Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Many Christians have seized upon Jesus’s resurrection as the sign that there really is “life after death.” This tends to confuse things. Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying “going to heaven when you die.” It is not about “life and death” as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead. Resurrection is a second-stage postmortem life: “life after ‘life after death.’”…But interestingly, none of the resurrection stories in the gospels or in the book titled Acts of the Apostles (more colloquially called simply Acts) speaks of the event proving that some kind of afterlife exists. They all say, instead: “If Jesus has been raised, that means that God’s new world, God’s kingdom, has indeed arrived and that means we have a job to do. The world must hear what the God of Israel, the creator God, has achieved through his Messiah.”…From that point of view, as the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility. (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian)
Our Paschal Hymn tells us that Christ is risen from the dead not risen from death. What is the difference? Death is what happens to all living creatures – all living creatures have a beginning and an end which is death. In Christian thinking what happens to humans after death? They do not go out of existence but rather become part of the dead – they continue to exist in the realm of the dead (The realm of the dead in Hebrew is “Sheol”, in Greek “Hades.”) On Holy Saturday we commemorate Christ’s descent to this place of the dead (Ephesians 4:9, Romans 10:7) where he “rests” with the dead before arising to the new life which inaugurates the new creation (1 Peter 4:6).
In singing that Christ is risen from the dead we are affirming that there is continued existence after death – “life after death” thus refers to our existence among the dead. We affirm that Christ descended into the realm of death and filled that realm with His life. He existed with the dead but then bodily was resurrected from among the dead into new life in the renewed creation. The important note for us is that this affirms that all of those who have died still exist (Jesus says, God the God of the living not of the dead. He refutes the misunderstanding of his contemporaries who think death is final and that “the dead” do not exist. The dead exist and therefore have life Jesus teaches in Matthew 22:23-33, so they can be resurrected. Resurrection is not calling them out of non-existence back into existence, but rather restoring bodily life to those who have been separated from their bodies – their bodies died and were returned to the earth, but their souls continued existing among the dead.)
When we die, we too go to the place of the dead which is now filled with the light and life of Christ (Revelations 14:13). Death can no longer hold the dead captive. We are freed from being eternal prisoners to death and now can rejoice with Christ while still awaiting our own resurrection. For Christians we have already descended with Christ to the place of the dead in our own baptisms (Romans 6). We are now alive in Christ and death no longer holds us captive (Romans 14:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:10). When we physically die we will be with Christ, even though in the place of the dead. There we will joyfully await the final resurrection in which the last enemy death is completely annihilated (1 Corinthians 15:26). Thus we need not fear death, for even death itself will not separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38-39).
“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. … Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:25,28-29)