Resurrection Means Participation
by James Tabor
When early Christians affirmed the notion of the resurrection of the dead they were essentially affirming the participation of those who had died, along with the living, in the events of the end of days.
I have recently posted several articles on this blog that expound on the early Christian understanding of “resurrection of the dead,” both that of Jesus, as well as the future expectation of a more general resurrection of the dead at the end of days. I refer readers back to my post “Why People Are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead,” here, as well as my longer published article here on “What the Bible Really Says About the Future,” which can be downloaded here. On the related matter of faith in Jesus’ resurrection see the recent post, “What Really Happened Easter Morning?” here.
For some years now I have made the point to my students that the earliest Christian teaching about the “resurrection of the dead” was not so much about the dead “living” again in some state, but rather an affirmation about the participation of the dead, along with the living, in the events of the “last days.” In other words, it was a thoroughly “apocalyptic” subject and concept. It had to do with “whether” and in “what state” those in the community who had died would participate in the events of at the “end of the age,” when Jesus returned from heaven.
Today we might tend to associate “resurrection of the dead” more with the question of “life after death,” that is, the matter of whether death is the “end” or whether humans who die “exist” or somehow go on in another realm. That was not the issue among the early Christians, nor among many if not most Jews and Greeks in Roman times. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture it had become exceedingly common to affirm the life of the departed soul, either in Sheol or Hades, with either reincarnation or “resurrection of the dead” at the end as a way of “coming back” to the world of the living. This is clearly the main concern of Paul in the two extended passages in his letters where he addresses the early Christian hope of resurrection of the dead–namely in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15. The question was a simple one–would those who have died nonetheless “meet Christ” at his coming in the clouds of heaven? Paul does not even address the more general idea of resurrection of the dead here, other than by implication. His entire focus is on whether those of the Christian community, whom he refers to as the “dead in Christ,” would still participate in the process of heavenly glorification that Paul expected at the arrival of Jesus.
This way of looking at resurrection of the dead would then distinguish it from the bare idea of resuscitation, that is a person who has recently died being revived. The Greek word translated “resurrection,” is anastasis and its literal meaning is “to stand up, to rise.” It does not necessarily refer to the dead, but it is used in Greek literature quite generally for anything from setting up a statue to literally standing up before one’s superiors. In contrast, in English today, “resurrection” has come to mean to revive something/someone that is dead, whether literally or metaphorically (e.g., the resurrection of a cause).
Anastasis then, in its most literal meaning, as applied to the dead, simply means that a corpse lying prone, “gets up,” i.e. is resuscitated, or comes to life. Thus Jesus speaks to the corpse of a twelve year old girl was has just died, “Little girl, get up,” and “the girl got up (Greek verb eigeiro) and walked about” (Mark 5:41-42). He encounters a funeral procession for a young man, son of a widow, in the Galilean town of Nain, touches the bier, and speaks to the corpse: “Young man, I say to you, rise” and the dead man sat up and began to speak (Luke 7:14-15). In the most dramatic case, that of Lazarus, who had been dead for three days, Jesus commands at the door of the tomb, “Lazarus come forth,” and the deceased walks out still clothed in his grave clothes (John 11:43-44).
But none of these cases of “resuscitation” really match what the earliest Christians came to affirm more generally about “resurrection of the dead.” After all, presumably, these three individuals, brought back to life, eventually died again, and their resurrection “bodies” were physical, mortal, and subject to corruption.
To understand this earliest Christian affirmation of “resurrection of the dead” we have to go to the writings of the apostle Paul. He clearly expresses his views in three extensive passages on the subject: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15; and 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. These passages and what they affirm predate our gospels by several decades.
What Paul affirms is that since Jesus was “raised from the dead,” all those who “belong to him” will experience a similar resurrection at his appearance or “2nd coming” when he returns in the clouds of heaven at the end of the age. He makes it absolutely clear that the “body” Jesus has, as a result of his resurrection, is heavenly, spiritual, and incorruptible, that is, it is not “flesh and blood” (1 Corinthians 15:42-50). He understands that those who have died will experience a similar “resurrection,” in that they will be raised with incorruptible, spiritual bodies–not flesh and blood.
Paul is not the least concerned with locating or otherwise preserving the rotting or decayed corpses of the dead, so they can be somehow revived like ghouls in the famous Michael Jackson video “Thiller,” or scenes from “The Night of the Living Dead.”
Paul sees death as a “naked” state, in which one has shed the physical body like an old pair of clothes, only to be “reclothed” in a new heavenly “garment” or body that is incorruptible, non-physical, and has nothing to do with corruptible body that turns to dust and has long ago perished (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
Christians later expanded this early affirmation of Paul to include all the dead, both good and bad, who would be brought forth from the realm of the dead (Hades/Sheol) to face the final last Judgment and a separation between those entering the heavenly Kingdom and those cast out into Gehenna. Thus we get texts such as the following:
Jesus declares that “the hour comes when all who are in their graves will come out–those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).
Paul affirms with the Pharisees according to the book of Acts that he has “a hope in God that there will be a resurrection of the dead; both of the righteous and the unrighteous” (Acts 24:15).
The book of Revelation pictures a final scene at the end in which “the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13).
This idea is based on the clear affirmation in the book of Daniel, that at the end of the age, “Multitudes of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The very metaphor implies that the body has “returned to the dust,” and is no more, whereas the “spirit” or inner essence of the person will be “reembodied” in a new immortal form.
In none of these early affirmations of “resurrection of the dead” is there a view of “resurrection” that would require the gathering of physical “dust” or decayed flesh or bones in some literal fashion, in order for God to raise the dead. In fact, that very absurdity is what caused Epicureans and Sadducees to scoff at the notion of “resurrection of the dead.” But as Paul makes clear, the objection of “How can God raise the dead?,” or “In what kind of body could they come?” is a foolish one, that limits the power of God as Creator. Paul’s answer is a simple one–God will give the dead an appropriate heavenly body as it pleases him (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).
The language about coming out of graves, Hades, or even the “sea,” is clearly metaphorical, not literal. It is a way of affirming the participation of those who have died in the events of the end.
As the posts linked above point out, this insight from Paul has important implications in understanding how the affirmation, first found in Paul, that “Jesus was raised from the dead” developed into the “empty tomb” scenarios, with appearances of Jesus’ resuscitated physical body as found in Luke and John, where Jesus eats, drinks, and is described as “flesh and bones.” Mark, know none of this, Matthew begins to move down that road, but not in any heavily apologetic way. There are historical and apologetic reasons that Luke begins to cast things in this “literalist” direction, early in the 2nd century CE, but the earliest Christians affirmed resurrection of the dead as faith in God’s creation of a new immortal body, not the body of dust being resuscitated. What is surprising is that modern Christian Apologetics insists that Jesus’ physical body gone missing is proof of resurrection whereas for Paul it was Jesus’ sitting at the right hand of God in a glorified state, which he claims to have seen and encountered, that formed the basis of his faith.