The Mystery of the Resurrection
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 5 August 2009; Revised 13 April 2021
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Syntax: Explanation of grammatical abbreviations and a pronunciation guide for New Testament Greek may be found here.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament) and incorporate other appropriate Hebrew and Jewish terms. (See the glossary.)
Since earliest times pagans and Jews believed in the immortality of the soul, but whether the soul would again enjoy the home of a physical body after death was the subject of much debate and speculation. Believing that death ended the dwelling place of one's soul, ancient Greek philosophers put forth the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul into some other body (DNTT 3:259).
Ancient Egyptians, who did not agree with the Greeks, developed the science of mummification, an advanced form of embalming, which they believed would empower the soul to return to a person's body. The ancient Incas also practiced mummification, perhaps indicating that the knowledge of the science preceded the division of languages. Both Jacob (Gen 50:2-3) and Joseph (Gen 50:26) were embalmed, perhaps out of respect for Egyptian custom, but probably in anticipation of later travel to Canaan for burial. Embalming was rarely practiced in Canaan.
In Yeshua's day the Pharisees and Sadducees were sharply divided over the issue of physical life after death. Josephus summarizes their positions:
"the Pharisees … ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, - but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades." (Wars II, 8:14)
Rabbinic authorities, rooted in Pharisee theology, believed that the Scriptures pointed to resurrection (Sanhedrin 90a-b, 91b). Pharisees felt so strongly about the subject that they declared anyone who says the resurrection of the dead is not intimated in the Torah has no part in the world to come (Sanhedrin 11:1). The Scriptures depict God as having sovereign control over life and death and one who manifests resurrecting power.
In the Torah the first hint of resurrection occurs in the story of the miraculous birth of Isaac who was born to Abraham when he was as good as dead (Heb 11:12). Then the typology of resurrection is presented again when Abraham took his son Isaac to Moriah in order to present him as a burn offering (Gen 22:1-18). Abraham clearly expected to bring Isaac back alive (22:5), which Paul attributes to his belief in resurrection (Heb 11:19). The miraculous birth of Jacob and Esau after twenty years of barrenness (cf. Gen 25:20, 26), like that of their father Isaac, is also a type of resurrection.
The bequest of the Land was promised to the fathers in Deuteronomy 11:21, "so that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens remain above the earth." The Torah closes with the song of Moses in which the God of Israel declared that He gives life and puts to death (Deut 32:39).
Then in the Neviim (Prophets) Hannah echoed the song of Moses but added that not only does God kill but He also raises up from Sheol (1Sam 2:6). Jonah's experience in the great fish (Jon 1:17) reflected confidence of being freed from Sheol (Jon 2:2, 6). Centuries later God prophesied through Isaiah, "Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits" (Isa 26:19). Then God gave Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones to which God declared, "Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life" (Ezek 37:5).
The Ketuvim (Writings) contain the most references. Job, who lived in the time of Abraham, declared, "Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God" (Job 19:26). The Psalmists expressed hope of life beyond the grave (Ps 16:10; 49:15; 73:24). God promised Daniel, "But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age" (Dan 12:13).
The apostolic narratives provide several anecdotes in which Yeshua affirmed the reality of resurrection. He likened Jonah's deliverance from the great fish as analogous to resurrection, which provided the basis for predicting his own resurrection (Matt 12:40). In the same teaching Yeshua affirmed that Nineveh, to whom Jonah preached, would "stand up" at the final judgment (Matt 12:41) and the Queen of Sheba would also be included in the resurrection of the righteous (Matt 12:42; cf. John 5:29; Acts 24:15).
In spite of biblical revelation the Sadducees questioned the reality of resurrection (Mark 12:18) and challenged Yeshua on the subject. They mocked the belief with a story of a woman who had seven husbands through Levirate marriage. "In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one's wife will she be? For all seven had married her" (Mark 12:23). Yeshua reminded the Sadducees that according to the Tanakh persons did live after death by pointing out the present tense of God's revelation to Moses, "I AM the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Mark 12:26, quoting Ex 3:6). While the Tanakh does not provide any information on the details of life after resurrection, Yeshua asserts for the first time that the resurrection will make His people "like angels" (Matt 22:30). (See my commentary on Mark's narrative.)
