Since 2009, the acclaimed neo-soul/hip-hop act The Roots have performed as the house band for Jimmy Fallon, first on Late Night, and for the last year on The Tonight Show. They met at a performing arts high school that’s around the corner from my house on the Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia, so I’ve always followed their work with interest. Several months ago, they released their latest album, an avant-garde effort entitled “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.” Soon after its release, they debuted a track on The Tonight Show entitled “Never.” Dressed in black, against a ghostly-white backdrop, and accompanied by the Metropolis String Ensemble, the song is a haunting reflection on life’s brevity and the unflinching reality of death:
Sweet dreams, close your eyes
Sweet dreams—say goodbye to your memory
This is the moment
The moment that feels like forever
This is the end to where I began
And it feels like forever
I look down... all I see is never.
These are the questions that have long haunted humanity: is the destiny of humanity, and the cosmos, simply a meaningless end, and an infinite chasm of “never”? The belief of Christians in the bodily resurrection on Jesus of Nazareth is a bold protest to the seemingly bleak finality of death.
When Christians affirm that Jesus is risen from the dead, they do not merely mean that Christ is “with us in spirit,” or that his teachings will live on forever. They mean that the tortured, executed body of Jesus of Nazareth reknit—his heart began to beat again, and that, in a show of power not seen since the dawn of time, God burst Jesus from his tomb, undoing sin and defeating death forever.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the very lynchpin of Christian faith, and it seems utterly unbelievable to 21st century people. We should not, however, suppose that this is because we are more sophisticated and advanced than the ancients; people have been dying, and staying dead, for a long time now. And, staggering as the claim sounds, N.T. Wright, the world’s leading 1st-century historian and biblical scholar, makes a powerful case that believing that Jesus is indeed risen from the dead is the most historically plausible, reasonable conclusion one could make about the birth of the Christian movement and its explosion across the world.
So then, why is Jesus’ resurrection so difficult to believe? I think, at the root of things, it’s because resurrection makes a claim on us. As one woman who was investigating Christian faith at my church put it to me in a conversation a couple years ago, “If the tomb of Jesus is empty, then I’m not in charge of my life anymore.”
Among the last words acclaimed Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan spoke before his death were these: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen, then nothing else matters.”
If Christ is not risen, all that lies ahead of you, I, and the universe is one gaping, empty chasm of “Never.” Nothing else matters. But, Christ is risen! So, nothing else matters.
Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).