The cross, the tomb, and the scientist

Emma Nicholls 26 Mar 21

Easter is just around the corner. I know this because slowly but surely, everything is turning pastel-coloured. In most years this would be visible in the cheery yellow and pink shop window displays that appear in the centre of Cambridge, where I live, featuring bunnies and baskets of painted eggs. During lockdown, I’m limited to seeing it in the ‘seasonal’ aisle of my local supermarket, and the colourful banners of Easter-themed marketing emails that drop into my inbox.

There’s a strange dissonance in the imagery that we use around Easter. On one hand, we associate Easter with pastel colours, lambs, fluffy chicks and other symbols that herald the arrival of spring. On the other, amid all the flowers and baby animals stand a bloodied cross, and an empty tomb. It’s an odd picture to put on a greetings card. At this time of year we love to celebrate the beauty we see in nature, and we make a big deal of remembering the death and resurrection of Christ (to say that it’s a big deal is something of an understatement!). But it seems to me that we’re not terribly good at relating the two.

How then do we connect our appreciation of the natural world with Jesus’ death and resurrection? To put it more theologically, how does our doctrine of creation relate to our doctrine of the atonement?

This is a live question for Christians involved in studying or practising science, who are engaging on a daily basis with the finer details of the natural world but also seeking to live each day as disciples of a crucified and risen Lord. What difference does the Easter story – the uniquely Christian gospel of the incarnate Son of God dying for sin and rising again – make to the way we engage with science?

Here I’ve collected some initial musings on that question, which I hope will pave the way for deeper reflection.

The cross affects all of creation

The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the very heart of the story of the universe. It’s hard to imagine that any three days in history before or since could have such world-changing impact as that first Easter weekend. In ‘The Cross of Christ’, John Stott quotes the missionary Samuel M. Zwemer:

If the Cross of Christ is anything to the mind, it is surely everything… One comes to realise that literally all the wealth and glory of the gospel centres here.’1

It’s familiar ground to us as Christians to speak about the cross as the fundamental core of our belief, the anchor of our salvation. But does the cross’s impact go further than just humanity?

In the first chapter of Colossians Paul writes of Jesus:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’ Colossians 1:19-20

The context is that before moving onto Jesus’s role in redemption, Paul has been reflecting on the Son’s role in creation: ‘for in him all things were created’ (v16). So when he writes that all things have been reconciled to God through the cross, he’s got to be talking about more than just humanity. The logical conclusion here seems to be that the cross has implications for the natural world too.

Paul makes the same point in Romans:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ Romans 8:20-21

The fate of all creation is tied up with the fate of humanity. The ‘freedom and glory of the children of God’, achieved by Jesus’ death on the cross, is something that all creation will eventually come to share in.
That makes sense when we think back to Genesis 3. The repercussions of the Fall are not limited only to Adam, Eve and their descendants: God says ‘cursed is the ground because of you’ (Gen 3:17). Somehow, the physical world is under bondage to decay because of humanity’s sin.

So when Genesis 3’s promised serpent-crusher comes, bearing the curse on himself so that it might be lifted from his people, all of creation benefits too. The gospel is radical good news for humanity. But it’s also good news for C. elegans, and hydrocarbon complexes, and the Amazon rainforest. The earth-shattering impact of Jesus’ death on the cross sends out shockwaves into all of creation.

Creation resurrected

The same is true of the resurrection. Imagine for a moment that Jesus had not been physically raised from death: after dying for sin, his disembodied spirit simply ascended into heaven. How then would we view the physical world?

My guess is that we’d put very little value of the physical stuff of creation. If the glory we’re waiting for is a purely spiritual existence, where we’ve left our physical bodies and indeed matter itself behind, why bother investing in this material world at all? Why bother doing science, or working to protect the planet? It’s not coming with us into glory.

But the resurrected Jesus, as he appeared to the disciples, wasn’t just a ghost or a disembodied spirit – he was a physical, tangible human being who spoke and touched and ate. When he first meets his startled disciples after his resurrection in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says to them:

Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ Luke 24:39 2

Jesus’ resurrected body is the very same body that had been laid in a tomb a few days earlier: there are nail wounds in his hands and feet that convince even skeptical Thomas that he really is alive.

Jesus’ physical resurrection is the foundation of the New Testament teaching that our life in the new creation will also be physical and embodied. 1 Corinthians 15 is a seminal passage on the resurrection in which Paul makes clear that our resurrection will be like Christ’s: that is, physical, and with bodies that have some degree of continuity with our present bodies.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’ 1 Corinthians 15:51-53

What does this mean for the rest of creation, and for science?

Matter matters

The fact that the new creation will be a physical place puts real value on the physical stuff of the world now. Matter really does matter to God. Yes, it will be changed – we cannot say that any particular physical object will be with us in the new creation (and actually Jesus’ emphasis is that the things of this present world are passing away). But God is not going to entirely do away with the material stuff of this world - rather he says ‘I am making everything new!’ (Rev 21:5).

That means that as we seek to understand the natural world and harness its power for good, we are moving in the same direction. Creation, under God’s redeeming and resurrecting hand, is on a journey from brokenness to restoration. As we - scientists, engineers, medics, mathematicians, vets - seek to in little ways make life better for broken people in a fallen world, we are part of that same trajectory. Medic and pastor Matt Lillicrap refers to this process as ‘reflective restoration’: our everyday working activities aimed at restoring some aspects of our world now are tiny reflections of God’s great redemptive act in restoring the whole of creation.

Might that change how you understand your work? Every time you sit down to work at an assignment, or revise for an exam, you are in a small way participating in the great narrative of God’s redemption.

We haven’t even touched on all the practical ways that the cross and the resurrection transform our day to day work as scientists: the freedom from defining ourselves by our academic success, the suffering-now glory-later pattern of Christian life, the glorious message we have to share with colleagues… Perhaps these will form the basis for a future blog post! But as you reflect on the gospel story and the beauty of spring this Easter, rejoice that you and the things that you study are being drawn into the greatest restoration project in the universe.

1 John Stott, Cross of Christ, p52, quoting Samuel M. Zwemer, Glory of the Cross, p6.
2 The NIV subtitle, perhaps unhelpfully, makes Jesus sound more ghost-like than the text would have us understand him!