Resurrection and the Christian life in the ancient church

I stumbled on a Slate column by Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh the other day. It’s a short but interesting piece. In his discussion of the origins of the belief in resurrection, he gives a late date (2nd century BC) for Daniel but also takes the discussion between Jesus and the Saducees seriously. I’ve often wondered what the Hebrews believed about the afterlife. Perhaps some readers have ideas about when God revealed the idea of an afterlife and resurrection. Was it from the very beginning or was it later? Perhaps readers have some ideas.

The last three paragraphs of Hurtado’s article stuck out:

In Christianity’s first few centuries, when believers often suffered severe persecution and even the threat of death, those who believed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection found it particularly meaningful for their own circumstances. Jesus had been put to death in grisly fashion, but God had overturned Jesus’ execution and, indeed, had given him a new and glorious body. So, they believed that they could face their own deaths as well as those of their loved ones in the firm hope that God would be faithful to them as well. They thought that they would share the same sort of immortal reaffirmation of their personal and bodily selves that Jesus had experienced. Elaine Pagels, a scholar of early Christianity, has argued that those Christians who regarded the body as unimportant, perhaps including “Gnostics,” were less willing to face martyrdom for their faith and more willing to make gestures of acquiescence to the Romans—for example, by offering sacrifices to Roman gods—because they regarded actions done with their bodies as insignificant so long as in their hearts they held to their beliefs.

By contrast, Christians who believed in bodily resurrection seem to have regarded their own mortal coils as the crucial venues in which they were to live out their devotion to Christ. When these Christians were arraigned for their faith, they considered it genuine apostasy to give in to the gestures demanded by the Roman authorities. For them, inner devotion to Jesus had to be expressed in an outward faithfulness in their bodies—and they were ready to face martyrdom for their faith, encouraged by the prospect of bodily resurrection. Indeed, Christian martyrs are pictured as engaged in a battle with the Roman authorities (and the Devil, whom Christians saw as behind Roman malevolence toward them), with the martyrs’ bodies as battlegrounds in which the integrity of their person and their personal salvation could be lost or retained.

Historically, then, how Christians have understood Jesus’ “resurrection” says a lot about how they have understood themselves, whether they have a holistic view of the human person, whether they see bodily existence as trivial or crucial, and how they imagine full salvation to be manifested. Does salvation comprise a deliverance from the body into some sort of immediate and permanent postmortem bliss (which is actually much closer to popular Christian piety down the centuries), or does salvation require a new embodiment of some sort, a more robust reaffirmation of persons? This sort of question originally was integral to early Jewish and Christian belief in the resurrection. In all the varieties of early Christianity, and in all the various understandings of what his “resurrection” meant, Jesus was typically the model, the crucial paradigm for believers, what had happened to him seen as prototypical of what believers were to hope for themselves.



  1. The Saducees are the ancient forbears of modern evangelical fundamentalism/Protestantism because their rejection of the resurrection was at it’s core the rejection of the idea of the development of doctrine.

  2. I don’t think that there are too many evangelicals who reject the resurrection, just those who don’t really understand or think about it. The best evangelicals in the Reformed tradition understand it and teach it. I’m thinking of people like NT Wright, Doug Wilson, John Piper, Randy Alcorn, and a host of others. I can’t speak for Protestant theologians outside of the Reformed, Calvinist tradition. Within Protestantism, I’d say that the Reformed tradition is the closest to the impressive, comprehensive Catholic theological tradition. I’m biased, though, as a Calvinist.

    But it is unfortunate that popular evangelical piety doesn’t understand the resurrection, its importance, and the new heavens and earth well.

    I wonder if I might be missing part of your point when you connected the resurrection and the development of doctrine. I think that I understand the idea of the development of doctrine, but the resurrection of both Jesus and of all human beings at the end of time is clearly spelled out in the Bible and therefore wouldn’t be something that Protestants should have any difficulty with. What did you mean in making the connection?

  3. The Sadducees are not the forbears of Piper, et. al. in their rejection of the resurrection but in their theological methodology. Both groups reject the idea of the development of doctrine upon which the doctrine of the resurrection (as understood in Jesus day) came to be.

    The resurrection was not clearly noted in Scripture until the time of the exile. It was a doctrine that developed slowly over centuries of Jewish thought. Those who regarded the later expressions of the doctrine of the resurrection as clarifying and expanding upon earlier obtuse references held to an idea that doctrine can develop. Those who rejected the idea of doctrinal development and wanted to lock down revelation with the earliest expressions of Judaism in the law rejected the doctrine of the resurrection.

    There is clearer Biblical evidence for the papacy and for Mary’s immaculate conception in the OT/NT than there is Biblical evidence for the resurrection in the Torah.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s