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Resurrection: Jesus First, Then Us

By Josh & Sean McDowell
Guest Writers – Excerpt from Evidence for the Resurrection by Josh & Sean McDowell.

A Strategy for Confronting Death

In his book The Risen Jesus and Future Hope, Dr. Gary Habermas offers three practical steps for how the resurrection of Jesus can help us boldly confront the fear of death. These are not mere academic exercises, but real-life solutions that personally helped him endure the early death of his wife to cancer. They include: internalizing the truth of eternal life, shifting our thought pattern to a heavenly perspective, and substituting truthful thoughts about death when we are anxious. Let’s look at these three steps individually.

Step One: Internalizing the Truth of Eternal Life

I (Sean) recently spoke at a church in southern California on the subject “The Resurrection of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?” During the question-and-answer period following my lecture, a young man named Brian asked how he could believe more strongly in life after death. First I told him that he should look more fully into the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, for the resurrection demonstrates his victory over death.

The resurrection breaks the barrier of death between earth and heaven, allowing heaven to enter the present. I suggested to Brian that he determine whether the evidence for the resurrection was compelling. How did the case for the resurrection of Jesus compare with events in the lives of other ancient historical figures? He should sift through the evidence and weigh the facts carefully. I suggested to him that such a pursuit would likely strengthen his belief in life after death.

But sometimes it is not enough simply to know a historical fact, for historical facts alone can feel distant. I also encouraged Brian to find ways to internalize the truth of the resurrection, making it personal—a central part of his life. This may be done through prayer, meditation or spending time with people who firmly believe in the resurrection. The resurrection is so central to our faith that we cannot put it off to the side. We must make a decision about its truth and engrain it deeply into our beliefs and actions.

Step Two: Shifting Our Thinking to a Heavenly Perspective

In 1952, Florence Chadwick took the challenge of swimming from Catalina Island to the shore of mainland California. Having been the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways, she was confident she could conquer this challenge as well. The day of the swim was foggy and cool, so she could hardly see her accompanying boats. Even though she was utterly exhausted, her mother encouraged her to keep going, telling her how close she was to the shore. Finally, in complete exhaustion, she demanded to be taken into the boat. When she got into the boat she realized that she was not even a half-mile away from the shore. The next day at a news conference she said, “All I could see was the fog. . . . I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.”

Having the right perspective on the future can transform how one experiences the present. For Christians, our future destination is the new heaven and new earth. Maintaining a focus on our ultimate destination gives us strength as we struggle through the fog.

Paul regularly taught the importance of shifting one’s thoughts from present difficulties to future glory. “Set your mind on the things above,” he implored, “not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2, NASB). The original idea contained in the Greek word translated as “set your mind on” relates to a philosophical journey or quest. It is the same word used in Luke to describe how “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, NASB, emphasis added). According to Randy Alcorn, “It is a diligent, active, single-minded investigation.”

This is not something we do naturally; it involves a conscious effort to view the world through a heavenly lens. Rather than focusing on the daily grind of living, Paul calls his hearers to redirect their thoughts to an eternal vantage point. This shift in perspective enables us to completely transform our present experiences. Peter urges believers to apply this perspective to suffering and persecution (see 1 Pet. 5:9-10) and Jesus urges his followers to apply it to anxiety (see Matt. 6:19-34), material possessions (see Matt. 16:26) and even death (see Matt. 10:28).

Do you see what this means? It means you can live above your circumstances. You can retain meaning and joy in life even when things do not go well. Your mental and emotional equilibrium are not rooted in what happens to you, but rather in the eternal and dependable certainty that the God who loves you will bring you through the difficulty and resurrect you to a new pain- and death-free life.

Step Three: Replacing Our Fearful Thoughts

Anxiety and stress about death can cripple us from living freely in the present. Paul dealt with this in Philippians 4:6-9. He instructed his hearers to dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise.” Paul challenged his readers to replace their fearful, anxious thoughts with positive, truthful ones. He further encouraged them to practice this process until it became a habit.

Identifying our faulty thinking and correcting it with truth can be a freeing and edifying experience. It can help us to have the mind of Christ as opposed to a mind conformed to the fear-producing patterns of this world, and to experience the power of the resurrection in the present. This is not mere brainwashing, but a process by which we can embody in our lives the historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Talking to yourself with clarifying statements such as, Death is not the end, but a step in the process of restoring my relationship to God and others, is an example of how left-brain language can help to calm right-brain anxiety. Focusing on the facts that “I am not alone in this process” and “God has already defeated death” can take the place of internal thoughts of fear, anxiety and despair. Such a process can prepare us to experience the peace of God even amidst the most grueling of trials.

Another method is to argue against our anxieties and fears with truth. For example, it is immensely helpful to remind ourselves that this world is not all there is, that our cherished relationships will continue after death and that we will conquer death like Jesus. When fear strikes, focus on what we know to be true. Dr. Habermas explains: “How do we substitute edifying thoughts for our fear of death? One method is to identify our misbeliefs, argue against them, and replace them with truthful counterthoughts. While truth frees us, lies always enslave.”

When John the Baptist was wrestling with his faith in prison, Jesus responded by reminding him of key truths he already knew. Two of John’s disciples came to Jesus enquiring as to whether he was truly the Messiah. Jesus answered them by saying, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22). Jesus responds to John with proof that he was the chosen one, including his ability to raise the dead. John could trust Jesus during his present struggles because he knew Jesus had power over life and death.

