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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.


Chapter 13: What Can ‘Resurrection of the Dead’ Mean for Us?


The path of the idiom of resurrection has led us up to our own time. We must now discuss what meaning or value the idiom of resurrection may have for us if we continue to use it. There are two areas in the creeds and confessions of the church where it has always been found. Since the Jewish belief in the general resurrection was the necessary forerunner for the Christian affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus, we shall turn first to the meaning for our day of the words in the Nicene Creed, ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’. In the final chapter we shall discuss what it means to affirm the resurrection of Jesus.

Today there is wider diversity of Christian thought on the ‘resurrection of the dead’ than ever before. At one extreme there are many conservative Christians, both in sects and in the major communions, who, because of their belief in the authority and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, still look expectantly to a future point in time when the world will come to a sudden end and when, at the Judgment which follows, there will be a general resurrection of all the dead in some bodily form. At the other extreme there is an even greater number of Christians for whom the traditional picture of the end-time, when taken literally, has lost most, if not all, of its reality. The ‘resurrection of the dead’ has meant for them a way of speaking of personal immortality. Between the extremes there is a wide variety of intermediate interpretations, many of them never very clearly thought out.

It is important to acknowledge, first of all, that the view of the universe which modern knowledge has opened up to us1 has made impossible any literal acceptance of the New Testament hope of an imminent cataclysmic end-time, just as it has done with the Old Testament account of a six-day creation. Further, astro-physics and radio-astronomy have now opened up to us a universe of such dimensions in space and time that it is no longer clear in what meaningful way we can speak at all of its having either a beginning or an end. The time periods involved have become magnified to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish clearly between the finite and the infinite. To say that the universe will come to an end only after an infinite period of time is identical with saying it will never come to an end. John Macquarrie has rightly said, ‘Eschatology has been existentially neutralized when the end gets removed to the distant future.’2

The traditional expectation of a final ‘resurrection of the dead’ is but one element of this New Testament picture of the end-time. The whole picture has been transmitted to us in the images and symbols of mythology. During the last hundred years it has become increasingly clear that the Biblical accounts both of the beginning, and of the end, of the world are in the form of myths which cannot be accepted in a literal or chronological sense. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, ‘The Biblical symbols cannot be taken literally because it is not possible for finite minds to comprehend that which transcends and fulfils history. The finite mind can only use symbols and pointers of the character of the eternal.’3

Ever since the end of the first century the myth of the end-time has been open to a variety of re-interpretations in Christian thought. Even when the other elements of this eschatological picture were inclined to be abandoned, the element of the ‘resurrection of the dead’ was retained, largely because of the Christian affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus. Once the resurrection of Jesus had come to be understood as a miraculous historical event it was regarded as undergirding and guaranteeing the general resurrection. Now that the traditional view of the resurrection of Jesus has collapsed, as we have shown in Part I, we must reckon with the implications this has for the general resurrection, which Christian believers have long regarded as the Christian hope of personal immortality.

Our study has clearly shown that the expectation of the resurrection of the dead is not a uniquely Christian belief. Not only are some of its roots to be found in ancient Persian religion, but throughout most of the Christian era, the resurrection hope has been shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Marxsen pertinently comments, ‘If someone today wants to come to terms with the question as to what will happen to him after he is dead, he can of course fall back on the idea of the resurrection. But he must be clear about the fact that this would not be a specifically Christian support.’4

To concern oneself with the resurrection hope simply for the purpose of grasping hold of what seems to be a viable approach to personal immortality does not, however, do full justice to this first-century doctrine. The resurrection hope originated as part of a much bigger and more complex eschatological picture. To appreciate what relevance resurrection may continue to have for our day, we must go back and look at this picture as a whole.

We have spoken of the first-century verbal picture of the imminent end-time as a myth. It is a great mistake to conclude that we thereby deprive it of all value and meaning.5 When man reaches the limits of his empirical knowledge about himself and his world, he confesses his faith, or his response to life, in the form of myth and poetry. Such forms of expression are subject to great variety in the course of history, for they are the product of the fertile human imagination, and their popularity depends upon the prevailing mood of an age, and upon the capacity of their symbolism to communicate with the ‘ring of truth’.

Ancient Israel developed an almost unique concern with the course and significance of human history.6 Because they thought of history, not as something which keeps repeating itself in cycles, but as a straight line of unique and unrepeatable events which look back to a beginning and forward to an end, it is only to be expected that their Holy Scriptures should have expressed an interest in both the beginning and the end of history (or what the Germans can so conveniently refer to as the Urzeit and the Endzeit). Yet because the beginning-time and the end-time lie beyond the limits of known history, the only possible way of talking about them was then, and still is, to draw upon the language of myth.

