Quotations are from the King James Bible (KJV), except the Jerusalem Bible (JB) where indicated. King James and Jerusalem Bible notes are included for the scriptures cited.
For we who are Christians, the spiritual journey of Lent which culminates in Easter represents our temporal life leading to the resurrected state, whatever that may be. The resurrection of Jesus is transmitted to us as we join him in his spiritual life, both here and hereafter. It is not necessary for us to understand it. There are many views which have developed over the centuries. As with other key teachings in the biblical record, it did not drop fully form from the sky. It evolved, as is the nature of all philosophical and religious thought. I am aided in this presentation by passages from A Guide to Understanding the Bible (1938) by the eminent clergyman and teacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick. His knowledge has previously come to my aid in the preparation of my post on the developing realization of the God of love, Farewell, Angry God.
As I proceed, I must briefly mention the divergence of opinion on the natural glory of Easter and the Easter season. In my view, those who condemn it as pagan idolatry are mistaken. That the Day of Resurrection coincides with the culmination of the lengthening days and the beauty of Spring reinforces our celebration of life—the life God’s creation in both the natural world and the world to come. The two are mutually supporting. We can take joy in both of them—it is not necessary to deny one and affirm the other.
The Hebrew concept of one’s fate after death resembles that of similar primitive peoples. The prevalent phrases which repeat themselves throughout the early books of the Old Testament are “sleep/slept with fathers” / “end of days” / “sleep in the dust” / “mortality”. This state is accepted as fact—there is nothing much beyond it. Notable are God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Other typical phrases include God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 15:15: “And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.”; 1 Kings 2:10: “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.”, among numerous other incidences of sleeping with the fathers, being gathered into a sort of communal afterlife state with one’s ancestors.
This early Hebrew conception of destiny was communal, not individual: “Men do not stand, one by one, like bottles in the rain; rather, like interflowing streams, they share their fortunes. The consequences of personal goodness and badness are not confined to the individual; they spill over through multitudinous channels into other persons and into society at large.” [Fosdick, pp. 68-69] This played out in the judgment of sin, where Yahweh was viewed as “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 24:4; 34:7) It was not until the later teaching of Ezekiel that the conception took an individual form, leading to that of Jesus, The later teaching, leading to that of Jesus, was that “immortal destinies…are individual affairs.” This had to do as well with the destiny of the nation of Israel. Fosdick writes, “To be sure, under the influence of social solidarity, Hebrew hopes of the future were in the beginning centered on an undying nation upon earth, but when hope outgrew the early stage and resurrection from Sheol became a Jewish expectation, it took of necessity the form of an individual return.” [p.74]
The dwelling-place of the dead is given the name Sheol in the Old Testament scriptures. It is not Hell, the place of punishment, as would later occur, but only the abode of the dead. The first book of Samuel (2:6-9) describes the hand of God in all of this: “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up [JB “Yahweh gives death and life, brings down to Sheol and draws up”]. The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness [JB “he safeguards the steps of his faithful but the wicked vanish in darkness”]; for by strength shall no man prevail.”
Job, in a sort of soliloquy, contemplates the end of his days, passing “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle” in chapter 7. The poetic beauty of this scripture passage is worth including. There are no answers here, only questions: “Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? are not his days also like the days of an hireling? As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow, and as an hireling looketh for the reward of his work: So am I made to possess months of vanity, and wearisome nights are appointed to me. When I lie down, I say, When shall I arise, and the night be gone? [KJV notes: “the evening be measured?”] and I am full of tossings to and fro unto the dawning of the day. My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken, and become loathsome. My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope. O remember that my life is wind [JB “is but a breath”]: mine eye shall no more see good. The eye of him that hath seen me shall see me no more: thine eyes are upon me, and I am not [KJV notes: “That is, I can live no longer.”]. As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away: so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more [JB “and he who goes down to Sheol never ascends again”; [JB notes: “The author seems to accept the common view here…that return from Sheol is impossible.”]. He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more. Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.…What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him? And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment? How long wilt thou not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle? I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, O thou preserver [KJV notes: Or, observer.”] of men? why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself? And why dost thou not pardon my transgression, and take away my iniquity? for now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be.”
