From “The World Its Creation and Consummation: the End of the Present Age and the Future of the World in the Light of the Resurrection” by Karl Heim, 1874-1958
That for the Early Church everything depends on the reality of the resurrection, that with this everything else, even faith, stands or falls, is most plainly shown in the record of the resurrection faith which Paul has left us in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter fifteen, verses fourteen to nineteen.
“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain (that is, it rests on an illusion), and your faith is in vain (it has then no longer any content). We are found as false witnesses of God because we have testified of God that he has raised Christ, whom he did not raise… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (for then the power of sin, which has come into the world through the Satanic Fall, is still powerful) and then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ (those who have persevered in faith in Christ in spite of all persecutions) have perished. If in this life we who are in Christ have our only hope in him, we are of all men most to be pitied (more exactly: the most worthy of pity, because we have then indeed risked our whole existence for an illusion, which has been shattered).”
Here then, everything is made dependent on the one fundamental fact, with which the transformation of the whole cosmos has begun, and as whose first fruits and beginning Christ came from the grave on Easter morning.
This new beginning, of which all who have seen the risen Lord have become witnesses, thus divided the whole course of the world into two periods, of which the second has begun with Christ’s resurrection, but only after a long interval finds its continuation and completion in Christ’s return. This second period is contrasted with the first by its fundamental form.
This is implicit in the eloquent declaration in Revelations, chapter twenty-one, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… for the former things have passed away.”
World history thus falls like a tragedy into two acts. In the first act, in which we still find ourselves at present, the knot is tied and a tragic conflict is developed, which reaches its climax with the crucifixion of Jesus. Only the second act brings the solution of the conflict, in which the complicated knot is untied. Hence, in the first stage, the world in every sphere is characterised by unsolved problems, both in personal life and in the political life of the nations. Only in the second stage comes the solution of the tragic conflict. The knot, twisted in the first stage and ever more intricately ravelled, is untied.
“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more; for the former things have passed away.”
There is truth in the words, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21) and, “For the form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7)
The contrast between the two stages of world history in which we are all involved is still more impressively illustrated in Romans, chapter twenty-two, where it is written, “The whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.”
Here our human destiny is linked with all the rest of the created world and seen in a vivid picture. It is the picture of the painful and afflicted state in which a mother finds herself immediately before the birth of her child. She groans and waits in the intervals of her pains with anxious expectancy for the moment of deliverance when the child frees itself from the mother’s body and all her trouble is at an end. In such painful affliction, the whole creation finds itself in its present unredeemed state. It waits anxiously for the moment of deliverance when the new stage will be born. In the first unredeemed stage, the creation lives “in the bondage of corruption.” It is shut up in polarity as in a prison. This is especially evident in the flight of time and in the painful character of the I-Thou relationship, from which the lover especially suffers because he cannot get inside the other person as he would like to, but the other must ever remain a stranger to him.
All this goes to show the profound contrast between the two stages of world development, the unredeemed stage in which we all still exist at present, and the second redeemed stage, of which the risen Christ is the “first-fruits.” Now the question arises: How does the transition take place from the unredeemed state to the redeemed state, which Christ as our forerunner has attained and to which we may follow if we belong to him?
This is the question which the Corinthians put to Paul when they said: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
In other words: how does the transition from the old to the new embodiment take place?
Paul answers in his first letter to the Corinthians where he explains the mysterious transition by pointing to the fundamental idea which here comes into force. This is the idea of transformation.
“We shall not all die,” he says, “but we shall all be changed.”
Transformation is contrasted with another kind of transition. This consists in the fact that a first phenomenon is annihilated, and then a second phenomenon is newly created independently of this. Such a transition could also take place, indeed, in resurrection. The old bodies might die and, independently of them, new physical natures might be created in their place. But according to Paul, this is not at all what happens in resurrection, a transformation takes place. What this means is vividly illustrated by Paul from the processes of organic nature. Here again and again a seed of corn falls into the earth. Underground it goes through a mysterious transformation and then grows out of the soil in an entirely new form. “It is sown” and experiences a resurrection.
Paul refers to the mystery of transformation which here confronts us when he says: “What you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body.”
But now comes the decisive point, which Paul seeks to prove with this reference to the course of nature. He draws a daring conclusion from lesser to greater, from a process which takes place within the little relationships of the polar world to an infinitely greater total transformation process, embracing the whole cosmos and extending far beyond the polar world. If God, says Paul, within the little world which is under the shadow of corruption, can carry out such wonderful transformations in millions of living creatures that we see round about us, how much more will he deliver the cosmos he has loved from the prison-house of corruption, and bring it into a new existence. This is summarised in the mighty sentences in which Paul opposes the present time of sowing to the future age which is characterised by the resurrection of the cosmos.
“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
The beginning of this transformation of the whole body from the polar state to the supra-polar state arises out of the decisive event, in which the Saviour of the world emerges from the grave as first-fruits, in order next to deliver the human world, which until then had languished in captivity of corruption and lead it into “the liberty of the sons of God.” This sheds a light on the nature of the resurrection of Christ. As the first-fruits of the cosmic transformation, Christ, as Saviour of the world, must be bodily resurrected. Only then can he enter with his whole being into the new form of existence delivered from decay. It would not have sufficed if Christ had appeared in a subjective or objective vision, in which the memory of a disciple, overwhelmingly impressed by the life of Jesus, produced a visionary illusion while at the same time the body of Jesus lay mouldering in the grave in Jerusalem. For Paul, everything depends, rather, on the fact that Christ emerged from the grave in complete bodily form. It is of the essence of a transformation that the first body, which is the subject of the transformation, enters entirely into the new state and that nothing remains unchanged. The witnesses of the resurrection accordingly report unanimously that the grave was empty. Everything depended on the fact that during the forty days when he came and went among his disciples Christ, the Saviour of the world, had indeed a new form of being which made it possible for him to pass through closed doors and walls and to appear out of the unseen and vanish again; but that nevertheless he had the same body as before, only in a changed form, and that he still bore the marks of the crucifixion, the imprint of the nails on his hands and feet.
We of a later generation, who “belong to Christ,” can therefore only have hope that, when our time is fulfilled, our whole being will be transformed from the corruptible form of existence to the new incorruptible form, if our Saviour with all his being has assumed a new form of existence. But to make this possible, it is essential that he emerged from the grave and left it behind him empty so that no remnant of his bodily nature remained there.