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A revolutionary present

by
04 November 2022

Keith Elliott pleads for the Church to be bolder in talking about death, and life beyond

OZMedia/Alamy

Christ, harowing hell, raises Adam and Eve from the dead. The famous mural of the resurrection in the Church of the Holy Saviour, Chora, Istanbul)

Christ, harowing hell, raises Adam and Eve from the dead. The famous mural of the resurrection in the Church of the Holy Saviour, Chora, Istanbul)

DEATH is almost an unmentionable topic. Although we are regularly told that “Black Lives Matter”, it is actually death that underlies such slogans. Euphemisms such as “passed (away)” and “lost” are prevalent, especially in newspaper “In Memoriam” columns and in popular speech. Those terms must reflect a primitive and quasi-superstitious fear of death, the unknown, or the uncontrollable, according to Bart Ehrman’s latest foray into the field (Heaven and Hell: A history of the afterlife, Oneworld, 2020). The words used are unlikely to reflect the Church’s attitude towards death, inherent in its creeds.

Christianity, while acknowledging the natural human sorrow that results from a feeling of loss whenever a loved one dies, views death itself as essentially a non-tragic event, because of its belief in the assurance of life beyond the grave. It is not always clear from the New Testament, however, whether the individual believer is promised an entry into eternity at the point of death, or is merely told that there will come a time when the individual’s death may be turned into a triumphant second life. Either way, as Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, because Christ was raised from the dead, those belonging to him will share with him a comparable resurrection.

Because death is generally not a popular discussion, and because the New Testament is often obscure or ambiguous about the future, contemporary Christian preachers tend either to ignore or to minimise eschatological teachings. To modern ears, the word “eschatology” smacks of superstition, and can even lead to weird and extravagant claims. Hence, current church teaching prefers to emphasise instead ethics, or the part(s) played by Christians in the world. Thus we hear much talk about Christian socialism, Christian humanism, Christian education, and so on.

While all of these topics obviously have a place, if Paul’s teaching (in particular) is meaningful and to be followed, ethical behaviour and consequent “good works” are natural for a believer who is already enjoying here and now the benefits of Jesus’s resurrection.

If the New Testament’s picture, as described, is accurate, then the Church sprang into existence as an eschatological body. Many non-Christian groups throughout history have hoped to exist beyond their point of death. Where the Church differs from such a banal hope is in its tradition that adherents are already assured of eternal life. This life on earth is inevitably incomplete, but Christianity teaches that its followers already belong to an eschatological community.

Even when modern Christian preachers conclude that the irreducible historical minimum behind the Easter narratives in the Gospels is the proclamation that “He is risen,” that cry alone is enough to place Christianity in an other-worldly sphere. It was that proclamation that separated Christianity from the Judaism that fostered it. And it was that belief on which the Church itself was created.

 

IN GENERAL, orthodox Jewish teaching in the “Old” Testament speaks of death as the realm of Satan, over which even God’s control is powerless. Such a belief underlies Jesus’s own cry from the cross in Matthew’s or Mark’s Passion narratives. In death, even Jesus feels “apart from God” (cf. the variant at Hebrews 2.9). By teaching the revolutionary doctrine of resurrection, the earliest followers of Jesus were, in effect, noting that the old order was broken and that Jesus’s resurrection abolished the power (although not the immediate effects) of death.

All those who then became incorporated into his newly risen body (i.e. the Church) would share with Jesus — and, in a sense, were already sharing with him — a resurrection like his own. He then became, for Christians, the very first one to be raised; but such a message was also determinative. Paul, for one, certainly saw him as a new Adam, introducing into the world not death (as Adam had done at the beginning of time), but, in its stead, eternal life.

All this opens up many questions. How are we to be incorporated into Christ? How does our subsequent behaviour affect the future? What is the ultimate fate of unbelievers? What does it mean to be a member of an eschatological community? Questions such as these inspire curiosity. Later Christians often tried to answer them in the so-called New Testament apocryphal writings.

All of these queries, plus many others, need to be discussed by today’s individual Christians in the realisation that they belong to a body of people destined for eternal life. Far from the current Western trend to brush aside all talk of death, the
Church — despite its diminished role in society — needs to teach more about the significance of death itself, and of the afterlife. In projecting itself strongly as an other-worldly community, the Church may (like the early Christians) return to its original teaching.

 

J. K. Elliott is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism at the University of Leeds.

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