Resurrection of the Dead: A Very Brief Scholarly Introduction

Dale C. Allison has recently put it best about scholarship on the resurrection: "Although the laborers have not been few, the harvest has not been so plentiful. The thousands of books and articles dedicated to Jesus’ resurrection have not, despite manifold differences, produced a plethora of truly disparate hypotheses."Almost always the debate centers on what is raised (flesh or spirit or some kind of pneuma-sarx combination) and when it will be raised (immediately after death or at the parousia, the "presence" of Christ’s return at the eschaton).

The what of resurrection is usually elaborated through two different antitheses: an antithesis between 1) Hebrew monism and Greek dualism or else between 2) second-century Christian assertions of the resurrection of the flesh and gnostic teachings of resurrection of the spirit only.

The first antithesis is rooted in a scholarly interpretation that contrasts Hebrew anthropology, body and soul are indivisible, with Greek anthropology, body and soul are divisible: there is no Hebrew separation of soul and body like that found in Greek anthropology as in Plato (sometimes called "Platonic dualism").Since the first Christians were Jews, many scholars take their cue from the Hebrew monism interpretation and apply it to the resurrection of the dead in the New Testament: the whole person, physical body and soul, is raised and not just the soul or spirit. The Hebrew-Greek antithesis usually leads to what some scholars see as an antithesis between the Hebrew/ Jewish/ Christian resurrection of the dead (= the body, corporeality) and the Greek immortality of the soul (= the bodyless, incorporeality): "The Jews would have never accepted a resurrection of the spirit without the body."3

The Hebrew monism-holism—Greek dualism antithesis, however, has come under scrutiny recently. Hebrew thinking did allow for the separation of "soul" and "body" in passages that speak of the soul in the netherworld afterlife known to the Hebrews as Sheol, a soul that lacked flesh and bones but was nevertheless conscious, active, aware, and alive while its corpse (neblah) remained on the surface of the Earth.4

The second antithesis is rooted in historical developments of the second century. During the second century, the emergence of the non-biblical phrase "resurrection of the flesh" came to denote "the dead" as referencing the corpses lying in their graves. This created an antithesis to the concept of resurrection of the spirit.5 As resurrection of the flesh gained the upper-hand in orthodox Christian doctrine, resurrection of the spirit came to be increasingly identified with Gnosticism,6 although this concept for resurrection was certainly not unique to Gnosticism.7

Both the Hebrew-Greek antithesis and the Orthodox-Gnostic antithesis pivot on the same issue: flesh (or body) versus spirit. The non-biblical phrases "resurrection of the body" and "resurrection of the flesh" are commonly used expressions for the biblical phrase "resurrection of the dead."8 Even though resurrection "of the body" and "of the flesh" do not occur literally in biblical texts, they are abstracted from biblical texts, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 speaks of a kind of "body" (soma) that is "raised" (egeiro) and Luke 24:39 depicts Jesus’ resurrection state as "flesh and bones" in contrast to the nature of "a spirit." Thus, the orthodox picture of the resurrection seems to conflate Paul’s "body" language with Luke’s "flesh and bones" language, despite the fact that Paul qualifies the raised "body" with the adjective "spiritual" (pneumatikos) and asserts that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50), i.e., the resurrection state is not a physical body per se.

The phrase "resurrection of the body" is often assumed to refer to the physical body. The physicality of the resurrection body of Jesus as depicted in the gospels has led many scholars to presume that both Jesus’ physical body and spirit were raised, not just the spirit, especially in the light of the very direct assertion made by Jesus about himself in the gospel of Luke, "a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39).9 This statement is further thought to imply the following equations: fleshly = bodily; and non-fleshly = non-bodily. From this is deduced that since a soul or spirit lacks a body, it is bodyless and therefore shapeless, formless, and incorporeal. For some anti-dualists of the resurrection, the rise of the notions "incorporeal" and "immaterial" in Greek thought provides further testimony for the idea that the soul or spirit lacks a body.10 Thus, the resurrection cannot take place as a spirit only.

