A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.” What would have happened to me, I often wonder, if I had read those words of C. S. Lewis when I was 18 years old and been alerted to the danger of reading? At the time, I was a grumpy and frankly rather arrogant atheist. I was totally convinced that there was no God, and that anyone who thought there was needed to be locked up for her own good. I was majoring in the sciences at high school and had won a scholarship to study chemistry at Oxford University, beginning in October 1971. I had every reason to believe that studying the sciences further would confirm my rampant godlessness. While waiting to go up to Oxford, I decided to work my way through a pile of “improving books.” Needless to say, none of them were religious.
Eventually, I came to a classic work of philosophy—Plato’s Republic. I couldn’t make sense of everything I read. But one image etched itself into my imagination. Plato asks us to imagine a group of men, trapped in a cave, knowing only a world of flickering shadows cast by a fire. Having experienced no other world, they assume that the shadows are the only reality. Yet the reader knows—and is meant to know—that there is another world beyond the cave, awaiting discovery.
As I read this passage, the hard-nosed rationalist within me smiled condescendingly. Typical escapist superstition! What you see is what you get, and that’s the end of the matter. Yet a still, small voice within me whispered words of doubt. What if this world is only part of the story? What if this world is only a shadowland? What if there is something more wonderful beyond it?
Had I read Lewis at that stage, I would have known that he once shared my dilemma as the imaginative deficiency of his youthful atheism began to dawn on him: “On the one side, a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other, a glib and shallow rationalism.” Yet even without Lewis, a seed of doubt had been planted within my dogmatic mindset. I could not have known this, but within a year, such doubts would overwhelm me and lead me to rediscover Christianity.
My own conversion was intellectual. I didn’t need a quick spiritual fix. Instead, I encountered a compelling and luminous vision of reality so powerful and attractive that it demanded a response. Christianity made more sense of the world I saw around me and experienced within me than anything else—my earlier atheism included. I discovered the sheer intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith—its remarkable, God-given ability to offer us a lens through which we can see things, bringing everything into a sharper focus. It’s a light that illuminates the shadowlands. That’s why I’ve come to love Lewis’s great one-liner: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not just because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Although my journey of faith started with reason, it did not end there. The novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote of the “delicious process of exploring” that he experienced upon converting to Christianity in 1930. I know just what he meant. Everything is new and exciting. It’s all too much to take in at once. You have to keep coming back, going deeper each time around. That’s what I found with the Resurrection.
My first reflections on the resurrection of Christ were exactly what you’d expect from a recovering hyper-rationalist. My questions were all about historical factuality. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? What was the evidence for it? At that stage, my concern was really to reassure myself of the trustworthiness of the New Testament. If the Resurrection didn’t happen, then the New Testament could not be trusted. If it did, the New Testament was to be trusted. Although I emerged from this period of questioning with my faith intact, I could not help feeling there was rather more to the resurrection of Christ than the validation of the authority of Scripture.
I now began to reflect on how the Resurrection helped me make sense of the identity of Christ. I cut my theological teeth on works like German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus: God and Man, which offered a complex and intriguing defense of the Resurrection as a public event and argued its importance for understanding the true significance of Jesus Christ.
My own conversion was intellectual. I didn’t need a quick spiritual fix. Instead, I encountered a compelling and luminous vision of reality so powerful and attractive that it demanded a response.
My early concern was to get straight what Christians believed, and why they believed it. How does the Resurrection fit into the web of Christian beliefs? How does it fit into the overall scheme of the Christian faith? After several years of wrestling with these issues, I came down firmly on the side of Christian orthodoxy. I became, and remain, a dedicated and convinced defender of traditional Christian theology. Having persuaded myself of its merits, I was more than happy to try to persuade others as well. My early books had titles such as Understanding Jesus and Understanding the Trinity.
Today, I remain convinced that Christianity gives the best “big picture” of reality, one which makes sense of science, history, culture, and personal experience. This is one of its greatest strengths, and it helped me come to faith. Yet I came to realize that it has more strengths than I had initially appreciated. I was like someone holding a diamond up to the light, and realizing it had many facets—each scintillating brilliantly in the light—and rejoicing as I came to appreciate their individual beauty and relevance.
A deeper appreciation of the significance of the Resurrection slowly began to dawn. I had always understood that the significance of the Resurrection went beyond deepening our understandings of the identity of Christ and our own situation. Yet I found it difficult to express this in words, and could not quite grasp its traction on the deeper things of life.