About a century ago it was becoming clear that the opening chapters of Genesis are not to be regarded as history. They deal with the beginning-time, which is pre-history. The story of the garden of Eden can be classed as a myth, but that does not deprive it of meaning. The value of the stories of creation is that they proclaim something about divine creativity, to acknowledge which is a profession of faith on our part. In the creation myths we are confessing that everything which is finite and creaturely, including ourselves, stands in a relationship of dependence upon the Creator. We creatures are not of spontaneous origin and self-sufficient. For our very existence we are dependent upon forces outside of ourselves. We are created: God alone is the Creator.7

We have come to recognize that creation is not something that happened exclusively, or even primarily, at some far-off beginning. The view that divine creation all took place at the beginning of time, as Christian tradition has often commonly assumed, is seriously defective. Creation is something that may go on in the universe at any time and all the time. This is especially clear when we think of all that is created, in terms of a relationship of dependence. The creation myths attempt, by using the beginning-time as the reference point, to proclaim a truth about the relationship of dependence, which is not confined to any one point in time, but which pervades all time.

In the same way the myth of the end-time is not a literal prophecy of something which is going to happen chronologically at the end of history. At every moment of time the universe remains related to that which it will become, as it remains related to that from which it emanated. As dependence characterizes the relationship to the Creator, so responsibility characterizes the relationship to the Judge. Naturally enough we look back to the beginning as we think of the former, and forward to the end when we think of the latter.

We must come to acknowledge that judgment is not something to be thought of exclusively, or even primarily, at some far-off end point in the future. Judgment is something that may be going on in the world of men at any time and all the time. The myth of the Last Judgment attempts, by using the end-time as the reference point, to proclaim a truth about human responsibility which is not confined to any point in time, but which pervades all time.

It consequently follows that at any point in our lives both creation and judgment impinge upon us at one and the same time. This is illustrated rather well by the fact that the creation story of the garden of Eden concludes with an act of judgement, while the myth of the Last Judgement, as expressed so vividly in Revelation 20, leads immediately into the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

Let us look at another way of appreciating the value of the myth of the end-time. When we go to the theatre we see the play performed before an elaborate backdrop. We all know this is not the real thing in the way the actors are real people. The value of the backdrop does not depend upon its being real, (for we know it to be the artistic creation of the stage designer) but on whether It helps us to participate in a more real way with the action on the stage, and to discern the significance of the words and actions of the play. The myth of the end-time may be regarded as the backdrop which helps us to understand the meaning of what is happening on the human stage here and now. The judgment which the myth portrays within the context of the end-time is really taking place already in the stream of human history. When Jesus related the parables of judgement, such as the talents, and the sheep and the goats, he was teaching his hearers how to discern the significance of their own actions in the life of each day.

The biblical images and pictures of the end-time must be acknowledged for what they are, not forecasts of either an emendator distant future, but myth, used to portray graphically the meaning of the present. While we have tried to show in this way that their classification as myth does not deprive them of meaning, we would only be deluding ourselves if we concluded that the ancient Jew and Christian also classed them as myth. Because ancient man did not draw such a clear line of distinction between myth and history, it was possible for the myth of the end-time to hold a particular kind of reality for him which it cannot hold for us, and there is no point in attempting to disguise this difference. We live in a vastly different context of thought from that of ancient man. As the first-century Jews and Christians were men of their own time, so are we men of our own time. In using what is now called myth, in the way in which they did, they were making a genuine response; in classing it as myth in the way we do, we are being true to the insights of our time. But this leaves us with a problem. Up until the end of the nineteenth century each generation of Christians read the New Testament as if its writers were speaking directly to them and out of a context identical with that of all their later readers. It was a great shock to liberal Protestant theology of the turn of the century when men like Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and Johannes Weiss (1863-19I4) drew attention to the eschatological character of the New Testament and made it clear that Jesus, his apostles, and the early churches, all lived and spoke in a thought-world which, in important respects, is completely foreign to us. The recognition of this difference of viewpoint has opened up a widening gulf between us and the men who wrote the New Testament. We are still in the process of adjusting ourselves to it in theological circles. In lay circles this gulf has hardly yet begun to be recognized, and where it has, the result has been mainly one of bewilderment and confusion. The whole program of ‘demythologizing’, initiated in that form by Rudolf Bultmann, has been made necessary by the fact that much of New Testament thought is set within the context of the expectation of an imminent end-time, described in mythical images, which possessed a dimension of reality which they can no longer convey to us. How are we to express in our terms what this myth meant for first-century man?

