To the ancients, the idea of immortality or living forever in a physical body was in general a foreign one. Certainly this was the case with the Greeks who were guided by the great philosophers of the past. While clearly their mythology told the story of a few men and women who were made physically immortal by the gods, they were notable exceptions among a people with a different outlook on life and the destiny of man.
Strange as it may seem to our Western mind which glorifies the body and strives to increase its longevity and preserve youthfulness, such aspirations were absent from the Hellenistic peoples who viewed the flesh in a different manner than we do today. In contrast to our modern desire to hold on to the life in the body, Plato regarded it in the opposite way. Identifying the physical frame as the prison of the soul, he purported that death was an escape from the bondage of matter, a liberation for the spirit housed within it. The philosopher viewed the soul as far superior to the container which housed it, and so he emphasized the need for man to elevate his consciousness into the realm of spirit which is his calling. In the eyes of Plato, only the soul really mattered for it alone was eternal, neither created nor able to be destroyed.
In his philosophy, the goal of man was to break free from physical life putting it behind forever so that the soul could enjoy its natural environment, the realm of spirit. But because of man’s imperfections and misdeeds, it was not generally expected that one would live just one life in the flesh before forever returning to the abodes of the spirit world. Payment of sins and expiation of evil required at times multiple incarnations of the soul in the land of the living before purity could be achieved. After a series of transmigrations, the evildoer cured of his folly might enjoy the bliss of the afterlife and no longer have a need to enter the flesh again.
Such was the thinking of Plato and his successors which naturally denied any religious belief in physical immortality. Clearly it wasn’t desired, and even if it were, the Greeks held that not even the gods were able to recreate flesh that had been lost to decay, fire, or consumption. The belief was that once the body had been destroyed, there was no way of coming back to life again in the same form as one had lived and certainly not forever.
Of course the beliefs of Plato were not unique in the world of his day for various people groups had a similar sketch of reality though details differed from place to place. The poet Virgil of Roman fame expressed analogous ideas in his writings. And certainly similar convictions existed among those in Asia, the legacy of whom has descended to us in the forms of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Both major faiths idealize achieving what is known as Nirvana, a state of profound peace, calm, and quiet when a soul no longer must return to a physical body. Like the Greeks, those in the East considered the final escape from the flesh to be man’s highest calling and lived life with that goal in mind.
Even among the ancient Jews do we see signs of such thinking. At least in the writings before the exile we encounter the general denial of physical immortality, for the Psalmist writes, “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?” and the sage Job asks rhetorically, “If a man dies will he live again?” Coming forth from the grave to begin a perpetual existence of incorruption was from all accounts foreign to the earlier Jews. Though like with other contemporary civilizations, the idea of returning to a different mortal life through reincarnation was evident in their writings. Job after suffering great loss humbly said, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither,” expressing his expectation that he would be born again in some other setting in the future.
But it must be said that though the tone of older Jewish writings was more or less in line with those of other major religions of the ancient world, by the time we come to the post-exilic period a marked change appears in their literature. Namely the term resurrection begins appearing among their spiritual writings. Both in what might be considered canonical scripture and apocryphal works the idea suddenly becomes prevalent. This rapid development and theological shift was not as some might imagine to be attributed to a sudden divine revelation of greater truth. Rather, the change in belief among the Jews is something we can link with a great historical event in their history. When God could no longer bear with the iniquities of the children of Israel, they were carted off from their homeland. The northern tribes were exiled to Assyria in the north in the late 8th century B.C., and the tribe of Judah was taken captive to Babylon in the East in the early 6th century B.C. It was the latter people who while in that far away land came in contact with what was a relatively new religion to be born in the Middle East. The prophet Zoroaster had spread his teachings in that part of the Fertile Crescent, and naturally the Jews who now made their home in Babylon made contact with these new ideas and began to assimilate them into their own theology.
In the Zoroastrian worldview, the world was a battle ground between the good god and his rival the evil deity, and mankind was in the middle. Each person had just one life to choose which god he would follow. After death, those who had followed the benevolent deity and had done mostly good in their lives could expect to inherit heaven while those who had pursued the god of malice and had done evil could anticipate the perpetual reality of hell.
The contest between the two rival gods was not expected to continue indefinitely according to the beliefs of this Babylonian religion. In the end, the good deity was expected to win the final battle. At that point all of the dead were to be resurrected into their physical bodies, both good and evil people and to pass through a final judgment. The followers of iniquity were to be cleansed from the earth in a fiery river which would take them down to hell forever, while the doers of good were to enjoy life on earth in perpetual bliss, in a freshly cleansed world finally free of corruption.
