It’s pretty fitting and appropriate that I should refer to the Resurrection of Christ as “the last laugh” on an Easter Sunday that should also fall on April Fool’s. (I started the writing process long before the irony of the circumstance dawned on me…God does have a sense of humor!). But first, an introduction.
Many of us have seen the cheeky, irreverent shirt with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote that says, “‘God is dead!’, signed Nietzsche”, on one side, while on the other side it says “‘Nietzsche is dead’, signed God.” To be fair to the 19th century philosopher on this Easter Sunday, he wasn’t making an ontological claim about God’s literal demise, but a provocative aphorism about God’s supposed irrelevance in modern society. On the other hand, the joke’s still on Nietzsche, because with all due respect to the intellectual great, he was also wrong in this area. Millions of people worldwide still worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…and that number is growing.
The backdrop of Nietzsche’s dictum is a Western culture/society that was coming on the heels of the Enlightenment era. The “death of God” was a figure of speech that was supposed to spur modern society to find a much needed replacement for God, leaving one sole potential candidate–man (or for Nietzsche, the “Uebermensch”). The idea was that mankind has outgrown our collective need for “God”. By the time the 20th century rolled around, many thinkers (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, etc.) believed that the inevitable demise of “God” was coming in the modern societal conscience. And the only logical conclusion was to replace it with human institutions: a modern retelling of the Babel narrative. The only thing is that, this hasn’t happened…
The “secularization hypothesis” (the idea that the world is growing less and less religous, and more and more secular), once popular among the intellectual elites, has fallen on hard times in recent years. It has more or less been debunked. In contrast, to everyone’s initial shock, while western society has grown to be more secular, the world as a whole is actually growing more religious.* And the two runner ups? Christianity and Islam–two of the great Abrahamic religions.
But how does this sociological babel relate to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection?? Because contra Nietzsche, God is not dead in either actuality or relevance. The “God-is-dead/Nietzsche-is-dead” contrast illustrates a profound truth: that unlike the works of men and their kingdoms and empires, the passage of time has not eroded the name of Jesus Christ or made it fade into obscurity, even two millennia after his “death”. And I would argue that this itself is a testament to the power of the Easter story–the Resurrection. Jesus has the last laugh over literal, and figurative, “death”.
Death and The Kingdom of Man
If you want to hear something that will tickle an existential funny-bone, listen to this open forum by Tim Keller. In it, he notes that some of the world’s greatest thinkers (Tolstoy, Voltaire, Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.) had the sense to step back and realize that everything (their lives, their lives’ work, their names) will all be washed away on the shores of time. Death comes to us all. And no matter how famous you are, your name will eventually die out and be forgotten along with the rest of this transient world in the vastness of space and time. Even the author of this blog. History has shown this to be true. The empires of Alexander, Caesar, Attila, and Napoleon all gone and washed away by the tide–like sandcastles on the beach.
Have you ever read the poem “Ozymandias”, by Percy Shelley? It speaks of a statue of an ancient king from antiquity that has fallen into ruin, forgotten by the sands of time:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
More recently is the movie Troy–a modern retelling of the great Homeric epic (the Iliad). Both Agamemnon and Achilles seek a figurative “immortality” by becoming the stuff of legends–Achilles by winning battles; Agamemnon by conquering lands. “I’ll carve my name in [Troy’s] stones!” Agamemnon cries. “History remembers kings!” It doesn’t matter. Troy’s ruins lay in the dust, along with the bones of the Greek soldiers and kings that conquered it.
Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus compared the futility of life’s work (and life’s existence) to the titular character of his story (Sisyphus), whose punishment by the Greek gods is to roll a boulder up a hill every day all day–only to see it plummet back down to the bottom come sundown.
Even the Bible has its own existential philosopher in ancient Jewish Wisdom Literature–the “Teacher” of Ecclesiastes, who similarly writes about how his name and his works will inevitably be forgotten. And yet, he also acknowledges an existential paradox and timeless truth–that eternity has been written on the hearts of men. And so we try to immortalize ourselves by “immortalizing” our name. Just like the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), we try to “make our name for ourselves” apart from God. We try to carve our name into the stones of time. We erect statues and monuments. We build buildings and towers that reach up to heaven. We make kingdoms and empires–whether military or corporate. We seek the utmost success in this life.
All sandcastles on the shores of time. All washed by the tide.
As Camus and Ecclesiastes note, it’s all futile. Death still comes to us all, and our names will erode by the tide. History is divided up between the type of people that realize this unnerving truth (Camus, Tolstoy, Sartre, Kierkegaard) and those types that build empires in denial of it (Alexander, Caesar, Attila, Napolean, “Ozymandias”, Achilles, Agamemnon). Every once in a while, someone would occupy the same space; Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-king, once wrote: “Death smiles at us all; all men can do is smile back.”
