Tag Archives: eschatology

Resurrection of the Body or Survival of the Soul?

Last week in dealing with eschatology I urged us to keep our focus on the definitive state of salvation rather than getting bogged down in discussions of transitional end time events. Whatever the transitional events turn out to be, the definitive state of salvation is eternal life in the presence of God. However there is one transitional event that the New Testament so connects to the definitive state that I need to deal with it, that is, the resurrection of the body. Though I won’t take the space in this essay to discuss it, my thinking on the resurrection has been definitively shaped by repeated reading and reflection on Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Everyone dies, and everyone knows it. But death means different things in different religions. For some religions and philosophies, death is merely a transition from this order to another. The higher part of the soul is freed from the body to return to the divine realm from which it came. Life in the cyclical of nature is bondage from which we need liberating and death is the way out. But for Christianity, death is not a transition to another mode of life; it is the end. Death is not the promise of liberation but the threat of annihilation. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the resurrection of the body is the central event of transition from this order to eternal life with God. Pinpointing death instead of the resurrection of the body as the transitional event, as popular religion often does, distorts and disrupts the entire Christian way of understanding the world. Let’s examine two reasons why the resurrection instead of death makes sense as the transition to eternal life.

First, God created this world, matter and nature, body and soul, and pronounced it very good. The body is not a prison, and life in this world is not a place of purgatory to which we were consigned because of our pre-incarnate sins. So, resurrection makes perfect sense as the transition from the present order in which creation is wounded and imperfect—though still good—to the healed and perfected order that God is preparing. Resurrection saves and perfects creation and affirms its created goodness. Or, to say it another way, God’s act of saving creation from death and decay and bringing it to its intended goal is called resurrection.

The promise of resurrection affirms continuity between the creation as it now exists and the new creation God will make. The new creation is not a replacement for the old one but the present creation saved and perfected. As for individual people, resurrection promises continuity between our present identity and our future selves. What good would it do for me to survive death if the part of my soul that survives has no memory of me and if my life in the body makes no ultimate difference? I have no more reason to look forward to this mode of survival than to survival of the atoms in my body after its dissolution! Who would find comfort in that? I can hope that my resurrected self (body and soul) will be expanded and illuminated and intimately united with Christ and filled with God’s Spirit. But unless there is continuity with the “I” that I am now, it makes no sense to call this transition resurrection or salvation.

Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central revealing and saving event of the Christian faith. Why would God raise Jesus, body and soul, from the dead if death itself were the transition to eternal life? If Jesus had merely survived death as a spirit, he could have appeared as a ghost to his disciples to declare his innocence and to assure them of the possibility of surviving death. But God raised him from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection declared not only his innocence of the Jewish’s accusation of blasphemy and Roman charge of sedition but it also declared his victory over death. Jesus’ resurrection made God’s intention to save and perfect his creation more than a hypothesis consistent with God’s act of creation. It made it a fact in history. And this fact calls for a revolution in the way we live:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).

Next Time: What shall we make of the doctrine of Hell? Is it part of the gospel or an especially difficult part of the problem of evil? Should we take the language about Hell as literal or metaphorical?

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“Why Hasn’t Jesus Returned?” And Other Objections to Christian Belief

Today I want to address another set of objections to Christian belief: “If Jesus really was raised from the dead, why didn’t he appear to everyone? Why didn’t he remain visibly present in the world instead of ascending to heaven (Acts 1:9-11)? Why didn’t the kingdom come in its fullness (Mark 9:1)? Why hasn’t he returned yet? Why do we have to “believe” instead of seeing?”

It seems to me that these questions arise from a sense of tension between the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is of universal significance and importance and two facts: (1) that it can be known today only indirectly, that is, by believing the written word of apostles and (2) that its impact on the world is much less obvious and universal than one would expect from such a dramatic divine act.

Of course these questions do not have to be taken as objections. They could be serious enquiries from people of faith seeking further understanding of the significance of what they believe. But the questioner could be implying that there are no answers and that the lack of answers disproves the fact-claim of the resurrection or at least that we must doubt the fact until we find satisfactory answers. Let’s deal with the challenger first and then we will address the serious enquirer.