These ideas as well as other beliefs including a complex angelology were exposed to the Jewish people in exile and subsequently began to influence and enter their writings from the 6th century B.C. onwards. From that point forward we begin to see a mixture of different ideas as the traditional concepts of the afterlife and reincarnation started to compete with the notion of bodily resurrection. Works like the Books of Enoch, Maccabees, Jubilees, and the Assumption of Moses all address the topic of resurrection but with various interpretations that conflict with one another, all an indicator that Jewish religion was in flux regarding its understanding of the afterlife and eschatology.
In the Ethiopic Book of Enoch, actually an amalgamation of five smaller works some of which is referenced by Jude in the New Testament, we have several views at odds with each other. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906,) in the fourth segment of the work we have an expressed belief that the righteous Israelites would experience a resurrection. That was to be a bodily resurrection, and the body was to be subsequently transformed. But in contrast to this, the fifth segment of Enoch looked for a resurrection of the righteous, but as spirits only, without a body. The third segment of the work had yet another variation expressing the conviction that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised, and that the spirits of the righteous will be clothed in a body of glory and light.
Referring to the Book of Jubilees and the Assumption of Moses, there was a clear belief in a resurrection of the spirit only, without a body. But in the Books of Maccabees it is not completely clear what type of resurrection was in view. Particularly in 2 Maccabees we have several references to the topic in the time persecution of the Jews under the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes IV. For refusing to eat pork and violate other aspects of their religion, many were tortured to death including seven sons of a certain widow all in the same day. Subjected to the heinous cruelty of being roasted on a hot iron, one of the sons addressed the king, “You indeed, O most wicked man destroys us out of this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life.” Though not saying much explicitly about any details of what rising again should mean, the verse is shortly followed by another with a quote from another brother just about ready to die. Speaking to the king again, he said, “It is better, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God, to be raised up again by him: for, as to you, you shall have no resurrection unto life.” Whether this expresses a belief in no resurrection at all for the wicked or simply no “resurrection to life” is not plain.
We may need to employ the commentary of St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews where he comments on the story itself for more insights into the meaning of resurrection. In his chapter on faith, he writes, “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection,” referring to the Maccabean rebels. The word “better” in this context may suggest an affirmation in the belief in reincarnation among the victims of the genocide. For following the understanding of that doctrine, those who do good in this life can expect to merit better circumstances in their next incarnation. It appears that the seven sons were exercising faith that sacrificing their own comfort in the present life to be faithful to their religion would be rewarded in a subsequent lifetime, and for that they were willing to offer up their bodies to pain and suffering. Such convictions are echoed by the author of the Wisdom of Solomon in the post-exilic period who wrote, “I was good, and therefore I came into a good body,” indicating his belief that what is merited in one life is reaped in another.
Clearly in what is known as the intertestamental period, a number of different ideas were appearing in the spiritual literature of the Jews on the topic of resurrection and eschatology. By the time of Christ, the matter was hardly resolved and no concrete doctrine had emerged, but needless to say, whereas in the Old Testament the concept of resurrection was more or less non-existent, at the dawn of the Christian era it was a prominent concept.
Throughout the entire New Testament are numerous references to the term or to similar phrases like “raising from the dead.” Dozens of verses address the subject not only from the writings of the apostles but from the Savior himself in the gospel narratives. Among other citations, we could quote the words of Jesus who spoke of inviting those over to one’s home for a meal who could not possibly repay one back. According to Christ, such people would be blessed and “will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The Apostle Paul likewise spoke of the idea in most all of his epistles starting from the Acts of the Apostles and spanning to the letter to the Hebrews. At his trial before the governor Felix shortly before he was sent to Rome, he told the ruler, “I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.”
Suffice it to say, there is not enough time to look at all of the passages that deal with the resurrection in the New Testament, but the prevalence of the concept guaranteed that it would become a doctrine of faith foremost in the minds of the faithful for generations to come. We see it treated in the writings of the Early Church Fathers and very importantly in the Creeds of the Church. It has found a place in confessions and catechisms over the Christian era. However it must be said that although there might have been ambiguity about the subject before and during the Apostolic age, within a century or two after the time of Christ, the tone of the Church clearly favored the Zoroastrian framework and it does so to the present time.
Church fathers Irenaeus and Justin Martyr clearly embrace this position, for they explicitly denounce the tradition of Greek philosophers Plato and Pythagoras who argued that the soul is immortal while the body is mortal and incapable of being revived. Justin Martyr was to underscore the importance of both the spirit and the flesh in the identity of man, claiming that Christ promised to raise up both even as he miraculously raised his own body from the dead.
