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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Resurrection in Jewish and Christian Thought

The notion that humans who have died can be resurrected by God is found in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and all modern Jewish and Christian sects profess a belief in some form of resurrection for the human dead. Indeed, the concept is so integral to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures that it is embraced by both those who hold that the soul is immortal and those who believe that humans are wholly mortal. Nevertheless, although the notion of a resurrection enjoys almost universal acceptance among the various Jewish and Christian sects extant in the world today, the way that it is presented in their Scriptures does seem to present some real challenges for those who adhere to the most widely accepted notions among them of an afterlife.

In their article on "Resurrection," the Jewish Encyclopedia states: "Like all ancient peoples, the early Hebrews believed that the dead go down into the underworld and live there a colorless existence (comp. Isa. xiv. 15-19; Ezek. xxxii. 21-30)." - See RESURRECTION - JewishEncyclopedia.com The Hebrew word for this "underworld" was "sheol." Moreover, the same source (Jewish Encyclopedia) had a great deal to say about the way this term is employed in the Hebrew Bible. In their article on Sheol, we read: "It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated. Jacob, refusing to be comforted at the supposed death of Joseph, exclaims: "I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol" (Gen. xxxvii. 36, Hebr.; comp. ib. xlii. 38; xliv. 29, 31). Sheol is underneath the earth (Isa. vii. 11, lvii. 9; Ezek. xxxi. 14; Ps. lxxxvi. 13; Ecclus. [Sirach] li. 6; comp. Enoch, xvii. 6, "toward the setting of the sun"); hence it is designated as (Deut. xxxii. 22; Ps. lxxxvi. 13) or (Ps. lxxxviii. 7; Lam. iii. 55; Ezek. xxvi. 20, xxxii. 24). It is very deep (Prov. ix. 18; Isa. lvii. 9); and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven (Job xi. 8; Amos ix. 2; Ps. cxxxix. 8). The dead descend or are made to go down into it; the revived ascend or are brought and lifted up from it (I Sam. ii. 6; Job vii. 9; Ps. xxx. 4; Isa. xiv. 11, 15). Sometimes the living are hurled into Sheol before they would naturally have been claimed by it (Prov. i. 12; Num. xvi. 33; Ps. lv. 16, lxiii. 10), in which cases the earth is described as "opening her mouth" (Num. xvi. 30). Sheol is spoken of as a land (Job x. 21, 22); but ordinarily it is a place with gates (ib. xvii. 16, xxxviii. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 10; Ps. ix. 14), and seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments (Prov. vii. 27), with "farthest corners" (Isa. xiv. 15; Ezek. xxxii. 23, Hebr.; R. V. "uttermost parts of the pit"), one beneath the other (see Jew. Encyc. v. 217, s. v. Eschatology). Here the dead meet (Ezek. xxxii.; Isa. xiv.; Job xxx. 23) without distinction of rank or condition—the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave—if the description in Job iii. refers, as most likely it does, to Sheol. The dead continue after a fashion their earthly life. Jacob would mourn there (Gen. xxxvii. 35, xlii. 38); David abides there in peace (I Kings ii. 6); the warriors have their weapons with them (Ezek. xxxii. 27), yet they are mere shadows ("rephaim"; Isa. xiv. 9, xxvi. 14; Ps. lxxxviii. 5, A. V. "a man that hath no strength"). The dead merely exist without knowledge or feeling (Job xiv. 13; Eccl. ix. 5). Silence reigns supreme; and oblivion is the lot of them that enter therein (Ps. lxxxviii. 13, xciv. 17; Eccl. ix. 10). Hence it is known also as "Dumah," the abode of silence (Ps. vi. 6, xxx. 10, xciv. 17, cxv. 17); and there God is not praised (ib. cxv. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 15). Still, on certain extraordinary occasions the dwellers in Sheol are credited with the gift of making known their feelings of rejoicing at the downfall of the enemy (Isa. xiv. 9, 10). Sleep is their usual lot (Jer. li. 39; Isa. xxvi. 14; Job xiv. 12). Sheol is a horrible, dreary, dark, disorderly land (Job x. 21, 22); yet it is the appointed house for all the living (ib. xxx. 23). Return from Sheol is not expected (II Sam. xii. 23; Job vii. 9, 10; x. 21; xiv. 7 et seq.; xvi. 22; Ecclus. [Sirach] xxxviii. 21); it is described as man's eternal house (Eccl. xii. 5). It is "dust" (Ps. xxx. 10; hence in the Shemoneh 'Esreh, in benediction No. ii., the dead are described as "sleepers in the dust"). - See SHEOL - JewishEncyclopedia.com

