March 27, 2012

The Idea of Resurrection

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Easter is upon us and thoughts turn to bunnies, gaily colored eggs, chocolate, and, of course, the resurrection of Jesus. The idea that life continues in some fashion after death has been a persistent hope in human culture. Ancient burials, heads facing east toward the rising sun, suggest to some scholars an expectation, and among the ancient Egyptians a primary activity of this life was to prepare for a future life.

      The usual expectation in antiquity is that the person’s spirit will continue to survive. The idea that the bodies of the dead will be physically resuscitated is a more recent idea. The earliest hint I know that such a thing might occur is found in Ezekiel (dated 6th century BCE). It is Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of desiccated bones. Granted that Ezekiel is talking about the return of the exiled people of Israel to their homeland, the language, however, is particularly relevant: “O dry bones…I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin and put breath in you and you shall live” (Ezek 37:4-6). “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within and you shall live and I will place you in your own land” (37:12-14).

      Another suggestion of a physical resuscitation of the bodies of the dead is found in 2nd Maccabees (1st century BCE), when describing the fate of Jewish martyrs in the struggle against the Selucid Kingdom of Syria in the 2nd century BCE. In chapter 7 the language suggests physical resuscitation of the dead. Seven brothers are arrested and killed. The first brother’s tongue was cut out and his hands cut off. The second brother says to the king as “he was at his last breath: ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from the present life but the king of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life’” (7:9). The third brother “quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands and said nobly: ‘I got these from heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again” (10-11). The mother encouraged each of her sons as follows: “The Creator of the world. . . will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws” (7:23). In general it appears that the Hebrew concept of resurrection included a physical resuscitation of the dead, but in the Hellenistic world it was a bodiless spirit that survived the grave.

      In the New Testament the evidence is mixed. Paul, for example, argued for a bodily resurrection but his expected body of the resurrection was a spiritual body rather than a bodiless spirit or a physical body resuscitated (1 Corinthians 15:35-50). One should likely read his comments in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 in the light of 1 Corinthians. Other statements elsewhere in the New Testament, however, suggest a body physically resuscitated. For example, the Matthean story of the dead walking about at 3 pm (27:51-54) suggests a physical event of some sort—as does the story of Lazarus in John 11:38-44, the account of the women taking hold of the feet of Jesus (Matthew 28:9), and Jesus eating fish (Luke 24:42). On the other hand, Luke’s description of the ascension of the resurrected Jesus (Luke 24:50-51) sounds more like Paul’s idea of a spiritual body.

      The Christian belief in resurrection requires an important prior belief, a belief that human beings are in some way the high point of God’s creative activity; in other words human beings are special in some way that other life forms are not—we are the apple of God’s eye, as it were (cf. Genesis 1:26-30). Perhaps we are, but to suggest that God doesn’t care equally for all his children, i.e., all life forms in the created order, is to say the least self-centered and egotistical. The idea projects onto God our personal ideas of self-aggrandizement. We tend to think that the cut flowers with which we decorate our homes and dispose of in a week and the trees we cut down to heat our homes have less value to God than we humans. Perhaps in the economy of God, however, all life forms have equal value, and will find a place in some future restoration of all things. Paul may have suggested as much when he wrote about “the creation itself being set free from its bondage to decay and obtaining the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-23). Is such a thing any less credible than the idea of ascending bodiless spirits or resuscitated physical bodies?

      In my view the persistent belief in “resurrection” of some sort is simply a human expression of hope, nothing more or less, that God has not yet finished with his creatures. No matter what we believe or think we know, the “other side” is completely unknowable, and we are at best mere speculators.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:02am

Dear Prof. Hedrick:
It was great meeting you, your wife and your son this past week, and especially your friend from Salinas, what a nice lady. Your conclusion sounds good to me, I just don't see the point of resuscitating all these bodies, from a spiritual point of view. Unless there is some great mystery I am missing. Do you mind sending me the name of the book by Miller you recommended to me if I wanted to read the other gospels?

Many thanks and very kind regards to you and your wife,
Max (the Russian)
Posted by Max Tabatchnik on 4/7/2012 at 1:35pm

Hi Max,
It was my pleasure meeting someone with your background who spans more than one culture and language. The book in question was Robert Miller,
The Complete Gospels (4th ed.; Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010).
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 4/8/2012 at 6:56pm