Undoubtedly their viewpoint and that of other contemporary and later fathers would shape the formation of the Apostle’s Creed in which the teaching of the church professes, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body.” While that in itself may sound vague, perhaps allowing for multiple interpretations as found in the post-exilic Jewish era, a look at the original Latin text will not allow us to form more than one opinion, for it says, “Credo in … carnis resurrectionem.” That is, it affirms the resurrection of the flesh and not just some spiritual body or invisible part of our makeup. However, the more comprehensive and universal creed that became the measure of orthodoxy since the 4th century, the Nicene Creed affirms, “We look for the resurrection of the dead,” which is admittedly more open ended.
But even if that creed permitted various viewpoints on the subject of resurrection, the official teaching of the largest Christian body, the Catholic Church does not allow any flexibility on the matter. Following the Council of Lyons, it affirms in its Catechism, “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess.” “We believe in God who is Creator of the flesh; we believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh, the fulfillment of both the creation and redemption of the flesh.”
In no uncertain terms, the Catholic Church proclaims that “even our mortal body will come to life again after death.” “The soul does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.”
For this reason, the Roman Church has always had the highest regard for the bodies of the dead, for as it asserts in the catechism, “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” Historically, the Catholic Church has always insisted on burial and shunned cremation because of the understanding that the body must be raised, but nowadays it allows for the latter “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”
Such is the teaching of the mainstream church on the resurrection of the dead, a literal raising up of the physical body to dwell on this planet forever in some kind of Paradise, like Eden restored. Although this has become the prevalent view, we would affirm that this was not the teaching of Jesus or the apostolic teaching that was originally handed down to us. It is not the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.
We can consider now the phrase “resurrection of the dead” and other similar expressions as they appear in the New Testament and observe that there are several different usages of the idea throughout those writings of the first century. Clearly in the gospels there is a literal meaning to it as told in the miraculous accounts of Jesus. On at least three occasions we have the story of how he brought back to life people who had been dead anywhere from a short time to four days. We are told of the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter whom the Savior restored at the request of her father in the Book of Matthew. Later Luke relates to us an incident where the Master came across a funeral procession carrying a young man, the only son of a widow to burial. Jesus simply touched the coffin and the man sat up and returned to life. John also relates to us a popular narrative involving the Messiah’s good friend Lazarus who had died and was buried four days before Jesus arrived in his town to perform what was for many a stupendous miracle. After having the stone rolled away, the Son of God called Lazarus to come forth, and to the amazement of all he appeared at the entrance to the tomb bound in his grave clothes once again with the breath of life in him. Even in the Acts of the Apostles we have an account of a literal resurrection where St. Paul threw his arms around a man named Eutychus who had fallen out of a third story window and was revived by the apostle.
And while all of these accounts are definitely references to resurrection from the dead in the most literal sense, it is at the same time true that such miracles were far from permanent. Each individual died again sometime in the future as is the fate of all flesh. But it was not Jesus’ purpose to raise them up these people to live an immortal existence never to taste death another time. Rather, the purpose of these resurrections was among other reasons for the sake of the Savior’s own credibility. He wanted people to believe in him and producing such miraculous signs, especially the raising of Lazarus had a strong impact on his following.
Of course this was the main reason for Christ’s own resurrection from the dead after his agonizing death on Calvary. That he came to life again in the same body in which he had lived forever cemented his credibility in the eyes of his followers who would have certainly disbanded were it not for this galvanizing event. The Resurrection of Jesus sent a clear message to the world that the man who lived among them was who he said he was, and therefore all should believe his teachings and follow his example. It also made the clear and unequivocal statement that God the Father had accepted his great Sacrifice on behalf of humanity giving hope to all that forgiveness of sins was now available to those who sought it. Of all the unqualified references to “resurrection from the dead” in the New Testament, the allusion is usually to Christ’s own resurrection rather than to any insinuation of our own physical rising, for the resurrection of the Son of God was certainly the cornerstone of the apostolic message in the first century.
While the literal sense of resurrection is certainly a genuine meaning expressed in the New Testament, it is yet one of several senses in which the idea is put forth. The word for resurrection in Greek is Anastasis which according to Strong’s Concordance conveys, “a standing up again, resurrection from death, a moral recovery of spiritual truth, raised to life again, resurrection, rise from the dead, that should rise, rising again.” Clearly there are both literal and figurative contexts to the word as defined in that source, and so we recognize that some biblical references employ the term in a looser sense than the plain meaning.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” In such a verse it is apparent that Christ is not referring to a physical coming forth from the grave, for that does not reconcile with his suggestion (“and has now come”) that it was already happening. Rather, the scripture conveys a more figurative form of resurrection which we might call a spiritual awakening as opposed to any form of coming back to material life. It is an allusion to inner conversion and the onset of the spiritual life metaphorically described as a transition from death to life.