Although the Jewish Encyclopedia makes clear that the notion of a resurrection was directly related to the Messianic hopes that arose within the Jewish community, their article on "Resurrection" also makes plain that there was a great diversity of opinion extant within the Jewish community of Christ's day on this subject. After discussing how the concept was portrayed in various Jewish apocryphal writings, it was noted that: "All these believed that the soul would sleep in Sheol till the judgment, but several Alexandrian writers about the beginning of the common era held, like Ps. xlix. and lxxiii., that the spirits of the righteous entered on a blessed immortality immediately at death. This was the view of the author of the Wisdom of Solomon (iii. 1-4; iv. 7, 10, et al.), of Philo, and of IV Maccabees. Finally, the scope of the resurrection, which in previous writers had been limited to Israel, was extended in the Apocalypse of Baruch and in II Esdras to include all mankind (comp. Baruch, xlix.-li. 4; II Esd. vii. 32-37)." Indeed, the article makes clear that all of the Apocryphal writings that were written by the Pharisees asserted that there would be a resurrection.

The article then went on to summarize the beliefs of the three main sects of Judaism extant in the days of Christ in these terms: "The Sadducees denied the resurrection (Josephus, "Ant." xviii. 1, § 4; idem, "B. J." ii. 8, § 14; Acts xxiii. 8; Sanh. 90b; Ab. R. N. v.). All the more emphatically did the Pharisees enunciate in the liturgy (Shemoneh 'Esreh, 2d benediction; Ber. v. 2) their belief in resurrection as one of their fundamental convictions (Sanh. x. 1; comp. Abot iv. 22; Soṭah ix. 15). Both the Pharisees and the Essenes believed in the resurrection of the body, Josephus' philosophical construction of their belief to suit the taste of his Roman readers notwithstanding (see "B. J." ii. 8, § 11; "Ant." xviii. 1, § 5; compare these with the genuine source of Josephus, in Hippolytus' "Refutatio Hæresium," ed. Duncker Schneidewin, ix. 27, 29, where the original ἀνάστασις [= "resurrection"] casts a strange light upon Josephus' mode of handling texts). According to the Rabbis, Job and Esau denied resurrection (B. B. 16a, b). Whosoever denies resurrection will have no share in it (Sanh. 90b). The resurrection will be achieved by God, who alone holds the key to it (Ta'an. 2a; Sanh. 113a). At the same time the elect ones, among these first of all the Messiah and Elijah, but also the righteous in general, shall aid in raising the dead (Pirḳe R. El. xxxii.; Soṭah ix. 15; Shir ha-Shirim Zuṭa, vii.; Pes. 68a; comp. "Bundahis," xxx. 17)."

In terms of the Hebrew Scriptures, we know that the notion of a resurrection is broached in the fourteenth chapter of the book of Job. It is also suggested in the sixteenth Psalm - a Michtam of David. We read there: "No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice. My body rests in safety. For you will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your holy one to rot in the grave. You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever." (Verses 9-11) In the book of Isaiah, we read: "But those who die in the Lord will live; their bodies will rise again! Those who sleep in the earth will rise up and sing for joy! For your life-giving light will fall like dew on your people in the place of the dead!" (Isaiah 26:19) Likewise, there is an explicit mention of it in the twelfth chapter of the book of Daniel. We read there: "Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace." (Verse 2) There are also a few instances of physical resurrection recorded in the Old Testament (I Kings 17, II Kings 4, II Kings 13) And, although the language is highly symbolic and clearly refers to a resurrection of the fallen nation of Israel, there is Ezekiel's vision of "The Valley of Dry Bones." In the thirty-seventh chapter of that book, the prophet is shown a valley full of dry bones that came together and were covered with tendons, muscles, and flesh, and then reanimated. In other words, a physical resurrection of the dead is used to portray the spiritual restoration of Israel. Hence, we see in these (and many other passages) that the notion of a resurrection was not unknown to the Hebrew Scriptures.

