The weeks after Easter bring many reflections on the meaning of Easter. As one who wrote a book about resurrection (The Trouble with Resurrection), I am often amused at what folks assume Easter means in the New Testament. I despair of the New Testament ever getting a fair and honest reading.
According to the newspapers, most Americans believe that resurrection concerns the physical body and guarantees life after death. The story is that Jesus rose physically from the grave to prove to us humans that he was God. After our death our immortal soul goes to heaven where it is judged and then on the final day our bodies will be physically raised up to live eternally in heaven united to our souls.
All of this is far from anything in the New Testament.
Belief in the immortality of the soul is completely absent from the New Testament and does not enter the Christian tradition until late in the second and early third centuries under the growing influence of Platonism and then Neoplatonism. Platonism saw the soul as the true human, an emanation of the divine. Since the soul is essentially divine, it cannot suffer death. Death belongs solely to the body. In this scheme, the soul represents the good, the body the evil. This dichotomy is then used to divide up reality. Male equals the soul, female the body, etc. You get the idea. If you are a woman, you have experienced the bad results of this dichotomy.
When Christianity adopted the Platonic notion of the soul, the divine emanation did not work—that made humans divine, a part of the divine spark. So, the soul became a creation by God. But if the created soul is immortal, it cannot die (which for the Greeks was the definition of a god), what is the purpose of resurrection? The immortality of the soul guarantees life after death. Resurrection then becomes something that happens at the end of time, the restoration of the body/soul division. Resurrection became secondary in Christianity, while the immortal soul became primary. Christianity was about soul-saving, as the evangelicals in Oklahoma have it.
Why did Christianity shift from resurrection to immortality? We can only speculate, since they did not tell us. The transition was gradual; there is no abrupt shifting point. Two reasons seem prominent. Platonism, long dominant in the Greek world, and Neoplatonism were becoming the central intellectual current of the day. As the Jesus movements grew and engaged with the larger Greco-Roman society, they inevitably came under the influence of Platonism. As the time between Jesus’ resurrection and his return (Parousia) lengthened, resurrection itself did not work well as an explanation of life after death. So gradually the orthodox story elaborated in the second paragraph above emerged. After death the immortal soul went to heaven and at the end of time the body and soul were reunited in the general resurrection.
The orthodox story had several effects. 1) Saving the soul became central in Christianity. 2) Jesus’ resurrection was separated from the believer’s resurrection, the opposite of Paul’s position (see The Trouble with Resurrection, esp. pp 141–2). 3) It evacuated the Jewish roots of resurrection, part of a general move on the part of Jesus movements away from the traditions of Israel. Orthodox Christianity either took over the traditions of Israel (supersessionism) or adopted other traditions (Neoplatonism).In the New Testament the Gospel of Luke alone presents a physical resurrection. In Luke 24, after the Emmaus story and the report of the women, Jesus appears among them, very much as in the Fourth Gospel (John 20:19). He says, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39 KJV). This is the most explicit reference to a physical resurrection in the New Testament.
It stands in contrast with the Emmaus story in the same gospel, which exhibits various clues that the resurrected body is not physical. 1) The couple on the road do not recognize Jesus. 2) Going through the Scriptures like a super-Rabbi does not convince them. 3) After breaking bread with them, Jesus disappears. Clearly this is not a flesh and bones Jesus. The point of the story is that Jesus is truly recognized in the breaking of the bread, the life of the community.
Since these two appearance stories are clearly in conflict, they probably come from two different layers of the tradition. The second-century dating of Acts (see Acts and Christian Beginnings) means that we also should consider canonical Luke as a second-century product. The flesh and bones resurrected Jesus fits much better with a later date for the gospel, while the Emmaus story is similar in several ways to the Mary Magdalene story in John 21. She too does not recognize Jesus, mistakes him for the gardener. Therefore, seeing is not the way to recognize the resurrected Jesus. Rather she recognizes Jesus in hearing him call her name. Just as God in Genesis creates by naming, so Jesus by speaking her name “Mary” raises up faith in her. Appropriately in a gospel that begins with Logos, word or sound, she recognizes by hearing.
