Mar 14 9:23 AM

A Short Biblical Theology of Resurrection

Mar 14 9:23 AM
Mar 14 9:23 AM

As the closing words of the Nicene Creed remind us, Christianity has always affirmed that believers should, “Look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.” The two clauses in this ancient creed contain two critical and related ideas of our Christian hope: resurrection and life in the world to come. 

This hope of our own resurrection leading to life in the world to come has been secured “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Indeed, as we will see in 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul notes that the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of believers are inextricably linked (1 Corinthians 15:12-28). Accordingly, this is important to understand: what Christians ultimately hope for is not an ethereal existence in an extraterrestrial place called heaven, but resurrection life in a renewed creation. 

The Hope of Resurrection in the Old Testament 

The Old Testament does not have too much to say about the hope of resurrection, but God is clearly presented as sovereign over both life and death. Consider these verses that attest to this: 

  • In the song of Moses, where God says, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive.” (Deuteronomy 32:39) 
  • In the song of Hannah, she acknowledges that “the LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” (1 Samuel 2:6). 

Both of these verses and they're usage of the phrase “kill and make alive/bring to life” suggest that God’s power to raise the dead is what is being discussed. Granted, neither Moses nor Hannah is claiming that they have actually seen God raise the dead. Instead, they are simply praising Him that He has the sovereign power to do it. However, a few books to the right when the Old Testament gets to the life Elijah and Elisha, the potential of God’s resurrection power is activated in a very real sense when Elijah raise the widow at Zarephath’s son and Elisha raises the Shunammite’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:18-37). 

More explicit resurrection language is expressed in subsequent Old Testament prophetic books like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. 

  • Isaiah 25:7-9 tells us that God will “swallow up death forever.” Contrary to popular sayings, in biblical thought death is not a welcome friend. Instead, to quote Andrew Peterson in his song His Heart Beats, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Even though death has already been conquered by Jesus through His resurrection, it still awaits its final defeat when it is “swallowed up forever.” The fact that Isaiah uses the verb “swallow” here, as Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15, makes the story of resurrection an all the more felt and authentic experience. The act of swallowing, instead of destroying, connotes that something becomes a part of a person. In this verse, it is as if the terrible experience of death does not go away, but rather becomes a part of the story and makes the sweetness of the end all the beter. Think of what Samwise Gamgi asked Gandalf in The Return of the King: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” That sad things “come untrue” or death is “swallowed” does not mean we forget about them altogether. Rather, God takes the painful things with devastating effects and reweaves them for a good purpose so that we experience the good things of resurrection all the more. 
  • In Ezekiel 37, the famous dry bones portray Israel’s physical restoration from their metaphorical death in exile. However, there is no way that Ezekiel uses this imagery if the concept of resurrection was not familiar in Israel. 
  • Daniel 12 might be the most clear and key Old Testament text regarding the resurrection however. Daniel writes that people who were physically dead are “awakened”, resurrection has eternal consequences, and the faithful are gloriously transformed (Daniel 12:2-3). 

While these key Old Testament texts may not contain all of the pieces for a full understanding of the resurrection, they do form the foundation for believers to “look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.” 

The Anticipation of the Resurrection in the New Testament 

In the stories related in the four Gospels, it seems that belief in a future resurrection of the dead was widely embraced within first century Judaism. Of course there were some exceptions, like the Sadducees, who disagreed with the idea of resurrection (Mark 12:18-27; Acts 23:8) because they claimed to find no support for resurrection in the Law of Moses. Apparently, they weren’t reading Deuteronomy 32:39 like we were! 

Resurrection was also a dominant theme in the life and ministry of Jesus. In addition to teaching a spiritual resurrection for his followers (John 11:25) and a physical resurrection for himself (Luke 9:21-22), Jesus clearly spoke of a future resurrection of the dead (Luke 11:31-32; John 5:28-29; 6:39-58). More than simply discussing the prospect of resurrection however, He displayed its possibility in His miracles when He raised Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17), and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Though these people who were brought back to life died again, like those in the Old Testament they were a part of a miraculous work that anticipated the future reality of resurrection. 

The Reality of Resurrection in the New Testament 

For New Testament authors, Jesus’ resurrection is both a model and a guarantee of the future resurrection of believers (Acts 26:23; 1 Corinthians 15:20; 2 Corinthians 4:14). According to our “already but not yet” theological construction, Christians do experience the future now while the complete and amazing reality awaits the last day, when “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Specifically 1 Corinthians 15 as well as other New Testament passages (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Philippians 3:20-21; Revelation 20:11-15) clearly link the future resurrection of the dead with the return of Christ. It might be helpful to think of this reality like a thunderstorm rolling in across the flat, Texas plain. Before the storm arrives, one can see the lighting, feel the wind shift and the air get cooler. There might even be some rain droplets or mist that have blown in before the deluge. This is how we are to think about experiencing what is to come already but still waiting for the full reality to come upon us. 

This brings up some questions about timelines then. Does the future resurrection that the authors of the New Testament proclaim happen to believer immediately after death or is there a time of waiting for resurrection after death. From the texts previously noted, and especially 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, it would seem that there are two separate events that take place for a believer after death: being away from the body in death means to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6) and yet there is a time of waiting for our final, resurrected state (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). While being with the Lord immediately after death allows Paul to somewhat reluctantly welcome death, his full and ultimate hope, as well as our own, is to come with the resurrection. 

Accordingly, we might think of the current heaven as a layover in an airport while waiting for a plane. Now granted, it’s a pretty incredible layover totally unmatched by anything that frequent flyer status in Delta and American Airlines could offer. After all, believers are with God Himself. And yet, there is coming a day when the model of Jesus’ resurrection will come to fruition as the guarantee of our own. Even more than that however, to quote N.T. Wright, “One day God is going to do with the entire cosmos what he had already done with the resurrected Jesus.” We have not concept of how a glorified Grand Canyon will look or a glorified NY Strip will taste. It’s probably pretty great though. 

The Nature of the Resurrection Body 

So if Jesus’ resurrection is in essence the trailer to the blockbuster that is our own resurrection to come, specifically what can we expect it to be like? Paul reflects on the nature of the resurrection body in Corinthians 15:35-57. While he notes that there is some degree of similarity with the natural body, Paul’s emphasis here is clearly on the distinction between the mortal body inherited from the first Adam and the immortal body secured through Jesus, the second Adam. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15 he notes the differences between the natural and the spiritual body in vv. 42–49: 

  • The body is buried as perishable, but raised imperishable. 
  • The body is buried in dishonor, but is raised in glory. 
  • The body is buried in weakness, but is raised in power. 

What it comes down to is that our resurrection bodies will be like Jesus’ resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:49). Which is pretty amazing when we consider what Jesus did in post-resurrection appearances: He had a physical body that people could touch (Luke 24:39) and He did physical activities like eating fish (John 24:15). However, in His resurrection body, Jesus is also able to miraculous things like walk through walls and teleport. Perhaps these sort of abilities will come in handy in the new heavens when we want to explore the furthest stars and planets in our newly glorified universe. 

Accordingly, the apostle Paul is not suggesting that our resurrection will be ethereal and non-physical, but rather that the our mortal bodies inherited from Adam just won’t do for an eternal inheritance (1 Corinthians 15:50). This is why everyone must undergo this bodily, perishable to imperishable change. Because we need to be outfitted form their eternal inheritance. Until that time however, we continue to eagerly wait as we look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.