|March 27, 2012
The Idea of Resurrection
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
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:02am
Dear Prof. Hedrick:
Wish I could be a birdie on the wall at your lectures next week at UCSC on The Secret Gospel of Mark. Best wishes.
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."