Resurrection

The word resurrection is not used a single time in the Old Testament. It is an expectation that originates with Christianity. Resurrection is first mentioned at Matthew 22:23. ‘The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection…’

 

Modern Christians read these verses and presume the Sadducees were some kind of heretics, stubbornly denying the revealed truth.  The Sadducees were perfectly orthodox.  

 

The Old Testament consistently refers to the dead inhabiting a place called Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek). The resting of place of the dead was not ‘hell’ as Christians have come to understand Hades, but a ‘grave’ or ‘pit’ which signifies a place of mass burial for the human race.  The word sheol is found numerous times in the Old Testament.

 

Genesis 37:34-35 And Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son (Joseph) many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, ‘For I will go down into the grave (sheol) unto my son mourning.’

 

I Kings 2:6 Do therefore according to your wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave (sheol) in peace.

 

Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave (sheol), where you are going. 

 

The only time that New Testament quotes the Old Testament regarding resurrection is at 1 Corinthians 15:54-55. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave (sheol), where is thy victory?

This quote comes from Hosea 13:14 I will ransom them from the power of the grave (sheol); I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes.

 

The Old Testament suggests in various places alludes to a resurrection of the dead while the New Testament clearly proclaims victory over death and resurrection of the dead.  The clearest anticipation of New Testament teaching on resurrection is found in Job and Ezekiel.

 

Job 19:25-26  For I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Ezekiel 37:1-6  The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones. And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.

 

From a Christian perspective, these verses clearly refer to resurrection.  From a pre-Christian Hebrew perspective they were usually interpreted as symbolical, or specific to Job or the valley of bones, rather than as a general principle that applies to all who die.

 

The Early Church was consistently ridiculed for proclaiming that the dead would be resurrected in a physical body. Greeks and Romans, who shared the belief that dead souls would pass eternity in a dreary subterranean demi-monde, ridiculed the idea of resurrection.  The physical impossibility of reassembling the atoms of a body that had dissolved in the grave was too preposterous for rational beings to take seriously.

 

Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) wrote lengthy defence of Christian beliefs concerning the resurrection. ‘Those who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh: giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored the same as it had been.’ Justin argues that God who made the universe can easily reassemble the atoms of physical bodies and breathe new life into the dead.  Cases where bodies were torn asunder by wild beasts or dismembered in battle present no problem, nor do cases where bodies were born disfigured or disabled. They will all be resurrected, reconstructed, healed and restored to life.

 

Another argument against resurrection was that the physical body was vile, despicable, and the cause of all evil. The Sadducees used yet a different argument to scoff at Jesus when he spoke about resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees practiced the Mosaic tradition that when a man died without children, his brother would marry the widow. They used this is an argument to demonstrate that resurrection would be a moral and practical nightmare.

 

Matthew 22:24- 28  Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother. Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? For they all had her. 

 

Jesus had a ready answer for them. You are in error, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.

 

Nothing like this had ever been taught before. Some Eastern religions taught that imperfect souls would be repeatedly reincarnated into physical bodies until they were finally released from the cycle of death and rebirth.  Greeks, Romans and Jews believed that the dead passed eternity in a dark, dismal abode. The most optimistic scenario was for heroes who would spend eternity in the Land of the Blessed, enjoying food, drink and sex exactly as they had done during their earthly lives. What did it mean to be resurrected in a physical body but without marriage (and presumably sex) and to exist like angels in heaven? What scripture was Jesus referring to which the Sadducees had misunderstood? Why had no one noticed them before?  Early Christians struggled to understand.  Writers of the New Testament provided additional information, but new questions were raised and left unanswered.

 

Luke 14:14 refers to ‘the resurrection of the just.’ Does this mean there will be a different resurrection for the unjust, or no resurrection for the unjust?

 

John 5:29 speaks of ‘resurrection of life’ for those who have done good and ‘resurrection of damnation’ for those who have done evil.   How good is good enough?  This verse has sparked endless debate about whether the ‘resurrection of life’ is reserved for those who are 51% good, which would qualify a lot of us, while a requirement of 100% goodness would eliminate all.

 

Hebrews 11:38 states that martyrs and heroes of the faith will ‘gain a better resurrection.’ Does this mean that there will be different classes of citizens in the resurrection? Will martyrs and heroes live in palaces, while the irresolute, who were barely 51% good, will live in humble cottages? 

 

Revelation 20:5-6 announces a ‘first resurrection’ of martyrs and heroes of the faith for 1000 years.  It also states that ‘the rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1000 years were over.’  These few words raise a multitude of questions.  If there is a first resurrection, will there be a second?  A third?   These verses clearly state that ‘the holy’ will have part in the first resurrection.  But who is sufficiently holy to take part in the first resurrection?   20:6 says that ‘the second death has no power over them.’  What is the second death?

