Thoughts on the Meaning of Resurrection
Christians traditionally believe in the resurrection of Christ. That’s the distinguishing characteristic of our faith. It’s the heart of Easter. It’s the foundation, according to the New Testament (see, among others, I Corinthians 15). Without it we fold up our tents; it’s that crucial.
But what does it mean? Are we talking solely about a man who got up from the dead after suffering torture and ignominious, cruel execution at the hands of the Roman government of Syro-Palestina some two thousand years ago? In the minds of many people this means a sort of spiritual revival of sorts; is that what it’s all about?
To gain insight into the depth and breadth of this teaching, you must look before the era of the New Testament to the teaching of the Hebrew people (later known as the Jews).
Ezekiel 37 is often cited for belief in the resurrection. True, but if you examine the text you discover that this is a resurrection of Israel, a rebuilding – so to speak – of the devastated and conquered peoples who went into exile in Babylon in 587 BCE. Only by extrapolation does it become a statement about the resurrection of the individual.
Isaiah 24-27 speaks of resurrection (text probably from sixth century BCE), and here it means the power of God to enliven the creation and, of course, human beings. Some of the imagery is drawn from the surrounding culture, as is often the case in biblical allusions.
The Book of Daniel, which most scholars consider as late as the second century BCE, contains texts about resurrection (chapter 12) which are quite clear. Resurrection is life, and that life is given to the just who have suffered persecution. The thrust of the passage is one of comfort and hope in a time of trial.
The motif of resurrection developed from the ninth century BCE onward. It is reflected in texts that talk about the general resurrection of the dead, a common belief by the turn of the age, and about the vindication of the just. The motif becomes focused in Jesus of Nazareth, a man unjustly accused by the Roman government and put to death, a man unfairly ostracized by a portion (not all) of his own community. This just man sought to bring a new message into an older framework, and suffered the consequences (“new wine bursts the old wineskins,” he had said prophetically). Ground under the heel of empire, he slipped into death only to be proclaimed alive again, vindicated by God.
The “bodily resurrection” part of the motif reflects Jewish and Christian emphasis upon the human person. We are not split into body and soul; we are a psychosomatic unity. If there is survival of something called the soul, it is only by God’s provision. Emphasis on the body reflects concern for matter: we do not connect to God through an ethereal or invisible substance or realm. It is not merely a “spiritual” connection; we relate, rather, through our whole being: senses, mentality, and corporeality.
The New Testament, and especially St. Paul, building on such passages as Ezekiel 37, emphasizes the communal nature of the resurrection. Individual survival may be important but even more important is the social dimension of resurrection. We are part of each other, not apart from one another. My wellbeing is connected to yours and vice versa. We rise together or we fall and fail individually.
Lastly, remember that we live “in the hope of the resurrection.” We have no guarantees in this life or the next…or that there is a next. We hope in the resurrection only and solely because of our faith in the resurrection of Christ, who can be experienced in and through the church…but that’s for another column another time.