This will be my last on the series “Understanding the NT from the OT” and I hope you’ve enjoyed and wrestled with the issues I’ve shared. This post is dedicated to Ghana Posts, who failed to deliver my hard copy version of “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, forcing me to buy a Kindle version. I hope they can “resurrect” my package, wherever it has ended up.
My friends on Facebook who are a bit more attentive will know by now that I’m a fan of Bob Marley’s music, and one of his songs which fascinates me is “Get Up, Stand Up” which he did with The Wailers. Bob Marley starts the first and second verses off this way.
“Preacher man don’t tell me, Heaven is under the earth, I know you don’t know, what life is really worth …”
“Most people think, great god will come from the skies, take away everything, and make everybody feel high …”
Peter Tosh takes the baton over in the last one, and says
“We sick and tired of your ism-skism game, dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a-Jesus name Lord, We know when we understand, almighty god is a living man …”
Now you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that these guys are being critical of dominant Christianity and our pie-in-the-sky mentality regarding not caring about what goes on down here, in the hope of something nice and wonderful laid out for us in heaven. But what if Christianity had something to say regarding what goes on on this earth – regarding the injustice, wickedness, hatred, hypocrisy and war that rages on this earth till this day? Maybe we can answer some (if not all) of brother Marley’s vexations if we pay a bit more attention to the history and beliefs that attended the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, as well as the early Christians interpretation of what Jesus resurrection actually meant. I’ll do this with the help of “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by NT Wright, one of the best books recommended by Christian apologists on the resurrection of Jesus. You can also view a summary of Christian apologist William Lane Craig defending Jesus’s bodily resurrection here, which makes the same points as this book.
The Greco-Roman Influence
The Old (and New) Testament being a document focused on the lives of the people of Israel before, during and after the Babylonian exile, doesn’t give too much detail about what else was going on around the world at the time. But there is no doubt that whatever else was going on around them always had an impact, and so we ignore this impact to our own detriment.
The Greek king, Alexander the Great had done a great job of conquering a very large part of the earth, stretching from modern day Europe to modern day southern Asia into one large Greek empire. However almost immediately after his death, war between his generals meant the generals split the empire into 3 parts – the Ptolemaic, the Seleucid and the Pergamon empires. So, the returnees and inhabitants of Judah found themselves under the rule of the Seleucids, and that alone lead to some significant developments. Later this kingdom was defeated by Rome, so again Judah had new masters, and therefore new cultural influences. Just as today the British empire has bequeathed us Africans with certain legacies (e.g. our obsession to still require a white wedding in addition to our own African ceremonies for example), so did Greek and Roman culture have an influence on the world at the time, and certainly beliefs about life after death were not left out.
Life After Death – The Greco-Roman Perspective
To the everyday Greek person, the venerated Greek writer Homer’s books were their equivalent of the Old Testament. Writer of books like Illiad and Odyssey, which includes stories about the Tojan war and Achilles etc, his writing was the standard reading for all Greek people (and overtime others who were conquered by the Greeks).
So the Greeks believed (from Homer) that every dead person went to Hades, which was ruled by the god of that same name and his wife Persephone. In Hades everyone lived a miserable life – there really wasn’t much to look up to. Some few people seemed to have received a greater punishment than others, but Hades was truly a sad and gloomy place where every dead person finally lives after death. Apparently one needs to cross a river to get to Hades, so when burying people sometimes coins or some other “essentials” were placed in the coffin for them to pay the fare. All of this meant that to the Greek then, one must gain all the glory that one can on this earth, because there’s nothing to look up to after this life one had. This sounds a lot like some modern worldviews we know of.
Along came Plato, who developed a very respectable reputation as a philosopher (and Greeks LOVED philosophy). He challenged Homer’s view that there was nothing good to look forward to after death, by redefining what Hades was like. Hades was split between Isle of the Blessed – where good people who had done their duty to the kingdom well lived a blissful life – and Tartarus – an abyss where all the evil people will receive their punishment. Plato wanted to create a sort of reason why people should live a good life instead of just pursuing personal glory (and riches) alone. Plato and the philosophers who came after him also introduced the idea of human souls already existing before time, and being sent into a temporary body to prove itself worthy so that it may receive the blessing of being counted amongst those who would be in the Isle of the Blessed. To Platonism then, in contrast to Homer, life on earth wasn’t all that there was. It was just a temporary thing along with the body in which you lived, and that the real thing was to be judged to have lived in the body one was given well so that after death one may be rewarded – even possibly to be declared a “god” to join the father of the gods, Zeus (or Jupiter, as the Romans called him). The writings of Plato (and other philosophers after him) became the “New Testament” to the Greek people. The Romans were also influenced by these thoughts from their former conquerors, and so held to much the same beliefs with some slight modifications here and there. It is interesting to note the similarities between this new understanding and some strands of Christianity.
