We live in a beautiful sea-side city. If I take a certain route to the beach front, I drive past a large cemetery where lie my father, mother, younger brother and sister. The family grave can take one more coffin – whose will it be? That’s the reality.
A brief summary of the Old Testament understanding of death and resurrection:
- Throughout Israel’s religion runs the fear of death: ‘For my life is full of troubles, and death draws near (Sheol = the vague, shadowy world of the dead). I am as good as dead, like a strong man with no strength left. They have left me among the dead, and I lie like a corpse in the grave…’ (Ps. 88:3-5). Almost three years ago, I lay comatose for five weeks following emergency surgery and a viral respiratory infection. In that hallucinatory state I saw myself in a deep underground cavern, lying among corpses on a cold stone slab, watching my last minutes tick by. My own version of Sheol!? Lol!
- However, even in Sheol, the OT held an expectation beyond the grave. Even here there were indications of Yahweh’s dominion over death: ‘you will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your holy one to rot in the grave. You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever’ (Ps. 16:9ff). Sheol didn’t have the last word! (on personal reflection, thank God!)
The New Testament picture of death and resurrection is much clearer! [On a trip to Israel some years ago, Melanie and I explored the beautiful garden tomb location of Jesus’ resurrection and the more likely resurrection site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher] The difference between the OT and NT pictures is not that one lacks and the other has an eschatology. Rather, in the NT, the reality of Yahweh’s life-giving power is fully revealed. The focus is no longer on what God can do in the face of death but on what he has done! The apostle Paul reminds his apprentice, Timothy, ‘And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News!’ (2 Tim. 1:10)
Pauline expert Tom Wright is unsurpassed when it comes to bringing to life the key resurrection passage of 1 Cor. 15 (in itself a summary of the whole Gospel):
- Some in Corinth had denied the resurrection of the believer, on the normal pagan grounds that ‘everyone knew’ dead people stayed dead. In chap. 15 Paul refers to Jesus’ resurrection as ‘the first-fruit of the great harvest,’ when all who belong to him will be raised as he was (v. 23).
- 1 Cor. 15 echoes and alludes to Gen. 1-3. It’s a theology of ‘new creation,’ not the abandonment of creation. The passage speaks of two different kinds of bodies, the present one and the future one. As a Greek expert, Wright makes the point that several popular translations (RSV, etc) have incorrectly translated the two bodies as ‘a physical body’ and ‘a spiritual body.’ Paul is in fact contrasting the present, decaying and doomed-to-die body with the future, non-decaying, never-to-die body. Our present body is animated by the human psyche, which gets us through the present life but is powerless against illness, decay and death. Our future body is animated by God’s pneuma, i.e. ‘the energizing breath’ of God’s new creation!
- In second-Temple Judaism, resurrection was a peripheral topic. But in early Christianity the resurrection moves from the circumference to the centre. It was also central to the early Church fathers Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. In short, take away the stories of Jesus’ birth (important as that is) and you lose two chapters of Matthew and Luke each. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire NT and most of the 2nd century church fathers. 
- Judaism was vague on what kind of body the resurrected would possess. From the start early Christianity taught that it would be a body as real as the physical object occupying space and time right now. But, in addition, it would be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, would have brand-new properties. For Paul the new body would not be a kind of ‘spiritual body’ in the sense of a ‘non-material’ one. Our future body will be one of ‘transformed physicality,’ which we can hardly imagine while here on earth. Paul is making his readers think in new patterns: there will be a new mode of physicality, i.e. our future bodies will be much more real, more firmed up (thank God!) and more transcendent in every way. We sometimes speak of someone who’s been very ill as being ‘a shadow of their former self.’ Well, a believer in the present life is a mere shadow of his/her future self, which God keeps for us in his heavenly storeroom, made to measure and put on at Jesus’ return. As an Easter hymn says:
‘O how glorious and resplendent
Fragile body, thou shalt be,
When endued with so much beauty,
Full of health, and strong, and free!
Full of vigor, full of pleasure,
That shall last eternally!’
- If we ask why we shall be given new bodies, the answer is they’ll empower us to ‘rule wisely’ over God’s new world (cf. Gen. 1-2). Forget those images of disembodied spirits strumming harps on cloud 9. There will be service to render, and we’ll relish it. All the talents, skills and gifts we have put to God’s service in our present life – and perhaps even our interests and likings we gave up because they conflicted with our present vocation, will be enhanced, ennobled and exercised to our Creator-Redeemer’s praise. Coming back to Gen. 1 and 2, the garden will need tending once more, animal life re-named, the ecology looked after, etc. All these are signposts to a larger reality, a reality to which most Christians give little or no thought. [I’m sure my wife will be allocated to the garden dept, while I’ll oversee the theological library dept – I hope so!]
When will this resurrection happen? In past years, philosophically believing that God is beyond space and time, I believed that we go, immediately upon our death, into the full resurrection state. However, if we stick closely to the NT text, that is unlikely. Paul says that, if Christ is the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection, those who belong to him will be ‘raised at his coming.’ John’s Apocalypse and many contemporary Jewish writings speak of the dead waiting patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, for the time when they would finally be raised to the fullness of new life in Christ. As Wright has observed, ‘Time matters; it was part of the original good creation.’ [the subject of ‘time’ is massive, so no details here]
At the end of this Second Coming series, it’s time to make a simple choice. C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic ‘The Problem of Pain:’ “They (Adam and Eve) wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls’ their own.’ But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner.’ Won’t you change your mind about God (‘repent’), come to a loving Christ just as you are and surrender all of you to him? Share that good news with someone today! Jesus won’t spare you pain on this earth, but he will be with you in it all, to the end of the age!
(Joni Eareckson Tada – ‘Why Should I Fear Death?’ Christianity Today )
- Beware the many popular teachings today that maintain the answer to life lies within us, when the answer lies in Christ, who he is and what he’s graciously done for us.
- The Church has always been beleaguered by a kind of spiritualism/dualism that excludes the body from the final Christ-event. ‘Man’s whole existence is affected by the revelation of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. There is no trace of dualism here… In this bodily existence the bell of the future sounds!’ (G.C. Berkouwer).
- Joni, the renowned quadriplegic Christian author and speaker, now living in chronic pain, testifies that that pain is eased by the prospect of her bodily resurrection and transformation in Christ.
- Dallas Willard (‘The Divine Conspiracy’) uses two pictures to explain the believer’s dying. The first depicts a child playing in the evening among her toys. Gradually she grows tired and lays her head down for a moment of rest, lazily continuing to play. The next thing she experiences or ‘tastes’ is the morning light of a new day, flooding the bed her parents tucked her into. Significantly, we don’t remember ‘falling asleep,’ we don’t ‘see’ it or ‘taste’ it! The second picture is of one who walks to a doorway between rooms. While still interacting with those they are leaving, they begin to see and converse with people in the room beyond. Before the widespread use of heavy sedation, it was common for those keeping watch at the bedside of the dying to observe how the one making the transition often begins to speak of those who have gone before. They come to meet him/her while still in touch with those they’re leaving behind. The curtain parts briefly before they pass through the door to life beyond the grave. These pictures helped me when contemplating my own mortality, post-surgery, a few years ago. I trust they help you too.