Resurrection of the Dead
In the OT
Several considerations moved OT thought away from the early,
universal, animistic ideas about postmortem survival which underlay
necromancy (I Sam. 28:8-9), funeral provisions, directions for the
dead, and Sheol/Hades, the shadowy underworld of ghosts (Ezek.
Everyday observation, plus the belief that God made man's body in his
own image, led to the conviction that man was not "soul" imprisoned
within a physical frame but embodied spirit, a unity of body and living
self. Sheol's disembodiment in forgetfulness, hopelessness, without
knowledge or relationships (II Sam. 12:23; Job 7:9ff.; 10:20-22; Ps.
30:9; Eccles. 9:2, 5, 10) therefore struck horror, as subhuman. Hence
Israel's care for the bodies of the dead (Gen. 23; 50:2, 25; Jer.
At first Yahweh's rule did not extend beyond death (Pss. 6:5;
88:10-12, Isa. 38:18), until prophetic insistence on his universal
sovereignty claimed Sheol also within his jurisdiction (Ps. 139:7-8).
The emphasis of Jeremiah and Ezekiel on individual relationships with
God led to more religious conceptions of the afterlife (Pss. 16:8-11;
73:23-26). No shadow existence could sustain divine fellowship, but
only restoration to full personality in resurrection (Matt. 22:31).
Longing for acquittal from the accusation that great suffering implies
great sin made Job contemplate waiting in Sheol until God's wrath be
past and he, released, would live again (Job 14:7-15). Despite its
difficulties, Job 19:25-27 likewise appears to anticipate immortality
in some bodily form. Pss. 73:17; 49:14-15; Isa. 53:10ff. similarly
relieve the injustice of suffering by the hope of life with God beyond
Some think the promises of national vindication and prosperity in the
day of the Lord, unless confined to "the final generation," first
prompted thoughts of resurrection of intervening generations, although
Hos. 6:2; 13:14; Ezek. 37:1-14 use resurrection language as already
familiar. Isa. 24-27 (especially 25:6-8; 26:19ff.) and Dan. 12:1-4
anticipate the return of men in bodily integrity to share Israel's
glory. Isa. 26:14 denies resurrection to foes; Daniel includes
resurrection "to life" (for Jews faithful under persecution), and "to
everlasting contempt" (for Jews who joined the persecutors, 11:32ff.).
No general resurrection is implied: here, too, justice is the argument.
Zoroastrian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian allusions may be
either sources or parallels to developing Jewish thought.
Intertestamental Apocalyptic Thought
ranged widely. Some writers applied moral distinctions within Sheol,
with reward and punishment implying some degree of judgment. Promises
to the faithful, especially martyrs, included earthly glory; justice
would likewise resurrect oppressors (with their deformities) to be
recognized and punished (II Apoc. Bar.; cf. Mark 9:42ff.).
Hellenized Judaism preferred immortality of the soul, more richly
conceived, to resurrection of the body. Palestinian Judaism clung to
resurrection. "Garments of glory" (of life) were required for life
beyond death (I-II Enoch), "nakedness" (disembodiment) being abhorred.