St. Paul utilizes this sense of the word in his letter to the Colossians where he refers to the Christian sacramental experience. Referring to the way that the believer identifies with the Savior in the initiatory sacrament of the faith, Paul writes, “… having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Clearly the meaning of the passage here has nothing to do with being raised from physical death. Instead the apostle is pointing out how through the power of baptism, one is quickened with spiritual life, an infusion of God’s grace into his soul. St. Paul uses this connotation again in the same letter addressing that particular church saying, “Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” Here the apostle reiterates the same idea, namely that those who have been baptized into faith in Christ have been spiritually raised over against any material sense of the word.
There is a third sense that we can interpret references to resurrection in the New Testament, and we have already alluded to it earlier in our discussion of the post-exilic spiritual writings of the Jews. In the catacombs and in the tombs of the martyrs of the early church there have been found round stones, circles, and even little marble eggs. The basic symbolic meanings of these artifacts is fairly intuitive, for we see the circle as a symbol of infinity much like a wedding ring which signifies endless love and devotion. The egg on the other hand, the perennial symbol of fertility represents resurrection in the sense of rebirth or reincarnation as it was commonly understood particularly before the time of Christ.
As mentioned earlier, St. Paul’s reference to the Maccabean rebels sacrificing their lives for their faith “that they might obtain a better resurrection” seems to convey this sense. In the passage the apostle does not hint at a mere duality of resurrections as if to everlasting life or to everlasting death but to something more intermediate, a “better” resurrection indicating that there exists a whole spectrum of conditions ranging from horrendous to privileged into which a soul could be born into. The Jewish martyrs simply appear to have been seeking to optimize their next incarnation through the merit of their great acts of faith.
But resurrection in the sense of reincarnation is also found in the gospels. The Jews at the time of Christ generally followed the beliefs of the Pharisees, and they used the terms “resurrection,” “risen again,” or “risen from the dead” to describe both ghosts or appearances of spirits as well to living, breathing human beings who having lived before had become incarnate once again. In this context when Christ queried his disciples about who the crowds were saying he was they responded, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life again.” Later Jesus would speak about the true identity of John the Baptist saying, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist … And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”
We now turn our attention to one final sense in which the phrase “resurrection from the dead” is used in the New Testament, one which is perhaps the most important and applies to all humanity. When this material body that we inhabit wears out and we cease to exist on this physical plane, all will not turn “black” as some without faith assume, but we will continue consciousness in the land beyond the grave in a purely spiritual existence. In this sense, resurrection means the beginning of life in a new realm at the moment life in the body comes to an end. Resurrection is the commencement of life in the abode of the dead, the spirit world to which we all will go when death removes us from this material plane.
In short, “the resurrection of the dead” refers plainly to life after death, a vast subject in itself, and while it indicates generally life as a discarnate spirit in a place very foreign to our five senses, specifically it alludes to the home of the Blessed which we commonly refer to as heaven. Those who work hard on earth and become saints ultimately merit entrance into the kingdom of heaven which Christ has also called “everlasting life.” By definition, it is everlasting because those who become denizens of that fair land no longer have need to return to life on the physical earth again, subject to the frailties of the body and the common lot of all men, namely death. They dwell forever in a blessed country without the need to cycle back to the material world for yet another incarnation.
It was St. Paul’s earnest aspiration to merit entry into the kingdom of heaven upon his departure from the world, and he expressed these sentiments throughout his writings. Particularly in the letter to the Philippians, he told of this other-worldly ambition saying, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” The apostle makes it known in this passage that the “resurrection of the dead” is his goal and one which he rightly views as lofty and uncertain through mention of the word “somehow.” Yet he strives for it with all his might, for a few verses later he tells us, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Never presumptuous that he will attain this blessed aim, we see Paul soberly lamenting in other epistles how he and others can be “disqualified” for this prize if not keeping constant vigilance.
Indeed as this premiere saint informs us, making our way into the kingdom of heaven is our ultimate purpose in contrast to spending an eternity on earth in some kind of incorruptible physical body. Yet once more he shares this knowledge with us from his letter to the Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies, so they will be like his glorious body.” The apostle summarizes the destiny of man indicating that his eternal home is in the spiritual realm and not on earth. One day we will shed our physical body and come to exist in an exalted state in a spiritual body in the land without a sunset.
