Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.
Chapter7: Resurrection as the Hope for the End-Time
The idiom of resurrection, as we have so far traced its path, has been used to portray the renewal of the earth as a living entity, and to describe the restoration of the corporate body of Israel when its national life was threatened with extinction. The idiom has not yet assumed any significance for the life and death of the individual person. Although this was destined to take place, it was a much later development, mainly to be traced in the last three to four centuries before Christ.
The reasons for this are clear. For ancient man the belief in some form of life after death was universal. The dead were believed to live in an underworld, though there was considerable variety in the way such life was conceived. The practice of burying the dead in the ground no doubt contributed to the vague mental picture of another world beneath the surface of the earth. There was such a marked difference to be observed between the live person, and the corpse which remained after his death, that it was natural to assume that the living soul or spirit of the man survived in another world, invisible and, for the most part, out of contact with those remaining in this world. This widespread ancient belief lingered on in Israel, by whom the underworld was known as Sheol. The fact that necromancy was strongly forbidden shows that it was still practiced, though no longer officially approved. The best-known example in the Old Testament tells how Saul conversed with the spirit of the dead Samuel through the mediumship of the witch of Endor.1
But in strong contrast with most of her predecessors and contemporaries, Israel developed a much more materialistic view of human life. The individual man was regarded as a unity, incapable of subdivision. Man was thought to be made from the dust of the ground and to become a living creature only when God breathed into him the breath of life. Therefore man lives only so long as that breath remains in him. When he gasps his last breath and breathes out (expires), he dies; his personal being disintegrates, leaving no living ‘soul’ to depart from the body and live elsewhere.
The people of Israel were rather unique in taking the mortality of man so seriously. The psalmists frequently refer to the finiteness of human life, likening man to a flower that flourishes only for a short time. While the references to Sheol represent the lingering remnants of the once universal belief in life after death, it was never thought that Sheol held any comfort or hope for man beyond death. Eventually Sheol simply became another way of describing the nature of death, which, for the Israelite, was life reduced to its absolute minimum. So the psalmist cried out with questions which could be answered only in the negative.
Dost thou work wonders for the dead?
In many ways the book of Ecclesiastes expressed the logical end of this traditional Israelite view, which laid increasing emphasis on the reality of the material universe and the mortal, finite nature of the human creature. In one of the latest books of the Old Testament to be written, this author exhorted his readers to remember their Creator in the days of their youth ‘before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, before the pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel broken at the well, before the dust returns to the earth as it began and the spirit returns to God who gave it’.3
It cannot be said, however, that during the classical period of ancient Israel the Israelite found his finiteness a burden. He did not feel prompted to lament the emptiness of all human endeavor in the way the author of Ecclesiastes did. He felt it was a tragedy if a man was cut off before his time, or if he died childless. But where an Israelite survived to a ripe old age, and was surrounded with his offspring, he was able to contemplate his imminent death not only without complaint, but with genuine thankfulness to God for such a full and blessed life.