The notion of sleeping with the fathers makes a brief reappearance in the New Testament, along with the separation of the abodes of heaven and hell. In Luke 16 Jesus presents of parable of Lazarus, the beggar, and the rich man. Lazarus, on his death, is “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom [JB notes: “Jewish figure of speech, the equivalent of the old biblical phrase ‘gathered to his fathers’ i.e. to the patriarchs….‘In the bosom of…’ implies close intimacy…”] The rich man, in turn, dies, but “in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”
Job raises an interesting question taken from observation of the world of nature. He asks why his state would be different from that of a tree which sends out new shoots after being cut down. Again, no answers here, only questions. In chapter 14: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?….So man lieth down, and riseth not till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. [JB notes: “The eschatological imagery, by indefinitely postponing the possibility of awakening, is here used to stress man’s disappearance without hope of return. The expectation of a resurrection at the end of time is apparently not yet within the scope of the author…”] O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, [JB “in Sheol”] that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past [JB notes: “This is not a reference to a return from Sheol after death…, though the hypothetical situation suggests the possibility. It is simply that Job is reduced to imagining the one place of refuge that is not this earth, that heaven is reserved for God….” If Job could hide somewhere until God’s fury is exhausted, he might once more look on a God of mercy. The idea is developed in vv.14-17: we see Job awaiting his ‘relief’ while God, no longer angry, longs to see Job again; every possible fault has been forgiven and therefore all question of sin is forgotten.”], that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee: thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands. For now thou numberest my steps: dost thou not watch over my sin? My transgression is sealed up in a bag, and thou sewest up mine iniquity.” And so, the door to the consideration of the nature of life after death has been opened.
Psalm 6 prays for deliverance of the soul from Sheol: My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? Return, O Lord, deliver my soul [JB notes: “The Hebrew word means life-giving breath…which is the source of life and which disappears at death….”] For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? [JB “who can sing your praises in Sheol?”; JB notes: “In Sheol…the dead are silent shadows of their former selves and can no longer speak with God…”] This, to the psalmist, is the final state.
Psalm 88 contains similar assertions and questions: “Free among the dead, like the dead that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.”; “Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee?…Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”; “…are your marvels meant for the dead, can ghosts rise up to praise you? Who talks of your love in the grave, of your faithfulness in the place of perdition? Do they hear about your marvels in the dark, about your righteousness in the land of oblivion.”
Psalm 16, however, contains an indication of hope: “I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [JB “abandon my soul to Sheol”]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption [JB “the Pit”; JB notes: “The psalmist has set his heart on Yahweh. His lively faith and total commitments to God call for a union that defies dissolution, hence he must pray to escape death which would break that union.…The hope, though vague as yet, is leading towards a belief in resurrection…. The variations translate ‘pit’ by ‘corruption’. The text, which was applied to the Messiah in the pre-Christian Judaism, finds its full sense in the resurrection of Christ.”]. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
Psalm 73, too, makes the connection from inward communion with God to release from Sheol. This coincided with the developing expectation of a coming Messianic age. “This expectation was social…but by indirection it brought the Jews face to face at last with the inescapable problem of life after death. The messianic hope in a rudimentary form began with the sudden glory of David’s kingdom.” [Fosdick, pp. 268-69]
The writer of Ecclesiastes, “The Preacher” states that the fate of man is no different from that of beasts, in chapter 3: “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward [KJV notes: “is ascending”], and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” The poignant poetic passage contained in chapter 12 is worth including: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low [KJV notes: “…because they grind little.”], and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden [JB “the grasshopper is heavy with food”], and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long [JB “everlasting”] home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed [JB: before the silver cord is snapped”], or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [JB “breath”] shall return unto God who gave it [JB notes: “The earthly part of man returns to earth. But since nothing on this earth can satisfy him, not all of him originates from the earth, and that which is of God, returns to God.”].” I am intrigued by the mention of the “silver cord”. Its significance goes farther than that which carries a significance which is not developed in the scripture. Years ago, my aunt recalled a hospital visit to her dying friend. The room was dimly lit in late evening light. Upon drawing her last breath, a luminescent shape ascended from her friend’s body, rising slowly upward. This was an observation of a metaphysical “ascent of the soul”.
We turn the corner to a view of the resurrection in Isaiah 25, which the Jerusalem Bible heading describes as the messianic banquet [JB notes: “The comforting aspect of the judgement presented in the imagery of a banquet, anticipating the gospel parable, Matthew 22:2-10.”] And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away [JB “he will take away his people’s shame] from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation. “
Isaiah 26:19 further affirms: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise [JB “their corpses will rise”]. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs [JB “for your dew is a radiant dew”], and the earth shall cast out the dead [JB “and the land of ghosts shall give birth.” The Jerusalem Bible notes state that this may not only be a prophecy of the resurrection but that it is considered by some to be one of Israel’s national revival, similar to that in Ezekiel 37. The mention of dead bodies/corpses arising expresses the view, continuing until “the affirmation by millions of Christians in their recitation of the creeds that there is a resurrection of the body….By Plato’s time Greek philosophy had conceived the soul as immaterial, but such metaphysical generalization was alien from the realistic, dramatic, picturesque methods of the Hebrew mind….When Enoch was translated or Elijah, escaping death, was raised to the sky, the whole man went….When, either in the Persian or the Hellenistic period, a writer said, ‘Thy dead shall live’, he used as a parallelism, ‘My dead bodies shall arise’ (Isaiah 26:19), and one of the familiar prayers of subsequent Judaism ends with the words, ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who dost return souls to dead bodies.’.” [Fosdick, pp. 272-73] This question will be revisited when we turn to the resurrection of Jesus.