We need to take the form of these objections seriously. They don’t make direct fact-denying assertions. They don’t ask “How?” or “Whether?” They ask “why?” When we ask why we are asking for the purpose or end for which someone has done something. If I ask you “Why did you do that?” I could be simply expressing my curiosity, or I could be making an accusation of wrongdoing.  If I see you digging in your back yard or climbing a ladder toward your roof or writing a letter, the question of why or to what end immediately arises in my mind. If you suddenly shove me to the ground, unless the reason for your aggression becomes immediately obvious, you won’t be surprised when I ask you why you did it. The act provokes the question because we assume that people don’t do things without an end in mind.

But suppose I never discover why you were climbing a ladder or why you pushed me to the ground. I do not conclude from my lack of knowledge of the purpose for your action that you didn’t do it. Indeed acts are always done for purposes, but we can know that an act was done without knowing why the actor did it. My knowledge of a fact rests on the evidence of my having experienced it or on believing the report of someone else who experienced it. Hence knowing the purpose of an act and knowing the fact of the act can be separated. With this distinction in mind, let’s return to the objections to faith with which I began.

As the New Testament recounts and reflects on the course of events after the resurrection of Jesus, it addresses the most pressing and essential questions. Why did Jesus die, and why did God raise him from the dead (See Acts 2:22-36)? Much of the theology of the New Testament is concerned to answer these questions. Of course these answers do not fully satisfy and leave us longing for deeper understanding. But the New Testament rarely addresses questions like those in our first paragraph. (2 Peter 3:3-13 is the most direct instance.) Such questions could be multiplied endlessly, for we can always speculate about why events didn’t happen in a different way or didn’t produce different results.

Many questions about Jesus won’t be answered fully until the end of history, because the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection concerns the whole human situation and all of human history. But our inability to find satisfactory answers to all of our why questions about the resurrection does not defeat belief in the resurrection itself any more than my ignorance of why you climbed a ladder yesterday defeats the fact of your climb. As long we keep our focus on the testimony of Paul, Peter, James, and the rest of those to whom Jesus appeared alive after his death, we need not let our many unanswered questions rob us of assurance of the fact of the resurrection.

Despite our inability to answer definitively the “why” questions in the first paragraph, I do not believe we are forced to remain completely silent in response to them. Some speculation, even if it is finally unconvincing, may increase our confidence that there are answers to these questions, even if we don’t know them. For nearly all human beings who have ever lived, God has been mysterious and hidden, unknown by clear sight or unambiguous demonstration.  But God has always been somewhat knowable by faith and reason through creation and conscience. We know that we are not our own creators and lawgivers (See Rom 1:18-32). Divine hiddenness creates an opportunity for faith, free decision, moral courage, and virtue—and their opposites.

In Jesus Christ, God becomes a factor inside human history in a new way, as a human character in the story. Critical questions about why Jesus didn’t show himself to everyone and didn’t end history fail to understand that Jesus Christ didn’t enter history to end it.  He came, rather, to save it, redeem it, and redirect it to its divinely appointed end. Even as God becomes in Christ a new factor in history, God remains hidden under the sign of the cross and in the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor 1:21). He does so for the same reason that God has always remained hidden, for the sake of faith, freedom, and virtue.

It would be strange to argue that God’s work of salvation and redemption contradicts or undoes God’s work in creation and providence. Apparently, God wants to accomplish his purpose for creation through its history and through human action. After all, creation is saved and perfected by the work of Jesus Christ whose action is both divine and human. And consistent with the mysterious ways of the Creator, Jesus’ divine action as Lord of All is hidden in his humanity and the humanity of his people.

“Who is this?” The Resurrection of Jesus as the Answer

We continue today with the theme of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As I said previously, the meaning of an historical event is determined by its surrounding circumstances. To understand the impact of the resurrection faith on the disciples and their interpretation of its meaning, we need to set the resurrection event into three contexts: (1) the life of Jesus as experienced and remembered by his disciples; (2) contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people; and (3) the impact of the resurrection appearances themselves.