This grateful and optimistic acceptance of his mortal nature was aided by the fact that the Israelite was more conscious than we of belonging to a corporate body of people, whether a family, a tribe, or a nation. The corporate body was not usually faced with the crisis of death, for by natural regeneration it lived on from generation to generation. Any yearning the Israelite might have had for immortality was at least partly met by ensuring that there were descendants ‘to keep his name alive’. This concern is reflected in the strange custom of Levirate marriage in which a man was expected to perform a duty to a brother who had died childless by acting on his behalf in fathering a child through his widow. ‘Her husband’s brother shall have intercourse with her; he shall take her in marriage and do his duty by her as her husband’s brother. The first son she bears shall perpetuate the dead brother’s name so that it may not be blotted out from Israel.’4
Up until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. the Israelites were not so troubled by what we may call the unfinished character of so much human striving. It was still possible to affirm quite confidently that righteousness would receive its due reward and wickedness would eventually be punished. For if a man did not receive his due reward or punishment within the compass of his own life time, then his descendants would certainly be blessed or cursed accordingly, even if it took to the third or fourth generation before the account was balanced. The writer of Psalm 37 expressed the commonly held view that all men receive their just deserts in this life:
I have been young and am now grown old,
As late as the seventh century BC. a school of writers, commonly known today as the Deuteronomists, compiled their history of Israel in such a way as to demonstrate that the meaning of history is to be discerned as a system of just rewards for good and bad behavior. This doctrine is set forth at some length in the book of Deuteronomy, particularly in chapters 8, 11, 28 and 30 and is summarized in the following words: ‘If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God . . . then you will live and increase . . . But if your heart turns away and you do not listen … you will perish: you will not live long in the land . . . I offer you the choice of life and death . . . Choose life and then you and your descendants will live.’5
But from the exile onwards the sense of corporate existence became rather less intense and the awareness of personal individuality became more pronounced.6 Ezekiel protested against the injustice of expecting one man to suffer because of the sins of another and proclaimed that God’s justice would be meted out to men according to their individual deserts. ‘It is the soul that sins, and no other, that shall die; a son shall not share a father’s guilt, nor a father his son’s. The righteous man shall reap the fruit of his own righteousness, and the wicked man the fruit of his own wickedness.’7
This new emphasis on the personal fortunes of the individual could not help but raise serious doubts about the adequacy of the traditional belief that God prospers the righteous and punishes the wicked. Men observed too many examples in which it did not work out like that in human experience. The doubts which challenged the traditional orthodoxy reached their classical expression in the book of Job. The three so-called ‘comforters’, arguing on the basis of the time-honored doctrine that men got what they deserved, were sure that all of Job’s troubles could be adequately explained in terms of sins he must have committed. In the face of their accusations, Job continued to protest his innocence.
It is within this epic poem that we catch glimpses of how the Israelite mind was being prompted to find a solution to this growing problem. At points where Job gives up hope of ever seeing justice in this life he casts a glance beyond death. He knows from the beginning that it is rather a forlorn hope, for man is a mortal creature who comes to an end at death.
If a tree is cut down,
But hopeless and wistful though he knows his thought must be, he nevertheless must give expression to it.
If only thou wouldst hide me in Sheol
Job continues to look for vindication. Unfortunately the other main passage where his hope is expressed is so obscure in the Hebrew that we cannot state with confidence what the author intended. The words certainly cannot support the traditional interpretation long made familiar by Handel’s Messiah, but they are still worth pondering as an indication of the direction in which Israel’s thinkers were moving.
O that my words might be inscribed,
The book of Job belongs to Israel’s Wisdom literature, and for our present purpose we may couple with these extracts some further hints of an other-worldly hope to be found scattered through the Psalms.10 But the hope that Job was feeling after came to more explicit expression in another stream of Israelite thought, that of the prophets. There were some marked differences between the post-exilic prophets and their pre-exilic predecessors. The living voice of prophecy was soon to be stilled; it was later partly replaced by the written word of apocalypses. To understand the words now to be quoted from both prophet and apocalyptic writer, we must carefully note the growing interest in eschatology.
From the fall of Jerusalem onwards the Jewish remnant of Israel were destined never to enjoy again the independence and the stability known by their ancestors. They lived in a world of changing Empires, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman. They existed in scattered communities. From time to time they suffered persecution, and even martyrdom. They longed for the end of injustice, oppression and instability. Their faith led them to expect their God, the Lord of history, to bring to an end the present wicked age of the world and to replace it with a new age. Even the pre-exilic prophets had hoped for a warless age when men would beat ‘spears into pruning-knives’.
But in the post-exilic period the hopes for the end of the age became more intense, and the pictures with which they described the end and the new beginning became grander in scale and more mythological in character. It is this concern with the end-time, the end of the age, that we call eschatology. It was destined to be a prominent element in Jewish, and later in Christian, thought until well into the second century AD. Apocalyptic writing, so called because it claimed to reveal knowledge of the end to come, painted word-pictures of the international and cosmic conflict to be followed by the universal judgment in which all men received their just deserts.