The first thing worth noting is the cosmic dimension of the myth of the end-time. This was not narrowly confined to the eternal destiny of the individual in the way the hope of personal immortality has so often been. Although the evolution of the myth in Judaism received particular stimulus from the concern for martyrs, it did not confine itself even to the Jewish people. The canvas on which the picture of the end-time was painted was simply breath-taking in its comprehensive scope. It included all nations; it caught up the four corners of the known world; it embraced heaven and earth, the entire universe.

The conception of the end-time has possessed this cosmic character ever since it had begun to take shape in Israelite thought; and that was long before Persian influence came to be felt. The pre-exilic prophets were already speaking of the judgment to fall ‘in the latter days’ as one in which the God of Israel ‘will be judge between nations, arbiter among many peoples’8 and where the divine judgment would result in a new kind of world in which ‘the wolf shall live with the sheep, and the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall grow up together, and a little child shall lead them’.9

The significance of the myth of the end-time for us must be no less cosmic than it was for the ancients, whose breadth of vision, when carefully examined, is little short of amazing. But our universe, that is, the universe as we have come to view it, is Immeasurably vaster, one in which the little planet home on which we live pales into an insignificant speck. What is to be the end, the true purpose, of this vast universe? For what purpose, if any, does it exist? No discussion of human destiny is adequate which is content to ignore such questions.

The ancient myth of the end-time, by virtue of its cosmic character, was much broader in its outlook than the eschatological concerns of many later Christians. If we take the trouble to appreciate to the full the nature of this myth in its original context it can force us to stretch our minds more than we are often willing to do. The quest for an adequate Christian eschatology has too often become narrowed down to the concern for personal immortality. This is altogether far too self-centered and myopic. Out of the concern for personal immortality traditional Christian thought proceeded to construct in imagination a spiritual world in which the blessed enjoy their immortal existence. This other-world, however, represents a retreat, or even an escape, from the empirical world, and is not at all what the ancient myth had in mind. The latter was not intent upon finding a way for people to reach the safe haven of a heavenly world, leaving the earthly world to carry on in its own merry way. On the contrary it was concerned with the destiny of the whole of the cosmos as then known, and attempted in the medium of myth, to discern its purpose, or end. For this reason it pictured the Last Judgment as taking place in the earthly world, but at the end-time. Only later eschatological thought gave way to the conviction that the earth is no fit place for the eternal Kingdom of God.

Any adequate understanding of the destiny of the individual person must stem from a concern for the ‘end’ of the whole universe, and not vice-versa. Because of its cosmic breadth, the ancient myth of the end-time still has something to teach us. John Macquarrie has noted that ‘much of the traditional Christian eschatology, whether conceived as the cosmic drama of the indefinite future or as the future bliss of the individual after death, has rightly deserved the censures of Marxists and Freudians who have seen in it the flight from the realities of present existence’.10

The myth calls us to lift up our eyes to the furthest horizon of our universe. The whole of it is our concern -- not just one’s own self, but one’s neighborhood -- not just one’s neighborhood, but one’s nation -- not just one’s nation, but the whole human race -- not just the human race, but all of created life -- not just this little planet, but the vast space inhabited by innumerable stars and nebulae. As we look out at this world we are to ask, not simply ‘What is the chief end of man?’ but ‘What is the end of the universe?’ for that includes the end of our earth and of man, which in turn includes one’s own end.

This is a suitable point to move on to the next important aspect of the myth of the end-time, namely that it does concern the ‘end’. The fact that our word ‘end’ has two meanings, that of ‘conclusion’ and that of ‘purpose’, is useful in helping us to see how the myth of the end is relevant to what is going on in the present. When a tool has been faithfully used for its proper purpose, its true ‘end’ has been consummated even though, when worn-out, it will end on the scrap-heap. For every created thing and for every living, yet finite, creature, there is an end (or purpose) and there is an end (or conclusion). The judgment to be made at the end (conclusion) is clearly related to whether the end (purpose) has been fulfilled or not. In other words our understanding of the conclusion depends upon the extent to which the raison d’être of the creature or object has been reached. Here we see why the doctrines of creation and eschatology are essentially related. The end (purpose) for which a creature is initially made contributes greatly to the judgment that is to be made at his end (conclusion).

