The concept of an afterlife was not something new that Christians brought into the religious world. The pagans held long standing beliefs about an afterlife. Albeit, they were dark and gloomy. But they still had their own teachings on life after death. The Jews also believed in a general resurrection of all saints at the end of time. This is the historical context into which the Christian teaching on the Resurrection comes. I would like to propose to you 6 ways that the Early Church diverged from their culture on the concept of life-after-death.
- Within early Christianity there is no spectrum of belief about life beyond death. Bart Ehrman is a popular advocate against this point. In a few of his books he tries to convince the reader that early Christianity had a vast variety of doctrines all competing for the top spot. According to Ehrman, what we call Orthodoxy is simply that list of views that, through many variables, were able to succeed beyond their contemporaries. But this is simply not true. We do see little strands of people who wandered from the original Christian teaching. For example, the Corinthians had a group who thought there would be no resurrection (1st Cor 15:12). But they died out quickly. Paul mentions two teachers to Timothy who taught that the resurrection had already happened (2nd Tim 2:18). But these two examples do not overthrow the unanimity we see elsewhere on the doctrine of the Resurrection. It is not until the mid 2nd century that we find people using the term resurrection to mean a spiritual experience leading to a disembodied hope in the future.
- In 2nd Temple Judaism (the Judaism that the early Church encountered) the resurrection is important but not that important. But in early Christianity the resurrection moved from the fringes to being the central teaching of the Gospel. It was the central message of the first Gospel message (Acts 2:29-32). It was the main reason the Pharisees persecuted the early Church leaders (Acts 4:2). It was the focal point of criticism the pagan philosophers held against Paul (Acts 17:18, 32). It was the reason Paul was on trial (Acts 23:6).
- The early Church gave specifics as to the sort of body we would be granted in the resurrection. The pagans did not believe our souls would be reunited with our bodies. In fact, in accordance with Platonic doctrine, one would not want to be reunited into our bodies since it was considered a prison to be escaped from. Jews always left it quite vague as to what sort of body we would have in the resurrection. The Christians taught that though it would be a physical body occupying space and time, it would be a transformed body not smitten by sin/death/decay (1st Cor 15:42-57).
- The early Christian belief on the resurrection is that it, as an event, has split into two parts. As I’ve stated above, the Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end. We see this mentality in Martha’s response to Jesus about her brother’s death (John 11:23-24). She truly believed Lazarus would physically rise up in the end. But Jesus was trying to show her that he could make that happen right now! The Jews had no concept of an everlasting resurrection happening in the middle of history that would guarantee our bodily resurrection at the end. This is exactly what the Apostles taught about Jesus’ resurrection.
- Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God commissioned them further the effects of the resurrection through political life, mission, and personal holiness. I get discouraged when I find Christians who believe they are simply biding their time, keeping their heads down, until they die and "go to heaven". God has called us to so much more in this life. We must not forget that although this world is corrupted by sin, it is still God's creation and will be redeemed as much as we will be. So we should not only press on to personal holiness but help change this world to be what God always intended it to be.
- The Messiah was now seen as a spiritual King who conquered our greatest enemy, death, instead of the prevailing Jewish idea of a physical King likened to the Davidic monarchy who would be victorious against the wicked pagans. This is why it was so hard for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. They were anticipating a cleansing of the Temple, defeat of the pagans, and an inauguration of a Jewish world empire. But Jesus had accomplished none of these things. Rather he suffered a gruesome death at the hands of the pagans and seemingly was defeated by them. The doctrine of the Resurrection of Jesus is most surely about his body being reanimated and walking about of the grave, never to taste death again. No Jew would have bought an idea of Jesus’ resurrection meaning that the Apostles had a vision of him and felt inspired to carry on his teachings. Every time you shook a bush in Palestine a prophet with a vision fell out. That was nothing new and nothing to start persecuting people about. The reason the Apostles were martyred was because they taught a bodily resurrection, which the Jewish leaders simply could not stomach because it destroyed their entire concept of Messiah.
I hope these six modifications have helped you to see that resurrection is more than simply a blissful life beyond the grave. The Jews already believed that. Rather, it refers to our physical bodies being transformed and reunited with our spirits to live in the New Heavens and New Earth.
So what caused the early Church to preach such strange stories about the events surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection? Stay tuned until next time.