Hello Charlie
Perhaps you will remember me as a colleague in the Missouri London Program in 1990. I am now an emeritus history professor from Missouri S & T in Rolla. A recent article by Andrew Sullivan in Newsweek stimulated my interest and I remembered your specialty and looked up your blog on the Internet. Which of your books should I read first? Any other suggested readings? Best wishes.
Jack Ridley
Curator's teaching Professor
Posted by Jack Ridley on 4/4/2012 at 9:57pm
Hi Jack,
I remember our shared time abroad in the London program—for me a very broadening experience and I was happy to have shared it with you! I am not really sure which book to suggest that you read first. I suppose it would depend on the general subject you are interested in. If you are interested in how I make personal sense of religious faith then try
When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journeys. I wrote the introduction and have my own essay in this collection of essays. If you are interested in the Historical Jesus then try When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus. I tried to lay out the problems of studying Jesus with the sources that we have. I like to think it is a very clear statement of the issues and provides the basis for a reader taking up the quest for themselves. If you are interested in parables try Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics. In this book I take on the history of parables interpretation, critique all the classic approaches, and set out for the reader how one should go about dealing with the parables. House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason is a collection of my newspaper essays over about 20 years in the Springfield News-Leader. These brief essays take a wry look at some of the most sacred cows (with apologies to my Hindu brothers) of Christian faith. My last book is a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, one of the most important new discoveries of the 20th century: Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas: A Radical Faith for a New Age. All of them should be available through Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Let me know which you chose to do first.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 4/9/2012 at 12:30am

Dr. Hedrick
According to my engineering friend, energy is neither created or destroyed, it only changes states. According to Einstein's theory, energy and matter are the same thing, just different states. I think "spirit", "energy", "life force" are essentially all the same thing with people using the language that most relates to their interpretation. Kinesthesiology also is showing that as a human elevates to higher consciousness levels, their energy levels change to higher frequency. One theory is Jesus was close to 1000 on kinesthesiology scale (highest a human nervous system can go) and therefore may have had the ability to project energy into matter. Others have also achieved very high levels, but they are few and far between.
Posted by Rita Moore on 4/1/2012 at 8:16am

Wish I could be a birdie on the wall at your lectures next week at UCSC on The Secret Gospel of Mark. Best wishes.
Ed (Edward R. Smith)
Posted by Edward R. Smith on 3/29/2012 at 9:30m

To refresh you on my back-ground, I graduated under you with a MA in Relgious Studies, I am a part time Licensed Counselor, but my primary job remains in the RF/Microwave Engineering arena, where frankly the money has kept me for over 20 years. In the last month I found myself visiting with physicist & engineers at Oak Ridge Nat'l Lab (ORNL), Los Alamos Nat'l Lab (LANL) & Nat'l Radio Astronomy Obsv (NRAO). ORNL is working with creating new "materials", LANL is upgrading accelerators which take molecules and accelerate them to near speed of light (nuclear energy) and NRAO has satellites listening to the sounds of the universe. In short, I feel very small and have come to perceive all of life as a form of energy flow (physics continues to validate). If we go on into the other life, we go on as some energy form (energy changes forms all the time.) Likewise, the flower you cut and the tree that warms your home also transforms it's energy and continues on and on. Perhaps a slightly different perspective?
Posted by Rita Moore on 3/28/2012 at 7:30pm
Hi Rita,
I remember you very well! But I was unaware of your microwave associations. Energy continuation into the other side (if there is one) is a “different perspective.” But it does raise the question how is that different from “spiritual” continuation—or is there a difference? I suppose if one thinks of the “life force” that pervades all living things, the “green fuse” (from Dylan Thomas, I think), as an energy force (in religious language, spirit) then there may be no difference. But the question remains does energy ever dissipate, like a rolling ball that loses its momentum. Or should my rolling ball image be placed in space, where balls go on rolling forever when there is no atmosphere to restrict their momentum—and so it is with the “green fuse,” our energy force that goes on forever. What do you think?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 3/30/2012 at 9:11am

Intriguing thoughts! I especially love your referring to humans as "self-centered" and "egotistical" to consider themselves at the top of the creation chain, particularly in light of recent PBS shows on "string theory" and "multiple universes."
Susan Hicks
Posted by Susan Hicks on 3/28/2012 at 10:19am

Mr Hedrick,
Do you currently teach anywhere? I would be interested in coming to your class.
Julie Blackson
Posted by Julie Blackson on 3/28/2012 at 8:18am
Good Morning Julie,
I have been retired now for several years, so I do not teach a regular class anywhere. Occasionally I teach on various topics (well OK mostly New Testament subjects) at churches in the Springfield area and I do teach around the country in Westar’s Jesus Seminar on the Road program. My next engagement with JSOR is in Goshen, Indiana. The topic is “Jesus of Nazareth: Savior, Lord, or Wisdom Teacher.” I share the teaching duties with Hal Taussig, another Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. Next week I will be teaching a series of three lectures at the University of California, Santa Cruz on the Secret Gospel of Mark.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 3/29/2012 at 8:23am