr—who have done so without earning for themselves the title “heretic,” a title that literally means “one who picks and chooses.” That is to say, many have misinterpreted points of Christian revelation without falling into the error of simply picking and choosing the evidence they want to consider, therefore making themselves “non-scientists” of theology, for a scientist in any field never picks and chooses the evidence they will consider but rather considers all the data available to them, even if doing so will overturn their own cherished beliefs.
Ideas Have Consequences is the title of a Richard Weaver book that I wish were required reading for every high schools senior. Though the author did not especially like the title (it was chosen by an editor), it does catch the central thrust of the book. It is the idea encapsulated in those three words “ideas have consequences” that inspired this little reflection.
You see, as I was driving around on the Monday immediately following Easter Sunday, I passed a sign in front of a church that said, “Christ has risen!” It may seem a small thing, but the proper phrase, the phrase that the Church has used in Her proclamation for untold generations is not “Christ has risen,” but rather “Christ is risen.”
This is not a distinction without a difference. The phrases are not interchangeable. “He has risen” is the phrase the angels use in several popular Bible translations when they address the myrrh-bearing women who come seeking to anoint the body of Jesus spices on that first Easter morning. The conjugation of the verb “to rise” into “has risen” signifies that Jesus’ resurrection happened at a definite point in time. It points to the objective and unexpected reality the women were encountering on that first Easter morning. They expected to bathe the dead body of their spiritual teacher with oil and fragrant spices to cover the smell of rot and decay that a three-day dead body in the desert exudes. Instead, the one whose body they were seeking not among the dead, for He had risen. He was alive, and living people do not hang around tombs like dead people do. “He has risen” communicates that Jesus really rose from the dead at a particular, identifiable moment in time; a very important fact, especially in a day and age that wants to make spiritual realities a matter of private devotion rather than a matter of public, historical, objective significance.
But “Christ has risen,” while it was the proclamation of the angels to those women—women who were commissioned by those angels to be the first preachers of the good news to the Apostles—it is not the proclamation of the Church that was born on Pentecost fifty days later. The reason for this is that “Christ has risen” does not signify to us that this event—however true it is—has any ongoing significance for us who hear the message.
The Church’s proclamation is “Christ is risen.” The resurrection of Christ is an omnipresent reality, one which touched directly upon our lives no matter how far we live from Jerusalem or how many years have elapsed between that first Easter morning and our own reception of the news. “Christ is risen” means that it is happening right now, even as I speak. It means that the Jesus who “was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” (Romans 6:4) is still alive now.
If it seems like I am straining things to make a point, a conversation I had several years ago tells me different. Just a few months after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie came out, I was sitting with someone to whom the Jesus story was new—someone truly secular and not merely fallen away from the Church. If you have never seen the movie, it ends with a scene of Jesus leaving the tomb in which He had been incarcerated, the sun shining through nail holes in His hands. The person I was talking to knew I was a pastor, so they asked me quite innocently, “So after Jesus came back to life, how long did he live after that?”
The Church does not proclaim of Jesus’ friend Lazarus or the daughter of the synagogue leader Jairus—two people whom Jesus raised from the dead during His earthly ministry—that either one of them is risen. They were raised from the dead by Jesus as a sign of His kingdom power, to point us toward what we could hope to receive eventually at His hands, but after they were raised up, they grew older and died a very normal human death. Jesus, on the other hand, is risen, and “being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.” (Romans 6:9) He is alive forever and ever, and that means that nothing can or should ever be the same for us as it would be if He had not risen… or even if He had merely come back to live a normal human life, as spectacular as that would be. I am glad Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter were raised, glad for their families and friends, but that doesn’t touch my life very personally at all.
On the other hand, “Christ is risen” means big things for me. To quote the full text of the Church’s ancient hymn (or troparion) from which we excerpt the proclamation “Christ is risen,” “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Jesus is risen. He has destroyed the power of death by entering into it Himself and conquering it from the inside-out. That means that if I cling to Him, “baptized into Christ and so have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27) His power over death covers me like a mantle, and I need have no fear of anything, even death. From the moment I was conceived I as human person have been heading inevitably toward death. I have been living in the tomb of my own body. Because Christ is risen, new life is bestowed upon me. Christ has risen is good news. Christ is risen is life-changing good news.
I am sure the pastor of the church behind the sign that got my goat wants to see the good news of Jesus’ resurrection change the lives of his congregation members. I am sure he never considered that there was much difference between “Christ has risen” and “Christ is risen,” but ideas really do have consequences, and we as servants of the Lord should strive to get our theology right… especially when it has been a settled bit of Church practice back to the very beginning.
So, if you have not paused to consider the ongoing significance of that little present-tense word is for you personally during this Easter season, do so now, and praise Christ… for He is risen!
He is risen indeed.