The Resurrection: Ancient and Future Hope
By Reed Benson
To build a Christian eschatology, it is paramount to give a key role to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body (flesh). Without the resurrection, all other end-time events have little or no meaning. As a theological concept, the resurrection of the body is an ancient Hebrew teaching. Its eschatological implications are dependent upon its historic validity as the culmination of redemption for all men since Adam. Many critics claim the resurrection is a rather recent doctrine, developed in the New Testament era. By undercutting its historic depth and confining the doctrine to the New Testament, skeptics are able to emasculate it so that all future relevance is lost. After all, if it were not true from the beginning, why would it be true now? Therefore, a defense of the resurrection of the body as the Old Testament concept of eternal life builds the platform that allows its course to be traced through history to its future fulfillment.
Only the most jaundiced of Bible students will reject the historicity of the resurrection of the body, for the origins of the teaching are rooted in the origins of scripture. It is a uniquely Hebrew concept of eternal life, and the Hebrew culture was the only ancient culture to embrace such a philosophy. The Old Testament prophets taught this doctrine most clearly and forcefully. Consider Isaiah 26:19, which states: "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead." This plain language demonstrates the belief in a bodily resurrection of the dead as a remarkable future event. Elsewhere, Isaiah writes: "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all facesí and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for Yahweh hath spoken it" (Isaiah 25:8). The curse of death as the penalty for sin will be reversed when the elect of the Father will be raised to everlasting glory. This is corroborated by the prophet Daniel, who proclaims: "And many f them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). From this passage it can be seen that the resurrection is not simply for the righteous, but also for the wicked. In the time of the general resurrection, the wicked will be brought forth from the earth, but rather than receiving the joy of life everlasting, they shall be cast into the fire of Gahenna (Revelation 20:13-15). Hosea, a prophet to the northern Kingdom of Israel, also bears witness to the resurrection when he prophecies: "I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes" (Hosea 13:14).
The above passages build the context to properly understand the classic prophetic utterance concerning the future resurrection of the house of Israel: the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel. Being unable to identify physical Israel in the earth has forced theologians to spiritualize this plainly worded chapter so that "spiritual Israel" can participate in this glorious future event. In doing so, the heart of the message is removed, leaving shallow fancies in the place of tangible realities. Observe the following verses from this renowned chapter: "The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones . . . Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD . . . . Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are but off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up our of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel" (Ezekiel 37:1-12). Without denigrating the spiritual aspect of this passage concerning needed spiritual revival among Israel, let it be emphasized that this passage is primarily dealing with the concrete reality of bodily resurrection. The bones will have flesh (not blood) and sinews wrapped around them. Such are not spiritual bones and sinews! Similarly, the graves that will be opened are the actual resting places for the bodies of long dead Israelites of many generations. The timing of this event is immediately proceeding the regathering of Israel to their original homeland. Restoration of the kingdom to Israel is predicated on the resurrection of the flesh bodies of redeemed Israel at the return of Christ to the earth.
Many a Bible critic has attempted to discredit the doctrine of the resurrection of the body by claiming the teaching was borrowed from the Persians during the Babylonian exile (586 B.C.). This is patently untrue, and there exist sufficient Old Testament reference that pro-date the exile to prove such a claim to be false. Psalms 71:20, dated approximately 1000 B.C., reads: "Thou, which hast shewed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth." Another Psalm from the same period of history declares: "Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope" (Psalm 16:9). Perhaps the most well known passages concerning the resurrection of the body are found in Job. Scholars generally agree that the book of Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible, Job himself being a contemporary to the patriarchs. Job gives a hint of being bodily resurrected when he states: "If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come" (Job 14:14). The change that was to be expected was the resurrection of the flesh into a glorified body. Later in his discourse, Job makes his famous utterance: "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:25-26). Not only does this passage show forth the historic validity of the doctrine of the resurrection, but also it plainly associates it with the latter day event of the coming of Jesus Christ to the earth.
Some claim that the Old Testament patriarchal concept of eternal life was not in the resurrection of the body, but through the continuum of life in oneís descendants. While already disproved by the clear remarks of Job, other biblical passages also discredit such falsehoods. One such example is found in Matthew twenty-two, when the Sadducees attempt to trap Christ concerning the resurrection of the body. In His defense of the teaching, Christ proved that the doctrine was implied by Godís statement to Moses on the Mount Sinai. Note Christís words: "But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:31-32). This direct quotation of Exodus 3:6 is powerful evidence of patriarchal belief in the resurrection of the body. When God uttered this sentence to Moses, the patriarchs were long dead. Yet Christ ascribes God to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a living condition. Jesus frames His comments in the context of Sadducee disbelief by making clear the patriarchs will have life through resurrection.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul intimates that the patriarchs looked forward to the resurrection of the dead. Referring to the sacrifices of Isaac, Paul writes: "Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure" (Hebrews 11:19). God had promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations. Abrahamís faith that Godís word was not going to be voided through the sacrifices of Isaac was rooted in his belief in a bodily resurrection. He fully expected Isaac to be raised from the dead as a prototype of the future resurrection. It is therefore clear that the Old Testament patriarchs had a strong belief in the future resurrection of the body as the means of eternal life long before the exile. The doctrine of the resurrection is unique to the Hebrew culture. No other ancient culture had such a view of eternal life, and many were extremely hostile to the concept.
As we move forward chronologically into the New Testament era, the Hellenic culture of the Mediterranean world reacted severely to this teaching as it was spread by the early apostles. Paul was openly scorned when he taught the resurrection in the city of Athens, as recorded in Acts: "And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter" (Acts 17:32). It is also evident that some within the church at Corinth did not accept this doctrine, for Paul makes this a high profile issue in his first letter to the Corinthian church: "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12). His masterful defense of the concept in the verses following emphasize the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith. Still others heretics found it easier to twist the teaching to suit their own agenda, rather then deny it outright. Two such men were Hymenaeus and Philetus, as mentioned in 11 Timothy 2:17-18. They taught that the resurrection was as act of past historyóthat it had already occurred. This heresy was achieved primarily by spiritualizing the concept, making the resurrection only a spiritual event. This dovetailed nicely with the hellenistic world and gave impetus to the rise of the Gnostics, a sect that regarded physical matter as inherently evil.
The resurrection of the body, as a doctrine, has its roots imbedded in the foundation of Scripture and Hebrew culture. The world-view and concept of eternal life of the ancient patriarchs was identical to that of the early Christians. As we build our eschatological framework, it is clear that their past hope is still the anticipation of our generation. The resurrection is the pivotal event that ushers in the Kingdom, and the consummation of the ages.