Some speak of a spiritual body, counterpart to the physical and
coexistent with it. I Enoch says the body buried will rise "glorious";
II Apoc. Bar. resembles I Cor. 15:35ff. but holds the transformation
comes later; most speak of the risen body as "like angels...made of the
light and glory of God"; others of its needing neither food nor
Those raised to share Messiah's temporary (earthly) or final
(supernatural) kingdom will be righteous (Jews). Other writers assume a
general resurrection; II Esdras, a resurrection of Messiah and all men
after the messianic age. In I Enoch 22 those already punished remain in
Sheol; those not punished move to torturing Gehenna; I Enoch 67 has
some wicked raised for judgment. Apocalyptists invent various stages of
judgment, kingdom, resurrection. Test. Benj. 10:6ff. makes patriarchs
rise first, then sons of Jacob, then all men. II Macc., perhaps
following hints of Isa. 24-27 and Daniel, suggests martyrs deserve
By the first century most Jews held to general resurrection; rabbis
argued Abraham so believed (Heb. 11:19). Pharisees expected
resurrection of the just (Acts 23:8), so probably did Essenes and
Qumran covenanters. Sadducees denied resurrection as not "Mosaic," and
possibly as a foreign idea (Mark 12:18; Josephus says they believed the
soul died with the body). A few, holding matter evil, denied
In the NT
New Christian contributions include
Johannine reflection moves even nearer than Paul's toward incorporeal
immortality. Eternal life is experienced now (John 3:36); the faithful
never see death (8:51); believers have already "crossed over" from
death to life (5:24), as have those who love (I John 3:14). Faced with
Martha's talk about resurrection at the last day, Jesus replies that he
himself, and relationship to him, constitute the resurrection and the
life (11:25; 17:3) just as belief in him avoids judgment and unbelief
is judgment (John 3:18-21). As Christ's own life (preexistent, earthly,
postmortem) passes through death unquenched, so believers will never
die (8:51). Those who disobey the Son do not see life (3:36). As does
Paul, John appears to discount physical resurrection, yet 5:25, 28ff.
declare a general resurrection, and 6:39-40, 44, 54 a resurrection of
believers "at the last day", hardly an accommodation to earlier views
or interpolation, since Lazarus's restoration to this life and Christ's
physical resurrection mean so much to John. Faith was still
- (1) Jesus' teaching,
set against his raising others to resume life, and predictions of his
own rising ("third day," not timeless immortality). Jesus utilizes
picturesque detail familiar to hearers, especially Pharisees,
Sheol/Hades (Luke 16:19ff.; 10:15), morally subdivided, ministry of
angels, welcome by patriarchs, torment (Mark 9:43ff.; Matt. 8:12;
10:28), resurrection for fellowship (Matt. 8:11), reward (Luke 14:14).
Jesus argues immortality from experience of God and assumes this
involves resurrection (Mark 12:18ff.). The risen life is new, angelic,
and sexless. His emphasis falls on judgment, which appears to be
immediate (Luke 16:23; cf. 12:20), or at the Son of man's coronation
(Matt. 25:31ff.). Judgment implies general resurrection (Matt. 25:41;
10:28; Mark 12:26); but Luke 20:35ff.; 14:14 suggest resurrection
limited to those qualified.
- (2) Jesus' own resurrection is the key
event in Christian history and the basis of Peter's gospel (Acts 2:32)
and Paul's (Acts 17:18; 23:6; 26:6-8). Apostolic testimony (Acts 3:26;
4:2, 33; I Cor. 15:3-11; Rom. 10:9) makes resurrection essential in
Christianity. Details of the story (waiting in Sheol, persistent
wounds, "flesh and bones" that can be touched, yet "in another form" is
unrecognized, passes through doors, vanishes) combine current ideas
with a new assertion: an empty tomb. The unquestioned fact creates a
new basis for resurrection hope (Rom. 8:11; I Cor. 6:14; 15:20ff.; II
Cor. 4:14; I Thess. 4:14; I Pet. 1:3, 21) through Christ "whom God has
raised" (sixteen allusions).
- (3) Pauline reflection likewise begins
from current Pharisaic views: the departed share the coming glory (I
Thess. 4:15ff.), general resurrection and judgment (Acts 24:15; 17:31;
Rom. 2:5--; II Cor. 5:10), horror of disembodied nakedness (II Cor.
5:4). Paul develops three themes:
This includes redemption of the body and argues
new ground for resurrection hope. Sexually, Christians must remember
that the body is the Lord's, "members of Christ," a temple of the
spirit, purchased by Christ (I Cor. 6:12ff.), instrument of
righteousness (Rom. 6:12ff.), vehicle of worship (Rom. 12:1). Man being
embodied spirit, redemption would remain incomplete without
"We Shall All Be Changed."
