The Gateway to Life
Christians celebrate Easter because
Jesus is alive. But what do we mean when we say that Jesus is alive?
Quite often the clergy are asked to sign certificates for
occupational pensioners, confirming that the person is still alive and
entitled to draw their pension. Suppose I were asked to certify that
Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth, is still alive and therefore entitled to
draw his pension. Could I sign such a certificate?
I could not. Whatever we mean when we say that Jesus is alive, we are
not using the words in the way that a pensions authority or insurance
company uses them. When we say that Jesus is alive, we are also very
clear that he died and was buried. He is not alive in the
straightforward ordinary sense of the word.
Let's try another tack. Many Elvis Presley fans will tell you that
"Elvis lives!". They may even give him a royal title and proclaim that
"The King lives!". We may feel this language is extravagant, but we can
make sense of it. It is a dramatic way of saying that the power of the
man and his music have not been extinguished by his death.
So is this what Christians mean when they sing that "Jesus lives!"?
Or when we proclaim that Jesus is "Lord", are we simply affirming the
continuing power of his message and his example to inspire millions of
people the world over? That is part of what we mean, certainly, but it
falls a long way short of the full meaning.
The advantage of the pop-star example over the pension-company approach
is that it affirms the "being alive" without in any way denying the
reality of the "having died". It actually offers two ways into the
meaning of our religious language.
First, it uses the terms "alive" and "he lives" in a metaphorical way
rather than a literal one. In the literal sense used by pension
authorities and insurance companies, being dead and being alive are
mutually exclusive conditions.
This is true even of those well-publicized cases where a person has
been declared clinically dead and has subsequently recovered, cases that
find a biblical parallel in the examples of Lazarus (John 11) or the
widow of Nain's son (Luke 7.11-17). These people are temporarily dead,
and then alive again for a shorter or longer time, before dying
By contrast, when Christians say that Jesus is alive, we do so in a
way that affirms the permanence of his dying. It is because Jesus has
already died "once for all" that his disciples can confidently proclaim
that he will never die again, that "death has no more dominion over him"
This brings us to the second way in which the Elvis phenomenon can be a
pointer - albeit a very inadequate one - to a better understanding our
religious language about Jesus and his resurrection.
Elvis lives on to the extent that his fans still respond to his
music. And it is in the words and deeds of his disciples, and in the
context of their changed lives, that the words "Jesus is alive" have
Whatever it was that the disciples experienced on the first Easter
Day and the weeks immediately following, it enabled them - compelled
them even - to say, "No longer does death make a mockery of life; no
longer does it make life meaningless. Indeed, it has become the key to
life's real meaning."
One common way of expressing this has been to speak of death as the
gateway to new life. There has been envisaged a succession of events:
earthly life, followed by death, followed by eternal life. This is the
pattern set by Jesus and promised to all of us. But we have already seen
that such language cannot be taken literally. Saint Paul underlined this
when he said that for Christians eternal life begins at their baptism,
their "dying to sin", and does not have to wait for literal death
So the Church has always taught that eternal life is a new quality of
existence that begins here and now. It is the change that comes about
when we hear the story of Jesus and see the limiting factors of life in
a new light.
We are all tempted from time to time to be overwhelmed by the "slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune". Pain, sickness, cruelty, above all
death itself, seem to make a nonsense of life. The Christian claim that
"Jesus lives" is an affirmation that, on the contrary, it is life's
limitations that make sense of it, because they give it the boundaries,
and therefore the shape, which are necessary to meaningful existence.
This is the thing to hang on to.
We know the experience of millions of Christians - that their lives
on earth have been transformed by the story of Jesus' triumph over
death. Never mind how far the details of the story can be understood as
literally true. In whatever way we are able to hear it, that story
surely has the power to bring a new quality of life to each of us here
This is eternal life. This is what Easter is all about. This is what
it means to proclaim that "Jesus lives!"