This morning at our Easter service the pastor quoted Frederick Buechner: “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” It’s a great quote which eloquently summarizes the Christian hope in resurrection. In other words, Christ as the firstfruits of resurrection provides the down-payment for that future resurrection that will embrace all God’s people. Thus, death is not the last word:
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
A succinct and profound saying like this preaches well.
But if you think about it, it isn’t quite true.
You see, in John 5 Jesus recounts the doctrine of resurrection as follows:
28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
For those who have “done good”, resurrection does indeed mean that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” But for those who have “done evil” the resurrection is a resurrection to judgment and death. For these folk, the worst is most definitely to come. And thus, Buechner’s tidy maxim is, in fact, false.
This does raise an interesting (and troubling) question. Christians understand the general resurrection to depend ontologically on Christ’s resurrection. Consider, for example, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.”
Does this mean that the resurrection of the unregenerate is also dependent on Christ’s resurrection such that, counterfactually had Christ not been raised, then the unregenerate would not be raised to judgment? If that is the case, and if we assume that an unregenerate person resurrected to judgment is worse off than an unregenerate person not resurrected to judgment, then it follows that the resurrection is as much bad news for the unregenerate as it is good news for the regenerate.
But why assume that resurrection would leave an unregenerate person worse off?
The reason is simple: because the resurrection body is not, on the whole, a good for the unregenerate person who receives it, since it only provides a deeper mode of suffering. As the medieval theologians put it, hell involves both the pains of loss (psychological torture) and the pains of sense (physical torture). Whether that torture is from God or self-inflicted matters not for our discussion. The salient point is that resurrection provides little more than the addition of the pains of sense to the pains of loss already endured by the damned soul.
There are two ways to avoid this outcome. To begin with, one could be a universalist according to which everyone is ultimately reconciled to God, either in this life, at death, or after death. If this is true then even a resurrection to judgment is a resurrection that ultimately leads to life. Second, one could maintain Buechner’s quote if one adopted a particular kind of annihilationism according to which physical death is worse than the posthumous annihilation that comes with final judgment. There is nothing incoherent about this position, but it does appear to depend on a rather implausible claim.
Regardless for the mainstream Christian who rejects both universalism and annihilationism of the above-type, Buechner’s quote needs to be rejected. To be sure, the resurrection to life still promises that the worst thing is never the last thing. But the resurrection to judgment is a very different thing, one that is but the forecourt and bridge to suffering heretofore unknown in this mortal coil.