The ancient Israelite myth of creation leaves us in no doubt that in the eyes of God the universe is a very good thing.11 This, incidentally, is where all human hope begins. It rises in the human heart because of the very goodness of the created world in which man finds himself. The seeds of hope are transmitted to man by his Creator through the medium of creation itself. Time would fail to tell of the many occasions in which the contemplation of the created order has brought fresh hope to men.

But this avenue of hope, though basic, does not go long unchallenged. The flower which gives such joy, fades and withers. The life-bringing rain turns into a destructive storm. The joy-bringing harvest season is followed by the cold and static winter. The life that has stimulated so much hope in the human heart turns to decay and death. If hope is to be sustained, or revived, the world must reveal itself to be not only a place which was initially made to be a good thing; it must be a place in which there is revival of life, or resurrection, making it clear that death does not have the last say.

Ancient man recognized that the mystery of resurrection also was built into the world. Life not only concluded in death, but death made way for new life. He recognized it in the changing seasons, and the idiom of resurrection was born to give expression to it in his myths. He recognized it in the successive generations, and because of this, man could contemplate his own coming death and yet continue to look into the future with hope. It is this same principle of the created world which is reflected in the words, ‘A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.’12

This brings us back to the issue we must pursue concerning the purpose of the universe in general and of the human race in particular. It is doubtful if we can give any meaningful answer to the first question. We cannot conceive there not being a universe. We are simply in the situation of finding ourselves existing in a universe which has already long existed, and asking questions about it and ourselves. It is possible, however, to give a meaningful answer to the question, ‘For what purpose does man exist?’ for this can be discussed in relation to the world in which man lives. This does not mean that we shall necessarily give the right answer. Indeed in human history there has been a great variety of answers given.

The answer of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that man has been created to serve God as the highest form of creature, to ‘be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth’.13 Furthermore man is created to bear the image of God, and though this may be said to mean that he plays ‘god’ to the rest of living creatures, he himself is still a creature and is responsible to the Creator, who is also Judge.

Man was made to be a creature, even though the highest known form of creature. This means that, like all creatures, he is intended to live for a finite period which is bounded by the limits of birth and death. In the kind of world in which man finds himself a great deal of positive value is dependent upon the phenomenon of death. The whole evolutionary process of development to diverse and higher forms of life would have been impossible if each generation had not been required by death to make way for the next. In the same way the development of human civilization, and the flowering of various human cultures, have been possible only because each generation of men, having transmitted to the next all that it could of its own values and discoveries, has by death made way for its successors. The cynic who referred to the stonewalling tactics of a dyed-in-the-wool conservative by saying, ‘Where there’s death there’s hope’ was putting his finger on a most important positive value of our creatureliness. It is possible to have hope for the world’s future, not in spite of death, but because of death.

The creation myth describes man’s finiteness and creatureliness by saying, ‘Dust you are, to dust you shall return.’14 Christian exegetes of the creation myth have often interpreted this to mean that human mortality is part of the divine judgment on man’s sin. This is probably incorrect.15 It was part of the intention in creation. The judgment consisted of the curse, enmity, pain, thorns, sweat, etc., which man would henceforth endure until he returned to the ground from which he was taken.

Of all the views of man and his purpose that were expressed in the ancient world, that of ancient Israel most nearly conforms to the modern knowledge of the human condition. Not only are our physical bodies formed from the physical substance of the earth, but our minds are molded by the particular culture into which we find ourselves born. We are earth-bound creatures and we are history-bound creatures. Just as our physical bodies have evolved to suit the particular conditions on this planet and that of no other known to us, so our minds and spirits have been shaped by our experience to be at home in the particular historical period in which we live. To be suddenly plunged by a science-fiction time-machine into, say, the first century, would be as psychologically traumatic as it would be physiologically fatal to be suddenly landed on the planet Jupiter.

