Recovering the Resurrection (part 1)

Recovering the Resurrection

Introduction

The three great monotheistic religions of the world hold a number of things in common, the most obvious being a belief in a single deity and some common roots in Old Testament Biblical history. There is, however, one major set of events that sets Christianity apart, not just from other monotheistic religions, but also from every other major religion of the world. The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the foundational events of Christianity and the major theological distinctives that distinguish the Christian faith from others. From this belief in the resurrection of Christ comes another doctrine vital to Christianity: the eternal hope from the belief in the bodily resurrection of believers.

Easter, the Christian holiday that celebrates the bodily resurrection of Jesus has long been the most important holy day in the Christian calendar. In recent decades, the importance of the bodily resurrection as first demonstrated by Jesus has lost some of its importance among Christianity as a whole. In particular, Christians seem to have lost sight of the significance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and how it relates to our own experiences after death. While Christians readily celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, there exists a great amount of ignorance on the topic of the bodily resurrection of the believer. This is unfortunate because the events celebrated during Easter are the most important in the Christian faith and a template for the Christian’s ultimate victory over death.

Today, the popular conviction seems to be that death leads to some sort of disembodied spiritual state. Death means the soul goes to heaven and the broken, physical body is left behind on earth forever. It is easy to find this view cropping up not just in popular media, but also among the laity and even the pulpits of Christian churches. While this view may be popular in both Christian and secular circles, there is firm evidence both in scripture and historical theology to refute it. Indeed, the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not just a foundational event for Christianity, but also an event that foreshadows the eschatological hope that Christians have after they die. This paper will explore the loss of emphasis on a bodily resurrection, why the loss is a problem for Christian eschatology, and how the church can begin to rediscover the importance of the bodily resurrection.

The Resurrection in Early Non-Jewish Literature

The first step in understanding the importance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to grasp the uniqueness of the idea compared to the religious beliefs that were popular and geographically close to the events taking place in the New Testament. The first century was a challenging time for Jews because they were under the control of a pagan government. The religious views of much of the world outside of Israel were shaped by the writings of the poet Homer.[1] His works would have been ingrained in popular culture, and his ideas about life after death would have been the most prevalent in the non-Jewish culture in and around Israel. Nowhere in Greek mythology is the idea of a general bodily resurrection of humanity supported. Even Apollo, one of the gods, was not permitted to bring a child back from the dead. There was no way to regain a physical body after being relegated to the land of the shadows in the afterlife.[2]

The life that existed after death in Greek mythology was not one that the great heroes of myth desired or looked forward to. Homer painted a bleak picture of an emotionless place where joy did not exist. Perhaps even more disturbing for the Greeks was that the ability to think and reason did not exist in Homer’s afterlife. They would exist merely as shades, or shadows of their former selves. For a Greek in a highly intellectual culture, the loss of the ability to reason would have been among the most terrible things that could happen to them.[3]

Cultures other than those readily influenced by Homer had different takes on life after death. While Homer’s dark view suggested that earthly life was more desirable than the one that followed, not every culture held such a pessimistic view. The Egyptian culture would have been another that first century Jews would have been familiar with. This familiarity would have been bred both from shared history and close proximity.

The Egyptian burial rites included a practice of burying various items along with the person who had died. The tombs often contained everything that a person might have used in daily life from food and clothing to animals and human servants. They believed that these items would accompany them into the next life where they could then be used for the benefit of the one who had been buried with them. While the Egyptians did believe in a life after death that would have held many similarities to their earthly life, there was no belief in a bodily resurrection. Thus, death was seen more like a door in which the dead Egyptian would step from one form of life into another, leaving behind their earthly life forever.[4]

First century culture would also have been greatly influenced by the works of the great Greek philosophers. Plato was especially influential with his idea about a world of Forms that existed beyond the physical realm. Plato’s view of earthly life was much different than that of Homer. Homer wrote that the earthly life of a human was when they would be at their physical and intellectual prime and the afterlife would deprive them of the very things they took so much pride in. Plato opined that the release of the immortal soul from the confines of an inferior earthly body was the desired state for humans. Plato believed that the dead would end up in Hades, but Plato’s Hades was not the terrible place of punishment often thought of or the emotionless land of the shades in Homer. It was a pleasant and desirable state because the mind was freed from the confines of a physical body. Plato’s belief that the release of the soul from worldly constraints was the desired eternal state for a person leaves no room for a bodily return from the dead and indeed makes such a return a very undesirable proposition as it would require putting back on the earthly body that had previously imprisoned the soul.[5]

There are many other examples that could be cited to illustrate how unique the idea of a bodily resurrection is to Christian and Jewish literature. The above examples provide a basis for how radical the idea of bodily resurrection would have been to most people living in the first century. The non-Jewish and non-Christian cultures surrounding and living in Palestine would have had no concept of a resurrection in the manner Christianity proposed. The bodily resurrection of both Christ and the Christian in the at the return of Christ was a radical proposition with no parallel in other religions popular in the region during the first century.


[1] N.T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 32.

[2] Ibid., 33

[3] Ibid., 40-41

[4] Ibid., 46-47

[5] Ibid., 52-53

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