Q&A: The Importance of a Physical Resurrection

The Importance of a Physical Resurrection

How did the Christian doctrine of the resurrection confront Greek and pagan beliefs of the first century?

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Answer

As N.T. Wright has shown, the ancient world was fully aware that people don't normally rise from the dead, and yet the early Christians claimed this for Jesus and eventually for us anyway. Caroline Walker Bynum and other historians have shown that the early Christians were profoundly committed to the resurrection of the body and that this was very counter-cultural in contrast to almost every reigning philosophical alternative. It was scandalous for Christians to be saying that our bodies were going to be raised from the dead and that there was going to be some kind of continuity of bodily identify between our earthly bodies lying dead and the bodies that God will give us in the resurrection. There were all sorts of explorations about how God would do this, depending on what had happened to our earthly bodies, and what age we would be, or what condition or bodies would be in when they would be raised. Christians didn't agree on all these questions, but they agreed that exploring them was important because they were so committed to the resurrection of the body and not to any of the reigning alternatives, such as, for instance, reincarnation or other substitutes that might look like resurrection but really aren't resurrection.

But what difference does it all make? Well, as Oliver O'Donovan and others have shown, the resurrection is a profound point of focus for Christian ethics and gospel witness. God doesn't simply redeem us out of this created order, but God reaffirms in the resurrection of Christ his commitment to the world he has made, including its material aspects, including its embodied and social character. Our bodies might be in the ancient world, one of the most scandalous components of ourselves, but God commits in the resurrection of Christ to redeeming all that he has made including our bodies. And that has profound implications for what we imagine our future to be; we're going to live on a new heavens and a new earth in which people and place come together in which righteousness dwells. And Paul seems to envision that until then, when we die we feel naked without our bodies. Yes, we're present with the Lord, but 2 Corinthians 5 seems to suggest there's a longing for the fullness of how God made us to be, and that fullness lies in our embodiment. So when, by the Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead, God was making a promise that he would make all things new including the bodies that he gave us.

Answer by Dr. Daniel Treier