The most important question concerning Jesus … is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?
If Jesus is simply dead, there are any number of ways in which we can relate ourselves to his life and his accomplishments. And we might even, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, hope to learn more about him. But we cannot reasonably expect to learn more from him.
If he is alive, however, everything changes. It is no longer a matter of our questioning a historical record, but a matter of our being put in question by the one who has broken every rule of ordinary human existence. If Jesus lives, then it must be as life-giver. Jesus is not simply a figure of the past in that case, but a person in the present; not merely a memory that we can analyze and manipulate, but an agent who can confront and instruct us. What we learn about him must therefore include what we continue to learn from him.
To be a Christian means to assert that Jesus is alive, is indeed life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). To consider Jesus simply as a figure of the past means to consider Jesus not from the perspective of a Christian but from that of one who stands outside Christian conviction. The Christian prays, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20; see 1 Cor. 16:22), intending thereby to address a real and living person capable of manifesting his presence still more palpably. Such a prayer is nonsensical to one who is not a Christian, for it is fantasy to address the dead as though still alive. It is either make-believe or necromancy to summon from a grave one who died two thousand years ago.
This seems to be one of those very few choices that allow no equivocation. There is no middle ground between dead and alive. If Jesus is dead, then his story is completed. If he is alive, then his story continues.
The decision whether to consider Jesus dead or alive ought to have consequences for how we regard his story. If his story continues after his death, then paying attention only to what he did before his death is at best inadequate, at worst fundamentally distorting. For if Jesus is alive, then he is alive not simply as a continuation of his former existence (as a wraith or poltergeist might be) but as the one who has entered into God’s own life and who rules creation as its Lord. …
The essential point … is that the confession of Jesus as resurrected, as living with God’s own life, and as ruling as Lord of the church and world is what distinguishes the Christian view of Jesus from every other view. For everyone else, Jesus is another dead man; for Christians, he is the Living One [Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), pp. 4-5, 6].