Many of the eschatological motifs which flourished in later apocalypses are to be found in embryonic form in Isaiah 24-27 a passage sometimes referred to as ‘the Little Apocalypse’. It is generally regarded as being post-exilic in origin, and may stem from the late fourth century when Alexander the Great was causing such upheavals on the international scene. Here we find the earliest appearance in the Bible of the resurrection idiom in an eschatological form. The writer complains that his people have been mastered by Lords other than their God, and though they have suffered like a woman in labor they have not been able to bring forth new life. Suddenly he bursts forth:
But thy dead live, their bodies will rise again.
Although some scholars have interpreted these words metaphorically, just like Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, it is much more probable that we have here a clear expression of resurrection as applied to individual Israelites who have lived and died. It is more likely to be a wish or a prayer than a confident prediction of the future. Nevertheless, it is reasonably unambiguous and this in spite of the fact that this hope is preceded a few verses earlier by a reverse statement in which the traditional view of mortal man is applied to Israel s enemies.
The dead will not live again,
What prompted this unexpected and almost irrational outburst of hope? It can be argued that there were already sufficient factors within Israel’s own thinking for such a form of hope to arise. Because of her understanding of the nature of man and his mortality, she saw no hope in any of the traditional doctrines of life after death. The only life she recognized as real was that lived out by the whole man in the unity of what we call body and soul. Any hope for the individual man, subsequent to the death and dissolution of the body, must entail the restoration of the former body. When one couples with this the strong faith that the God of Israel would never willingly abandon his people, the developing interest in the destiny of the individual, and the shattering experience of oppression, persecution and martyrdom, we have ample reasons for the spontaneous development of this confident hope in a future resurrection from death. R. Martin-Achard is thus able to say, ‘Faith in the resurrection is thus definitely born of Yahweh’s revelation to Israel.’13
Nevertheless, there were other factors at work and most scholars agree that they played some role in shaping the particular form that the resurrection faith of Israel assumed, even though there is difference of opinion as to the extent to which they may have initiated it. In Isaiah 26:19, for example, many hear mythological overtones in the words, ‘for thy dew is a dew of sparkling light’. In the Ugaritic tests dew was always associated with the restoration of vitality, and consequently played a part in the Baal myth, for the very good reason that in Palestine the night dew assists in keeping vegetation alive during the almost rainless four months of summer.14 Some also regard the reference to Leviathan, ‘that twisting sea-serpent’ and ‘monster of the deep’, in Isaiah 27:1, as an echo of a Phoenician tradition concerning a demonic monster who guarded the gate of the underworld. This latter verse would then be saying in effect that the Lord would conquer the powers of the underworld at the end of time and thus allow his own faithful ones to rise from the dead and return to the land of the living.
We must always remember that the extant writings from the ancient world represent only a small portion of what was being thought and said and even written. Many of the links in the chain of development followed by the resurrection symbol are lost to us for ever. It does appear, however, that in this passage we can discern a thin line, however tenuous, which links the Canaanite Baal myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ with the rise of resurrection as an eschatological symbol, soon destined to develop rapidly in Jewish thought. So Martin-Achard concludes: ‘the people of Yahweh found the concept of resurrection in Canaan; but for a long time this formed part of a realm over against which Yahweh stood in His sovereign will, so that, with regard to resurrection, the religion of the Canaanites played a negative part, by obliging the Israelites to make their stand against it; it had, nevertheless, a sort of indirect action, in making possible a sort of purification of this belief, which, in another age and within another context, received a new content.’15 The eschatological form of the resurrection idiom which we see beginning to take shape in the little Apocalypse of Isaiah had these two important new elements, first that it was primarily concerned neither with cosmic renewal nor with the restoration of national identity, but with the return to life of individual Israelites long dead, and second that this hope was to be consummated at the end-time.
