WEEK by week, in churches up and down the country, people stand and declare their belief in the resurrection.
Depending on which service they are attending, and hence which creed they are reciting, they will declare either that they believe in “the resurrection of the body” (Apostles’ Creed) or in “the resurrection of the dead” (Nicene Creed). The interesting question is what people think they mean when they declare this.
Some believe that they are assenting to the resurrection of Jesus; some to their own resurrection. Some aren’t assenting to it at all, but simply saying it because it is expected.
Part of the problem is that the statement occurs towards the end of the creeds, with what you might call the miscellaneous fragments of belief. Having dealt with the different persons of the Trinity, we turn our attention to other elements of belief, such as the catholicity of the Church, the communion of saints, baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and life after death. Coming, as it does, right at the end of the creeds, it can feel as though belief in resurrection is somehow more marginal and less central to belief than, for example, the Trinity.
Recent New Testament scholarship, study of the writings of Paul, in particular, has gained significant new insights from our improved understanding of first-century Judaism. That topic has become an important area of scholarship in its own right, drawing, for instance, on archaeological discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries. When it comes to resurrection, that means we now have a clearer picture of Jewish beliefs about resurrection in Paul’s time. That then helps us to understand what Paul meant by it, and to see how absolutely central the resurrection was for him.
It becomes clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul places belief in resurrection — both Jesus’s and our own — at the very heart of Christian belief and proclamation. The Corinthians, in common with many people today, apparently struggled to accept the teaching about resurrection (“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15.12).
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul began to demonstrate why, in his view, belief that we will rise bodily is essential. His argument is simply that, if we do not believe in our own resurrection, our own rising in the future, then we are saying that resurrection does not happen. If we say this, then we are saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15.13).
If we say that Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our sins have not been forgiven (1 Corinthians 15. 17 makes it clear that, for Paul, it is Jesus’s death and resurrection that assure us of salvation). If we say our sins have not been forgiven, then our faith is in vain: the dead are just dead, sin has not been defeated, and we have no good news to proclaim.
In other words, what will happen to us after we die is integrally linked to what happened to Jesus after he died. For Paul, belief in resurrection is not to be viewed as additional extra, but the very central core of belief.
It is clear that the Corinthians struggled with this idea as much as many people do today. Paul does not reveal precisely what their problem was, but it is likely to have flowed from a Greek view of life after death, which understood future existence to involve the soul’s leaving the body, not bodily resurrection.
Paul, in common with the Jews of his era who did believe in life after death (the Pharisees, the Essenes), believed that a general bodily resurrection would take place when God intervened to save his people, and to bring in the world to come. This new era would be physical, with a renewed heaven and earth; hence the need for bodies to inhabit it.
This was the glorious future that Paul had in mind, and which he explored in depth in 1 Corinthians 15; an exploration that included a reflection on what our resurrection bodies might be like.
THE challenge for Paul, as for all early Christians, however, was how to make sense of the fact that Jesus had already risen from the dead. Woven throughout much of Paul’s writings, we find this emphasis, time and time again. While Paul still awaited God’s final intervention in the world, and the resurrection of all those in Christ (see, among other verses, Romans 8.22-23), he believed that the new creation had already arrived (2 Corinthians 5.17). Jesus’s resurrection had changed the world, not just by defeating death and sin, but by inaugurating a new era; an era marked by peace, and justice, and the life-giving presence of the Spirit.
The problem was that the new creation had come, but the old creation had not passed away. Paul’s message, in his writings, was that those who were in Christ were called to live in the new creation, alive to the Spirit, in harmony with one another and with God, even while they waited for the old creation to pass. This was why Paul became so profoundly upset by the many divisions and conflicts in the Christian communities he founded. In them he saw very little of the new creation he had in mind.
They — and we — live in a world marked by both old and new creation, which explains the challenge of Christian existence. We have a vision of the world as it could be, and yet, time and again we are dragged back into the world as it is.
In Paul’s mind, therefore, the resurrection is central to the life and faith of a Christian, not just because Jesus rose from the dead, nor just because Paul believed that we will, also. It was central because it provides the motivation and explanation of how we live from day to day as Christians.
We are called to live as though we believe the world to come has already broken into our world, an in-breaking that began with Jesus’s resurrection, and will continue until the end times bring about the completion of all things.
For Paul, the declaration of belief in the resurrection of the body, or the resurrection of the dead, would be not an afterthought, but the very pinnacle of the whole of his faith.
Dr Paula Gooder is a freelance New Testament lecturer and writer. Her forthcoming book is Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person (SPCK, May 2016).
Suggested further reading
Avery-Peck, Alan J., and Jacob Neusner, Judaism in Late Antiquity 4: Death, life-after-death, resurrection and the world-to-come (Brill, 2000)
Longenecker, Richard N., Life in the Face of Death: Resurrection message of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1998)
Segal, Alan F., Life After Death: A history of the afterlife in Western religion (Doubleday, 2004)
Wright, N. T., The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003); Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2007)