Last week, we dealt with the first context, the life of Jesus. We saw that Jesus was remembered as an extraordinary figure, as performing miracles, forgiving sins, speaking with authority, exhibiting unheard of familiarity and intimacy with God, and making claims about himself that struck his adversaries as blasphemous. These extraordinary acts and claims left everyone asking, “Who is this?” This question voices their sense of not having a category into which Jesus easily fit. Something new is happening. But then he was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of the religious leaders of the Jews for blasphemy and rebellion. The judgment and execution of Jesus as a blasphemer and a rebel contradicted the entire trajectory of Jesus life and teaching and negated the expectations that had arisen in the hearts of those who knew him best and loved him most.

The question “Who is this?” seemed to have been answered: not what we had hoped. But the resurrection placed the question “Who is this?” on a completely different plane. Not only must the disciples ask, “Who is this who raises the dead, speaks with authority, opens the eyes of the blind, makes the lame walk, and forgives sins?” The resurrection forced the addition, “and who was crucified as a blasphemer and rebel but whom God raised from the dead?” Who is this?

The second context within which we must interpret the resurrection faith is “the contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people.” When the first disciples concluded from the resurrection appearances and the discovery of the empty tomb that Jesus had been raised from the dead, what did they think about its significance? The most important data relevant to this question come from the New Testament itself. There are also relevant data in documents contemporary with the New Testament, but we must be cautious about generalizations. Historians who study this era point out that there is no one “Jewish” view of resurrection and eternal life. Some did not believe in the resurrection or in any form of life beyond death and others may have believed in the survival of the spirit at the death of the body. We see in the New Testament itself that not every one believed in resurrection; for example, the Sadducees did not. But the Pharisees believed that God would bring about a future age in which (at least) the righteous dead would be raised bodily to everlasting life. For the Pharisees, the resurrection of the dead signaled the end of the age of death, sin, disease, violence, and oppression and the dawning of a new age.

Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection was clearly nearer to the Pharisees than to the Sadducees. He argued for the resurrection, claiming that the Sadducees do not understand Scripture and don’t know the power of God (Matt 22:23-32). If you follow Jesus in this age, enduring the suffering that accompanies discipleship, you will be rewarded “in the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:4). Paul argues with those in Corinth who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15). He refutes crude caricatures of resurrection as restoration of our present corruptible bodies. Nevertheless, he argues for a bodily resurrection at the end of the age. The resurrection overcomes death, transforms the corruptible and mortal body into an incorruptible and immortal body. Paul clearly affirms the resurrection of the body, not merely the survival of the spirit. But the resurrection of the body is also a radical transformation of the body. For Paul, resurrection means restoration of life in continuity with the identity, history, and bodily existence that otherwise would be negated forever by physical death. Also, like the Pharisees, Paul sees the resurrection as signaling the end of the age and a transformation of the world.

In this context it stands out clearly that Paul and the rest of the New Testament see the “resurrection” of Jesus as the restoration of his life that had been extinguished in death, as the transformation of his physical body that had been buried in the tomb, and as his translation into a mode of life expected only at the end of the age, namely incorruptibility and immortality. The notion that Paul (or any other New Testament witness) could have conceived of Jesus’ “resurrection” merely as the survival his spirit or justness of his cause, is highly implausible.

Now we have another piece of the puzzle to help us understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. The early disciples, the first Christians, understood Jesus’ resurrection as an “end time” event. He was saved from death by God through the restoration of his life and transformation of the body in which he had been born and lived, performed his works, and died on a cross.

“Who is this?” He is the beginning of the resurrection of the dead, the end of the age of sin and death and the beginning of the new age of eternal life. Through his resurrection Jesus’ universal significance is revealed, for the resurrection of the dead is about the destiny of the whole world, all time and space, and everyone. And because his resurrection possesses universal significance, so does his death, his teaching, his acts, and his birth.