This understanding of the resurrection of the body comes from Jewish philosophy, which, unlike the Greek, was of a different character: “The Jews in their native estate were not given to metaphysical speculation. Their minds were practical, their interests ethical, their manner of thinking picturesque and dramatic. They did not leap to all-inclusive, abstract generalizations such as one finds in Greek or Hindu philosophy.” [p. 86] From the earliest writings of the Old Testament it was understood that “Yahweh shaped man from dust out of the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, so that man became a nephesh—that is, an animated being.” The Hebrew word nephesh may best be translated “breath-soul”. This agrees with the views of other traditions (Latin: anima; Japanese: wind-ball; Hindu: atman, “from which comes our word ‘atmosphere’ ”) [p. 82] Thus, “the Hebrew religion never outgrew the idea that man’s life is insolubly associated with his body….The Old Testament reflects not at all Platonic teaching about the soul [pneuma]as imprisoned in the flesh and escaping at death to the realm of pure spirit, but rather the Egyptian teaching, with its hope of a physical resurrection.” [p. 85]
The apocryphal books of 2 Maccabees contains a graphic account of the resurrected state. This passage, along with Jerusalem Bible notes, describe a heavenly reunion of the seven martyred brothers, one of whom exclaims (in 2 Maccabees 7, JB) “Inhuman fiend, you may discharge us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever.” [JB notes: “Belief in the resurrection of the body, not clearly expressed in Isaiah 26:19 and Job 19:26-27, is here asserted for the first time….At this point we encounter the doctrine of immortality which will be developed in the atmosphere of Greek thought and without reference to the resurrection of the body….For Hebrew thought, however, which makes no distinction between soul and body, the notion of survival implied a physical resurrection, as we see here. The text does not explicitly teach universal resurrection, and is only concerned with the case of the virtuous…] The mother then speaks: “I do not know how you appeared in my womb; it was not I who endowed you with breath and life, I had not the shaping of your every part. It is the creator of the world, ordaining the process of man’s birth and presiding over the origin of all things, who in his mercy will most surely you back both breath and life, seeing that you now despise your own existence for the sake of his laws.”
The prophet Daniel, too, (in 12:1-3) speaks of resurrection: “…thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt [JB “disgrace”; JB notes: One of the key texts of the O.T. on the resurrection of the body…”]. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”
It would be incorrect to state that an ascent to heaven never occurs in the Old Testament. One of the principal theophanies in the Bible is the assumption of the prophet Elijah into heaven when, in 2 Kings 2:11: “And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Is this a fanciful account or is it a vision, along with the Transfiguration of Christ, of a further reality?
We need no other proof of the connection of the Old Testament with the New than Jesus’ self-reference citing the prophet Jonah. In Luke 11:30: “For as Jonas [Jonah] was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” Here and In Matthew 12:40 he uses the story of Jonah to characterize his own three days’ stay in ‘the heart of the earth’ [JB notes: “Sheol rather than the tomb….the kingdom of death is depicted as a greedy monster that cannot hold Christ but must let him go (the resurrection).”] This finds expression in the relationship between Christian baptism and the resurrection, where, quoting Jonah, “yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption [KJV notes: “Or, the pit.”]. What follows is a beautiful description of deliverance into God’s presence: “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7)
Jesus, as we see, is a different sort of prophet than what John and his disciples expected. Being the avatar that he is, his power over life and death extends to the temporal realm. In Luke 7:22-23 he tells John’s disciples, “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” A new spiritual paradigm has been ushered in.
We move from here to the culmination of Jesus’ sacrificial life in the crucifixion. Here in Luke 23:43 he tells one of the two malefactors crucified with him, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” This should be understood not as an immediate entrance into heaven but a promise of salvation. Concerning this striking passage, one commentator has written, “The narrative in which this statement falls is one of the most amazing in the written chronicle of Jesus. By this statement, we know that it is true that those who truly repent, even if it is in the final moments of life, will be forgiven by God and taken to heaven to be with him. This is not to say that lip service, with no real love for Christ will buy passage to heaven, but a genuine moment of self-reflection and true sorrow for sin, accompanied by real faith is good to the very last millisecond of life….Why? Because our entrance into God’s presence is not bought by our good works and our own righteousness, but with the alien righteousness that is the free gift from Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21).”
