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A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth
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The Resurrection in Biblical Perspective
Questions about the nature of the resurrection are as old as the New Testament itself, no doubt even older. Perhaps the basic question is the one the apostle Paul attempts to answer in 1 Corinthians 15:35, ""How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" As we shall see, both the question and Paul's response are instructive, and lead to a wide-ranging examination of the meaning of resurrection in Scripture.
This article discusses the following topics:
Establishing a Biblical Framework of Thought
Today, questions about the nature of the resurrection have a way of being skewed from their original biblical perspective. As an example, we wonder whether the body of the resurrection is a physical one, as opposed to a spiritual one. That dichotomy isn't present in the biblical materials, because it wasn't present in the biblical world view. It is the result of our post-Enlightenment, materialistic world view which objectifies truth into a Newtonian framework and assumes that to be real something must be physical. In this world view, "facts" are out there somewhere, and "truth" has to correspond to them in some ostensive or referential way. In other words, if the resurrection is real we have to attach it to some external reality — in particular one that has a scientifically demonstrable component — or it doesn't seem to be true.
Unhappily, evangelicals usually share in this same kind of referential thinking about the nature of truth. But consider what this does to the authority of the Bible. If the real truth is somewhere "out there," then for the Bible to be true it has to correspond to something beyond itself, something greater in the realm of demonstrable "fact." That means that the real authority is external to the Bible, and one could theoretically prove that the Bible is true (or, by the same token, untrue) by reference to that external criterion.
But Jesus Christ said, "Thy Word is truth." That is, Scripture itself establishes the framework for our view of reality, the "grid" through which we perceive and experience what is real. If thy Word is truth, then our world view or thought framework is the universe defined by the symbol system established by the spoken and written Word of God. In the biblical world view, reality is created by that which is spoken — in contrast to the modern world view in which what is said is somehow supposed to correspond to what exists objectively "out there."
I am reminded of the story of three baseball umpires debating which of them was the best. "I calls 'em as I sees 'em," declared the first. The second countered, "I calls 'em as they are!" To which the third umpire replied, "Till I calls 'em, they ain't!"
As Christians we are members of a community whose world is defined by the parameters of the biblical perspective. For us, that perspective provides the leverage by which we interpret and critique the alternative and pathological world views of prevailing cultures, including that of North America and the West in general. The world we see is the one created by God, who — like our third umpire — has called it into existence by his Word. The church's life and worship ought to place us into that universe of thought which calls into question the false assumptions of other world views. It is not appropriate to import an alien world view into our thinking about biblical concepts and make it the criterion for our assessment of the truth of biblical thinking. If we impose such an alien universe on the Bible, we will never understand what is being expressed in the teachings of Scripture.
With these things in mind, let's return to our discussion of the resurrection.
We begin this study by referring to the question the Corinthian Christians might have asked of Paul, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" Notice, first, that the question is not, "Are the dead raised?" nor is it even, "By what means are the dead raised?" Rather, the question, as Paul projects it, seems to assume that the dead can be raised, and that resurrection involves a body. It simply asks about the nature of that body. Notice also that Paul's hypothetical question assumes that the resurrection is something people come to, not something they go to. It contemplates an earthly plane, not a far-off heavenly realm, as the venue or context of the resurrection. Paul doesn't challenge these assumptions, but attempts to clarify them.
In biblical psychology, our body is an extension of our soul or "life," through which we manifest our own being and interact with other lives. We can't be a person without a body, so if we are to be raised we must be raised as a body. Discussing the nature of that body, Paul develops a contrast between our present body and that which is to come. The present body is psychikos, the body to come is pneumatikos. Usually the first is translated "natural" and the second "spiritual," but this is misleading. The Greek term psychikos is related to the word psyche, usually translated "soul" or "life" in the sense of an individual self or personality. So Paul's contrast here is really between the "psychic" body and the "spiritual" body, or more accurately between the body that is given its impetus and direction by our assertion as individual persons and that which is energized and directed by the Holy Spirit.
In other words, Paul's contrast is not between the substance of the two bodies, but between their motivation or directing force. To introduce a computer metaphor, the body of the resurrection is a device with a different driver. It is given its direction by the Spirit of the risen Lord: "But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:14). The present body, however, is driven by our "flesh," a New Testament concept that refers not so much to our physical appetites as to our emotional drive for self-assertion or self-satisfaction: "Their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame" (Phil. 3:19); "I did it my way" (Sinatra 1:1).
In Paul's discussion, then, there is no mention of a physical body. Indeed, one might ask whether the scriptural writers had a concept of the "physical" as we understand it today with our modern post-Enlightenment perspective. Of course, ancient people understood the concept of the material, and philosophers such as Lucretius interpreted the universe as consisting of nothing but atoms falling through space. But this was not a biblical way of looking at a universe created by the Word of God, in which the material substance does not stand on its own but is upheld by that spoken Word that gives it coherence. The New Testament writers equate Christ with this Word, indicating that he is "upholding the universe by his word of power" (Heb. 1:3) and that "in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). At heart, then the basis of reality (i.e., "things") is not physical but informational, if one could use this term in relation to the Word both spoken and incarnate. The body of the resurrection is distinguished not by its substance, but by the information that structures its world. "In him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
What happened to the physical body, then, did not seem to be of utmost concern to a man like Paul, who had braved floggings, shipwreck and countless other threats to his material being. The demise of that form of bodily existence, "the earthly tent we live in" (2 Cor. 5:1), was an accepted fact of our humanity. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews asserts, "It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Heb. 9:27). Paul was more concerned with what was now giving the tendency or direction to his body, as the manifestation of his personhood. His issue was whether that body could be placed in the service of the good, and the God who had created that good, or whether it was consigned to serve only the interests of sin, or rebellion against his Creator. His cry was, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24). The body devoted only to self-serving interests was doomed, part and parcel of "the form of this world [that] is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). That aspect of the body had to die before resurrection could occur. Returning to our computer lingo, the driver is corrupt, and a new driver must be installed before the device will function properly.