The possibility mentioned above of some people being made “gods” was the basis for the practice of “apotheosis” – where some of the dead Roman kings were declared gods, and therefore their successors to be “sons of god”. It is obvious why Jesus’s claim to be “son of God” ruffled both Jews (he cannot be son of God if he was killed by their number one enemy – Rome) and Gentiles (Act 7:7 – “… and they act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus”) .
You will note one clear thing – none of them say anything about coming back to this earth. The Greco-Roman world didn’t accept the notion of dead people coming back to life to live normally on this earth as possible. The dead may visit you in a vision or dream. They may even appear as ghosts, or spirits or angels of a sorts to give a message. They had a word for it “anastasis” aka resurrection, but they didn’t believe it possible. To them, death was the end, and any life thereafter was life lived in either the Isle of the Blessed or Tartarus. Period.
Life After “Life After Death” – The Jewish Perspective
The Jews however had a very different idea of death, which they were the only ones who held to in their world – that YHWH will forgive the sins of his people Israel (Dan 9, Isaiah 40:1-11; Jer 31:31-34;Ezek 36:22-32), judge the world and resurrect the righteous dead to receive their rewards, and the unrighteous dead to be condemned. In that judgment, YHWH will also restore the fortunes of Israel, renew his covenant with them “by the Spirit”, and cleanse and transform this world, bring his heaven down to this earth – typically described with the words “new creation” or “new heaven and new earth”. The most explicit biblical support for the ideas of resurrection of the dead come from Daniel 12:2-3 and Isaiah 26:19.
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever”(Dan 12:2-3).
“But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise – let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy – your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”(Is 26:19).
Although these passages are specific about the resurrection event itself, they cannot be divorced from the issues that are being discussed in the chapters as a whole – YHWH’s restoration of the fortunes of his special nation, Israel. Resurrection went with other judgment activities of YHWH, vindicating Israel’s claim to be his special people.
This belief in resurrection (life after “life after death”) lead to some interesting practices being adopted by Jews regarding burials. David Daube in his book “The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism”, catalogs how Pharisees introduced new laws regarding executing people accused of capital offenses.
“Stoning was moderated; burning was to be done by forcing liquid down the throat; strangling was by a particular method; all was in aid of leaving the bone structure intact. The body was important … Cremation was avoided for the same reason.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, NT Wright referring to David Daube’s work.)
However, there were those who challenged this belief in bodily “life after life after death”, and this school of thought is reflected by the Sadducees. They claimed that the Torah (the books of Moses) had nothing to say on the subject, and since that was more authoritative than the prophets, they didn’t believe in it. This was the basis for the challenge of the Sadducees to Jesus in Mk 12:18-27 that in the resurrection, who will be the husband of a woman who had been forced to marry all seven brothers after each of them died. They wanted to trap Jesus and make the resurrection an absurd belief. Jesus skillfully saw through the trap, and his answer reinforced the belief in resurrection, much to their annoyance.
One question that arose then was what happens between when one is dead and when YHWH returns to restore Israel’s fortunes? Was there life after death? Some Jews said the dead were just dead. Others said the spirits of the dead were with other righteous dead – this is typically explained with the phrase “gathered to his people” (Gen 49:29 of Jacob’s death), “slept with his ancestors” (1 Ki 2:10 of David) etc. Because it was believed that YHWH’s love extended even after death to those he loved, it was surmised then that the righteous dead were with him in his realm – heaven. This is where early Christianity obtains it’s belief that when we die, we go to heaven as expatiated by the former Pharisee, Paul the apostle – “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23).
It is obvious then that all Jews were awaiting a redemptive work of YHWH which will bring ALL the righteous back to life. Aka the righteous dead will come back to life. Not one and not some, but all the righteous.
This is in sure contradiction to the conviction that the Greco-Roman world around them only looked forward to life after death, and returning back into this earth in a full bodily form was NOT expected. Aka, the dead stayed dead. If there is a life after death, it is in the land of the dead, not the living.