Paul, however, seems to have been aware of the oxymoron pneumatikon soma, "spiritual body," i.e., "a spiritual physical body" (because soma = physical body); how can a spiritual body be physical?  This seems to have been in Paul's mind for he contrasts the "spiritual" body (pneumatikon soma) with the "mortal" body (psuchikon soma). This allowed Paul to convey a sense of "body" in relation to spirit without any further dependence on fleshy physicality, as is clearly stated in his argument on the resurrection body, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50). The term for bodyless, "incorporeal," in relation to spirits does not mean that spirits lacked bodies. The phrase "disembodied soul" conveys the false impression that invisible sentient beings lack form and shape; indeed, even lack a body. The Greek term translated as "incorporeal" and "disembodied" is asomatos and it literally means, "without a physical body" (alpha privative a + soma).  The term does not occur in the NT, but it is used to describe "spirits" as not having "physical bodies" in early Judaism as seen in the Testament of Solomon 2:5 (pneumata asomatoi, "bodyless spirits," or better, "spirits without physical bodies"). In his De Anima (On the Soul) 409B.21, Aristotle could speak of incorporeal bodies that were still bodies: soma asomatotaton, "incorporeal body," or better, "non-physical body." Spirits, although invisible, have bodies "of a kind" as Paul indicates in 1 Cor 15:35: "what sort of body do they (the dead) come with?"

The nature of pure spiritual existence apart from physical reality has remained a mystery for the modern western world, a world ruled as it is by an epistemology that dictates strict empiricism as the highest ideal, an ideal whose origins lay in the Enlightenment and whose apex is found in the modern physical-neuro-biological sciences. But this problem is not merely a modern one, for one of the earliest Christian fathers, Justin Martyr, could not understand a "body" apart from that which is purely physical:

If He had no need of flesh, why did He heal it? And what is most forcible of all, He raised the dead. Why? Was it not to show what the resurrection should be? How then did He raise the dead? Their souls or their bodies? Manifestly both. If the resurrection were only spiritual, it was requisite that He, in raising the dead, should show the body lying apart by itself, and the soul living apart by itself. But now He did not do so, but raised the body, confirming in it the promise of life (ANF 1.298).

Justin is one of our earliest post-apostolic apologetic sources for the "resurrection of the flesh," even though that phrase does not occur in the NT. Justin’s identification of Jesus’ resurrecting others with Jesus’ own resurrection misses one important point though: Jesus is called "the first born of the dead" (1 Cor 15:20; Col 1:8). By this reckoning Jesus’ resurrection from the dead must mean something other than a resurrection from physical death since others had been physically raised by him prior to his own resurrection (as well as others in the OT).

Scholars hardly ever (if ever) discuss what "dead" means in the phrase "the resurrection of the dead." "Dead" is almost always presumed to refer to the physically dead, as the phrase "the resurrection of the flesh" explicitly suggested when it emerged into the Christian lexicon during the late second century: the resurrection of the dead traditionally refers to the dead bodies lying in the graves waiting to be awakened on the last day in a glorified state.11

What else could "resurrection of the dead" mean? Matthew 27:52-53 clinches the meaning of "dead" as the bodies lying in the graves that will rise. But does it? Why were only these bodies raised at that time?12 And after they "went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Matt 27:53), what happened to these individuals next? The text does not say, and we are left simply to speculate: were they eventually taken up into heaven as had happened to Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus; or did they remain on the Earth?13 If they remained on the Earth as they had before their death, then logically, according to Christian eschatology, these raised persons should still be walking the Earth to this day because the eschaton has yet to occur. Also, by this reckoning Lazarus should still be walking the Earth to this day or else Lazarus died twice (but Heb 9:27 states that "men die once, and after that the judgment," unless, of course, one speculates that he, too, was "taken up bodily into heaven"), notwithstanding the different theories as to Lazarus’ real condition in the tomb awaiting Jesus, e.g., suspended animation, resuscitation, hence he was not wholly dead. If the Lazarus case is not a good example, then at least this question holds good for Matt 27:52, "the many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" and some of the problems pointed out here remain. Therefore, with a little introspection on these texts, resurrection of the dead implies something other than mere physical revivication, or the return of the spirit to the physical body, something that both Jesus and the apostles were all too familiar with both in Lazarus’ case and in the case of Jairus’ daughter, "her spirit returned, and she got up at once" (Luke 8:55; cf. Matt 9:24-25).