What did Jesus and his followers do with these notions about a resurrection? Before we address that question, a few remarks about the actual language employed in the Greek New Testament is necessary. As with the Hebrew word "sheol," the Greek word "hades" suggests the grave or "the realm of the dead." - See G86 - hadēs - Strong's Greek Lexicon (kjv) (blueletterbible.org) In other words, once again, the term itself suggests that ALL of the dead (righteous and wicked) go to the same place when they die. Hence, it is from Sheol or Hades, that the dead are raised (resurrected) back to life. Indeed, the Greek word that is translated into English as resurrection is "anastasis," and it literally means to make one stand up again! - See G386 - anastasis - Strong's Greek Lexicon (kjv) (blueletterbible.org) 

Now, with that background, we are ready to return to our question about how Christ and his followers addressed the subject of a resurrection. First, it should be noted that Jesus directly confronted the Sadducees' rejection of the notion. In the Gospel of Mark's account of the confrontation, we read: "Then Jesus was approached by some Sadducees—religious leaders who say there is no resurrection from the dead. They posed this question: 'Teacher, Moses gave us a law that if a man dies, leaving a wife without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name. Well, suppose there were seven brothers. The oldest one married and then died without children. So the second brother married the widow, but he also died without children. Then the third brother married her. This continued with all seven of them, and still there were no children. Last of all, the woman also died. So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.' Jesus replied, 'Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven. But now, as to whether the dead will be raised—haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said to Moses, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead. You have made a serious error.'" (Mark 12:18-27) Hence, we see that Christ clearly sided with those who believed in a resurrection.

In his book Paul and Jesus, James Tabor discoursed on what this confrontation with the Sadducees also revealed about the resurrection beliefs of Christ and his followers. He wrote: "what they show is that within the Jesus movement the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age was understood as the release of the dead from Sheol, or Hades, clothed in a new spiritual body no longer subject to death or decay. Resurrection involved transformation to a higher order of life, no longer differentiated as male and female, and thus no birth or death. The idea of resuscitating corpses or reassembling decayed flesh and bones long perished or turned to dust did not even enter the picture. Metaphorically one could speak of 'those in the graves' coming forth, but since the 'grave' ultimately referred to the underworld of Hades or Sheol, even those 'buried' at sea come forth: 'And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done' (Revelation 20:13)." Continuing, Tabor observed: "The Jewish notion of resurrection of the dead never means disembodied bliss, or even 'life after death,' but always a re-embodied life. This is quite different from the Greek idea of the immortal soul being freed from the mortal body and experiencing heavenly bliss. For Plato death is a friend, offering release from the prison of a mortal body, whereas for Jews and Christians death is an enemy that sends one to Sheol forever, until God intervenes and raises the dead in their new form."

Moreover, when we consider the fact that the focal point of all four canonical gospel accounts is the story of Christ's own resurrection after his crucifixion and burial, it is no wonder that Christ and his followers would embrace the Jewish notion of resurrection! Indeed, Christ's own resurrection is a central theme of the entire New Testament! Even so, serious students of the Bible, are also aware that the other writings of the New Testament mention another resurrection for Christ's followers.

And chief among those other mentions of a resurrection is the one found in the fifteenth chapter of Paul's first epistle to the saints at Corinth. After reiterating the importance of Christ's resurrection, Paul noted that some of them were claiming "there will be no resurrection of the dead." (Verses 1-12) He went on to point out just how illogical that was in light of what they knew about Christ's resurrection (verses 13-20). Paul followed this with a brief discourse on how sin and death came to humankind through our ancestor Adam, but that the hope of a resurrection had come to us through Jesus Christ (verses 21-22). Then Paul gives the Corinthians a timeline for when that resurrection fits into the larger picture of God's plan (verses 23-28).

A little later, in the context of these remarks about resurrection, Paul addresses the mechanics of how that resurrection will happen; and he makes clear that those who have died will be resurrected with very different bodies than the ones they possessed in their present lives (verses 35-44). Paul continued: "The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man. What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies." (Verses 45-53)

This, of course, reinforces what Tabor had to say about early Christian notions about resurrection. For Paul, the resurrection clearly entailed putting on a new body. In other words, there would be no return to the physical body that was buried in the ground at death. In similar fashion, in the apostle's first epistle to the saints at Thessalonica, Paul wrote about the resurrection in this wise: "And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever." (I Thessalonians 4:13-17) And, once again, we see that dead believers will be stood up out of their graves when Christ returns (this is NOT something that happens at death).

