Surprised by Hope: Yup, Resurrection Involves Our Bodies

This is the third post in a series examining N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  Today we're looking at Chapter 3: Early Christian Hope in its Historical Setting.

This chapter can be summarized in a simple sentence: Resurrection is real.  To extrapolate that sentence into two subpoints, we can say,
  1. The early Christians believed in an afterlife that involved a resurrection of the body (ie, not a vague spiritual afterlife).
  2. The resurrection of Jesus really happened. 

Bishop Wright argues in the opening pages of this chapter that, though the accounts of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection might not perfectly match up with each other, "something must have happened" (page 35).  He details the unique nature of early Christian accounts of, and widely-held beliefs in, the resurrection and argues that such stories and beliefs must have been rooted in a historical event (yes, this is a challenging argument to make, and one that doesn't deserve to be summarized in two sentences written by a sleeply Lutheran blogger).

More to the point, however, Wright details the early Christian belief in the resurrection, placing it in its Jewish context and comparing it to contemporary pagan belief.  Christians didn't "invent" resurrection.  Many Jews at the time – the Sadducees notably excluded, however – believed in a future resurrection of the body (we catch a glimpse of this when Martha, Lazarus' brother, says, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." [John 11:34]).  Christians and Jews believed that they would rise from the dead on the last day.  That is, they believed resurrection to be 

"a two-step narrative in which resurrection, meaning new bodily life, would be preceeded by an interim period of bodily death . . . Resurrection meant bodies" (page 36).

Wright here again emphasizes that resurrection was not a euphemism for a vaguely-defined afterlife.  "We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense" (page 36).  Resurrection is surely not just life after death, but a very specific – and unique – understanding of what that post-mortem life looks like.  Resurrection was not about "heaven," but about a new, incarnate, bodily life.

"When [early Christians] did speak of heaven as a postmorten destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body . . . Paradise is, rather, the blissful garden where God's people rest prior to the resurrection" (page 41). 

Wright goes on, then, to outline several ways in which early Christian belief in the resurrection differed from the Jewish belief.  I won't give away all his points, but will note here just a few that jump out at me:
  • The early Christians believed that "The Resurrection" began in the person of Jesus, but would continue/resume on the Last Day for everyone else.  No where in earlier Jewish belief was there anything comparable to this two-stage resurrection.  All other related belief in the resurrection assumed a one-time, end-time resurrection.
  • For the early Christians, resurrection became a central belief and a central element in describing hope, faith, and the Gospel.  Jews believed in the resurrection, but it was not a central or crucial element of faith.  For Christians belief in the resurrection was central and colored how the whole story of faith was told.  "Take away the stories of Jesus' birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke.  Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament and most of the second-century fathers as well" (page 43).
  • Christian belief in a bodily resurrection – ie, belief that death has no ultimate power, for we will be raised again – robs those whose power derives from the ability to inflict death.

"Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated.  Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it" (page 50).  

The Lutheran Zephyr reflects:

In this chapter Bishop Wrigth makes clear the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection, attempting to slay any lingering notion in the mind of the reader that Christians believe in a spiritual journey of the disembodied soul following bodily death.  And we see in this chapter then – particularly in the final point referenced above – some of the here-and-now implications of belief in the resurrection.  We'll get more of that here-and-now implications in the coming chapters.

If we take the resurrection seriously, how does this belief impact our our ministry to the grieving, to the suffering, to people of faith in their everyday lives?  I fear that when we teach – or even dispassionately abdicate to – a belief in a disembodied afterlife, we neglect the gift of our own incarnation or that of our Lord's, and we miss out on the true power of Christ and the very real application of the Gospel to our lives and world.  Disembodied spirituality doesn't care about embodied nature, people, experiences.  But incarnational faith recognizes the God-blessed gift of bodies and all that go along with them . . .

These reflections are a work in progress.  Please, join in the conversation.

Next posting in this series will be on Monday, Sept 15 – Chapter 4, The Strange Story of Easter.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

One thought on “Surprised by Hope: Yup, Resurrection Involves Our Bodies

  1. I now have a copy of this book and am catching up. Thank you for recommending this reading and doing the study. I find this a fascinating subject, am using brain cells that have been dormant for a while in trying to grasp this subject matter. Speaking as someone who has been “in the pews” for the past 10 years, so far my ideas of the afterlife have indeed that of some vague spiritual existence, BEFORE I started reading this book. I think most Christians have no real understanding of “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” though we confess it in the creed as a core belief. I look forward to reading more.

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