 

After the holy ‘come to life’ they are to ‘reign with Christ for 1000 years.’  But over whom are they to reign if no one else is resurrected?  20:5 states that ‘the rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1000 years ended.’  Who are ‘the rest of the dead?’  Do they include 51% believers? Do they include the wicked? It is little wonder that the Early Church was left puzzled by this new idea of resurrection:  who was involved, and how would it unfold? 

 

The first generation of Christians had been raised as Jews or gentiles (Pagans).  They were concerned about their dead parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who had never heard the Gospel. Resurrection provided hope for the multitudes who lived before the incarnation of Jesus. The first Christians were also concerned about infants who died too young to accept Jesus as their Saviour. The resurrection provided hope for children. The Gospel proclaimed that Jesus was, and would be, Saviour of all.  It was clear to Early Christians (it is still true, but not so clear to modern Christians) that the vast majority of the human race had never heard of Jesus. The resurrection provided a time and place for all to receive full knowledge of the Gospel. This made perfect sense if God was the father of the entire human race and wanted that all should have a full opportunity to hear the gospel.

 

The Early Church has left numerous writings about the purpose of the resurrection. Papias (70-155 AD) wrote that ‘the disciples of the apostles say this is the graduation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; and that, moreover, they ascend through the Spirit to the Son to the Father.’ Athenagoras (120?-190? AD) in his treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead wrote that it was a fallacy to believe that the purpose of the resurrection was judgement because ‘for if only a just judgement were the purpose of resurrection, it would of course follow that those who done neither evil nor good – namely infants – not rise again.’  He argued that infants are included in the general resurrection because ‘the resurrection takes place not for the sake of judgement as the primary purpose, but in consequence of the purpose of God in forming all men...’  Origen (185-254 AD) in De Prinipiis wrote, ‘...all the saints who depart this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which the Holy Scripture calls paradise, as in a class-room or school of souls, in which they will be instructed regarding all the things they had seen on earth, and are to receive some instruction respecting things that are to follow in the future... and thus will pass through all gradations, following him who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God...’ 

 

Augustine changed Christianity completely. His war to the death with Pagans of the Roman Empire was won by deploying Original Sin as a weapon of mass conversion. Original Sin necessitated several theological innovations.  Mass conversion could allow no time for the exercise of freewill, and certainly not an additional resurrection period. Augustine knew that if Pagans were given an opportunity to postpone in this life, and then for another 1000 years, he could never force them to convert. The mass conversion of Pagans required salvation to be quick and decisive.  In the process of defining the doctrine of original sin, Augustine eliminated freewill and all ideas about a literal, future resurrection of the dead must be made heretical.

 

Augustine’s thinking about the 1000 year resurrection are elaborated in chapter 20 of The City of God.  Section seven states, ‘For the Apostle John says, “And I saw an angel come down from heaven. . . . Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” On the strength of this passage some have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily…  And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion.’ (emphasis added)  

 

Just as Augustine had once believed in freewill, he had once held the orthodox opinion that the 1000 year resurrection should be interpreted literally. However, as he built up his Gospel of Wrath, such beliefs were inimical.  All references to a 1000 year resurrection must be reinterpreted as symbolism and allegory.  So in section nine Augustine writes, ‘Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him, though otherwise than as they shall reign hereafter… The Church, then, begins its reign with Christ now in the living and in the dead.

 

Stanley J Grenz, in The Millennial Maze p 44 writes, ‘By the time of Augustine’s death, the nonmillennarian theology of Alexandria and Rome had engulfed the millennialism of Antioch and Ephesus. As a result, the Council of Ephesus A.D. 431 condemned as a superstition the belief in a literal, future thousand-year reign on the earth.’  There is no evidence that Council of Ephesus actually issued such a decree but the persistence of the Council of Ephesus story reflects what we know about Augustine’s beliefs and influence.

 

The Catholic Church teaches that resurrection is an incontrovertible doctrine as testified by the Apostles’ Creed (I believe in the resurrection of the body), Nicene Creed (I believe in the resurrection of the dead). The Teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon George Smith, 1952) devotes an entire chapter to the Resurrection of the Body: XXXIV pp 1211-1247) ‘There is no question that the Fathers of the Church, with complete unanimity, teach the resurrection of the body. From St. Augustine alone enough might be quoted to form a treatise on the doctrine...’

 

As we have seen above, Augustine denied a literal 1000 resurrection of the dead. The Teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon George Smith, 1952, p 1140) admits that ‘man’s hope of a millennium’ is a form of ‘religious dreaming’ that has ‘always been the faith of certain pious people.’  The official Catholic position is that ‘It is not easy to contradict people and prove them to be wrong if they profess a hope in some mighty triumph of Christ here on earth before the final consummation of all things. Such an occurrence is not excluded, is not impossible, it is not at all certain that there may not be a prolonged period of triumphant Christianity before the end.’ 

 

Does the Catholic Church believe in resurrection? Yes and no.  The Catholic position is that the dead go ‘immediately before the judgement seat of God for the particular judgement.’ (p 1213) The blessed, who have died without any stain of sin, are welcomed to ‘possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ Those who die in mortal sin are thrown ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.’

