The Resurrection of the Dead

Professor Ian McFarland, Emory University
Remembrance Sunday


Choral Eucharist with University Sermon

Job 19.23-27a           Luke 20.27-38

Considered from a purely social scientific perspective, resurrection is a strange concept. For while I don’t claim to have anything like a comprehensive grasp of the full range of beliefs about the afterlife that have emerged over the last several thousand years of human cultural evolution, among those with which I do have some familiarity, resurrection is an oddity. Typically, beliefs about our post mortem fate assume a basic anthropological dualism; that is, they presuppose that human beings are composed of two fundamental parts: a physical body on the one hand and a spiritual component (often called the soul) on the other. At death the two separate, with the body decomposing into its constituent material elements (‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’), while the spiritual part moves on, either to inhabit a new body (reincarnation) or to continue in some form of disembodied existence, whether in the heavens above or in the underworld beneath.

Indeed, the Old Testament shows clearly that throughout their early history the people of Israel, too, conformed to this pattern, inasmuch as they believed that after death a person’s spirit continued to lead a sort of a shadow-existence in the underground realm known in Hebrew as Sheol. Many of you may remember the story of how a desperate King Saul commanded a local medium to call up from Sheol the spirit of the recently deceased Samuel, whose first words after being summoned were, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’ (1 Sam. 28:15). Whatever the meaning intended by the author of that particular story, the overwhelming preponderance of biblical evidence suggests that Sheol was viewed less as a place of rest than as a kind of holding tank where all the dead, together and without distinction based on earthly status or merit, lead a depressingly insubstantial form of existence, cut off both from the community of the living and from God. As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol’ (Eccl. 9:10).

Belief in the resurrection emerged in Judaism only very late, well after the Israelites’ return from exile in Babylon. And as today’s Gospel makes clear, even by Jesus’ time some centuries later, it was by no means a matter of consensus. Indeed, it was rejected not only by the Sadducees, the priestly elite who were at the forefront of the Jewish religious establishment, but also by the Essenes, the Jewish group we today associate with the production of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Its champions were the Pharisees, a lay movement that had emerged among Palestinian Jews in the mid-second century B.C. And it was only after they became the dominant force in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 that belief in the resurrection became orthodoxy among the rabbis who were the Pharisees’ descendants. The fact that Christians professed belief in the resurrection from the beginning thus provides strong evidence that notwithstanding the stories of conflict with the Pharisees that pervade the Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry, he and his followers moved within Pharisaic circles.

Be that as it may, what exactly does belief in the resurrection mean? Most simply (and in line with the text of the Apostles’ Creed), it refers specifically to the ‘resurrection of the body’, that is, after death human beings are desitined neither for reincarnation in a new body nor continued existence in a disembodied state, but rather for taking up again (albeit in more permanent ‘spiritual’ form) the same embodied existence they had before. Note that this way of conceiving human destiny cuts directly against the idea that human beings are a composite of soul and body in which the latter is dispensable (or at least replaceable). To believe in the resurrection means to believe that if we as human beings have a future on the far side of death, it must be a bodily future – or it will not be a genuinely human one.

But there’s more to it than that, and the ‘more’ has to do with the fact that resurrection is different from mere resuscitation, the kind of miraculous restoration of a dead person to earthly life – Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and the like – that are recorded not only in both the Old and New Testaments but also in many other religious traditions. For those who are merely resuscitated will eventually die again and for good; in being ‘raised’, they have been granted only a temporary reprieve. By contrast, belief in resurrection means a permanent restoration to bodily existence. As Jesus puts it, those who are resurrected ‘cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God’.

It’s clearly the failure to grasp this difference that lies behind the Sadducees’ challenge to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. They imagine that resurrection means simply restoration to something very much like earthly existence, even if in an otherworldly setting. On such an understanding, death is just a brief bump in the road, after which one’s life continues more or less as before, only without any further interruption. Given that understanding, their question about the fate of the woman who was married to seven brothers in succession would indeed be a conundrum: ‘whose wife will [she] be? For [all] seven had married her?’

But Jesus argues that this question reflects a complete misunderstanding of what resurrection means, and it’s not hard to see why. For if the resurrected life were simply the continuation of this one into the indefinite future, then the significance of our lives here and now would really come to nothing. For compared to an infinitely extended resurrection existence, what value could be assigned to what by comparison is the brief flash of a few decades lived on earth?

No, for Jesus the difference between life now and the resurrection is far sharper than the Sadducees recognise. Marriage, he teaches (and marriage here really stands in here for the whole biological cycle of birth and death), belongs to this age; ‘but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’ At one level, Jesus can be understood as simply pointing out that in a context where death no longer has a place, marriage is not longer necessary as a means of producing children to replace the passing generation. But that by itself doesn’t really answer the Sadducees’ question, not least because in biblical perspective, reproduction is not the central purpose of marriage: when Adam is confronted with Eve in Genesis 2, there is no mention of childbearing, but only of companionship; according to the story, Eve is created not to solve any problems of repopulation, but simply because, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). So if the resurrected life is simply earthly life continued on a higher plane, even if procreation is no longer necessary, still the question, of whose partner the hypothetical woman shall be in the resurrection would remain.