In his second epistle to the Corinthians he makes similar remarks saying, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling … For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed, but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” Here again St. Paul communicates to us that it is the inward longing of man to be freed from the shackles of the physical body which wearies him under a heavy load and to begin life in the heavenly realms with all of the liberties that that existence affords, a state of existence beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.
So emphatic is the apostle in identifying heaven as the true home and final destination of man that he goes as far to say that we who dwell upon the physical earth are foreigners in this land. In his letter to the Hebrews, speaking of those who were aspiring to sainthood, he wrote, “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own … Instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”
Indeed we are only pilgrims on earth, just passing through, for this planet may be our current abode but is not our eternal home. Rather it is the land of spirit that beckons us, a place foreign to the five senses and unlike anything we have known here below. Heaven and earth are for all intents and purposes polar opposites, though some in Paul’s day had the notion that there would be a continuation of material life in the hereafter. Dispelling this illusion, the apostle writes to the Romans, “For the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit …” And speaking very plainly in the first letter to the Corinthians, he asserts, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Quite clearly, heaven being a spiritual realm is not a place where physical bodies can abide nor in any way function.
Now we have been talking a lot about the Apostle Paul’s usage of the phrase “resurrection of the dead,” but he is not the only one in the New Testament to refer to life after death in this manner. The Savior himself gives us a definitive teaching on resurrection which is recorded in all three Synoptic gospels. At a particular time in his ministry his opponents, the Sadducees attempted to trick Jesus through a hypothetical question they posed to him. They presented to him a scenario involving the Old Testament provision of Levirate marriage. When a man died leaving his wife without children, his brother was obliged to marry her to provide offspring for his dead sibling. In the situation they concocted for him to ponder, seven brothers took the same wife one after another, all dying in succession of each other without providing the woman any child. They cleverly asked Jesus, “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
From a purely material view of resurrection, it would indeed appear that they had Christ trapped, for the woman was legitimately the spouse of all seven men. But the Lord surprised them in response to their duplicitous question. He told them directly that they were in error regarding their understanding of resurrection, assuming that the institution of marriage would continue in that state. Jesus alerted them instead to the true nature of resurrection, not a physical reality in which spouses exist to bring forth offspring, but a spiritual reality where the family unit no longer exists. The Savior made it known to his opponents that there would be no marriage, for in the resurrection mankind will be “like the angels of heaven.” As spiritual beings without a material body, the angels are obviously engaged in a completely non-physical existence as one day we shall be, one without flesh, hormones, sex, and consequently marriage which exists for the purpose of propagating the human race.
Returning one last time to the Apostle Paul, we consider now his most definitive passage on the subject. In an era where there was ambiguity and confusion on the subject where undoubtedly the idea of rising in a physical body to live on earth was entertained, like the Messiah he also sought to set the record straight and did so in the first letter to the Corinthians. There he answered the questions that must have been circulating at the time, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will the come?”
In beginning his treatment of the subject, he immediately sets out to answer these questions by deriding the foolishness of the idea that the resurrection body is anything like the physical body we now live in. Using a farming analogy, he communicates to his readers that just as the plant bares no resemblance to the seed from which it came, so too will we who emerge from death into life beyond the grave enter upon existence in a spiritual form with little in common to our former selves. He expresses that just as a seed must fall into the earth and die to give birth to the plant, so we too must pass out of physical existence forever to become our true selves. Indeed once it emerges from the seed, the plant does not and cannot return again to what it once was, and so Paul wishes to communicate this idea to his audience.
The apostle then goes on to inform the Corinthians that there are two entirely different bodies, earthly ones and heavenly ones. According to St. Paul, it is the natural body that is sown in the ground like the seed, and then it is raised a spiritual body. He informs us that the natural always comes first and then the spiritual. And desiring to cement the idea in the minds of his readership, he closes his analogies by stating, “Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man (Adam,) so shall we likewise bear the likeness of the man from heaven (Christ.”)
Indeed both Jesus and St. Paul reveal to us the truth of the matter which perhaps is a bit uncomfortable for those of us who live in the flesh and are content to continue life with what is familiar and predictable. But though we are now engrossed in a physical existence, the reality is that this state of being is temporary while only spiritual existence is eternal. As surprising as it may be to us in our ignorance, existing without a material body is the normative state for mankind and ultimately his destiny. The mortal life we now live in the flesh is ephemeral, only enduring a short time in the grand scheme of things, for once man has learned all the lessons of physical life, having mastered them, he will once and for all leave earth life behind forever and wing his way into the very presence of God.