Therefore Jesus defeating death by resurrecting was a huge spanner in the works for both Jew and Gentile. To his disciples, his resurrection vindicated him in all that he had said and done. After all many Messiahs had come before him and had all died at the hands of the enemy. A Messiah who dies at the hands of his enemies would not have been accepted even by his own disciples (no wonder they scattered after his death), but having resurrected meant that YHWH had vindicated this one to be the true Messiah. It is the resurrection of Jesus that confirmed him to truly be the son of God, and the saviour of the world. If Jesus had stayed dead in the tomb, THERE WILL BE NO CHRISTIANITY, his death will have no salvation effect. This point cannot be overstated – the center of the gospel is the resurrection of the son of God, which then makes sense of his death on the cross.
Paying much more attention now, I’m beginning to see how much Paul places an emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection.
“But God raised him from the dead …We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Ac 13:30-33)
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30-31)
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”(Rom 1:1-4)
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)
“And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor 15:14).
There are so many more places where Paul emphasizes the monumental importance of the resurrection of Jesus, I can’t quote them all here. Suffice it to say that what apotheosis couldn’t do for the Roman emperor, YHWH had done for Jesus. That is why the early Christians called him Lord – he has been “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). Not only had his resurrection shown him to be the true son of God, but it made his death meaningful as a means of defeating the last great enemy of God’s purposes – death and its sting, sin (1 Cor 15:54).
The hope of our resurrection with Christ then becomes a central piece of all the writers of the NT, and when Paul and Peter speaks of our inheritance, they are referring to it.
What About Bob Marley?
The one thing that the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah meant for the life of those who believed in it was that YHWH had launched his project of new creation now. It’s fullness will indeed be revealed when he returns to consummate the work, but it already began through Jesus own activity of resurrection. Those who believed in the resurrection then were not just a people who had received and lived a newness of life, they also became people who are participating with God in his work of new creation. Therefore they become a people who are not only satisfied with themselves – they become workers of good, seekers of justice and self-sacrificial lambs even to the death. Death becomes to them indeed an enemy, but an enemy that has been defeated already by Jesus the Messiah, and therefore something they are not afraid of in pursuit of good deeds and justice. In the same way that the hope of resurrection helped the sons of Maccabee stand against their enemies and be willing to die for the cause of God’s redemption of Israel (read 2 Maccabees), resurrection was a hope for early Christians to not be afraid to work for justice and pursue good works which God had prepared beforehand for us (Eph 2:10) even at the pain of death – because Jesus the Messiah had been resurrected, and therefore they will too.
The above seems to be quite different from the “gospel” that our brother Bob Marley (and many others who are critical of Christianity) have heard. To them, Christianity has painted the picture of “docile” men who do not care about what happens on this earth, because “this world is not their home” as Jimmy Reeves put it. Over the course of history, Christianity has focused more on life after death, to the neglect of life after “life after death”. Matters are made worse by the dispensationalists, who day in day out are busy frightening us of being left behind in the rapture so they go to a better place and leave this world to rot, not knowing how close to Platonism they are. This has benefited the political elite of today and times past (just as it benefited the Sadduccees, the political elite of their time who also didn’t believe in resurrection) as Christians have left the work of doing good and seeking justice to governments. We have forgotten that the church is a place where new creation is displayed, where Jesus is good news to the poor, the hopeless and the downtrodden (Lk 4:16-19) so that the governments may see that indeed there is a new King, and that king is capable of doing human leadership and government much better than the fallen systems of this world can. If we were busy pursing this task of new creation, then when we speak of a coming judgment, it will really put some trepidation in the hearts of the political elite. But as it stands, resurrection doesn’t seem central to us, therefore Jesus is only seen as some private belief by some group of people to enable them navigate this world so they can go to heaven, whiles the politicians can go about raping and sacking this “wretched” earth which God already plans for destruction anyways.
So can we blame Peter Tosh for being “sick and tired of your ism-skism game, dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a-Jesus name Lord”? Not really in my view, because that has been the Christian message for some centuries now, a message which Christian minds are only now willing to challenge.
The truth though is that no major world religion believes that the dead will come back to live on this earth again except Judaism and its younger brother, Christianity. The best they all do is talk about life after death. That means resurrection of the righteous is our birthright – its the one thing that makes Christianity stand or fall because it’s what makes Jesus life AND death sensible. Let’s not sell our birthright for a mere life after death. There is life after life after death. Jesus the Messiah has indeed shown the way.
Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamor – Our lamb has conquered, him let us follow.