“His Kingdom Will Never End”
It’s kind of fitting that a book like Ecclesiastes should be towards the middle of the Bible. It’s important to put it in its correct place in the narrative–the “story”–of the entire Bible. The ancient Israelites understood that in the beginning, death was foreign to God’s original creation; that things were not the way that they were supposed to be. Death was introduced by man’s trespass–so goes the ancient Jewish narrative in Genesis. And they held out hope that one day, God (YHWH) would restore everything–all of creation–to its original “shalom”. To the way it was supposed to be.
Starting with the Old Testament, the prophets began to talk about a King whose kingdom will last forever, unlike the other kings and kingdoms of this world. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all alluded to this kingdom .The Prophet Samuel prophesied: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13). Even some of the Psalms alluded to this future king and kingdom (e.g. Psalm 89)! And the prophet Daniel declared that God “…will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2).
But generations came and went, along with one kingdom after another. Centuries passed Death remained a constant, swallowing up whole kingdoms. And the Jews had seen a lot of it, between the empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome–which all eventually faded by the wayside. And the “kingdom” of Israel was itself a shadow of its former glory. By the first century A.D., many Jews (the Sadduccees) had even given up on the idea of the resurrection of the dead.
But then a child named Jesus was born, and it was prophesied at His birth: “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:33). Yet Jesus would die at the hands of man’s kingdom–Caesar’s imperial might…And He would walk out of the grave. Caesar’s empire has long since evaporated–his statues and monuments looking not much better than Ozymandias’–and though he is remembered in history textbooks, no one pays tribute to his kingship any longer. Jesus, on the other hand, is still literally praised and worshiped by millions around the globe that worship Him as a resurrected King. St. Augustine wrote The City of God during a time when the pinnacle of “the city of man” (the Roman Empire) was crumbling under barbarian attacks. And yet Jesus’ lordship is still acknowledged by millions. It appears that Nietzsche (and Caesar and Pilate) was wrong.
Could this story be true?? The earliest disciples certainly believed so. They faced death convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, as a sign of a kingdom that will never end.
Victory Over Death: The Last Laugh
In the Bible, “Death” is portrayed and personified as one of the “Powers”–an insidious, spiritual force–alongside Sin and the Devil (“the god of this world”; “the prince of this world”), which together make a triumvirate, an “axis of evil”. And interestingly enough in the biblical narrative (beginning all the way in Genesis), they always seem to follow mankind wherever we go as we try to erect our lives and kingdoms apart from the Kingship of God. Sin and Death are portrayed as the insidious force, power, and inspiration lurking behind much of the man’s kingdom–whether Babel or Caesar. The Bible portrays mankind as slaves to sin and death. It was this “enemy” that Jesus took head on.
Marcus Aurelius was mostly right. “Death smiles at us all”, and death smiled at Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just smile back. He laughed in its face before giving it a good roundhouse kick in the teeth. The irony of the Gospel is that by His death, Jesus destroyed death. Death’s jaws were clamping down on Him…and He broke them in His resurrection. Years ago, I heard a preacher describe Jesus’ resurrection as him having “the last laugh”, and that has always stuck with me. It really highlights Jesus’ victory over death and the grave.
Let me try to bring this full-circle with a bottom-line. As history illustrates, mankind has always tried to build our world–our kingdom–apart from God. That’s what Nietzsche was anticipating. That’s what many believed in the 20th century. That what many still believe in: that we can build our lives apart from God. And yet history also illustrates a powerful truth: that merely man-made things, whether individual or collective, do not stand the test of time. They are stained with Sin and Death, and do not weather the storms of time. In contrast, Jesus “laughs” at death and His would-be detractors–those like Nietzsche that say He will be forgotten by time. On the contrary, unlike other kings and historical figures, Jesus’ death did not result in His name falling into obscurity. Quite the opposite. As Philippians 2 notes, by His death and resurrection, God “gave him the name that is above every name”–a name that is still worshiped. A name that is not forgotten. A named “carved” into the stones of history. Nietzsche scoffed at the weakness of the cross, believing in a civilization founded on power. And yet it is the “Kingdom” of Christ that has stood for centuries. It is this kingdom that we have hope in because of the power of the Resurrection.
Jesus always has the last laugh. Surely His kingdom “will last forever”. Amen.
*Some might scratch their heads, look around, and ask, “how can that be??”. It seems almost typical for westerners, especially Americans, to think that we’re at the center of the world and forget the literally billions of others that outnumber us and live in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. “But aren’t we the developed societies? Nature’s great gift to humanity?”. That’s what we call ethnocentricism and imperialism. And then you have many eastern countries like China, which are simultaneously growing in industry and religiosity (especially Christianity, which is growing exponentially there).
For further reading: Making Sense of God, by Timothy Keller