The second, and only other, explicit mention of the resurrection of the dead to be found in the Old Testament is in the book of Daniel. This is nowadays regarded as the latest writing to find a place in the Hebrew Bible, being, in its final form at least, a product of the second century BC. It is to be associated with the Maccabean revolt, which proved to be a very severe testing for those Jews who wanted to remain faithful to the Jewish heritage and way of life. They felt themselves called to a fight to the death against the forces of the Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, who was bent on carrying through a program of hellenizing his empire and blotting out every vestige of Judaism. Such a crisis naturally gave great impetus to all eschatological ideas, which regarded the present world order as being so wicked and chaotic as to be on the verge of complete collapse, and which looked forward in hope to a divine judgment in which all injustices were righted, and to the establishment of a new order in which righteousness would prosper. The author of Daniel (in the form of a vision revealed to the fictional prophet, Daniel) sketched the fortunes of the Jewish people from the beginning of the Persian period down to the death of their arch-enemy Antiochus, which he expected shortly to take place, and then he wrote:
At that moment Michael shall appear,
The author first of all encouraged his readers with the conviction that in the coming catastrophe the faithful ones would not perish, but would be delivered. Then he turned to the queries they would have in their minds about those who had already died in the conflict and he assured them that many of those who had fallen into the sleep of death would be re-awakened to life. At this point he went further than the passage in Isaiah 26:19, for he held out the hope that not only the faithful martyrs would be raised to everlasting blessedness, but the unfaithful apostates would be raised to receive their eternal punishment. In the crisis of the Maccabean period it had become unthinkable that martyrs and traitors should share eventually the same lifeless fate in the underworld of Sheol. The punishment of the wicked was becoming just as urgent an issue as suitable recognition for the faithful.
Among those destined to be rewarded with everlasting life, there was to be recognized a special class, worthy of the highest honors. They are described as ‘the wise leaders’ and ‘those who have guided the people in the true path’. These had evidently taken the lead in resistance to the evil pressures, and perhaps were the martyrs, for they are probably to be linked with those described a little earlier. ‘Wise leaders of the nation will give guidance to the common people; yet for a while they will fall victims to fire and sword, to captivity and pillage.’17
Of course, the author implied that the underworld of Sheol continued to remain the permanent resting-place for all others (whether good or bad, and presumably all Gentiles) who were not to be raised for participation in the great judgment. This expression of hope in a resurrection for those chosen, comprising ‘only the best and the worst’18 of the Jews, did not arise out of any reasoned argument, but on the contrary stemmed from an almost irrational and certainly emotion-filled plea for a final vindication. The current eschatological trend provided the setting in which this desire for vindication could find an answer.
Although once again it may be argued that the Jewish scene contained all the necessary elements for the rise of this eschatological hope, it can nevertheless be shown that Zoroastrian thought from Persia was a contributing factor, even if it did not actually originate it. For two hundred years the Jews lived within a Persian empire, and even after Alexander the Great destroyed the empire, the influence of Persian thought continued. There is no strong evidence to show that the Jews made any wholesale borrowing of ideas from Persian religion, but it is almost certain that such ideas acted as a stimulus to Jewish thought and helped to shape some of the fresh expressions that it took.
R. C. Zachner probably goes too far when he claims that, ‘from the moment the Jews first made contact with the Iranians they took over the typical Zoroastrian doctrine of an individual afterlife in which rewards are to be enjoyed and punishments endured.’19 In so far as it is possible to learn what contemporary Zoroastrianism actually taught, there would appear to be considerable differences between the developing Jewish doctrine of resurrection and the Zoroastrian understanding of the after-life, where resurrection may be regarded as being implied, but where it did not actually become explicit or prominent.20
Nevertheless, it was subsequent to the period of Persian influence that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead began to develop in Israel, at first for the just and later also for the wicked. The Jews actually borrowed the Persian word ‘paradise’ in order to describe the dwelling-place of the blessed. The Jewish interest in angels, developing into a hierarchy of named angels, owed much to Persian influence, as did also, probably, their increasing concern with an eschatological judgment on a cosmic scale.
