I had the unenviable opportunity again this week to attend a funeral. The older you get, the more time you spend in a black suit bidding friends and family good-bye. At least this time I wore a tan suit, just to trick things up a bit. That, and the black suit has a hole in it.
Whenever I attend a funeral for someone of a another faith, I try to pay a great deal of attention to the mood and the messages. I have been in funeral services that were full of faith and hope. Others were painful lamentations of a inconsolable loss. And there have been any number of services running the gamut in between.
This funeral leaned much more to the positive side than most. The music was energetic (the pianist banged out the hymns like she had a taxi waiting for her with the meter running). The comments from friends were happy and humorous. The person whose loss we were mourning (I’ve never understood the whole “Celebration of Life” euphemistic nonsense, since none of us would have shown up for the event but for a death) was my first boss in my legal career. A great and generous guy. Real Mr. Rogers-type. Was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year or so ago, fought a difficult battle, and died too young. Under very difficult circumstances, the family, performers and speakers managed to keep a light tone. He would have appreciated that.
He was a member of a mainstream Christian denomination, one with which I was, at one time, quite familiar. My grandfather was one of their ministers (and a bit of an agnostic, but that’s another story). There were plenty of quotations from the New Testament and Psalms, and even a few verses from Isaiah, who doesn’t get as much air time among modern Christians as he probably deserves. But about halfway through the service, I realized that one word had not escaped anyone’s lips: There was no mention of the resurrection.
This isn’t meant as a criticism, but rather a curiosity. For the rest of the service I listened very carefully. Lots of talk about love. Plenty of vague references to “going home to be with God.” But no mention of the resurrection, either Christ’s or anyone else’s.
I probably was tuned in to the issue because I had just spent the wee hours of the morning discussing the resurrection with my seminary class. I found it surprising that the resurrection, which provides us the great hope of escaping the horror and permanence of death, was given short shrift at a funeral.
Mormons believe in a literal resurrection. We believe that as a result of the Fall of Adam, two conditions came upon men. One was physical death, which came as a result of Adam’s transgression. The second is sin, or “spiritual death,” which comes as the result of our own mortal weaknesses and poor decisions. We believe that before the Creation, Christ was anointed to come to Earth as a Savior, to redeem us both from physical death (through the resurrection) and spiritual death (through the atonement, which reconciles us with God). We believe that everyone who has ever lived will be physically resurrected upon the second coming of Christ. Redemption from sin is also a matter of grace, but it is conditioned upon us giving our best efforts to live the commandments of God.
That’s a serious distillation of these doctrines, but it should do for our purposes here.
Mormon doctrine is quite committed to the reality of the resurrection, given that we believe that the fullness of Christ’s gospel was restored in our day through the ministration of resurrected beings. Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by a number of angels who were resurrected beings capable of performing physical ordinances. His First Vision in 1820 was a visitation of God the Father and Jesus Christ, both of whom appeared as resurrected beings. Smith also claimed to have been visited by, among others, the angel Moroni, who led him to the ancient record that was translated as the Book of Mormon; John the Baptist; Peter, James and John; Elias; and Elijah. If resurrection is a fable, Mormonism’s claim of a restored gospel would be a fraud.
Christianity, as a whole, embraces the resurrection, at least insofar as it relates to Christ. But I can’t help but wonder if the universal resurrection is a harder doctrine to teach 2000 years after the stone was rolled back on the garden tomb. To be honest, Christians have struggled with the resurrection throughout this long stretch of time. The issue was resolved for Thomas, because he saw, heard, and felt the resurrected Christ. The rest of us haven’t had that advantage, and we have to find sufficient faith in the resurrection to overcome the stark reality of death. A more ethereal “return to God” is a much easier and safer sell. But without the resurrection, it isn’t just Mormonism that is exposed as a sham: It is the entirety of Christianity.
Christ sought to make his resurrection vividly clear to his disciples in the Holy Land. He let them see his body and feel the wounds in His hands, feet and side. He ate with them. He spent 40 days ministering to His apostles as a resurrected being. The must fundamental and wonderful message of the Bible is found in three short words: “He is risen!”
Mormons take that message quite literally and seriously. It is the core message of the Book of Mormon, which provides a second witness that Jesus Christ was the Only Begotten of the Father, that He condescended to come to Earth as a man, that He lived a perfect life, was crucified, and three days later rose from the dead. The crowing moment of the Book of Mormon is His long-awaited appearance to a group of people in the Western hemisphere, who directly witnessed Him in His resurrected glory and recorded their testimony for our benefit.
The hope of Christianity, including that brand of Christianity known colloquially as “Mormonism,” is in the empty tomb. It is the hope that we can escape the awful finality of death through the grace of He who had power over death. Mormons believe that there will be a literal and universal resurrection, and that when Christ appears we shall see Him and be like Him. Along with Job, we profess that though worms our flesh destroy, yet in our flesh we shall see God.