Jesus’ speech in verse 39 is also suspicious. He says he is not a “spirit.” In 1 Cor 15:44 Paul describes the resurrected body as “a spiritual body,” clearly playing on Gen 2:7 where God creates the man by breathing into him.
and YHWH, God formed the human, of dust from the soil,
he blew into his nostrils the breath of life
and the human became a living being. (Everett Fox Translation)
Besides affirming that the resurrected body is a spiritual one, Paul explicitly denies that it is physical. “What I am saying, my friends, is this: flesh and blood is not capable of inheriting the coming Empire of God” (1 Cor 15:50, SV).Luke 24:39 would seem to be an explicit repudiation of 1 Cor 15. Luke has the resurrected Jesus explicitly reject Paul’s statement.
Paul understands resurrection in a very Jewish fashion. Resurrection is God’s vindication of the martyrs and, in the process, creation is restored. This makes a certain sense in the Jewish context. The murder and torture of the martyrs demonstrates that God is not in control of creation, that it is out of control. Therefore, God will raise them up and reclaim God’s creation. For Paul’s contemporaries this was in the future, while for Paul the end-times had begun with God raising Jesus up from the dead, the first of the martyrs to be raised.
For me, Paul’s view makes hermeneutical sense (Caputo, Hermeneutics), not literal sense. His view is undergirded by an apocalyptic worldview, which I no longer can accept. To put it in an aphoristic fashion, Paul and Jewish apocalypticism affirm that life triumphs over death—the value of a life is not life after death but life before death.
Some will say that we should not go beyond the Scriptures. Why? We are all required to think beyond the New Testament. The orthodox story went well beyond the New Testament. Why should not we? To be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, is to think and act in conversation with the tradition, not to embalm it. In my experience, those who claim to stay with the Bible are not really interested in the Bible, but in some later orthodoxy projected back onto the Bible.
Paul affirms that those who die are “dead in the Anointed” (1 Thes 4:16). They are dead and buried; no immortal soul persists after death. “In the Anointed” that is, in the body of the Anointed, describes both the life of those who imitate the faithfulness of Jesus, as well as the promise of the apocalyptic future. Those who have Jesus’ faithfulness, have joined their lives to that of a martyr—that is the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion.
In the past year I have dealt with death and the nearness of death. I understand the comfort some derive from belief in the immortality of the soul. It gives them meaning in the face of death, reassures them that life is not meaningless, and perhaps most importantly assures them that the wicked will be punished. Justice requires the scales of life to balance.
For my part, I think Paul got it right. When we die, we are put in the grave and that’s it. His apocalyptic scenario was a bet (pistis, faith) that God would act to save creation. I cannot accept this apocalyptic scenario literally, but it makes hermeneutical sense. We live our lives in such a way as to bet that the future makes sense. Our lived life should redeem the future.
The nihilist argues that since there is no ultimate value, no ultimate punishment, one can do whatever one wants. Although I do not think there is an ultimate punishment, no ultimate judgment after death, that does not mean there are no ultimate values. We create those values and we are responsible to ourselves and the future for carrying out those values. Whatever meaning there is, we create. That is the meaning of life.
Those who believe in the life after death, with ultimate judgment and reward and punishment, need to answer Marx’s critique of religion that it is an opium for folk’s suffering in the here and now. I don’t think they can answer Marx.
Christian orthodoxy substituted immortality of the soul for resurrection. Resurrection bets on the future; immortality guarantees it. A life well lived is a bet (faith) that life makes meaning.
Caputo, John D. Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information. Penguin UK, 2018.
Fox, Everett, trans. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. New York: Schocken, 1995.
Scott, Bernard Brandon. The Trouble with Resurrection. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2011.
Smith, Dennis Edwin, Joseph B Tyson, and Westar Institute, eds. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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