Resurrection is the idea upon which the entire theology of the New Testament hinges. Despite this, there’s an awful lot of confusion in both the Christian and non-Christian world over just what exactly resurrection is all about. So let’s try to alleviate some of that confusion.
As N.T. Wright explains in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” and the much less detailed, but far more readable “Surprised by Hope,” resurrection is not about life after death, but rather life after “life after death.”
That is to say, whatever you might believe about the spiritual existence of the soul immediately after death, resurrection is what happens after that. It is a new bodily life here on Earth after the state of death. It is quite literally about the raising of the dead, but not just on an individual level. It is God’s transformation of the whole of existence from a state of death to a state of eternal life.
It is God’s way of setting the world to rights, such that the great Christian hope is not some distant and unimaginable Heaven, but a world that is just. Understood on a universal level, resurrection is, perhaps more than anything else, about justice.
To understand how justice and resurrection are related, it’s important to understand where belief in resurrection came from and how it evolved. As per Wright, the earliest references to resurrection in the Bible come in Hosea 6:1 and 13:14, Isaiah 24-27, and Ezekiel 37. All three of these prophets used resurrection either exclusively or primarily as a metaphor for nationalistic restoration.
Ezekiel’s language is clearly allegorical, but nonetheless extremely striking, imagining as it does the reanimation of Israel’s skeletons. Hosea actually was being dismissive of resurrection: Do you really think it would be so simple, the prophet asked, that God would simply “raise us up?” But Isaiah 26:19 turns Hosea’s sentiment around: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”
It was only the dead of Israel that would be rising here; the enemies of Israel would remain in their graves. Whether intended as literal or not, the metaphor is the same, and the thrust is toward justice.
Daniel and the apocryphal 2 Maccabees, each written in the second century B.C., demonstrate pretty clearly how those resurrection verses in the old prophet books had come to be understood in the intervening years. The metaphor of Israel’s restoration remained intact, with resurrection growing into a radical political doctrine of resistance, martyrdom and violent uprising against the occupying Seleucid Empire.
The books also treat resurrection literally, as the last words of virtually every martyr in 2 Maccabees make clear. Take the martyrdom of the Jewish elder Razis in 2 Maccabees 14, for example. When a crowd of soldiers came to arrest him, he threw himself on his sword, but only managed to wound himself. So, the blood now gushing from his body, he climbed atop a steep rock, ripped out his own entrails and “hurled them at the crowd, calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to give them back to him again.”
Interestingly, though, as Wright notes, both Daniel and 2 Maccabees speak of resurrection only in relation to the martyrs and their murderers. Neither book means to propose a universal eschatology. Instead, they are concerned entirely with reversing the injustice of these current events, which Daniel 12 proposes God will do by raising up both the martyrs and the murderers, and placing the murderers under the heel of the martyrs, in essence reversing the hierarchy of Israel’s world. This is what the justice of the resurrection looks like: taking power from the strong, giving power to the weak.
The New Testament builds on the ideas contained in these books, while also altering them in significant ways. During his lifetime, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and a martyr whose message of peace was vindicated through his resurrection. Though the aim of his martyrdom was different from that of the Maccabean martyrs (the latter paved the way for violent uprising, which is precisely what Jesus was warning against), that a martyr would rise as a sign of God’s justice makes complete sense within the context of Daniel and 2 Maccabees. That it would happen so quickly, however, was pretty surprising.
As Paul’s epistles show, the early Christians took Jesus’ resurrection as a sign the Kingdom of God had broken into their own time, that Jesus was the true, if unrecognized, ruler of the Earth, and that what had happened to him would one day happen to the whole world. They understood resurrection, therefore, on a couple of different levels.
On a literal and individual level, they believed that Jesus’ whole person, not just his soul, had been raised from the dead and that someday they too would be raised from the dead. It’s important to understand they really did believe resurrection was bodily. People can disagree with Paul, of course, but it is what they believed.
On a literal and universal level, they believed that what happened to Jesus would happen to the whole of creation. God would someday transform not just people, but the whole of creation itself. He would set the world to rights. This would, of course, involve judgment. The weak would gain power. The strong would lose it.
Beyond that, I’m not going to pretend to know what will happen to those who choose not to be a part of the new creation. Certainly, the authors of the New Testament believed there would be some who would be lost. Despite what you may have heard, the Bible doesn’t actually say anything more specific than that about it.
Wright, for his part, suggests that those who insist on persisting in their idolatry (all sin is idolatry) will lose the image of God and cease to be human. I have no idea whether he’s correct.
On a metaphorical level, the resurrection had ceased to be about the national restoration of Israel and instead had become about transformation.
Metaphorically, Christians have died and been resurrected in Christ. They already are part of the Kingdom of God, which will be continued and fully realized at the literal and universal resurrection.
They should — we should — therefore start acting like it.
It is at the metaphorical level that all of this affects us now. Whatever is to come, if anything is to come, it does not represent a discarding of everything that came before. Rather, it builds on the things we do in our lives, on the creation we leave for ourselves. Resurrection is about justice. But all that means is that resurrection is about how we live.
The primary lesson of resurrection is that, above all else, this life matters. Everything matters.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.