Man has repeatedly rebelled against his creatureliness and sought earnestly for immortality, on the grounds that he thought he was worthy of something better than a finite historical existence. It is remarkable how many theological discussions of the immortality of the human spirit could be boiled down to this argument, ‘I cannot conceive how a loving God can do this to me.’ But this fallacy, however understandable, stems from the misunderstanding of the true purpose of man’s creation. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: ‘All the plausible and implausible proofs for the immortality of the soul are efforts on the part of the human mind to master and to control the consummation of life. They all try to prove in one way or another that an eternal element in the nature of man is worthy and capable of survival beyond death.’16

From Israel we have learned to see man as a finite creature whose purpose in life is to serve God by the way he lives his life, cares for his fellows, treats all other forms of life and uses the world. In this task he serves not as an individual, but as a member of a community, which, at its greatest extent, is the whole human community. The end of a man’s life can never be divorced from the end of the community. The welfare of the ongoing community, as we have indicated above, depends upon the phenomenon of the death of the individual.

Without in any way wishing to ignore what has been called the ‘tragic sense of life’, let us at this point affirm the positive values of human existence, finite though it is. From Israel we have learned to see it as an opportunity for making a worthwhile contribution to the human community in which we live. We have also learned from them that life is intended to be enjoyed. Enjoyment which is selfishly grasped for its own sake may turn out to be short-lived. The more satisfying enjoyment of life depends upon making the right responses to the needs of the community around us, in short, of offering the contribution to the world, for which we have the potential and which may be said to be the end, or purpose, for which we exist.

It is within a man’s lifetime that he either fulfils, or fails to fulfil, the purpose of his life. Sometimes this can be clearly seen as he reaches the peak of a very fruitful career, but often the question of whether a man has fulfilled his potential is much more problematical. The question itself is one of judgment. This is a convenient place, therefore, to move on to the next important truth expressed in the ancient myth of the end-time. It consistently described how, at the end of time, men would appear before the Judgment Seat of God to give an account of their lives, to hear the sentence of judgment passed, and to receive the due reward or punishment.

It has already been pointed out that the judgment described in the myth is a projection on to the backdrop of the judgment already taking place in daily life. Throughout quite a long period of ancient Israel it was readily recognized that judgment is experienced in the present life. There was a strong conviction, to be found clearly in Deuteronomy, in many of the Psalms, and in the mouth of Job’s comforters, that a man receives the due rewards and punishments for his deeds during the course of his own lifetime. The author of Job effectively showed that this interpretation of judgment is too simple to be viable. Life is much more complex than that. Many a man, at least in the eyes of his fellows, seems to end his life either with a credit-balance of meritorious deeds for which he has never received adequate recognition, or, more likely, with a debit-balance of evil deeds for which he has apparently suffered no adequate penalty.

It was the dubious issue of whether one can actually be sure that there is true judgment in the on-going scene that led to the evolution of the myth of the Last Judgment. No one has expressed the cry for final vindication better than the author of Job:

O that my words might be inscribed,
O that they might be engraved in an inscription,
cut with an iron tool and filled with lead
to be a witness in hard rock!
But in my heart I know that my vindicator lives
and that he will rise last to speak in court;
and I shall discern my witness standing at my side
and see my defending counsel, even God himself,
who I shall see with my own eyes,
I myself and no other.17

It is most important to recognize that the myth of the Last Judgment took root in Judaism to satisfy, not a longing for personal immortality, but a longing to be assured that this is not a meaningless topsy-turvy world, but one in which righteousness and justice are ultimately victorious. In the above words, Job is seeking not immortality, but vindication. The myth of the Last Judgment was originally not concerned with what happened after the judgment had been passed. It was natural, however, that in the course of time the description of the judgment should be followed by references to eternal bliss, or eternal punishment.

When, in the second century BC., the Jews experienced an increasing amount of persecution and martyrdom on account of their religious faith, the myth of the end-time received a sudden boost. The Jews were concerned for the injustice which they felt the martyrs had suffered. They sought assurance that the death of these men would be vindicated. The myth gave that assurance. But we must not overlook the point that their sense of assurance also implied that they believed that they could already see how the divine sentence would he uttered. If there had been any real doubt about this, the myth of a final judgment would not have helped in the situation one little bit.

The myth of the Last Judgment enabled the Jews, and later the Christians, to believe already that the martyrs had not died in vain, for God would be certain to vindicate their faith and loyalty by his divine pronouncement. The imaginative pictures of the myth provided an expression of their faith that the divine judgment was already certain even in their own time though it was not yet clearly to be seen. The death of the martyrs, in other words, was believed already to contain, in their act of self-denial and sacrifice, the certainty of divine vindication. We may say, in theory of course, that the heart of the myth of the Last Judgment sought primarily an assurance that justice would be done, irrespective of whether the final sentence would be either for or against those who were pinning their faith upon it. Only the maturest of human souls, however, are prepared to continue to long for the judgment under these conditions.