A cognitive approach can be very helpful in combating the fear of death. Reminding ourselves of what we know to be true about Jesus can give us confidence that his promises that we have not yet experienced—such as his promise to resurrect us from the dead—are also dependable. We infer the validity of the promise from the certainty of what we know to be true.

The Resurrection Demonstrates the Defeat of Death

Death was not the end of Jesus, and his resurrection shows that it need not mark the end for us. Easter is good news because it proclaims every year the truth that Jesus is alive—he has conquered death!

The power of the resurrection is in a class of its own. In resurrecting Jesus from the dead, God has done what we cannot do: He has conquered the powers of death. Although we may fear the process of dying, death itself need not be feared. The resurrection of the crucified Christ provides the hope that God, not death, will ultimately control our destiny.

According to several writers of the New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection provides the assurance that believers will also rise from the dead. Consider the words of Paul: “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control” (Phil. 3:20-21). This same sentiment was also professed by Luke (see Acts 4:2) and John (see 1 John 3:2). The resurrection of Jesus provides the believer with a heavenly perspective in the present and the promise of eternal life in the future (see 1 Pet. 1:3-4).

Easing the Fear of Death

As we close this chapter, let’s look again at the six reasons we fear death listed earlier and show briefly how the resurrection allays those fears.

1. Death Is Mysterious and Unknown

Yes, it is mysterious and unknown, but after the resurrection of Jesus, we know something about it that we could not have known before. It is not permanent. Christ went through it, and he blazed a trail that we can follow. Some of the mystery has been removed because we now have footprints to follow that we know will lead us into new life.

2. We Have to Face Death Alone

Although from our perspective it may seem that we have to go through death alone, we now know this is an illusion. Christ is there to lead us through it. The most familiar of all psalms made the claim that we would not be alone in death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4, NASB). The death and resurrection of Jesus shows that this promise is not empty. Christ has actually stepped into the darkness of death and awaits us there to lead us safely through.

3. We Are Separated from Our Loved Ones

The resurrection calms this fear as well. Because God has conquered death through Jesus Christ, our loving relationships will continue after death. This belief is not a result of mere blind faith; it is rooted in fact. Just as Jesus’ relationship with Mary continued after his death (as shown in her encounter with him at the tomb), our loving relationships will continue as well. Jesus said to the repentant criminal on the cross right next to him: “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). When Jesus returns there will be a “reunion” in the air for his followers. And after that we will be together with the Lord and our loved ones forever (see 1 Thess. 4:17). Death may separate us temporarily from our loved ones, but the resurrection of Christ will bring us back together. Jesus is “Lord both of the living and of the dead” (Rom. 14:9), and not even death can “separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

Our relationships will not only continue after death; they will be utterly transformed. Revelation 21:4 describes what God will do in the new heaven and new earth: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” Gone will be jealousy, competition, anger and resentment. We will be free like Jesus to love each other truly and to experience the love of others.

4. Our Personal Hopes and Dreams Will Not Be Realized

The resurrection also does away with this fear. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that in heaven all our hopes and dreams will be fulfilled. C. S. Lewis suggested that the true desire behind all desires is to be with God and love him, that every desire we experience will have its legitimate fulfillment in our new life. This is affirmed in the biblical parable of the talents in which three servants are entrusted with their master’s assets when he leaves for a journey (see Matt. 25:14-30). Two of the men develop and expand those assets for their master, and on his return they are rewarded with rulership over cities. The application is clear. Our hopes and dreams grow out of the abilities God has given us. We work toward developing them in this life. When we die and are resurrected to a new life in heaven, we who have developed those assets well will be given even greater responsibilities on which to continue to use and develop what God has entrusted to us.

This concept is confirmed in the phrase we read in 2 Timothy 2:12 and Revelation 20:6 where we are told that we will “reign with him.” Heaven is not a place of idleness and boredom. It is filled with responsibilities that will require our talents, abilities and creativity.

5. Death Raises the Possibility that We Will Be Annihilated

Most of what we have written so far in this book clearly shows that life after death exists in abundance for those who die trusting in Christ. To be confident that this is true and not merely a wishful dream, we must carefully examine the evidence that we exist after death. And that evidence, as we will see in the final section of this book, is overwhelmingly in favor of Jesus’ resurrection 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. Paul said:

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life (1 Cor. 15:20-22).

6. Death Is Unavoidable

It’s true that death is inevitable and no one can escape it. But as we have shown in this chapter, the inevitability of death is not necessarily a reason to fear it. Yes, it will come, but we have shown that we will go through it and come out safely in the arms of Jesus on the other side. So of death we can happily say what the apostle John said in Revelation 22:20, the penultimate verse in the entire Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

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More from Spiritual Life

Josh McDowellBest-selling author Josh McDowell, an agnostic-turned-ministry leader who has been a traveling representative of Campus Crusade for Christ for almost five decades, is still reaching millions of skeptical youth and adults today. Through live lecture events, such as “Why Wait?” “Right from  Wrong,” “Project 911,” and “Beyond Belief,” he has touched the lives of more than 10 million young people in 113 countries. To date, Josh has written or co-written over 100 books on topics ranging from Christian apologetics to common problems pressing youth, including the bestselling Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter.
Sean McDowellSean McDowell, graduated summa cum laude from Josh’s alma mater, Talbot Theological Seminary, and heads the Bible department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools. He co-teaches with Mark Matlock at the Planet Wisdom Student Conferences and is the national spokesman for Wheatstone Academy, an organization committed to training young people in a biblical worldview. Sean is co-author of Understanding Intelligent Design (with William A. Dembski) and  Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World, and was a contributor to Passionate Conviction, an apologetics book compiled by William Lane Craig and Paul Copan.

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