Resurrection. Resurrection is the Semitic and biblical alternative to the Greek idea of immortality of the soul on the one hand, and to the Indian idea of reincarnation on the other. Resurrection refers to the glorious hope that at the end of earthly history, the righteous of past ages will rise bodily to new life to receive the justice and the reward they were denied in life. Believers in resurrection are to be found in many religions, and within each faith details of belief differ, but the Christian hope of resurrection hangs on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the Old Testament and Early Judaism
The idea of resurrection is not attested in early strata of the Old Testament. Early writers seem to share the Babylonian belief that all the dead go down to Sheol, a dark and dusty city of the netherworld, whose gates and bars no one can breach, and within whose confines the shades of the dead shamble aimlessly in confused stupefaction. Also attested is the belief that the dead may be summoned as "gods" who can give oracles to the living (1 Sam. 28:13) and whose images (teraphim — cf. Rephaim = shades) are kept in houses and shrines for divination purposes (e.g., Jud. 17:5; Isa. 8:19) were visited for such necromancy. Other Old Testament writers view death and return to the dust as irrevocable punishment for human sin (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 3:20; Ps. 90).
It was only after the Babylonian Exile that the idea of resurrection appeared in Old Testament apocalyptic literature, as a way of solving the problem of the justice denied the oppressed righteous. Ezekiel 37:1-14 must be left out of account because it uses the striking image of resurrection simply to predict the return of the exiles from Babylon. Perhaps an overliteral interpretation of this prophecy did, however, contribute to a genuine resurrection belief later on. The post-exilic apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27 contains the first Old Testament prediction of resurrection (26:19). The righteous of Israel will rise, but the wicked pagan dead will not. Daniel 12:1-2 predicts that "many" will rise, but the righteous (the Maccabean martyrs) to reward, the wicked to "eternal contempt." It is quite possible, though unprovable, that resurrection was borrowed by the Jews from Zoroastrianism, encountered in the Persian empire during the Exile.
In early Judaism, from about 200 B.C. to 100 A.D., we find both that the resurrection doctrine has become widely (though by no means universally) held, and that there are many different versions of it. Texts vary over just who will rise, whether only the righteous, some or all of them, both the righteous and the wicked, etc. Will this rising be spiritual, or physical with the return of the very body that died, or rather transformation into a glorious angelic form, or first the mortal body which subsequently puts on immortality? And contra the oft-heard generalization, some Jews must even have entertained the notion of possible resurrections before the eschatological judgment, since John the Baptist was widely believed to have risen from the dead as a supernatural being with new miraculous powers (Mark 6:14), a belief which perhaps accounts for the tenacious belief in John’s Messiahship which lasted into at least the fourth century.
In the New Testament
Jesus certainly believed in the future resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. Sodom will face judgment at the last day over and above that inflicted in Genesis 19:24-25. Apparently, the righteous and the wicked will appear at judgment together, the righteous actually judging the wicked for sins the former avoided and the latter committed (Matt. 12:41-42).
Jesus apparently believed in physical resurrection in its grossest form, so that wounds inflicted in this life would be carried over into eternal life (Matt. 18:8-9). His words about the resurrected righteous becoming like angels (Mark 12:25) may suggest otherwise, but he may simply mean that they will be celibate like the righteous angels who did not fall by cohabitating with mortal women according to then current Jewish interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4.
Jesus seemingly believed in an intermediate state between death and the final judgment, wherein the righteous poor would enjoy bliss in the presence of the sainted patriarch Abraham, while the wicked would suffer the torments of hellfire, a scenario we find also in 1 Enoch.
The New Testament writers seem to have held various views on the future general resurrection. Paul assumed that only Christians will rise (1 Cor. 15:23-24), and indeed since he explains resurrection as the outfitting of the individual for eternal glorious life, he cannot have expected the wicked to rise for judgment. It is unclear whether Paul believed in an intermediate state. His references to "those who sleep" (1 Cor. 15:18; 1 Thes. 4:13) may imply either oblivion or that the death of the body is only temporary (cf. John 11:11-14; Mark 5:39; 41).
Luke, like Jesus, anticipated a simultaneous resurrection of the righteous and the wicked, a belief he expresses through the mouth of Paul in Acts 24:15.
John of Patmos speaks of a preliminary resurrection of the martyrs of the great tribulation who will reign with Christ during the millennium (20:4-5), after which all the rest of the dead, good and evil, will rise to be judged by their recorded words, the roll of the saved already being set down in the Book of Life (20:11-15). He also speaks of an intermediate state only for martyrs (6:9-11), paralleling the later Islamic belief that only those who die in holy war will attain Paradise in the spirit prior to the resurrection of the body. Perhaps Paul’s anticipation of "departing to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23; cf. 2 Cor. 5:8), mentioned in the context of possible impending martyrdom, is to be viewed in the same light.
Both Paul and Luke see the future resurrection as tied in with the past event of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul sees Jesus’ resurrection as the first stage of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23; Col. 1:18) and thus as instrumental to believers’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:21-22; Eph. 2:5-6; Rom. 8:11). Luke sees Jesus’ resurrection more as God’s proof that the general resurrection will occur (Acts 17:31).
The earliest attested form of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection occurs in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul compares the general resurrection to that of Jesus and thus implies his conception of the latter. The risen Jesus "became a … Spirit" (v. 45). His was a spiritual, not a natural body (v. 44) and did not have flesh, since such is entirely unsuited to immortality (v. 50). The often overlooked passage 1 Peter 3:18 may assume the same understanding since it contrasts Jesus’ death "in the body" with his resurrection "in the spirit." The four gospels are later works, and their very different, materialistic idea of Jesus’ resurrection may be later as well.
