During the Babylonian captivity, when the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, and its nobility sent into exile throughout the empire, God vouchsafed to the prophet Ezekiel certain visions of Israel restored. Judah was the last of the old Kingdom of Israel. The northern tribes had rebelled against the royal line of King David and raised their own kings. These tribes had fallen to Assyria more than a century earlier and had been driven from the Holy Land. Now the Kingdom of Judah was lost as well. In this time of grief, God made a promise to Ezekiel. It was a promise to restore Israel, but it contained another, greater promise, that would be fulfilled through Jesus Christ: a promise to bring the dead back to life.
Ezekiel said, “The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry.”
God asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, You know.”
God then commanded, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.’”
As He did for those bones, God would do for the Kingdom of Judah, and as He did for those bones, God will do for you and me.
One of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith is the general Resurrection of the Dead. The Christian hope is not for a disembodied “afterlife” but for life restored. We do not believe, with the Ancient Greeks, that the soul lives on only as a shade in the Underworld. We do not believe, with the Eastern religions, in reincarnation: that the soul takes different bodies over many lifetimes. We believe that a day will come when the earth is made new again, and the tombs are broken open, and the dead are raised up to real, physical life by God. This belief is inextricably connected to our belief in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God was born a man, died nailed to the cross as a man, and was raised again to eternal life in the flesh as a man. By his conquest of death Christ made it possible that mortal men and women will return from their own deaths to life.
The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead has been affirmed by the Church, in all of its denominations, from apostolic times to the present. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ uses the phrase, ἀναστάσεως τῶν νεκρῶν to describe the afterlife: the “raising up”—literally the “standing up again”—of the dead. The general resurrection is among the wonders, terrors, and glories of the end times, foretold by Saint John in the Book of Revelation. “For the trumpet will sound,” Saint Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Paul emphasized the indispensability of this doctrine, writing to the Corinthians, “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
The Church Fathers were adamant on this subject. Justin Martyr wrote, “Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh.” Theophilus of Antioch taught that, “God will raise up your flesh immortal with your soul.” Irenaeus proclaimed, “the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity.”
Tertullian and Augustine elaborated on what resurrection would entail. Tertullian wrote, “Therefore, the flesh shall rise again: certainly of every man, certainly the same flesh, and certainly in its entirety. Wherever it is, it is in safekeeping with God through that most faithful agent between God and man, Jesus Christ, who shall reconcile both God to man and man to God, the spirit to the flesh and the flesh to the spirit.” No matter how long the body has laid in the ground, or what is left of it, Augustine affirmed that “the omnipotence of the Creator” is able, “for the raising of our bodies and for the restoring of them to life, to recall all parts, which were consumed by beasts or by fire, or which disintegrated into dust or ashes, or were melted away into a fluid, or were evaporated away in vapors.”
The Church Fathers spoke with absolute clarity and literalness on this doctrine because it was a point of distinction from other religions in Late Antiquity. The Ancient Greeks had a traditional belief in bodily resurrection, attributing physical immortality to their great heroes. By the Classical period, however, this belief had been undermined by the philosophers. Likewise, the Israelites had become ambivalent about the doctrine of resurrection by the time of the coming of Christ.
For this reason the Church Fathers reiterated, again and again, in the creeds and in their personal writings, the doctrine of resurrection. They emphasized that resurrection was a literal physical process; it was not a metaphor or a mystery. As the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright explains in his excellent commentary, Revelation for Everyone: “Resurrection, in the first-century world, emphatically meant the undoing of death, not its reinterpretation. It meant that the processes of bodily corruption and decay were reversed, producing a new ‘physical’ body with ‘immortal’ properties.” In other words, the resurrected person would be the same person who died, made of the same genetic material, transformed, perfected, but not less or other than he or she was.
Today there is widespread ignorance about this core doctrine of Christianity. In 2006 the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University asked 1,007 American adults the following question: “Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” In a country that overwhelmingly professes the Christian faith, 54 percent answered “no.” Only 44 percent of Protestants and 38 percent of Roman Catholics answered “yes.” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attributed these findings to “the very low state of doctrinal preaching in our churches.” Commenting in the Scripps report, he wrote,
I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this taught in their local congregations…We have a lowest-common-denominator Christianity being taught in so many denominations that has produced a people who simply do not know some of the most basic Christian truths…Most Americans, when asked survey questions about religion, tend to answer in very theistic ways. They tend to affirm what they believe Christianity teaches…Therefore, I have to conclude they simply do not know what orthodox Christianity teaches about the resurrection of the body.
Opinion surveys should be read with skepticism. One thousand random people simply do not speak for hundreds of millions. On the other hand these findings are entirely plausible. If one knew nothing about Christian eschatology, what would one learn about it from casual contact with modern American churches? One might come away with a general impression of the afterlife involving the survival of the soul in a disembodied state forever. Many well-meaning people seem to believe this. But it is not a Christian belief.
Clearly, as Mohler judged, there has been a failure of the churches to properly catechize. The general confusion about the nature of the life to come reflects a corresponding confusion about the nature of the human person. According to Christianity neither the soul nor the body alone is the person, only together. On this point, Christians have always agreed with Aristotle, who wrote, “If one regards a living substance as a composite of matter and form, then the soul is the form of a natural organic body.” The purpose and destiny of the soul is to impose upon matter the specific form of an individual human person.
When we speak of the survival of the soul we are speaking of the preservation of the soul from death. The soul is preserved by God not as an end unto itself. The unique “form” of a man is preserved so that it can reconstitute the whole: the living, physical man—body and soul. Incidentally, this is why reincarnation is impossible: the soul can regenerate the same form but it cannot generate different forms or different persons.
It reveals something about the state of Christianity in the modern world that such a key tenet could be marginalized. We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century, when philosophers proposed that, by reason alone, man could understand the universe and conquer nature. This belief was predicated upon the expectation that all things could be observed, examined, tested, measured, and manipulated; pushing to the margins anything that could not be. The intellectual prejudices of the Enlightenment created a sort of counter-religion or anti-religion that challenged Christianity and replaced our faith as the ruling paradigm of Western Civilization. After three centuries much of Christendom seems demoralized by the ongoing confrontation with this ideology. In many cases, Christian apologists have responded to the challenge in ways that inadvertently subvert orthodoxy. They have attempted to compromise, to rationalize Christianity, to subject it to the judgment of science or psychology, or else to put it outside the reach of critics by completely spiritualizing it. But none of this will do. Christianity requires us to believe things that are incompatible with the weltanschauung of the age. God intervenes in the world. The sacred and miraculous coexist with the mundane and the material. The dead will live again and dwell with Christ forever in a world made new.
I was drilled on the doctrine of bodily resurrection by the Anglican churchmen who taught me the faith and I consider myself blessed for having been. It is an article of faith that I cherish. I can think of no other doctrine that so urgently needs to be preached in our churches. Ignorance of it leaves a hole in the Christian’s faith. It is the key to a right understanding of so many other essential Christian concepts: the incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ; the nature of man; and God’s ultimate plan for His creation.
Wright, N.T. (2011) Revelation for Everyone. Louisville [KY]: Westminster John Knox Press.