The when of resurrection is almost always thought among scholars to occur at the end of history or the consummation of all things, "at the last trumpet" (1 Cor 15:52) whereby the resurrection of the dead will be a one-time, all-encompassing, universal event at the parousia or the return of Christ. The Christians alive on the Earth at that time will be "caught up into the air with Christ" (1 Thess 4:16-17). The interim state between bodily death and the parousia of those who die before the parousia is interpreted by scholars in one of two ways: 1) the dead are "asleep" in their graves until the parousia (Dan 12:2; 1 Cor 15:20; 1 Thess 4:14); or 2) the dead are in one of two places: the Christian dead are in heaven (Luke 6:23; 23:43; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23) while the non-Christian dead are in Hades (Acts 2:27,31), both await the judgment of the parousia in either heaven or Hades.14

Firstly, "the dead" in the phrase "resurrection of the dead" is not the resurrection of formerly deceased physical bodies that are reanimated at some future date by the soul that once resided in that body while on Earth, but rather refers to those "cut off" or "severed" from God; in this sense, "dead" here carries the same meaning as it does in the Pauline phrases "dead to sin" (i.e., "cut off from sin") and "the wages of sin is death" (i.e., "the wages of sin is separation from God") (see this website).

Three interrelated concepts are bound up with this interpretation: 1) an original era when there were no human beings and no material creation, but rather all who were, are now, and will be human beings on Earth were once living as heavenly spirits; 2) a number of these spirits were ejected out of heaven because of some misdeed carried out by free will thereby becoming "dead" to God, i.e., severed or cut off from God and his Kingdom; and 3) the fallen spirits (not to be confused with the fallen angels in early Judaism that are said to fall after humanity had already populated the Earth) participate in the plan that will allow them to reenter heaven, a plan that involves the use of the Earth as a school for the fallen spirits who incarnate thereupon.

The resurrection of the dead is the rising of these fallen spirits from "the dead," i.e., from the spiritual netherworld cut off from the Kingdom of God (Sheol, Hades, Hell, etc.) through the material world, a world that is a part of the realm cut off from God but made especially for the fallen spirits for their "chastisement," "purification," and "disciplining." The resurrection of the dead requires, in many cases, reincarnation of the spirit on the Earth, a doctrine not wholly unfamiliar to early Jews and Christians (see this website). Reincarnation implies the pre-existence of human beings, not only past incarnations on the Earth but also as one-time residences of heaven itself (not unlike Jesus as stated in John 1:1).

Thus, the resurrection of the dead is not a one-time, single event that will happen at some future date all at once. Rather, the resurrection of the dead is the ongoing, continuous saga of all of the fallen spirits who take it upon themselves to begin crossing the "chasm" that Christ’s death bridged between the hells and the heavens (see Luke 16:26); the consummation of which will result with a heavenly existence as it had been before the Fall of the spirits from heaven.  In one sense, we, as the fallen spirits, are "saved" through grace alone; that is, none of us earned Christ's remptive work.  God's sending His Son was an act of grace that was not merited by any for whom that grace was meant, for all of the fallen spirits.  In another sense, however, once the work of redemption had been successfully accomplished by Christ, once the chains of Hell had been broken and the portals of Heaven reopened, then it was up to each individual spirit to begin taking those steps that would eventually take them heavenward, beyond the Earth plane.  Hence, to each fallen spirit, it is said: "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling."  And each spirit, be they Muslim today or Buddhist tomorrow, will, in time, come to know who Christ truly is and understand his statement, "No one comes to the Father but by me."