Mark closes with two early forms of resurrection preaching: an exaltation narrative, wherein the discovery of the empty tomb by itself is enough to prove Jesus has risen (16:6) and a brief formulaic announcement of an appearance to Peter in Galilee, inserted into the story and cast into the future tense (16:7). Mark does not show any appearances of the Risen Lord, and this seemed a deficiency to later Synoptic evangelists Luke, Matthew, and Pseudo-Mark (the author of Mark 16:9-20), who added appearance stories, as did John, writing independently.
Luke modifies Mark’s empty tomb story by making it explicit that Mark’s "young man in white" (Mark 16:5) was an angel (24:23) and adding another with him (24:4). And since Luke wants all resurrection appearances to have taken place around Jerusalem, he changes the angel’s words from Mark’s " he is going before you in Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you" (Mark 16:7) to "Remember how he told you when he was in Galilee that the Son of Man must … rise" (Luke 24:6-7), omitting Mark’s implied Galilean appearance.
Luke has taken the older story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13, 15b-16, 28-31, 33, 35), the original point of which was the Real Presence of the Risen Jesus in the eucharist, and added to it: (1) a dialogue and speech setting forth Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death (24:15a, 17-27, 32), and (2) an early formulaic announcement, "The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon" (Luke 24:34; cf. Mark 16:7 and 1 Cor. 15:5-8), in order to make the appearance to Simon precede the one in Emmaus, though it now makes the Emmaus story anticlimactic.
Luke 24:36-43 is another resurrection story, the point of which is not so much to prove that Jesus rose, but rather to demonstrate how he rose (cf. 1 Cor. 15:35). It was a body of "flesh," proving that Jesus is no mere "spirit" (24:39), the precise opposite of the Pauline view (1 Cor. 15:45, 50). That Luke shows Jesus appearing in a closed room does not imply a "spiritual body" as in Paul, but rather miraculous teleportation of a physical body as happens to Philip in Acts 8:39-40.
Matthew adds the unhistorical detail of a guard being posted at Jesus’ tomb (27:62-66), as a refutation of anti-Christian propaganda (28:15). How could Mark or Luke have omitted this "detail" had they known of it? If true, its apologetical value would have made it part of every telling of the story. Matthew goes on to include two different versions of Mark’s empty tomb story. In the first (28:1-8) we actually see the angel descend in full view of the women and roll away the stone, whereas in Mark (and Luke) the women only arrive after the angel has rolled away the stone. The angel, as in Mark, directs them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. The second version of the same story occurs in 28:9-10, where it seems someone had understood Mark’s "young man in white" not as an angel as in Luke and in Matthew’s first version, but as the Risen Jesus himself. Not surprisingly, he tells the women exactly what the angel told them in the first version.
Matthew supplies the Galilee appearance anticipated by Mark and omitted by Luke. There is really no scene, but simply a brief introduction to the "Great Commission" speech, a Matthean creation, as can be seen by uniquely Matthean phraseology ("the close of the age," in v. 20; "to disciple" in v. 19), the later "trinitarian" baptismal formula (cf. Acts 2:28; 10:48; 19:5), and the concern with the Gentile mission (cf. Acts 10-11; Eph. 3:2-6).
Pseudo-Mark has added a compressed set of appearances and a speech derived from the traditions underlying Mark and Matthew, but formulated differently.
John seems to be literarily independent of the Synoptics but to have access to many of the same traditions. In his empty tomb story (20:1-18), it is only Mary Magdalene who visits the tomb. When she finds it empty, there is no angel to explain why. So she tells the disciples the tomb is empty before she knows Jesus has risen. Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb to verify her story (some manuscripts of Luke do have such a visit by Peter [24:12], but after the women are told Jesus is risen). Only after they depart does Mary see the angels (two, as in Luke), who ask why she is crying. Unlike the Synoptic accounts, they do not tell her Jesus has risen. Jesus himself then appears and tells her to tell the disciples he has risen. John has perhaps sought to harmonize both versions of the story, the angelophany and the Christophany, instead of simply placing them side by side as Matthew did.
John has two stories of appearances in Jerusalem. The first (20:19-23) is parallel to Luke 24:36-44 and aims to demonstrate the physical reality of the resurrection. The second (20:24-29), the famous "doubting Thomas" story, is intended to promote faith in John’s readers who did not see Jesus.
After the original conclusion, someone has added Chapter 21, which contains another version of Luke 5:4-11, the miraculous catch of fish culminating in Peter’s call to follow Jesus and to be a fisher / shepherd of men. In John 21, it has been made into a resurrection appearance. To it he adds a prediction of Peter’s death by crucifixion (21:18-19) and a reinterpretation of Jesus’ saying in Mark 9:1, which had been applied to the last living apostle (21:20-23).
Probably the most important theological meaning of the resurrection is that attributed to it by Paul: along with the death on the cross, Jesus’ resurrection saves us (Rom. 4:25) and gives us new resurrection life even in this life (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:13; Phil. 3:10), as well as guaranteeing the future bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 19:17-20; Phil. 3:20-21; 2 Thes. 4:14-16). Implicit in the very idea of resurrection is a positive valuation of life in the physical body that sets Christianity against world-negating mysticisms which see the body as an impediment which must be sloughed off. Also, the resurrection may be understood as a prophetic preview of the final destination of history in God’s victorious providence. And though modern biblical scholarship has made traditional apologetics difficult, many would take the resurrection of Jesus as the decisive vindication of Jesus’ mission and teachings.
R.H. Charles, Eschatology (1963); G.E. Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (1975); O. Cullmann, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead" in K. Stendahl (ed.), Immortality and Resurrection, 9-53 (1968); R. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (1971); W. Künneth, The Theology of the Resurrection (1965); W. Pannenberg, Jesus — God and Man (1977).
Robert M. Price
"Resurrection" is copyright © 1987 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.