So if we’re going to make sense of Jesus’ teaching, we need to look elsewhere. And I think the key here is to recognise that resurrection life is not the continuation of our lives here and now. Rather than a post mortem extension of earthly existence, resurrection is just the vindication of this earthly life taken as a whole. That is, to be resurrected is to be affirmed eternally as the person one has been during the full span of one’s transit from birth to death; to have this life, with all its limitations, sustained and upheld before God as good.
From this perspective, the question of whose wife the woman will be loses its force, because the woman will be simply who she has been: the one who was (among other things) married to all seven brothers, and who as that unique individual now lives before God as a child of God. In the resurrection one does not continue to live from moment to moment, through a continuing series of events of the sort that make up our lives on earth; rather, resurrection life is God’s claiming of the whole of our earthly lives as things of everlasting value – and our amazed and grateful recognition of the fact that our lives are worthy of that claim.

And it’s in this way that we can, I think, make sense of Jesus’ attempt to use the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in support of the resurrection. At first glance, it seems like a very strange choice indeed. One might think that Jesus would have done better to choose, say, the text of our other reading this morning from Job, or perhaps the passage about the dry bones in Ezekiel. Truth to tell, it’s the consensus of modern scholarship that neither of those passages actually speaks of the resurrection, but they do at least seem to be talking about restoration to life from death. By contrast, it’s difficult to see how the passage from Exodus that Jesus cites has any bearing on the question at all.
Now, one answer to this problem is to note that because the Sadducees did not accept any texts except the five books of Moses as canonical, they would not have been persuaded by quotations from Job or Ezekiel or Daniel or any other of the later biblical books; so Jesus had to make do with the first five, and this passage from Exodus was the best he could manage. But I thin this sells both Jesus and the passage in question short. To see this, consider the way God identifies God’s self to Moses: ‘I am...the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exod. 3:6). I suspect our first impulse is to take this is as a historical report, that is, something like, ‘I am the God that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshiped’. But Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should understand it differently. After all, this is God talking, and if God is really God – that is, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen – then God is not to be defined in terms of human actions; that is, knowing who God is, is not about knowing what Abraham or Isaac or Jacob did, but about knowing what God did to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If we’re going to understand the significance of the passage, we have to remember that God’s identity isn’t defined by what Abraham or his descendants do; it’s just the opposite: their identity is defined by God.

So when God says, I am...the God of Abraham...of Isaac, and...of Jacob’, he is not making an antiquarian reference to something that happened once, a long time ago. Instead, God is talking about the present: ‘I am the God of these three – right now!’ And that means that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not simply shadows from the past, but living realities. Then as now, God determines who Abrham and Isaac and Jacob – and Mary and Joseph and Peter and you and I are. And if God determines our identity, then that identity is not dissolved by death. For because we are creatures, we only live at any point because God the Creator names us and calls us into being; and that means that so long as God continues to name us as God’s own, we continue to live: for God is a ‘God not of the dead, but of the living’.

Now, none of this takes anything away from the oddity of the resurrection as a doctrine of the church. For we have no conception of what it could possibly mean to go on living without experiencing life as an ongoing sequence of events. For us on earth to live is, inexorably, both to change and to be changed. Indeed, we tend to pin our hopes on this very feature of our lives: because we are all too aware of the ways in which we have fallen short in the past, we look to the future, to the possibilities that still lie before us, as giving us the opportunity to redeem ourselves, to make up for our shortcomings and, hopefully, make something more meaningful of the very mixed bag that any of our lives is on an objective reckoning.

It’s in that context, however, that the doctrine of the resurrection re-oreints our preceptions. For the good news of the resurreciton is not simply that those who have died will live again. By itself, that message doesn’t really offer anything more than what the Sadducees thought: a further extension of life as we know it now. But a little reflection suggests that there is nothing especially to be welcomed about that prospect. For what guarantee do we have that such an extension would produce any better results? That we would not continue throughout all eternity to make of our lives, alongside some fleeting patches of beauty and truth, an equal or perhaps greater measure of folly, vanity, and meanness? But the good news of the resurrection is that God acknowledges our lives as we have lived them, the bad along with the good, and affirms that it’s as just the people we are, with all our shortcomings, and without any need to prove ourselves worthy, that we will live; that our lives now, whether long or short, better or worse, richer or poorer, successful or seeming failures are valued and affirmed by God as they are and in spite of what we accomplish or fail to accomplish in them.

This understanding of resurrection is especially important to keep in mind on Remembrance Sunday, when we are so very mindful of those whose lives were cut short, painfully and violently, in the furnace of war; but it’s no less important when we consider all the other varied circumstances under which human lives come to an end, whether the infant who lives but a day or the woman who comes to her death old and full of years. In every case, we are called and enabled to trust that however doubtful the prospect, the lives that we have are not hopeless, but upheld by God as good, because ‘God [is] not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all...are alive’. Amen.