And indeed, as far as Paul was concerned, that first death (though the expression is not used) and resurrection had already occurred for everyone who had been baptized into the death of Christ (Rom. 6:3-5). Paul is explicit in affirming that those who belong to Christ are already taking part in the resurrection: "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. . . . For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1, 3). Consistent with this thought is the proclamation of Revelation 20:6: "Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years." Here the "second death" might refer to the demise of the material body, but it has lost its "sting" (1 Cor. 15:55) because the more significant death has already been experienced, followed by resurrection in which the risen ones continue to "reign in life" (Rom. 5:17) in an earthly context. In his First Letter the apostle John offers a corresponding thought: "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren" (1 John 3:14). God has spoken his Word in Christ to renew his creation (Heb. 1:2), and those who are "in Christ" are already in this new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). All of this is based on the promise of Jesus himself, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24).
So, in principle, one can live in the resurrection prior to the demise of the material body, and there is no reason why one should not understand the resurrected body as having a "physical" manifestation. Pressing our computer image one more time, the device could be the same, operating in the same environment, but the new driver has been installed, renewing and enhancing its functionality.
However, in the New Testament the resurrection of the believer is progressive. That is, it is "now but not yet," a fact of our Christian life already and yet still being worked out. This is clear from passages such as Paul's words in Philippians 3, where he speaks of not having attained the resurrection but of pressing on towards it. John, for his part, adds that "it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). The meaning of Christ's appearance, or parousia, in the New Testament is a topic meriting an extensive discussion of its own (see the Laudemont Press book The Promise of His Coming). But it is clear that there is a connection between our resurrection and the appearance of Christ. It is also clear that during the "last days" of the Old Covenant this connection was being explored by the New Testament writers, and resurrection was understood as a reality unfolding through events taking place within the ancient Jewish community. That explains why, in Paul's major discussion of the resurrection, the victory over death is a victory over the power of the Judaic religious system and its law. As he states, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:56-57).
It is therefore impossible to separate the question of the resurrection from the question of the relationship of the Christian community to its cultural environment, the world of ancient Judaism. In this world the church was a persecuted minority proclaiming itself as the faithful remnant, the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), in contrast to the establishment which — in the view of Jesus the apostles — had distorted the covenant with Yahweh. The law or torah was "holy and just and good" (Rom. 7:12) but in the hands of well-intentioned but shortsighted interpreters it had become an instrument for self-justification and a burden too heavy for the people to bear (Matt. 23:2-7). It had become, in Paul's pointed words, a "dispensation of death" (2 Cor. 3:7). The resurrection, in its New Testament context, is deliverance from this bondage.
To understand the resurrection biblically, then, we need to view it corporately and against the background of the conflict unfolding within the ancient Jewish community — a conflict which would eventuate in the division of the community and the emergence of a separate Christian or Messianic wing of Judaism. This separation was already occurring during the last days of the Old Covenant, and was accompanied by the welcoming of non-Jews into the Messianic wing. The partition was complete with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in the Jewish revolt of AD 66-70 — an event which the persecuted church had anticipated as the vindication of its martyrs (Rev. 6:10).
In this connection, we can add one further comment. The Greek word anastasis, translated "resurrection," means literally "standing up" or "uprising." It is derived from the root stenai, "to stand," which was sometimes used in ancient Greek literature in the sense of rising up in protest or rebellion. This, the New Testament concept of the resurrection contains a note of defiance against evil and oppressive authorities. This note is present in Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost, when he boldly declares:
This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (Acts 2:23-24).
Thus Paul, seeing the approaching demise of the "the world rulers of this present darkness" which had been oppressing the church, urges his readers to stand firm against them: "Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Eph. 6:12-13). We perceive here an echo of Jesus' word that "he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 10:22). In the Revelation, John also testifies to Jesus' promise that resurrection is attained through faithful endurance: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. . . . He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death" (Rev. 2:10-11).
Such exhortations are clearly using resurrection language. The resurrection triumph and vindication of the New Testament church was twofold: its steadfast confession of Christ's lordship, which resulted in martyrdom for many, and its endurance until the persecuting institutions of the old system met their demise in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple after the revolt of AD 66-70. With the fall of the church's oppressors, it could receive the honor due it as the legitimate heir of the covenant, a recognition withheld during the last days while the old institutions prevailed in Jerusalem. Ongoing persecution of the faithful church from Roman and, in our era, Fascist, Marxist, revisionist and Islamic sources has rendered the language of resurrection defiance all the more relevant for subsequent generations of Christians, who await its consummation in their own witness.