Secondly, the contemporary data in parapsychological or paranormal studies, particularly near-death experiences and spirit materializations, sheds much-needed light on the early Jewish and Christian view on spirits and resurrection. This kind of data is often scoffed at and dismissed by many in Academe as being unscientific, fraudulent, bogus, unpredictable, and unreliable; thus, it is named "pseudoscience," that is, "not real" or illegitimate ways of knowing.15 Christian clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, often provide mixed reactions to paranormal phenomena. Since the Bible asserts commandments against certain forms of divination and warns of false prophets, false portents, and false prodigies, Christian clergy either reject anything having to do with "the spirit world" as the work and trickery of the devil or else approaches paranormal research (older term: "psychical research") with guarded interest.16 Nevertheless, phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, after-death and near-death experiences, spirit communication, and the manifestation of spirits in the human world occur in the biblical texts with great regularity and even quite casually in both divine and demonic contexts.17 Whereas some scholars simply take these phenomena as indicative of a pre-critical and pre-scientific era, an implicit a priori objection that demythologizes such phenomena for a modernity that knows better, i.e., dismissing angels, spirits, heaven, hell, etc., as outdated expressions for modern reality, others have engaged these phenomena with a greater sensitivity and see in the contemporary paranormal research a repetition of the akin biblical phenomena.18

If we evaluate and consider the records in our own day of experiences of the materializations of spirit bodies and those who examined these materialized bodies as bodies that looked, felt, and acted like normal people, then this kind of data shows us what has been and is going on "behind the scenes" of physical, sensual life. Furthermore, from this data the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection body is immediately solved: contrary to what many scholars argue, there is no discontinuity between the "spiritual" Pauline resurrection account and the "physical" Lukan resurrection account – the resurrected Jesus is a spirit, supported by the assertions that he is "a life-giving spirit" and "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:45,50), and the resurrected Jesus as a materialized spirit is physical to all outward appearances during his post-resurrection stay on Earth (Luke 24:39).

If the dead are the spirits fallen from heaven, and the resurrection of the dead denotes the raising of these spirits, then Jesus’ resurrection from the dead could only be as a spirit, as Paul indicates. Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is significant. The dead are fallen from God, but Jesus did not desert God, so his mission must have been voluntary for the benefit of the fallen; his title, "first born from the dead" indicates that his death was meant to herald a new age that would allow the dead to follow him in the resurrection.

Endnotes                                                                                                            

1. Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2005) 200-01.

2. For instance, see Murdoch E. Dahl’s chapter "The Semitic Totality View" in his The Resurrection of the Body (London: SCM, 1962).

3. So Grant R. Osbourne, The Resurrection Narratives: A Redactional Study (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 219. See Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament (London: Epworth, 1958).

4. See John W. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monsim-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) 52-72. He states that the idea that Hebrew nephesh, "soul," occasionally refers to human beings who have died, i.e., a separable soul, "cannot be ruled out simply by an a priori appeal to some ‘Semitic totality concept,’" (pp. 61-61), referring to Dahl’s "Semitic Totality View" (see n. 2 above). Cooper’s book seems, unfortunately, to be little known among biblical scholars.

5. For the origin and development of the phrase "the resurrection of the flesh" in the second century C.E. as an orthodox Christian doctrine for "the resurrection of the dead," see Lynn Boliek, The Resurrection of the Flesh: A Study of a Confessional Phrase (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

6. See Vahan Hovhanessian, Third Corinthians: Reclaiming Paul for Christian Orthodoxy (Studies in Biblical Literature 18; New York: Peter Lang, 2000) 113-126, where resurrection of the flesh = orthodoxy and resurrection of the spirit = gnostic heresy are discussed. Thus, Gnostics did not necessarily deny a resurrection, as is sometimes stated. They did deny that the flesh was raised. See the Nag Hammadi Treatise on Resurrection (or Letter to Rheginos) 47.30-48.6: "he who is saved, if he leaves his body behind, will be saved immediately. Let no one doubt concerning this. . . . indeed, the visible members which are dead shall not be saved, for (only) the living [members] which exist within them would arise" (from Malcolm L. Peel, trans., "The Treatise on the Resurrection," in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English [rev. ed.; San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988] 52-57, here 56).