Yeshua also encouraged Martha, "Your brother will rise" (John 11:23 BR) and Martha echoed the same confidence, "I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day" (John 11:24 BR). Paul was just as emphatic when he said, "there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked" (Acts 24:15). Thus, the resurrection of all the dead was a cornerstone belief in apostolic theology (1Cor 15:12-14, 21-22; Heb 6:1-2). While the apostles offered assurance to early disciples of the reality of the resurrection based on the fact of Yeshua's own resurrection (e.g., 1Cor 15:5-8), the use of various word pictures and euphemisms in the Besekh present a puzzling and seemingly contradictory message about resurrection.
Wake Up Call
The principal Greek word in the Besekh for resurrection is anastasis, meaning a rising from the condition of being dead (Danker), with references divided between the resurrection of Yeshua and the resurrection at the end of the age. The noun is derived from the verb anistēmi, which means to rise, stand up or get up and in its ordinary use refers to one who is sitting or lying down. In common usage the verb referred to standing in contrast to sitting (Lam 3:63; Zeph 3:7f LXX) and was used as a religious metaphor to depict the opposite of falling (Luke 2:34). The verb egeirō, which means to rouse from sleep, also appears frequently in the Besekh in reference to resurrection.
Although the belief in resurrection did not exist in Greek culture, Jewish rabbis chose words that conveyed a physical motion and then infused those words with entirely new meaning. Just because the Greek words commandeered to describe "resurrection" refer to standing up from a sitting or lying position or being roused from sleep does not mean that the deceased disciples of Yeshua are in a heavenly bed, snoring away the years or in some sort of coma-like stasis. The Jewish point in using those words is that we all shall "stand" before God (Matt 12:41; Rom 14:10; Jude 1:24). Indeed, the "souls" John saw in heaven were clothed and standing before the throne (Rev 6:9; 7:9; 10:5).
The resurrection that believers anticipate is much more than being awakened, because it is the experience of a miraculous new existence. Several people in biblical history were brought back to life from the dead, such as the Shunammite's son (2 Kin 4:34-36), the man thrown into Elisha's grave (2Kgs 13:20-21), the son of the widow from Nain (Luke 7:14-15), Lazarus (John 11:43-44), the dead at the crucifixion of Yeshua (Matt. 27:52-53), and Dorcas (Acts 9:40). Hebrews 11:35 suggests there was more than one woman during Old Covenant days that received family members back from the dead.
However, the resurrection at the end of the age is not merely being brought back to mortal life. All of those people formerly restored to life eventually died again. The blessed hope for the disciples is to receive immortal and incorruptible bodies like that of Yeshua (Rom 8:29; 1Cor 15:42-54; Php 3:20; 1Jn 3:2). Paul describes the resurrection this way. "But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory" (1Cor 15:54).
Empty the Graves?
Most believers conceive of resurrection as a bottom to top event. That is, the dead are on the earth and they will rise out of the ground to meet Yeshua in the air. This view seems to be supported by Yeshua's saying, "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29).
Yeshua's declaration does not contradict reality. First, every dead body decays and the only people that would still have a body in a grave would be someone who had just recently died before the resurrection event. Second, not everyone who has ever died has been buried in a marked grave or tomb. To take it literalistically would limit those who participate in the resurrection. Third, the global seismic cataclysm of the seventh judgment bowl (Rev 16:18-21), which levels all mountains, devastates cities and destroys the earth's remaining population, would likely destroy earth's graveyards and any corpses therein.
We need to consider what Scripture says about the destination of people when they die. In the parable of the rich man and poor man Lazarus, the rich man awoke from death in Hades and Lazarus was carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22-23), no doubt resident in the heavenly city that he sought (Heb 11:10). Yeshua promised the thief on the cross that he would be in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). Paul affirmed that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2Cor 5:8) and declared that the Lord would bring with Him those who had died in the faith (1Th 4:14; cf. Mark 13:27). In Revelation before any of the judgments begin those in heaven are described as having hands and being clothed (Rev 6:11; 7:9). According to 1Corinthians 15:52 the resurrection change will take place at the sound of the trumpet.