A curious passage which occurs only in the book of Matthew should not pass without mention. It epitomizes the divergence of views regarding the “resurrection of the body” contrasted with that of a more spiritual state. In Matthew 27:45-54, Jesus cries with a loud voice and “gives up the ghost”. At this point, “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” [JB notes: “Christian tradition saw in this tearing of the veil the abrogation of the old Mosaic cult and the way opened by Christ into the messianic sanctuary.”]; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent [JB notes: “These remarkable phenomena, like the darkness mentioned in v. 45, were foretold by the prophets as unmistakable signs of the ‘day of Yahweh’ cf. Am 8:9+.”]; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” What are we to make of this? One commentator wrestles with the spiritual/corporeal dichotomy: “Matthew anticipates the time of the actual occurrence of the marvel, which took place, not at this moment, but after our Lord’s resurrection, who was ‘the firstfruits of them that slept’….They were not mere phantoms, unsubstantial visitants from the spirit world, for they were in some sense corporeal. That they were not resuscitated corpses, as Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter and the son of the widow, who lived for a time a second life, seems plain from the expression applied to them in the next verse, that ‘they appeared unto many’, i.e. to persons who had known them while living. Some have thought that in them was anticipated the general resurrection, that, delivered from Hades and united to their bodies, they died no more, but at the Ascension accompanied Christ into heaven. Scripture says nothing of all this, nor have we any reason to suppose that any human body, save that of our blessed Lord (mediaeval legends add that of the Virgin Mary), has yet entered the highest heaven….Another opinion is that these were not strictly resurrections, but bodily appearances of saints like those of Moses and Elias at the Transfiguration; but it is a straining of language to make the evangelist describe such visitations as bodies arising from open sepulchres….The whole matter is mysterious and beyond human ken; but we may well believe that at this great crisis the Lord, who is the Resurrection and the Life, willed to exemplify his victory over death. and to make manifest the resurrection of the body, and this he did by releasing some saintly souls from Hades, and clothing them with the forms in which they had formerly lived, and permitting them to show themselves thus to those who knew and loved them. Of the future life of these resuscitated saints we know nothing, and will not presumptuously venture to inquire. When they have demonstrated that the sting was now taken from death, that the power of the grave was broken, that men shall rise again with their bodies and be known and recognized, they pass out of sight into the unseen world, and we can follow them no further.….More remarkably, according to verse 53, these uncovered bodies were seen alive in the city of Jerusalem after Jesus rose from the dead. These two verses are the subject of much greater controversy over the exact meaning—and literalness—of their content. Arguments have been offered that these verses are insertions into the original text. Others suggest this is a purely symbolic reference. Some say they are ‘not even’ symbolic, and the statement is made purely in a poetic sense by Matthew. The most reasonable interpretation, challenging though it may be, is to read these as a straightforward and literal part of the narrative.” There is no definitive answer her—it is open for your interpretation.
Another curious account, and one of which there is much debate, is the account in 1 Peter 3:18-19 of Jesus’ “preaching to the spirits in prison”, or as one commentator cheekily asks, “Did Jesus spend Saturday in Hell?” The scripture reads, “…but quickened by the Spirit [JB “in the spirit he was raised to life”]: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.”
The language of the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus “descended into hell”; the contemporary Book of Common Prayer says that Jesus “descended to the dead”. Notes to the Jerusalem Bible attempt to clarify: “Probably alludes to the descent of Christ to Hades…between his death and resurrection, Matthew 12:40; Acts 2:24,31; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:9; Hebrews 13:20. He went there ‘in spirit’, cf. Luke 23:46, or (better) ‘according to the spirit’, Romans 1:4, his ‘flesh’ being dead on the cross, Rm 8:3. The ‘spirits in prison’ to whom he ‘preached’ (or ‘proclaimed’) salvation are identified by some writers as the chained demons mentioned in the Book of Enoch (some texts are corrected to make Enoch, and not Christ, preach to them). These spirits have thus been put under the authority of Christ as Kyrios….Other writers suggest these were the spirits of people drowned in the Flood as punishment but who are now summoned by God’s ‘patience’ to eternal life….Matthew 27:52 (the previous passage on the release of the dead from their graves) is a similar episode of liberation by Christ between his death and resurrection, only here it is the saints, the holy ones who were waiting for him, that are liberated…and are given the freedom of the holy (the heavenly) city.” David Guzik, in his post “No Forgotten Ones” on the site Enduring Word, gives us this message of reassurance. He writes, “Apparently, this work was done in the period after Jesus’ death, but before His first resurrection appearance to the disciples. Jesus went to Hades – the abode of the dead – and preached to the spirits there. But why would Jesus preach to these imprisoned spirits? In all probability, this was “preaching” (the proclamation of God’s message) but not “evangelism” (the proclamation of good news). Jesus probably preached judgment to these disobedient spirits. The Bible says that even those under the earth must acknowledge Jesus’ ultimate Lordship. Jesus went to Hades and announced this truth: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth. (Philippians 2:10). Those in Hades were the forgotten ones of this earth. They had passed from this life long before; but God didn’t forget them. An important – though obscure – part of Jesus’ ministry was to minister to these forgotten ones. Take it as encouragement today – that you are never, ever a forgotten one before God.”Bottom of Form
