N.T. Wright has thankfully distilled his monumental work The Resurrection of the Son of God into a briefer volume (295 pages instead of 738), including additional concerns. He speaks not only about the resurrection, but also about “the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it” (xi). Surprised by Hope defends the heritage of Easter and unfolds the hope of Easter for the present and future life.
In looking forward to celebrating Easter in less than a month, I’ve been encouraged reading Wright’s work. Though I couldn’t endorse his views on justification, I have appreciated his careful study of resurrection in its historical and biblical settings.
Chapter 3 of Surprised by Hope presents the historical setting of the early Christian hope, beginning with views of resurrection held by ancient paganism and Judaism.
For ancient pagans, death was all-powerful. No one could escape its clutches let alone return from it. When ancient pagans spoke of resurrection (to deny it), they did not simply mean “life after death.” Rather, resurrection in the pagan frame was used to denote “new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be.”
For the ancient Jewish world there are two general categories of understanding resurrection. Some agreed with the pagans in denial of any kind of future life. The Saducees are famous for this position. Others believed in an eventual resurrection. On the last day, all the people of God would be given new bodies all at once. When Martha was coming to grips with the death of Lazarus, she said to Jesus, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn 11:24). This was the Jewish conception of resurrection.
The teaching that emerged in early Christian congregations reflected this Jewish background, yet offered distinctive “mutations” as Wright calls them. “The Early Christian belief in hope beyond death belongs demonstrably on the Jewish, not the pagan, map…but in seven significant ways this Jewish hope underwent remarkable modifications.” Wright gives seven distinctively Christian modifications.
- Unanimity of Belief: Despite diverse Jewish and pagan backgrounds, Christians did not hold a spectrum of belief about life beyond death. Not until the late second century did the Gnostic idea emerge, namely, the idea of a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future. But at first, there was unanimity. “For almost all of the first two centuries, resurrection in the traditional sense holds not just center stage, but the whole stage.”
- Circumference to Center: In Second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important. But in early Christianity resurrection moved from the circumference to the center. “Take away the stories of Jesus’s birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament.”
- Resurrection Bodies: In Judaism it is almost always left quite vague as to what sort of body the resurrected will possess. But from the start, early Christians believed that the new body will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties (based on 1 Corinthians 15, the “newness” is primarily that whereas the old body is corruptible, the new body will be incorruptible).
- The Resurrection Split Into Two: For first-century Jews, the idea of resurrection was that it would be a large scale event happening to all God’s people as part of the sudden event in which God’s kingdom would finally come on earth as in heaven. But what becomes the central feature of Christianity is the belief that the “mode of this inauguration” consisted in the resurrection itself happening to one person in the middle of history in advance of it’s great final occurrence, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history. An initial resurrection as a guarantee of a second and final resurrection.
- Collaborative Eschatology: Because resurrection was inaugurated with Jesus but not completed until the end, Christians believed that God called them to work with him in the power of the Spirit to implement the achievement of Jesus in anticipation of the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. “If Jesus was God’s-future-arrived-in-the-present, then those who belonged to Jesus were charged with transforming the present in the light of that future.”
- Metaphorical Use of Resurrection: When resurrection is used metaphorically in Judaism, it refers to the restoration of Israel. But Christianity replaces this with a new metaphorical meaning: resurrection as referring to baptism (e.g. Romans 6:1-5), and resurrection as referring to the new life of strenuous ethical obedience enabled by the Holy Spirit (e.g Romans 6:6-14).
- Resurrection and Messiahship: Nobody in Judaism expected the Messiah to die, and therefore nobody imagined him rising from the dead. Judaism understood the Messiah to be the one who would overthrow pagan government and restore God’s justice. Thus, for Judaism, the crucifixion confirmed the impossibility of Jesus being the Messiah. Yet Christians came to affirm that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.
Wright notes that these mutations from Jewish to Christian understanding of resurrection demand a historical explanation. Why did these modifications occur? And he goes on to present an historical account of that first Easter Day.
But these seven points deserve contemplation as they represent the development of the Christian understanding of resurrection, which is the epicenter of our faith as Paul reminds the Corinthians.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)