It is salutary to remember that in the course of Christian history those who have been most adamant in proclaiming the reality of the Last Judgment have displayed rather too much assurance that they themselves would be among the ones to hear ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, while their enemies would be among those to be cast into outer darkness.

The more the myth of the end-time became elaborated, and thought of as a future event, even though imminent, the more it necessitated imagery appropriate to the future. This is the reason why resurrection became a necessary element in the myth -- the resurrection, first of the martyrs, then of the worst offenders, then of all the Jews, and finally of all men. It is important to see that only now, after we have discussed the implications for us of the whole myth of the end-time, are we really ready to discuss the meaning of the ‘resurrection of the dead’ which formed a part of it.

The resurrection of the dead was not so much the heart of the myth of the end-time as a necessary implication of it, once judgment became focussed on the end-time as the reference point. The use of the idiom of resurrection in the myth enabled the myth to possess an air of reality or ‘the ring of truth’. For in the thought-world of Judaism where death had long been acknowledged as the end of personal existence, a Judgment scene at the end of the world would have been devoid of reality if those to be judged could not be considered present.

The first thing to be emphasized here is that the very use of the idiom of resurrection implies that the phenomenon of death is real for the whole person and not just for his physical body. It rules out any view of man which suggests that, in whole or in part, the individual survives death and continues to live a conscious existence. The widespread belief which has existed in many forms and is commonly referred to as ‘life after death’, and of which modern spiritualism is but one example, is eliminated at the outset by the use of the idiom of resurrection. One needs to speak of resurrection only when all forms of belief in personal survival of death have been abandoned.

Here we may pause to reflect on the fact that in human experience it is much easier to believe in human survival than it is in the finiteness of human existence.18 The almost universal belief in an ‘after-life’ which developed from primitive man onwards was only to be expected. A belief in a personal preexistence has never been as widespread as the belief in personal survival, even though it did contribute to the well known doctrine of reincarnation. Perhaps the reason is that we can ourselves observe the development of a person from a helpless newly-born infant (which we still sometimes catch ourselves calling an ‘it’) to the years of adulthood. But when death cuts us off from a mature person whom we respect and love, it is a different matter. The invisible relationship which has grown up in the course of a long experience is so strong and real that it does survive the phenomenon of death, for a longer or shorter period, and continues to bring to us a sense of the ‘livingness’ of the deceased. If death were always preceded, however, as unfortunately on rare occasions it sometimes is, by a period of slow decay, as long in years as the original period of growth to physical maturity, until any kind of personal communion had been rendered virtually impossible, then we would not only welcome death, as a merciful release, but be less inclined to assume the survival of the deceased in an ‘after-life’. The belief in survival often arises spontaneously in our minds to cushion us against the shock of death and enable us to become adjusted to the new situation.

The completeness of the phenomenon of death is something that it is not at all easy for us to accept. Yet from all sides today modern knowledge of the human creature and his world is forcing us to face up to the finiteness of human existence, to which, in so many ways, Israel pioneered the road. It is a mistake to think that this represents a loss. The tragic aspect of our finiteness is more to be felt when a person dies before his time. This tragic sense of life will be discussed in the last chapter. The life that reaches to ‘threescore years and ten’ or even ‘eighty if our strength holds’19 can be very good and satisfying, even though it is known from the beginning that it will be ended by death.

The hope of a long and satisfying life is both understandable and fully justified, for it is in accordance with the purpose for which man was made. But the desire for personal survival after death is quite a different matter. The person, whether Christian or not, who feels let down if his expectation of a life after death is shown to have no substance, stands under the rebuke of J.B.S. Haldane when he says, ‘The belief in my own eternity seems to me indeed to be a piece of unwarranted self-glorification, and the desire for it a gross concession to selfishness.’20 John Macquarrie would evidently agree, and on Christian grounds, for he writes, ‘any worthy conception of the ultimate destiny of the individual must be purged from every trace of egocentricity. Often one has the impression that arguments for immortality or for the continued existence of the individual are infected by a wrong kind of self-regard. If the fulfillment of individual existence is to be somehow like God, then this means learning the love that loses itself by pouring itself out; and this might mean that the individual existent must be prepared to vanish utterly into the whole, and for the sake of the whole.’21

It has been common for Christians to appeal to the dictum of St. Paul, ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all men are most to be pitied.’22 It is not at all certain, however, that Paul intended to convey the particular implication that has so often been taken out of this verse, which the New English Bible renders alternatively, and perhaps more correctly, as, ‘If it is only an uncertain hope that our life in Christ has given us, we of all men are most to be pitied.’