The theology of the book of John differs radically from the Judaic conceptions of the other three gospels. This is because its thought is Greek in nature. It finds expression in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon as well, where the Jewish view has been submerged into the Greek. “Sheol has vanished, bodily resurrection has become both incredible and undesirable, and the Messianic age has so lost its dramatic staging….The soul is immaterial and preexistent [nephesh is now pneuma], and each soul, when born into the world, receives a body appropriate to its quality; the body is a clog on the soul, a prison in which spirit is immured while here on earth, the death of the body is a blessed release from imprisonment, and at death the righteous pass to an immediate reward. Here we find, growing in Judaism under Greek influence, a specific idea of the immortality of the soul as distinct from the resurrection of the body, and this doctrine rises into notable expression: ‘…The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them…’ ” [Fosdick, pp. 278-79] In the book of John In the Book of John, “eternal life” becomes a present, spiritual experience. Even the second coming of Christ becomes an inward coming of Christ into the heart of the believer. Divine judgment, too, changes its focus, as Jesus came not to judge the world, but to save the world. It is now a constant interior confrontation where light defeats darkness. When Jesus says in John 8:51, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my word, he shall never see death”, the believer has already been raised from the dead, has passed through the judgment, has been born again and entered the kingdom, already possesses eternal life. Physical death, as Fosdick writes, “is only an incident, so lacking in determinative power that, in a deep sense, it is no longer real” (John 8:51).
Before leaving the book of John, it is worthwhile to include passages which illustrate its range of thought:
[1:4-5] “In him was life [JB notes: “Var. ‘he is the life’.”]; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not [JB “that darkness could not overpower”; JB notes: “The Light (Goodness; The Word) cannot be imprisoned by darkness (Evil); the powers of evil) cf. 7:33f; 8:21; 14:30; 12:31,32 1John 2:8,14; 4:4; 5:18. Others translate ‘could not understand’.]”
[5:24-29] “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead [JB notes: “The spiritually dead.”] shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice [JB “When the dead will leave their graves at the sound of his voice.”]
6:39-40 “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son [JB notes: “ ‘Seeing’ the Son is perceiving and acknowledging that he is in truth the Son sent by the Father, cf. 12:45; 14:9; 17:6.”] , and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
Jn 6:53-63Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed [JB “real food”], and my blood is drink indeed [JB “real drink”]. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever [JB “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die”]. These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing [JB It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer.]: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
8:12 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
8:51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death [JB “whoever keeps my word will never see death”].
10:27-30 “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one. [JB notes: “The Son’s power is not other than the Father’s. The context shows that this is the primary meaning , but the statement is deliberately undefined and hints at a more comprehensive and profounder unity. The Jews do not miss the implication; they sense a claim to godhead…”]
11:25-26 [spoken to Martha after her assertion that her brother Lazarus shall rise again] Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection [JB notes: “Add ‘and the life’.], and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live [JB “and shall have life”; JB notes: “The man of faith has conquered death once and for all; the resurrection of Lazarus is the sign of the victory, cf. 3:11+.”]:And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
12:23-30 [spoken to Philip and Andrew] And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit
[JB “it yields a rich harvest”]. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am [JB notes: “In the glory of the Father, cf.14:3; 17:24.”], there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes.
This contrast between views has never been resolved in Christian teaching. It remains a dilemma. Or is it, really? Our inability to comprehend should not negate the reality. Fosdick writes: “Even in John, the old pattern of though presents itself in Jesus’ promise, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself, that where I am, here ye may be also.” (John 14:3) Paul, too, straddling the gap between Jewish and Greek thought, longed for the “the great consummation”, when at Christ’s coming “the body of our humiliation’ would be fashioned anew and ‘conformed to the body of his glory” (Philippians 3:21). The traditional apocalyptic view tends to grow dim. To illustrate this unresolved conflict, Fosdick writes, “Some have even thought that according to one passage Christ’s second coming in glory will disclose the saints not in Sheol waiting to be raised, but in heaven with him waiting to join his triumph (Colossians 3:4). One thing, however, is certain: with Paul as with the Fourth Gospel, the richness of present spiritual life in Christ was such that the central meanings of the apocalyptic drama tended to be conceived as already in spirit consummated for faithful believers. they had already been raised with Christ (Colossians 2:12; 3:1), they were already ‘alive from the dead’ (Romans 6:13); they already sat ‘in heavenly places’ (Ephesians 2:6). Death, therefore, was to them an incident, a transition from this fleshly body to being ‘with the Lord’.”
