Whence Came the Teaching on Resurrection?
Christians annually celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the festival known as Easter. For some Christians the resurrection of Christ is a surety, for others a hope, and for still others a puzzle. There may be people who remain in church despite their disbelief in the whole idea. For many the festival has become a celebration of spring with its renewal of greenery and flowers. But let us explore the idea of resurrection itself, embraced as it is not only by Christians, but also by many Jews and Muslims.
Where does the idea come from?
Unlike animals and stones, or so we think, human beings are able to reflect on their experience. Everyone experiences the deaths of those close to them, which indicates to us that we also are mortal – though most of us do not take the fact into consideration until late in life. Look at how many people put off making a last will and testament until they have gray hair and a halting step. Death is a puzzle, and one of the ways philosopher and peasant alike have come to grips with it is by projecting the idea of immortality as a continuation of life. Greeks and Romans believed more or less in a simple continuity of life beyond death with or without the folderol of the Egyptians with their elaborate culture of the dead. The ancient Hebrews, however, who are our ancestors in the faith, did not believe in immortality. At best there was sheol, a shadow land like a root cellar for the dead, but not immortality as most people would think of it.
Over the centuries before the time of Jesus, those ancient Hebrews began to reason that, as the author of all Life, God could sustain life even beyond the grave. Gradually, the idea of resurrection grew – not exactly the same thing as the immortality of the soul but including life beyond this life in some way.
Resurrection is pure miracle: only God can make this happen, so any continuity of life beyond the grave – call it soul, call it what you will – is wholly dependent on God’s love. No inherent immortality comes with being born; that’s not part of the deal. But God could make it happen!
Part of this understanding is that resurrection is corporate; as we are interrelated to one another in this life, so God will raise us up as a community. We are all in this together; we are bound together in life and in death. The famous chapter from Ezekiel that is the basis for the well-known African-American spiritual, “Dry bones,” is the earliest picture of this corporate new life.
In the last centuries before Jesus, belief in resurrection was ultimately linked to God’s justice for an unjust world, God’s way to right the wrongs suffered in this life.
Jesus of Nazareth suffers the cruelest death imaginable. He does not escape injustice in this life, nor does he escape suffering or indignities; all are horrifically present in his life.
The resurrection serves as vindication for his cause, his ministry, his words, and his person. The resurrection renews our hope towards justice in an unjust world. Only so can the cross be transformed from an implement of destruction to a source of life. Jesus is among the just people whom God vindicates with life eternal; he is, in fact, “the first born from the dead,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in his resurrection manifesto. This hope fueled movements for freedom and liberation over centuries. Those who follow in Jesus’ way of love and service have confidence that God will raise us up with him at the last day. (BULLETIN Friday 29 March 13)