It is perhaps not accidental that the clearest expression in the Old Testament of a future resurrection of the dead is found in the book purporting to be the visions of a certain Daniel, reputed to be an official in the court of ‘Darius the Mede’. Further, the section of the Jews who took the lead in promoting the belief in the future resurrection of the dead were called the Pharisees, and one of the theories about the origin of this name traces it to the Aramaic form of ‘Persians’, and suggests that it was a nickname applied by the Sadducees to those Jews who showed a willingness to introduce Persian doctrines into Judaism.
The belief in a general resurrection at the end-time was certainly a novel development in Judaism. Even by the first century AD. it had by no means reached universal acceptance. It was held most strongly by the Pharisees, who, in many respects, were the ardent progressives in the Jewish religion of their day. It was completely unacceptable to the Sadducees, the priestly aristocratic party, who were the conservative traditionalists of Judaism. Josephus tells us that the Sadducees held that ‘souls die with the bodies’,21 and they denied all other-worldly punishments and rewards.22 They also rejected the developing doctrine of angels and the increasing prominence given to a supernatural world. In all this they were remaining faithful to the general position of classical Israel.
The division between Pharisee and Sadducee is clearly reflected in the New Testament, particularly in the question on the resurrection put to Jesus by the Sadducees,23 and also when Paul used the fact to advantage by winning the sympathy of the Pharisees and thus causing the Council to be divided and to end in an uproar.24 This division serves vividly to illustrate the strong differences of opinion which existed in the Jewish setting of the time of Jesus. The diversity of belief among the Jews upon the subjects of the ultimate destiny of man in general, and of the resurrection in particular, was such that we must devote the next chapter to it. In this chapter we have tried to show how the resurrection idiom found a new mode of expression, an eschatological one, by which some Jewish believers proclaimed their hope for the final vindication of the faithful at the end-time.
I. 1 Sam. 28:3-25.
2. Ps. 88:10-12. Perhaps the fullest picture of Sheol found in the Old Testament is in Job 31:3-19.
3. Eccles. 12:6-7. There is little justification for interpreting ‘spirit’ in this context as a personal, immortal soul. It simply represents the impersonal breath received from God as a necessary constituent of the living person.
4. Deut. 25:5-6.
5. Deut. 3016-20.
6. At the beginning of this century it was common to suggest that individualism appeared in Israel’s thought only from Jeremiah onwards. But the reaction which followed this overemphasis must not be allowed to blind us to the relative individualism of the post-exilic period, probably aided by the contacts with the Babylonian, Persian and Greek cultures.
7. Ezek. 18:20.
8. Job 14:7, 10, 12, 13-15.
9. Job 19:23-7.
10. Pss. 16:9-11, 49:15, 73:23-8.
11. Isaiah 26:19.
12. ibid., 2614.
13. From Death to Life, p. 222.
14. A similar allusion to Ugaritic mythology probably lies behind ‘I will be as dew to Israel’, Hosea 14:5.
15. op. cit., p. 204.
16. Dan. 12:1-3.
17. Dan. 11:33.
18. C. F. Evans, op. cit., p. 16.
19. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, p. 58.
20. Yasna lx:11-12 reads, ‘In order that our minds may be delighted and our souls the best, let our bodies be glorified as well, and let them, O Muzda, go likewise openly (to Heaven) as the best world of the saints devoted to Ahura, . . . and may we see thee and may we approaching come round about thee, and attain to entire companionship with thee.’ Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXXI, p. 312.
21. The Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chap. 1:4.
22. Wars of the Jews, Book II, Chap. viii:14.
23. Matt. 22:23-33.
24. Acts 23:6-10.