Here is a further attempt at clarification : “The development of ideas and stories related with Jesus’ resurrection presents one of the most tangled, if not altogether insoluble, problems faced by New Testament scholarship. The assembled documents, as they now stand, suggest that the empty tomb and the sight and handling of the risen body were the origin of confidence in the resurrection and that the experience of the early Christians afterward went on to further visions of him, more spiritually conceived, as, for example, Paul’s on the Damascus road. Careful study of the New Testament, however, throws doubt on this and suggests the possibility that the line of development may have been in precisely the opposite direction….The epistles of Paul antedate the Gospels….The question inevitably rises: What if faith in Jesus’ continued life originated in such spiritual experiences and was translated afterward into stories of a physical resuscitation by the inveterate Jewish-Christian idea that without such revivification no life after death was conceivable?…. underlying such disharmonies is the still more substantial conflict…between two ideas of Jesus’ resurrected body, one altogether fleshly, the other so spiritualized as to escape the trammels of a material organism. It is not clear, therefore, whether within the New Testament itself the idea of Jesus’ resurrection started with an empty tomb and moved on to such spiritual ‘appearance’ as Paul experienced, or, on the other hand, started with ‘appearances’, such as Paul lists along with his own vision of the heavenly Christ, and moved on to stories of a physical disentombment, which, in Jewish-Christian thought, would be the necessary phrasing of a resurrected life. Certainly, if the idea of Jesus’ risen life started with any factual element associated with an empty tomb, that element was never clearly visualized, even in the imagination of the first disciples, and is now confused for us in narratives that contradict each other on every important detail.” (pp. 292-94)
The Jerusalem Bible notes to Matthew 28:9-10 (heading: Appearance to the women) give us a valuable perspective as to why a variety of witnesses to the same event would necessarily differ in their reported details, much as would the descriptions of multiple viewers to a contemporary event. The notes read: “Though they agree in recording the initial apparition of the angel (or angels) to the women (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:5-7; John 20:12-13), the four gospels show divergencies when it comes to the appearance of Christ. Setting mark aside (his abrupt conclusion presents a special problem, cf. Mk 16:8+, and his ‘longer ending’ recapitulates the data of the other gospels) all the gospels make a clear distinction, both literary and doctrinal, between: 1. Appearances to individuals that help to prove the fact of the resurrection: to Mary Magdalen, either alone (John 20:14-17; cf. Mark 16:5), or accompanied (Matthew 28:9-10); to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32; cf. Mark 16:12); to Simon (Luke 24:34), to Thomas (John 20:26-29). 2. a collective appearance that is coupled with an apostolic mission (Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23; cf. Mark 16:14-18). As well as this distinction there are two traditions as to where the appearances took place: all in Galilee (Mark 16:7; Matthew 28:10,16-20); 2. all in Judea (Luke and John 20). By way of appendix, John 21 adds an appearance in Galilee which though it bears the character of an appearance to individuals (it is for Peter and John predominantly) is nevertheless coupled with an apostolic mission (given to Peter). The primitive apostolic preaching that Paul reproduces in 1Corinthians 15:3-7 lists 5 appearances (apart from the appearance to Paul himself) which are not easily harmonised with the gospel accounts; in particular he mentions an appearance to James of which the Gospel to the Hebrews also speaks. All this gives the impression that different groups, which cannot now be easily identified, have give rise to different strands of tradition. But these very divergencies of tradition are far better witnesses than any artificial or contrived uniformity to the evidence and the historical quality of all these manifestations of the risen Christ.”[emphasis mine]
We must indeed grapple with the Easter mystery, the “Day of Resurrection”. How is it to be understood, and in what manner did the resurrected Christ manifest himself? First, it is beyond our power to analyze or explain. Being a mystery, the dichotomy of a bodily and/or ethereal manifestation is simply beyond our human capacity to understand, regardless of what scholars make of it. Second, as a prosecutor in a court trial would say, it “goes to motive”. Jesus’ resurrection, in whatever form it took, took such a powerful hold on the early believers that they were transformed from fear and doubt into a triumphant conviction which drove them to spread the Good News far and wide. Why would they risk persecution and death for a mere speculation? Jesus’ resurrection was real to them: it transformed their lives and drove them to lay the cornerstone, of Christian faith, whose foundation is the resurrection. No mere philosophical discussion can do that. I am amazed—no, repulsed—by the disturbing tendency to explain it away in what I call a “Spring celebration of chicks and bunnies”. Accept or deny the Easter reality, but it must not be transformed into irrelevance. This is of service to no one.
