With Death Behind Him

From “Story and Promise:
A Brief Theology of the Gospel About Jesus”
by Robert W. Jenson, 1930-2017

If Jesus dies and yet lives, this means something first for him. That he lives, means that he, like every living man, has the meaning of his life in the fulfilment that is yet to come of it. But that he has died and lives, means that his hope for fulfilment has the condition of death already behind it. A man lives by the words that give him a common and future-opened world with other men. The word by which Jesus lives is an unconditional promise, of fulfilment for the life he lived and the death that came of it. It is the sounding of this promise that called him from the dead. And the speaker, whoever or whatever he is, is the one Jesus’ people mean by “God.”

If Jesus died but now lives, his reality is open to the meaning and outcome of what he did, suffered, and was, without the condition that we must observe: he does not need to specify, “I am committed. of course, only insofar as my commitment does not lead me to death and so to its own negation.” Since death is behind him, nothing can anymore separate him from his future. He is himself the one he evoked by his teaching, the one for whom the prophets’ promises are the word to live by right now, without intervening space for preparation, postponement or failure, without intervening death, without intervening law. Alienation is no longer a possibility.

It seems odd to talk of the man Jesus in this way, in the present tense. The Christianity with which most of us have some acquaintance has accustomed us to speak of him in the past tense. Christianity has rarely remembered what a strange claim the gospel involves: that the man Jesus lives now. “Conservative” Christians have talked about Jesus’ supernatural accomplishments back there (he “atoned for sin, once for all,” or something of the sort) which we now must make presently effective by using the sacraments (Catholic) or believing hard enough (Protestant). “Liberal” Christians, not believing in supernatural accomplishments, have made Jesus a great religious teacher and example. who taught and exemplified such and such back there (“the fatherhood of God,” or “nonviolence,” or something else equally worthy in itself) which we must now make effective by practice. “Pietist” Christians have indeed talked much of the “present reality” of Christ, and of a “personal relationship” to him; but they too have left the actual man in the past, with a choice of conservative or liberal formulas, and for the present substituted a sort of spectre with whom we are to establish friendly relations by being adequately religious (“give your heart to Jesus”). The point of the gospel is that there is no need for any of these ways of making the past Jesus come alive in the present, since he already is, of himself.

If Jesus died and lives, the fulfilment of his life opens unconditionally to him. But his life was speaking the promise of Israel’s Kingdom to other men, acting it out with them, and doing both in a way that removed all conditions and refused all social and religious distinctions. Therefore the fulfilment now promised to Jesus, is exactly that the promises of Israel will be fulfilled for his fellows and that his fellowship will reach to all men. “The Word of God” is first of all the word by which the man Jesus now lives; and what that word says to him is: “All men will be your brothers, despite their alienation, and unconditionally, in the new order that will fulfil Israel’s hope.” Just so this word is equally addressed to us, without distinction; it is the word that each of us may speak to the other in Jesus’ name, and in this form it says: “Israel’s hope will be fulfilled for Jesus’ sake, and for you; despite all past or future failed conditions, despite all alienation, and despite the death that rules in both.”

Therefore we cannot speak of Jesus’ aliveness without speaking also of ourselves. If it is clear who Jesus was, then to say that he lives is, with no additions needed, to speak to and about each other. It is not too much to say that “Jesus lives” is equivalent to “The prophets’ promises are unconditionally proclaimed among men, and to all sorts and conditions of men and are factually true.” This equivalence in no way limits his freedom or reality; for what his life willed was not to exist apart from his fellows, and it is this will that now succeeds and defies death.

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