Wishing to be done with the "humiliating"
flesh, too long the vehicle of sin (Rom. 7:21-25; Phil. 3:20-21), yet
not to be "naked" (II Cor. 5:1-5), Paul argued for deliverance of the
body from corruption, but not (as the Greeks) for deliverance of the
spirit from the body. Arguing with those who, stressing dissolution,
preferred immortality to resurrection, Paul insists first on the bodily
resurrection of Jesus (I Cor. 15:1ff.) then faces objectors with the
varieties of body in nature (birds, fishes, grain) each adapted to its
environment, and asserts God will provide the risen soul with a new
body, glorious, incorruptible, immortal (cf. I Thess. 4:16-17). The key
words "we shall be changed" imply continuity and difference. As grain
disintegrates, that a totally new body may emerge, so human bodies
disintegrate that the enduring life may organize new embodiment while
retaining identity, as happens (we are told) repeatedly from birth to
senility. This effectively meets the objection from dissolution; it has
also implications affecting burial and cremation. Paul did not expect
such transformation at death, but at the advent (I Thess. 4:14-17; I
Cor. 15:23, 51ff.), following an intermediate state which is far better
but not final glory (Phil. 1:23; cf. Acts 7:60 "sleep," Luke 23:43
The Change Has Begun
"Attaining the resurrection" (Phil. 3:11)
involves sowing the spiritual, heavenly body in this life by yielding
to the Spirit (Rom. 8:11), constantly dying and quickened (II Cor.
4:10ff., 14), reaping life eternal (Gal. 6:8). The counterpart,
coexisting spiritual body is being created not "as the angels" but
"like unto Christ's glorious body" (Phil. 3:21), as Christians live the
risen life now (Rom. 6; Eph. 2:1ff.; Col. 3:1ff.). Nevertheless Paul
adheres to physical resurrection as the consummation of the process (I
Cor. 15:12-20): the resurrection is not "past already" (II Tim. 2:18).
Later thought further illustrates the tension
between Hebrew and Greek emphases. Gnostic dualism infiltrated
Christian teaching about God, Christ, and morality with the alien Greek
principle that matter is inherently evil and must be destroyed,
resurrection being impossible. But (except in asceticism) the church
rejected dualism. I and II Clement, Barnabas ("a general
resurrection"), and Tertullian ("the soul inherently immortal and death
unnatural, yet the same body will be raised") express the orthodox
view. Ignatius follows John: Christ is eternal life, but "flesh and
spirit" will be raised through the Eucharist ("medicine of
immortality") and the Spirit. Origen insists that the natural body is
dissolved into dust, but will be raised and "advance to a spiritual
body", so striving to reconcile Hebrew and Platonic ideas. Aquinas,
too, held our fleshly bodies rise and remain fleshly; like Tertullian,
he finds spiritual uses for redundant physical organs.
A typical modern statement runs: "The term immortality is preferable.
The argument that religious experience implies personal survival points
to the immortality of the soul and its values rather than to
resurrection of the body." This attracts many, who do not always
realize the values conserved by the traditional resurrection emphasis:
the permanence not only of abstract personality and values but of the
individual, with consciousness, relationships, memories, and love,
against theories of absorption ("a drop in the eternal ocean of
being"), racial survival ("continuing to contribute to ongoing
humanity"), or sentimental immortality ("to live in the hearts of those
we love is not to die"). Essentially, Christians believe that he who
called men into being and into fellowship with himself can sustain all
persons under eternal conditions, in complete and enriched humanity, in
such bodily garment as eternal life requires.
R E O White
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
D. S. Russell, Between the Testaments; J. Baillie, And
the Life Everlasting; J. H. Leckie, World to Come and Final Destiny;
Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh.
See also RESURRECTION OF CHRIST.
The individual articles presented here were generally first published
in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed
on the Internet in December 1997.
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