In the book of Revelation, this is referred to as the first resurrection. We read there: "And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years." (Revelation 20:4-6) Later, after the thousand years is finished and a Satanic rebellion is crushed, we read that John saw "a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:11-15)

Finally, we know that these beliefs about the resurrection survived into the period immediately following the deaths of most of the apostles because of a passage in the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews and several passages from Clement's epistle to the Corinthians. In the sixth chapter of Hebrews, we read that the resurrection is one of the foundational teachings of the Christian Church (Hebrews 6:1-2). Likewise, in Clement's epistle to the Corinthians, we read: "Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. Let us contemplate, beloved, the resurrection which is at all times taking place. Day and night declare to us a resurrection. The night sinks to sleep, and the day arises; the day [again] departs, and the night comes on. Let us behold the fruits [of the earth], how the sowing of grain takes place. The sower goes forth, and casts it into the ground; and the seed being thus scattered, though dry and naked when it fell upon the earth, is gradually dissolved. Then out of its dissolution the mighty power of the providence of the Lord raises it up again, and from one seed many arise and bring forth fruit." - See First Clement: Clement of Rome (earlychristianwritings.com) And, after citing the mythical Phoenix as an emblem of our resurrection, Clement wrote: "Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise? For [the Scripture] says in a certain place, 'You shall raise me up, and I shall confess to You;' and again, 'I laid down, and slept; I awaked, because You are with me;" and again, Job says, "you shall raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things.'"

Now, as I related at the beginning of this treatise, almost all of the various modern sects of Judaism and Christianity embrace some notion of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, as we can all see, the widely held beliefs relating to the immortality of the soul and an afterlife in heaven or hell present some real problems for them vis-a-vis the doctrine of the resurrection. To be sure, many of those sects have generated very reasonable explanations about how the concepts of the immortality of the soul and its attendant notions regarding an afterlife can be made to mesh with the Scriptural teaching of the resurrection, but the fact that they deviate from the original thinking of the authors of Scripture on this subject cannot be denied or dismissed. Yes, Jewish and Christian views have evolved on this subject as a consequence of their interactions with other religions and cultures and the elaboration of their own theology down through the centuries that the Christian Church has existed, but we cannot escape the fact that the conception of the resurrection embraced by early Christians is fundamentally different from what a majority of modern Christians believe about the afterlife!

Sources cited in this post:


Strong's Greek Lexicon at blueletterbible.org

Tabor, James. Paul and Jesus. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2012.

The New Living Translation of The Holy Bible

First Clement by Clement of Rome at earlychristianwritings.com

1 comment:

  1. Miller:
    The topic of resurrection seems a little ethereal to me. I view it from the perspective that we know for sure from what Jesus said to the thief (actually revolutionist) on the cross that the next stop is Paradise and there we might be able to get a road map for the rest of the trip. I found the overview useful and captured a copy of the article for my kindle. I spotted the article some time back and just now got around to reading it.

    I favor the idea of the Intermediate State (although I depart from the usual dogma by believing that it will be an embodied precursor existence to the resurrection) and so had a little trouble with your use of the New Living Translation for 1 Thess 4:16. The NLT uses the term "grave" in that verse but it is not present in the Greek. The implication of using "grave" is that the dead are resident in some Hadean domain immediately prior to resurrection rather than the Paradise of Jesus. When you examine the original Greek it just says "rise again" and uses the word anastemi which is the origin of the word anastasis (resurrection). Both seem to mean rising up. And the confusing use of "grave" need not enter the picture.

    Because I favor the dogma of the Harrowing of Hell, I disagree with Tabor. I feel that the dead were released from Sheol (and into the intermediate state) at the time of Christ's Harrowing of Hell (the roughly three day period between his Crucifixion and his Resurrection) rather than the end of the age.

    No doubt opinions will always vary on this. When a topic is excessively subject to midrash, I tend to think it is also less critical to salvation for us to understand it.

    Good research. Thanks.