7. The resurrection of the spirit is also found in early Judaism. See Jubilees 23:31; 1 Enoch 22, 102-104; Testament of Asher 6:5; and 4 Macc 14:5, 16:13, 18:32. See further George W. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity (HTS 56; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971; expanded ed., 2006). The weakness of Nickelsburg’s monograph is that it lacks a subject index.

8. The phrase somaton anastasis, "resurrection of bodies," already occurs in the second century in Tatian, Against the Greeks 5.

9. For the physicality of the resurrection argued from the position of Paul, see Robert H. Gundry, "The Essential Physicality of Jesus’ Resurrection according to the New Testament," in Joel B. Green and Max Turner, eds., Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ. Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 204-219.

10. See the very important article Robert Renehan, "On the Origins of the Concepts Incorporeality and Immateriality," GRBS 21 (1980)105-138.

11. For instance see H. B. Swete, "The Resurrection of the Flesh," JTS 18 (1917) 135-141.

12. In parts of Jewish thought during the first century C.E., the literal physical resurrection of OT Jewish saints, "holy ones," would occur at the arrival of a messiah. Rabbinic Judaism (later to become Mishnaic Judaism) maintained this position as we see in one of the sayings of the rabbis: "R. Jeremiah commanded, ‘When you bury me, put shoes on my feet, and give me a staff in my hand, and lay me on one side; that when Messias comes I may be ready.’" (cited in Lightfoot, Commentary of the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica). See further Arthur Marmorstein, "The Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead in Rabbinic Theology" in J. Rabbinowitz and M. S. Lew, eds., Studies in Jewish Theology: The Arthur Marmorstein Memorial Volume (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950) 145-161.

13. Stories and legends of these risen saints circulated and were embellished over time. They show up in several of the NT apocryphal works such as the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 7.1-2, Gospel of Nicodemus 17, and the Gospel of Nicodemus/Acts of Pilate that tells of Simeon and his sons, living in Arimathea, who were raised at that time, whose tombs were still open (for inspection!), and who wrote sworn testimony to their resurrection. For a recent appraisal of scholarship on Matt 27:52-53 see Kenneth L. Waters, "Matthew 27:52-53 as Apocalyptic Apostrophe: The Temporal-Spatial Collapse in the Gospel of Matthew," JBL 122 (2003) 489-515.

14. For a thorough discussion of the so-called intermediate state as that period that elapses (from the viewpoint of the Earth) between the death of the individual believer in Christ and the parousia, see Murray J. Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983) 133-42.

15. See Terence Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2nd ed.; Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003); Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996); and Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (rev. and expanded 2nd ed.; New York: Henry Holt, 2002).

16. For negative reactions see Mitch Pacwa, Catholics and the New Age (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1991); John Ankerberg, The Facts on Spirit Guides: How to avoid the seduction of the spirit world and demonic powers (The Anker Series; Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988); and John P. Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). For positive and/or inquisitive reactions see Alois Wiesinger, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957); Karl Rahner, Visions and Prophecies (Quaestiones Disputatae 10; Freiberg: Herder, 1963); Ronald Quillo, Companions in Consciousness: The Bible and the New Age Movement (Ligouri, MO: Triumph Books, 1994); and Lisa J. Schwebel, Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas: Christianity and the Paranormal (New York: Paulist Press, 2004).

17. At random: 2 Cor 12:1-4 (out-of-body experiences, also akin to reports during near-death experiences), Luke 16:22-30 (after-death experiences), 1 Kgs 22:10, 21-23, 1 Cor 12-14, 1 John 4:1-6 (spirit communication), and 1 Samuel 10, 16, 18, and 19, Mark 1:23, 5:3, Acts 16:16 (the manifestation of spirits in the human world).

18. See most recently, Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 269-98, especially the footnotes on these pages. See further Jacob Bazak, Judaism and Psychical Research: A Study of Extrasensory Perception in Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinical Literature in the Light of Contemporary Parapsychological Research (New York: Garrett Publications, 1972); E. Garth Moore, Try the Spirits: Christianity and Psychical Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); and John J. Heaney, The Sacred and the Psychic: Parapsychology and Christian Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).





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