Next week we will examine the significance of the resurrection appearances and the empty tomb on the witnesses’ understanding of the nature and significance of the resurrection of Jesus.

Note: If you are interested in knowing more about ideas of the resurrection in documents contemporary with the New Testament and in the New Testament itself, see two books by N.T. Wright: The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope.

Two Saviors and Two Kinds of Salvation

As we observed last week’s essay (“Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?”), modern culture aims toward the twin goals of mastery of nature through science and technology and mastery of the self through persuasion, social pressure and political coercion.  What goals does Christianity set before us as objects of hope and guides for action?

As a first step in answering this question, I need to deal with a misunderstanding that plagues this discussion. It is often said that on certain moral issues the general culture has been out front of the church and has embodied Christian morality in a purer form than the institutional church. Sadly, there is some truth to this charge. Churches have not always lived up to the gospel. Perhaps you have heard this idea used by Christian speakers as an argument for reform of the church. The argument derives its power from the shame in the thought that the pagans are living the gospel better than the Christians are. But we ought not thoughtlessly to give this argument more weight than it deserves. Jesus used a form of it in his parable of the dishonest, shrewd manager (Luke 16:8). Paul used a similar argument against the Corinthians who were tolerating and even celebrating an incestuous relationship among two of their own (1 Cor 5:1). In neither case, however, were the pagans commended for genuine virtue. It was precisely their lack of virtue that made the comparison effective.

In what moral sectors has the culture supposedly attained a superior morality over the church? In every case the “superior” morality has to do with the progressive liberation of individuals from “oppressive” political, social and moral structures. In no instance have I ever heard the general culture proclaimed ahead of the church in embodying the law of God, holiness or any other characteristic that limits the immediate desires of individuals or calls into question their autonomy. It’s always about liberation.

In other words, the moral areas where the culture appears to be ahead of the church—if it really is—is an accidental overlap between the trajectory of modern progress and the Christian ethic of love and individual responsibility to God. The narrow road of the gospel heads upward while the broad way of the world heads downward. At a few points they appear to intersect but in reality they do not. Such overlap is like a false cognate, a word in one language that is spelled or sounds exactly like a word in another language but with a totally different meaning. My favorite German/English false cognate is the German word “Gift.” It means not a thoughtful gesture but poison.

In analogy to the false cognate problem, consider the way the word freedom is used in the two frameworks, Christian and the secular cultures. For contemporary culture “freedom” means the absence every external thing that keeps you from doing what you please. But for Christianity “freedom” means the absence of every internal thing that keeps you from loving God and doing his will. The only thing the two uses have in common is the declaration that something is absent.

What is progress in the Christian frame of reference? Progress, as I said in last week’s post, is movement toward a goal. What is the ultimate goal toward which progress must be measured? Almost every New Testament book sets the goal before us. But I will just mention two texts. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery that God “purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). And in that great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of Christ reigning until he has subjected every enemy, even death, to himself. Christ will at that time give the kingdom to God, so that “God may be all and in all” (15:27-28). The goal of creation and world history is union with and submission to God. The means of that unification is Jesus Christ. And the space where that union is now taking place is the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).

How do you measure progress toward the redemption of creation, toward the union of heaven and earth under Christ? I have to believe such progress is possible because I believe the goal will be achieved by God’s power. But I am extremely cautious about measuring progress toward that end. Surely growth in holiness, faith and love can be considered progress. But are we in a position to make a judgment about our growth in holiness, faith or love? Wouldn’t it be spiritually dangerous to do this? God alone is the judge of such matters. And wouldn’t the same caution be warranted in other areas too?

Here we see a dramatic difference between measuring progress toward a finite worldly goal and measuring progress toward the achievement of God’s plan. And this difference may be one source of the temptation for many contemporary Christians to identify progress in liberating individuals from oppression into autonomy with movement toward the time when “God will be all and in all.” I do not think this equation is sound.

The two goals we’ve discussing represent two kinds of salvation worked by two different saviors, the one human and the other divine. Hence, as far as I can tell, “faithfulness” not “progress” is the watchword for the Christian stance in this world.