My appreciation of the deeper dimensions of the gospel grew considerably as I worked as a curate—the Church of England’s term for an assistant pastor—in a parish in England’s East Midlands in the early 1980s, ministering to those who were suffering, dying, and bereaved. Ordinary people, often in the final stages of their life, explained to me how their faith in the Resurrection transformed their lives and brought new hope to their sufferings and losses. As I listened to them, I realized that they were ministering to me as much as I to them.
Those good faithful Christian people taught me that the Resurrection enabled believers to do more than think. It helped them to cope with the sorrows, ambiguity, and pain of life. They hadn’t read Pannenberg. But they had immersed themselves in the New Testament and absorbed its fundamental message of hope. They knew that, even though they walked through the valley of the shadow of death, God was with them. So they kept walking through the wilderness of this world, knowing God was by their side. They knew that Christ’s resurrection was the firm foundation for their hope that all who trusted in him would finally rise with him and be with him in the New Jerusalem. So they faced suffering with dignity and serenity, knowing that those who suffer with Christ will be glorified with him.
To put it simply: Ordinary Christian believers helped me realize that the Resurrection changes not just the way we think but also the way we live. Things that I had understood in a rather dry and detached way now became living realities. What I had once studied, I now inhabited. What I had once understood, I now embraced. My time in a parish helped me to realize that the gospel impacted every aspect of our existence—our reasoning, emotions, imaginations, and values. Looking back on those days, I can now see that they liberated me from an impoverished view of the Christian faith. There’s nothing wrong with a faith that shapes the way we think—as long as we allow it to do its work of transforming every aspect of our lives. The healing balm of the gospel needs to salve the wounds of every faculty that we possess, so that they can all be transformed, enriched, and empowered through the grace of God.
Now many readers will feel—not without good reason—that this is all rather obvious. It is to me now. But it wasn’t when I began my pilgrimage of faith over 40 years ago. It was something I had to discover, and learn the hard way. To use a phrase from Lewis, my imagination was baptized as I realized how much more there was to discover about the gospel.
And so I returned to the Resurrection. I was already reassured of its historical truth. I had figured out its enormous implications for a right understanding of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. But now I was ready for more—to engage with the Resurrection at a level and with an enthusiasm I had not known before. So what did I encounter?
Space permits only one reflection: It brought a new dimension to my understanding of worship. The resurrection of Christ creates a bridge between two worlds—the everyday world in which we exist and a better and brighter world of the Christian hope. Sharing in Christ’s resurrection means sharing in the hope that we shall one day inhabit the New Jerusalem, and anticipating being part of its worship and adoration. Though our entry into the courtyards of heaven lies in the future, we can anticipate it now. Worship on earth is a foretaste of the worship of heaven.
The Fragrance of Heaven
I came across an illustration years ago that helped me visualize this. In his 1888 work The Atmosphere, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) reproduced an illustration that he declared to be a medieval woodcut. (This is now thought to be Flammarion’s own invention, by the way.) It shows a man on the threshold of the everyday world, peering beyond it into a deeper and more complex reality.
Ordinary Christian believers helped me realize that the Resurrection changes not just the way we think but also the way we live.
That’s how I see the Resurrection. By his death and resurrection, Christ has built a bridge and opened a door to the New Jerusalem. Not only do we, as citizens of heaven, have a God-given and Christbased right of entry and abode there; we can anticipate our arrival in its courtyards, allowing the worship of heaven to inspire and excite us right now. The fragrance of heaven wafts into the everyday world. By God’s grace, those things we enjoy and love now become signs and pledges of something greater to come. Jonathan Edwards put this rather well in his great sermon of September 1733, “The Christian Pilgrim”:
To go to heaven fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows. But the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.
The resurrection of Christ is the guarantor that these hopes of heaven are not the pathetic delusions of wistful human hearts. No. These are realities that are secured, disclosed, and illuminated through the gospel declaration of the resurrection of Christ as the firstfruits, with believers to follow in God’s own good time. No wonder the New Testament exults in the Resurrection hope!
When Paul speaks of the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8, NIV 1984), he is not forbidding us to explore but rather encouraging us to do so, in the knowledge that there will always be more to discover about Christ, the focus and center of our faith. Paul is right: Knowing Christ is better than anything the world can offer, even though that knowledge is limited by our finitude and sin. But one day, we shall know Christ as he really is, and be with him in his kingdom. Christ’s incarnation evokes our wonder that God once came to us; his resurrection consolidates our hope that one day we shall return home, rejoicing, to that same God.
Alister McGrath is professor of theology at King’s College London, and president of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.