The Evolution of Resurrection

resurrection 1250 ADResurrection is an idea that evolves and develops in Scripture reaching its climax in the New Testament with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the hope for the future that resurrection ushers in for the apostles and the early church. Having looked at holistic salvation in the Old Testament, J. Richard Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth now turns to the biblical view of resurrection in the Old and New Testaments. Resurrection is a central Christian doctrine, well attested in the New Testament.

[O]rthodox faith wholeheartedly affirms that God loves this world he made, became flesh in the man Jesus, and is committed to redeeming the created order, with resurrection being central to that redemption. (p. 131)

The discussion of resurrection is explicit in parts of the New Testament (the culmination of the four gospels and 1 Cor. 15 come immediately to mind). But this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to Middleton:

But for the most part, mention of Jesus’s resurrection tends to be a subtheme interwoven into various theological statements and ethical injunctions throughout the New Testament, where it is treated as a nonnegotiable core of the gospel and often connected to the anticipated resurrection of those who follow Jesus. (p. 132, emphasis added)

That both the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of the saints is real and significant is not questioned by Middleton. But it is useful to understand how this doctrine developed in Scripture and the intertestamental period leading to the New Testament understanding. This may, in fact, help us to understand resurrection more completely.

The Old Testament. In contrast to the New Testament, the Old Testament has relatively little to say about resurrection.

Prior to the exile there is no clear doctrine concerning the afterlife. Sheol is the place of the dead, but this is nothing to be sought. At best it is a place of rest, safe from the suffering of life (Job 3). Death did not bring one into the presence of God for judgment or reward. Nor was there work to do. The teacher writes “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10. By and large, the Psalms provide a similar picture.

There are hints of a life after death, but only hints. These arise primarily in the context of justice in the face of suffering and evil. Psalm 73 provides such an example:

Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works. (73:23-28)

God will receive or take the psalmist “afterward.” Those far from God will perish, but he will be taken. Middleton suggests that this may echo Genesis 5:24 where Enoch was taken. “There is no clear picture here of what sort of future is anticipated, just a sense that the present can not be all there is, since life as the psalmist knows it is significantly out of alignment with the way it is supposed to be.” (p. 136)

Isaiah and Beyond. In the exilic or post exilic period resurrection proper begins to appear. Isaiah 24-27 and Daniel 12 are the most significant examples. In Isaiah 25 YHWH swallows up death forever and wipes away every tear (v. 8). In chapter 26 a pained lament concludes with victory: Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (v. 19)

Daniel 12 has the most explicit image of resurrection.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (12:2-3)

Daniel 12 reads like Revelation.

Resurrection to Earthly Rule. Middleton argues that resurrection in Isaiah, Daniel, and the extra-canonical second temple literature is very much an earthly resurrection. The righteous dead are lifted from the dust to their rightful rule of God’s creation. Resurrection does away with mortality and futility, but not with material earthly existence. This is particularly clear in the second Temple literature including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Wisdom of Solomon. In Wisdom there is an intermediate state between death and resurrection … “But such a state is only temporary, for “their hope is full of immortality” (3:4); this is in pointed contrast to the ungodly, whose “hope is vain” (3:11), like an ephemeral frost or smoke that quickly dissipates. (5:14)” (p. 143)

The New Testament. Resurrection was (and is) the clear pinnacle of Christian hope. This life isn’t the end. The victory over death and decay is won. But what is the purpose of resurrection? In the New Testament (and in the context of second Temple Judaism) the resurrected life isn’t to some ephemeral existence of ghostly harp-playing.

There is an expectation that the saints will rule over creation in the resurrection. They will reign with Christ.

Humans were commissioned at creation to rule the earth in the image of a loving God, and Jesus embodied this rule in his own life and death as the incarnate Word (John 1:14-18). The very point of the coming reversal is that dominion is taken from those who abuse power and given to those who humble themselves to follow the Messiah on the path of discipleship and service. (p. 147)

The human race is “held in slavery by the fear of death,” but the reality of resurrection is victory over death. It is assurance that everything will be set right. There will be justice including judgment, mercy, and reward. Paul exhorts his readers to focus on God’s way (“things above”) because the ultimate victory is won. To be true to God and resist the tyranny of evil may bring suffering in this world, because the earthly life is still compromised by evil. But resistance isn’t futile and fatalism has no place in the Christian outlook.

[R]esurrection is grounded in the reversal of injustice, intended to rectify a situation in which death has impeded God’s purposes for earthly blessing and shalom. Especially in oppressive situations where those faithful to God’s covenant are persecuted, it may look like death has the last word. But the biblical tradition came to the profound insight … that God’s “love is as strong as death” … indeed, it is stronger than death. YHWH’s love for his people and faithfulness to his promises … led to the passionate hope that death itself could not, in the end, thwart God’s purposes.(p. 153-154)

Because the resurrection is to an earthly rule fulfilling the creation mandate for human kind, the hope of resurrection should inspire to live today in the resurrection life of God’s kingdom. Middleton concludes:

Since resurrection is God’s restoration of human life to what it was meant to be, it naturally requires fulfillment of the original human dignity and status which have been compromised by sin. Resurrection, therefore, when biblically understood, cannot be separated from the fulfillment of the cultural mandate. (p. 154)

The roots of the Christian doctrine of resurrection are found in the Old Testament, but the reality of resurrection in the New Testament represents a fundamental change in outlook. Life lived has eternal consequences.

What is the purpose of resurrection?

Why is bodily resurrection an important Christian doctrine?

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