The idiom of resurrection is an expression of hope, but it is one which first of all acknowledges the reality and finality of death. Man was created to be a physical creature (dust of the earth), and an historical creature (shaped by human history, past and present). His existence as a conscious, living being is subject to the limits of birth and death, The book of his life may be said to be opened at birth and closed at death. The idiom of resurrection recognizes this, and it is opposed to alternative views of man, either that a part of man survives death or that death is unreal, an illusion, simply being the name for the veil through which a man passes into a fuller life in another world from which we are ourselves cut off. Resurrection recognizes that death is real and that no part of man survives death. The book of a man’s life is closed. But the closure of the book is not to be confused with the destruction of the book. That is why the comparison of death with the snuffing Out of a candle is a misleading half-truth. The death of a man brings his life to a close, but it does not thereby eliminate what his historical existence has been, as would be the case if he had never lived at all. It is because his book of life is dosed, but not destroyed, that it is possible to go on and speak of resurrection.

The next important thing to recognize about resurrection is that it is not to be confused with resuscitation. Resuscitation is a process by which the near-death or temporary death is reversed and the former life restored. Resurrection has unfortunately all too often been confused with this process of reversal. We have seen this to be largely the case with the Lucan version of the resurrection of Jesus which became the standard tradition through most of Christian history. For this reason it was necessary at the very outset to raise the question of the meaning we attach to the idiom of resurrection. It could be argued that tradition has orientated the term resurrection so much in the direction of resuscitation that it is no longer possible to undo the damage. If Christians wish to continue to use the idiom of resurrection as an expression of hope, then there is no alternative but to keep on attempting to make clear what it means and does not mean.

Whereas resuscitation refers to the elimination or reversal of death, resurrection acknowledges the phenomenon of death in all its completeness and then goes on to become the idiom of hope, not so much by ignoring death as by accepting it. Consequently, it is legitimate to speak of resurrection in terms of ‘victory over death’, but not in terms of the ‘abolition of death’. Resurrection does not abolish death for it does not mean the literal restoration of a person to his former conscious existence, any more than the resurrection of life from the dying seed means the literal restoration of the original seed. The seed dies and remains dead. The new harvest that has drawn its life from the dying seed is essentially another collection of seeds. In the human scene the real parallel to the seed is of course the birth of the new infant, drawing its life from its parents, and receiving much of its personal characteristics from the genes they have transmitted. The generation of new human life in this way has sometimes been regarded as a form of immortality. Though, by itself procreation must be counted as inadequate as an expression of human hope, it must nevertheless be regarded as an important part of the total picture of hope that we are trying to unfold through the idiom of resurrection. There is a sense in which men ‘rise’ to new life in those whom they have procreated and/or influenced.

Resurrection is an idiom which acknowledges the fact of death but does not allow death to have the last word, for it is pointing to the way in which, even in the natural world, death is being followed again and again by a fresh manifestation of life, which has been possible only because of the phenomenon of death. To revert to the earlier metaphor, we may say that resurrection does not mean the re-opening of the book of life so that further chapters may be added, but rather the preservation of the book so that it may be read, and, being read, bring joy, satisfaction and inspiration.

The next important element in the idiom of resurrection is that it is concerned with the destiny of the whole man, soul and body, spirit and flesh. It rejects the implication that man can be divided, into his higher or lower parts, his immortal and his mortal parts. This is why the human concern for the whole person is more carefully safeguarded by this idiom than by any belief in a life after death in which some bodiless spiritual part is thought to survive. It is at this point that we realize there is a great deal to be thankful for in the completeness of death and the implication that it almost certainly means the cessation of the stream of consciousness. This aspect of death is not to be feared, but something to be devoutly hoped for. The thought of being eternally conscious, yet without body, should such a state be even conceivable any more, must be the very worst kind of hell that one could imagine.

The early church fathers, such as Tertullian, who insisted that the resurrection of the dead entailed not only the body but the flesh with all its parts entire, were prompted by the right motives, even if they expressed them with words and in a thought-world which we can no longer share. If there is going to be any way at all of expressing some form of ultimate hope for man, then it must be for the whole person. The restoration of his spirit is, in the end, no more satisfying than the restoration of only one leg. The idiom of resurrection was used to express hope for the whole man.