 

How many people will exit this life neither condemned for mortal sin or without a single stain of sin? Most of us.  What happens to them? Those stained with venial sins are dismissed to purgatory until their purification is accomplished and they are ready to be admitted to the vision of God.’   This particular chapter does not mention that unbaptized babies will be dismissed to Limbo and most unbaptized non-Catholics will be treated as if they had died in mortal sin.

 

The Early Church saw a clear purpose for the resurrection.  What purpose does it hold for Catholics?  On the ‘last day when the dead will rise again to stand before the judgement seat, the souls of men will be reunited with their bodies. The particular judgement will be reaffirmed and ratified.’   This seems astonishingly anticlimactic and insignificant for the pivotal scene of judgment which separates history from eternity.  The dead will be marched from heaven or hell to stand before the judgement seat so that God can ratify a judgement that has already been executed.  That official response to this mystery is that, ‘difficulties which seem to us, with our limited knowledge and limited intelligence, almost insuperable will be no difficulties to the omniscience and omnipotence of God. There is really nothing more to be said.’

 

The Protestant Reformation based its theology of resurrection on the writings of Augustine. Luther and Calvin agreed with Augustine that predestination left no place for freewill or a literal resurrection of the dead.  In addition both Calvin and Luther had a low opinion of the Book of Revelation.  Luther translated the book but could not understand John’s prophesies. In his preface to the translation Luther wrote, ‘About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.... Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.’  

 

Chapter XXV of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is devoted to the Last Resurrection. ‘But not only did Satan stupefy the senses of mankind, so that with their bodies they buried the remembrance of the resurrection; but he also managed by various fictions so to corrupt this branch of doctrine that it at length was lost. Not to mention that even in the days of Paul he began to assail it, (1 Corinthians 15,) shortly after the Chiliasts arose, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years. This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which it is known that they extracted a gloss for their error, (Revelation 20:4,) since the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the Church, but only to the various troubles which await the Church militant in this world… Those who assign only a thousand years to the children of God to enjoy the inheritance of future life, observe not how great an insult they offer to Christ and his kingdom.’  Calvin, like Augustine, interpreted the 1000 year resurrection in the Book of Revelation as an allegory for contemporary events affecting the Church militant in this world.

 

John T. McNeil in his History and Character of Calvinism notes that Calvin wrote commentaries ‘on the entire New Testament except Revelation, a book which he acknowledged he could not fathom... (p 153)  It is deeply ironic that these two pillars of Protestantism, who were so insistent on rejecting Catholic traditions and relying on the ‘Bible alone’, had such disdain for and so little comprehension of the book the concludes the entire Bible story.

 

Modern Charismatics who describe themselves as pre-millennialists believe in a literal, future 1000 year resurrection of the dead. They also believe in freewill. Have they restored the teachings of the Early Church?  Not quite. The Early Church saw a clear purpose for the 1000 year resurrection. This is not true of modern pre-millennialists.

 

Hal Lindsay in his 1970 best seller The Late Great Planet Earth, after writing an entire book about the impending Armageddon, devotes a single page to the 1000 year resurrection.  He spends five paragraphs arguing the Augustinian a-millennialism, and Calvinist post-millennialism, have been rendered hopelessly obsolete by his new pre-millennialism.  After ‘proving’ that the Bible teaches a literal 1,000 year resurrection Lindsay has nothing to say about what will take place during 1000 years except that God will keep his promises.

 

Tim Lahaye, co-writer of the best selling Left Behind series, which has introduced millions to pre-millennial thinking, wrote a book called Revelation Unveiled, which is a commentary on the Book of Revelation.  Like Lindsay, Lahaye speculates for hundreds of pages about impending Armageddon but devotes a mere nine pages to the 1000 year resurrection, the first seven of those are used to quote the Old Testament prophets Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah and the Psalms.   For Lahaye this 1,000 year resurrection mostly concerns unfulfilled promised to the Chosen Jewish people.  Why are other nations which did not know Jesus left unresurrected?  Why is Satan chained away for 1000 years then released?  What is the purpose of this 1000 year resurrection? Lahaye passes quickly on to the next chapter which describes the final Judgement and then goes on to the creation of a New Heaven and Earth.   

 

Like Catholics, modern Charismatics believe that the dead are judged at the moment of death and instantly assigned to heaven or hell.  Exactly who goes to heaven and hell and why is not clear.  Infants? Teenagers? Rebels? Backsliders?  Hypocrites?  Non-Christians? There are many problems with instant judgement, but the 1000 year resurrection is not considered a solution.

 

And what of the ‘good’ Christians who are still in the bondage of sin?  The Early Church provided a 1000 year resurrection for the completion of sanctification. Catholics have purgatory. Calvinists had the predestined will of God which had no need of human cooperation. Modern Charismatics believe in freewill but where is it exercised?  How are the imperfect of this world to be made perfect to enter heaven? These are impenetrable mysteries; the 1000 year resurrection is not considered a solution.

 

 

Comment or Question?