When Yeshua spoke of "those in the graves" he really meant "those who were buried" or "those who have died and are remembered." He certainly knew that the spirits of the dead are not in graves or tombs. So, those "who hear and come forth" refer to the spirits of the dead currently residing in Heaven and Hades.
From the earliest time Greek philosophers mocked the belief in the resurrection on the basis of the decay and dissolution of the body. The God of the Jews and Christians could not possibly be powerful enough to accomplish such a feat as resurrecting all the recent dead, much less collecting all the dust of the long-dead and returning souls to their original bodies.
Resurrection advocates responded with an argument from nature based on Paul's analogy of seed sown in 1Corinthians 15:35-38. Beginning with Clement of Rome (A.D. 30-100) the metaphor has been interpreted to mean that the resurrection body is like seed sown in fruitful soil that dissolves and then out of its dissolution God will one day raise it up again (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 24:5).
The Church in the second century expanded on this approach and taught that in the resurrection God will reassemble the constituent elements of every physical body that has died and then perform the transformation for the person's spirit reoccupation. This view is expressed in a rebuttal to the Greek philosophers by Athenagoras, an early church father (A.D. 177), who said:
"Moreover also, that His power is sufficient for the raising of dead bodies, is shown by the creation of these same bodies. For if, when they did not exist, He made at their first formation the bodies of men, and their original elements, He will, when they are dissolved, in whatever manner that may take place, raise them again with equal ease…that same power can reunite what is dissolved, and raise up what is prostrate, and restore the dead to life again, and put the corruptible into a state of incorruption." (On the Resurrection of the Dead, Chap. 3)
Alluding to the reasoning of Athenagoras, John Wesley said, "God can distinguish and keep unmixed from all other bodies the particular dust into which our several bodies are dissolved, and can gather it together and join it again, how far soever dispersed asunder" ("On the Resurrection of the Dead," Sermons on Several Occasions, 1872 ed.). Wesley, like all the former Christian writers advocating the same view probably didn't know or consider that the human body is mostly water and as a corpse decays the water evaporates into the atmosphere.
The pagan objection was really based on unbelief in the God of the Bible. However, they lacked one vital piece of information. The modern science of genetics has demonstrated that an animal can be cloned from a single strand of DNA, so in that sense God does not need to collect all the former elements of each corpse. This process might be called the restoration theory of resurrection. Even so, the restoration theory seems terribly inefficient of God. Why begin with "something" when God is perfectly capable of creating from nothing?
The New Tent
God certainly has the power to preserve the "dust of the dead" and may perform a restoration of our bodies and souls, if that is the only meaning that can be deduced from the various resurrection sayings. However, there is another possibility. God spoke the universe into existence out of nothing. The new birth testifies of a new creation, not merely a renewed creation (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10). There will be a new heaven and a new earth (2Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), not a renewed heaven and restored earth. Therefore, there must be a new physical body, not a renewed body. Why would God take that which was cursed to remake into an eternal glorious body?
The alternative view of the resurrection may be deduced from Paul's teaching on the subject. He likened the human body to a tent or house,
"For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longed to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked" (2Cor 5:1).
Paul's teaching in 1Corinthians 15:50-51 that the perishable does not inherit the imperishable and his further explanation in 2Corinthians 5:1 seems to imply that "putting on the imperishable" means that the disciples of Yeshua will be given new bodies rather than the old decayed body being restored and then overhauled with new ("immortal") parts. The analogy of the heavenly tent suggests that the "old" body is not rehabilitated; it is replaced, as Paul says, "Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2Cor 5:17 TLV).
I do not offer the New Tent theory in any dogmatic sense. The resurrection is the blessed hope of all true believers, but the physics involved in how God accomplishes perhaps His greatest miracle will remain a mystery until that great day when the trumpet sounds and we are changed for eternity.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
Copyright © 2009-2021 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.