The Meaning of Resurrection
[A conversation adapted from the YDS Bible Study Series]
HARRY ATTRIDGE: So, David, we turn to First Corinthians 15, where Paul is dealing with issues connected with the resurrection.
DAVID BARTLETT: I’m glad we’re having this conversation because I’ve wrestled with this for as long as I’ve wrestled with New Testament texts. I’m clearer on what he thinks the solution is than what he thinks the issue is. The solution is to insist on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection as being central to Christian faith and to insist that following Jesus, believers will also be raised. What’s he worried about? My impression is—and I really want your response to this—this is a group of people who believes in Jesus’ resurrection, but for whatever reasons they’re not convinced that they, too, will be raised at the last day. It seems the point of his argument is not so much to convince them that Jesus is raised as to convince them that because they believe Jesus is raised, they then need to believe in the general resurrection, or they can’t make sense of the claim that Jesus is raised.
ATTRIDGE: I think that’s right. The way I’ve tried to imagine what’s going on in the minds of the Corinthians is to look forward into the second century and to look back to the first century BCE. We know in the second century there were some people who were denying the physical character of the resurrection. They’re probably coming out of a Greco-Roman philosophical milieu that emphasizes the immortality of the soul. So it may be that these Corinthians believe in the resurrection of Christ, but interpret it in that way. Another indication can be found in the Wisdom of Solomon, a text written in Jewish circles probably in Alexandria, probably first century BCE, that talks about the souls of the just being in the hands of God and therefore they don’t have to worry. There you see the language of Greco-Roman culture being taken over in a Jewish environment affirming some sort of immortality but not so much the resurrection of the body. I think that’s what Paul is trying to counter.
BARTLETT: Disembodied Christianity is one of his big concerns from beginning to end: Our hope is not that we escape from our bodies but that our bodies be raised as Jesus has been raised. Then we get his almost oxymoronic claim that we’ll be raised not as physical bodies but as spiritual bodies. I’ve puzzled about that a lot, and I think I’m clearer on its pastoral implications than its philosophical rootings. The pastoral implications have to do with the claim that when the dead are raised it’s still we who are raised. It’s not some spiritual emanation from ourselves or some reductive essence but the real Harry Attridge who will be raised, the real David Bartlett who will be raised. Somehow, just as Christ has been glorified, so we will participate in some richer glory in that day coming.
ATTRIDGE: This is another case where Paul seems to address both sides of a debate and tries to affirm something on both sides to bring them together. Later on (verse 50), he’ll say “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This seems to reaffirm the position he’s already criticized—the Corinthians who deny the objective reality of future resurrection. So how does he do that and at the same time emphasize the body? Through a reflection (verse 35 ff.) on what kind of bodies there might be. I think he does two things. He uses the metaphor of a seed being sown and the plant that grows up from the seed looks very different from the seed. Then he turns to science or philosophy and says there are different kinds of bodies—earthly and heavenly bodies. He’s calling on notions from Aristotelian cosmology, widespread in the Hellenistic world, that there are different elements—the familiar four, earth, air, fire, water, but also another kind, the substance of the stars, the ether, what later in the Renaissance would be called the quintessence, the fifth essence. So if stars are made out of this ethereal substance that looks a lot like the spirit that pervades all things, that, Paul says, is more like what our bodies will be. It’s a different kind of body from what we experience in this sub-lunar sphere, but it is nonetheless an objective body.
BARTLETT: With that in mind, let’s reflect back on the rest of the letter and see how often he says: God has made us as bodies, as embodied persons. So sex counts, and how you treat your brothers and sisters in the body of Christ counts, because this is not only part of God’s creation but part of God’s redemptive plan. What God intends to redeem is not that little spiritual part of you that can simply be immune from bodily concerns, but the real you, which is body.
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