Others concur with this view. S. Joshua Swamidass provides this argument: “After Jesus’ violent death, his followers were frightened and scattered. Then, something happened that grew a strong, bold, and confident belief that resisted sustained, murderous opposition. Unlike other movements with executed leaders, once the disciples came back together, they did not replace Jesus with one of his family members. Their resistance was entirely nonviolent and devoid of political power. Yet they were all suddenly willing to die for what they saw. What changed them? Why was there not evidence at the time to undermine their belief?7 What convinced them that Jesus was inconceivably greater than his family?” Brittany Yesusadan adds, “What would cause this group of scared and discouraged men to suddenly crusade through the world sharing the message of Jesus? They persisted even as they faced the choice of renouncing their message and admitting it was a lie or giving up their lives. They chose death. The only explanation for such a change of attitude is that they believed with confidence that they had witnessed Jesus alive and well following His crucifixion and that the truth that He was alive was worth dying for.”
Contributing to our knowledge of the nature of resurrection is the continuing scientific investigation into the Shroud of Turin. Research suggests that, amid the raging controversy, some physical force manifested itself in the imprint on the cloth, negating the interpretation of doubters that the cloth was an artistic fake. Together with the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ post-crucifixion manifestations, there is no easy resolution but, as so often the case, truth exists in paradox and must be grappled with. Our inability to reach a firm conclusion rests with our ability (or inability) and not with the truth itself.
I will provide one more passage from A Guide to Understanding the Bible. It is worth quoting at length: “…Jesus’ return to life on earth, and by ascension, to life in heaven, was presented in bodily terms….His resurrected body, as described in the assembled narratives of the New Testament, represents alike the original, primitive belief in a resuscitation of the flesh with all its earthly functions still intact and, as well, the later tendency to rarefy and spiritualize the idea of ‘body’ as the risen life. On one side, Jesus’ body is real ‘flesh and bones’ [Luke 24:39]; it is the body that was laid in the tomb revivified so that the tomb is empty; it can be seen and handled; it bears still the wounds of the crucifixion; it can eat food, and Jesus partakes of ‘a piece of a broiled fish’ to prove it [Luke 24:36-43; John 20:20-27]. On the other side, his flesh functions in utterly unfleshly ways, appearing and disappearing, passing through closed doors, and at last ascending visibly by levitation through the clouds into the sky [John 20:26; Luke 24:31,51; Acts 1:9]….This convinced belief in a resurrected body—howbeit full of confusion as to what ‘body’ meant—was the Jewish-Christian way of phrasing life after death. [emphasis mine] The history of this idea explains the wrestling of Paul over the problem of the Christian’s resurrection….‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ [1 Corinthians 15:50]—but it was a bodily affair. Throughout the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians the reader can feel Paul struggling to express his profound faith that the incorruptible part of man eternally survives his corruptible flesh. But always his Jewish heritage and training prevented his acceptance of the Greek idea of soul as immaterial….He wished not to be ‘unclothed’ of his body in the future world, but ‘clothed upon’ with a new body [2 Corinthians 5:4], a fit spiritual organism and vehicle of his risen life. It seems, therefore, that Paul would be on the side of the more idealized and sublimated ideas of Christ’s rising from the dead, and quite out of tune with stories about ‘flesh and bones’ and meals of fish. In Paul’s eyes the new organism given to the Christian, of whose resurrection Christ’s was the prototype [1Thessalonians 4:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22 ff], would be utterly different from this present flesh. The body, he wrote, ‘is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.’ [1 Corinthians 15:35 ff]. Furthermore in the New Testament generally, this Jewish insistence on keeping the body, however rarified and spiritualized, as part of the future hope, was associated with the Jewish apocalyptic drama—the sudden arrival of the Messiah on the clouds of heaven and the resurrection to eternal destinies [E.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17].” (pp. 284-86)
For those who wish to further investigate latter day documentation of appearances of Jesus, I invite you to refer to Philip Wiebe’s books Visions of Jesus: direct encounters from the New Testament to today (1997) and Visions and appearances of Jesus (2014). Here, Jesus is able to pass through solid objects, manifest himself in different sizes, and assume varying appearances, among other qualities. This is not only something which occurred long ago.