But what kind of hope can there be for the whole man beyond the point of death, if death is to be understood in the way we have described? At this stage we part company with all traditional expressions of hope which have been based on the continuation of the conscious personal self. Such egocentricity leads to a form of hope which ends only in vanity. If man is to have any hope which may be said to partake of the quality of eternity, it must be one which can be related to the much grander vision of God’s purpose for his universe as a whole.

Man was not created in the first place for his own sake or for his own aggrandizement. Man was created for the glory of God, and he glorifies God by doing the work for which he was created and sent.23 We have been taught in the Lord’s prayer to pray not ‘That will be glory for me’, but ‘Thine is the glory for ever’. Our chief concern as Christians is to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’. The hope that continues beyond the point of death is that one’s life will be accepted by God as having fulfilled some part, at least, of the purpose for which one was created.

We now see the reason why ‘the resurrection of the dead’ was essentially related to the myth of judgment and must never be divorced from it. The judgment itself is all part of man’s eternal hope. It is sometimes pointed out that ancient man sought deliverance from the wrath to come, medieval man sought deliverance from guilt and modern man seeks deliverance from meaninglessness. These are all facets of judgment. In a world which bewilders us by its complexity and contradictions, our hope is that there is meaning both in the universe and in human existence. In other words, we hope there is a real and continuing form of judgment, which does not cease at the point of our death, but is eternal, moving to an end of completeness. So far as the finite lives of men are concerned, our hope is that our own life and those of others will be accepted by God as having contributed to his purpose for the world. In this way they will have been vindicated, they will have been judged worthwhile and meaningful, and they will not have been lived in vain.

Here we begin to see some meaning for our time in the term ‘the resurrection of the dead’. We are expressing our hope that there is meaning in the life of every man, and because there is meaning, all that we think and say and do is of some importance to the total future of this world. Moreover, the meaning is to be found in the sum total of a man’s life, whether it be long or short. Judgment is not confined to the circumstances of a man just prior to his death. It is the whole life of a man from beginning to end, as written in the book of his life, which rises to God for judgment. A man’s earlier mistakes are considered in the light of his repentance and moral amendment. A man’s moral failures are considered in the light of the environmental handicaps by which his earlier years were shaped. The idiom of resurrection emphasizes that it is not a part, but the whole of a man’s historical existence which is raised before the Judgment seat of God.

The finality of death also means that the opportunity for repentance and amendment comes to an end. The abolition of the doctrine of purgatory was justified not only on biblical grounds, but also because it did not take judgment seriously enough. The call of God to obedient service is always one which must be hearkened to today. Tomorrow may be too late.

Whenever we confess the traditional words of the creed ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’, we are not comforting ourselves with the hope of personal immortality; we are making a very solemn confession about the serious purpose of life. We are saying that even when death has brought an end to our conscious existence, our whole historical life remains as part of the history of the universe, and, as such, it continues to influence others for better or for worse. That is how the judgment of God manifests itself in the continuing life of the world.

The term ‘resurrection of the dead’ should not be interpreted as a hope for the prolongation or restoration of our own conscious existence. It is a hope for the world in which we live, a hope for the meaning of human life, and a hope that when our conscious existence is ended, the historical life we have lived may be raised before the eternal Judge, and may be vindicated, as being of some value for that Kingdom which is eternal and for whose fuller manifestation on earth we ever pray.

 

Notes:

1. See Part I of God in the New World.

2. Principles of Christian Theology, p. 316.

3. op. cit., p. 299.

4. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, p. 178.

5. See Chap. 16 of God in the New World for a discussion of ‘Myth as the Language of Faith’.

6. See Chap. 9 of God in the New World.

7. See J. Macquarrie, op. cit., pp. 194-200.

8. Isaiah 2:4.

9. Isaiah rx:6.

10. op. cit., p. 316.

11. Gen. 1:31.

12. John 12:24.

13. Gen. 1:28.

14. Gen. 3:19.

15. See von Rad, Genesis, p. 92.

16. op. cit., p. 3o5f.

17. Job 19:23-7. The reader should be warned that some of the original Hebrew text is regarded as obscure and unintelligible. See p. 103.

18. The reader is referred to the discussion in The Living God and the Modern World, pp. 108-41 where Peter Hamilton outlines the problem of the traditional doctrine of the after-life more fully than we have room for here.

19. Psalm 90:10.

20. Possible Worlds and Other Essays, p. 210.

21. op. cit., p. 321.

22. 5 Cor. 15:19.

23. Cf. John 17:4.

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