The resurrected life which is present in Jesus and also in us is none other than the revelation of Divine Personhood. In it we claim no power or ability but are drawn by our relationship to the Lord. This is in keeping with the long-established tradition of bhakti, loving devotion to the Divine Person. For those who are thus convinced of resurrection’s reality (in whatever form it may take), it remains for us to engage in consideration of its richness, its fulness, its all-sufficiency, its promise for our individual lives. No more expressive image of this relationship exists than that of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11,14), who not only lays down his life for the sheep but seeks those who are lost. Furthermore, all are his sheep, not only those of his fold, in verse 16: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” He is the universal savior.
I will conclude with a selection of passages contain a kaleidoscopic array of affirmations regarding both Jesus’ Divine Personhood and our present and future life with him. Though the imagery may differ, together they support the centrality of Jesus’ resurrected life and of ours. Together they form the groundwork of Christian faith which is enduring and real.
[Acts 2:24] “Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death [JB “pangs of hades”]
[Acts 5:31-32] “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour [JB “leader and saviour’; JB notes: “The title matches ‘Prince of life’, 3:15+; it also corresponds to ‘Prince and Redeemer’ applied to Moses as a prefiguring of Christ…. There is an implicit comparison of Jesus with Moses.”]
[Acts 13:29-37] “And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. But God raised him from the dead: And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people. And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. [JB “today I have become your father”; JB notes: “By his resurrection Christ was enthroned as Messiah, and from then on his human nature enjoyed all the privileges of the Son of God…”] And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, he said on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David. [JB “the sure and holy things”]…. For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God [KJV notes: “Or, after he had in his own age served the will of God.”], fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption.”
[Romans 6:3-8] “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death [JB “we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death”; JB notes: “…The sinner is immersed in water (the etymological meaning of ‘baptise’ is ‘dip’) and thus ‘buried’ with Christ, Colossians 2:12, with whom also he emerges in resurrection, Romans 8:11+, as a ‘new creature’.”], we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection….Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him….[JB notes: “Similarly, though the Christian remains ‘in the flesh’ for a time, he already lives by the spirit.”]
[1 Corinthians 6:14] “And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power. ”
[1 Corinthians 13:12] “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known [JB notes: “I.e. by God.”].”
[2 Corinthians 5:1-3] “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved [JB the tent that we live in on earth is folded up], we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven [JB: “longing to put on our heavenly home over the other”; JB notes: “That is to be given our spiritual body, 1Co 14:44+, without having to suffer death and corruption, v. 4.”]: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.”
[Philippians 3:10-11] “That I may know him [JB “all I want to know is Christ”], and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.”
[Col 1:13-14] “Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son [JB “Because that is what he has done: he has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the son that he loves”; KJV notes: “the son of his love,”]: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:”
[1Thessalonians 4:14] “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” [JB “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus: God will bring them with him.”]
[Hebrews 7:15-17] [Here the resurrected Jesus is the embodiment of the mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek, who appeared to Abraham] “And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life. For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.”
[1 Peter 1:21] “Who by him do believe in God [JB through him you now have faith in God], that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.”
[2 Peter 1:19] “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star [JB “the morning star”] arise in your hearts:”
[1 John 5:11-12] “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
[Revelation 22:3-5] “And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him [JB The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in its place in the city; his servants will worship him]:And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light [JB “It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them”]: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”
May these verses wash upon your consciousness and strengthen you. As I publish this post, the stripped-down humility of the Lenten journey will soon come to an end when we bask in the glorious radiance of its culmination in Easter. In it is the promise of the resurrected life, here and hereafter. Again, it is not necessary to understand it; only to live in and celebrate it, for in so doing, we are free indeed. Alleluia!
To conclude, a song:
“A Rehearsal for the Resurrection”
The light of day goes out too soon, and darkness takes its place
It sheds an air of despair and gloom on this cold and empty place
I think of those who passed by here, the ones that now are gone
Although the song of life is still, the music lingers on
You might have missed it, might not have seen it if you looked in the wrong direction
An end to life’s short one act play, and a rehearsal for the resurrection
Looked through a well-worn picture book of scenes that used to be
They turned around, smiled for the camera, faded off to history
They used to stop and share a smile, tell a joke and laugh
Now all I have of them to keep is a faded photograph
I know the seeds that were sown in tears will be raised up to perfection
And grow to reach the light of God in a rehearsal for the resurrection
I know that before too long we will sing that welcome song
In the light of God’s bright sunny day
We’ll rest in the Kingdom, peace will be at hand
When the old has finally passed away
If you cross that river, and see them before I do
Just tell them all for me that I’ll be coming too
We’ll greet each other with a kiss, share a joke and laugh
And all our cares will fade away just like that photograph
We’ll see each other as we are, not a pale and dim reflection
As we prepare just one last time, a rehearsal for the resurrection
As we prepare just one last time, a rehearsal for the resurrection
(© 1997 Tom Lawson)