Christ’s physical resurrection
In two previous posts I tried to discern the significance of Christ’s resurrection for earliest Christianity. I came to the conclusion that the resurrection served, for the most part, as a sign pointing to the exaltation of Christ to God’s right hand. I argued that this exaltation, in turn, established Christ’s role as judge over the world on the day of God’s wrath. Based on the early creedal material that I reviewed in those posts, the resurrection held primarily eschatological significance. In fact, I found that the resurrection often served as the assumed prerequisite for Christ’s heavenly enthronement such that mention of it could be omitted from summations of the kerygma (cf. Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:1-4, 10:12-13, 12:2, Revelation 5:9-10).
Yet despite this emphasis placed on its eschatological implications in the New Testament, Christians have long marveled in the physicality of Christ’s resurrection as its supreme attribute. This physical resurrection has served as an ever-flowing spring from which to draw theological insight.
The earliest Christian texts fail to replicate this eagerness for physical resurrection, however. More often than not, the physicality of Christ’s resurrection is absent from summaries of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:10, Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, 2:6, Acts 2:33-34, etc.)—if it is mentioned at all. The early Christian writers did not dwell on the resurrection, let alone its physicality, as they hurried from crucifixion to exaltation to judgment in their public proclamation. Only in the narrative confines of the last Gospels do we find any concern for physical resurrection, for a risen Jesus who can be touched (Luke 24:39, John 20:27, 21:13-15).
None of this is to suggest that the early Christians rejected the resurrection of the physical body. But perhaps it does indicate that the physical nature of the resurrected body was not of immediate importance to them. What appears to have mattered most was instead that Christ’s resurrected body had been promptly received into heaven (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:47-49).
But suddenly at the third hour of the day there was darkness over the whole circle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as he [Jesus] was rising in the glory of the living God, at the same time they ascended with him; and immediately it was light. (Codex Bobiensis following Mark 16:3)
Raised to heaven
This strange association between bodily resurrection and heavenly assumption is not limited to Christ. In Revelation 11, for instance, the Two Witnesses who testify to Jerusalem’s looming destruction are raised immediately to heaven. The Christian martyrs are also raised directly to heaven in what is called the “first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4-6).
Upon examining other Biblical allusions to resurrection, it also becomes clear that a resurrection onto the earth is probably not in view. In nearly every case, the resurrected disappear from the earth.
- The saints who are raised out of the tombs during Christ’s death “appeared to many” in Jerusalem but apparently did not remain there (Matthew 27:50-53). It is likely they ascended to heaven.
- Jesus’ singular statement about the nature of the resurrection is curious. He claims that at the resurrection those who rise “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). Granted Jesus is specifically talking about about marriage, it is possible he imagines the resurrected faithful dwelling in heaven as do the angels. The phrase “in heaven” is hard to explain otherwise.
- Daniel 12:1-3, which is quoted in Matthew 13:43 and alluded to in the transfiguration account, suggests those who are raised receive a heavenly home. They “shine like the brightness of the sky… and the stars” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:40).
- Paul says that the risen Christ, with whom believers will one day share an image, is “from/out of heaven” (ἐξ οὐρανοῦ)(1 Corinthians 15:47-49). The risen Christ has not merely ascended to heaven then, he has in some sense been generated “out of heaven” in the same way Adam was produced “out of earth” (ἐκ γῆς χοϊκός). He is now “of heaven” not “of earth.”
- In 1 Thessalonians 4:14 Paul claims that in the same way (οὕτως) God raised (ἀνέστη) Jesus, God will also “bring” (ἄξει) the resurrected dead [to himself] when Christ descends on the clouds to bring about earthly judgment and establish his kingdom (4:14-16, cf. Matthew 24:30, Revelation 14:14-20, Acts 1:9-11, Psalm 18). Then the living will meet with the Lord and the resurrected in the sky (4:17). As it is widely-accepted that Paul’s framing of this scene imitates the Imperial Adventus cycle in which the emperor is greeted by dutiful citizens as he approaches a city he wishes to dominate, I propose that the living saints will ascend into the sky in order to receive authority from their king before returning to earth to rule. Having established this rule, Christ and the resurrected will then return to heaven to await the end of history.
If this is right, the resurrection expected by Jesus and Paul would have amounted to something like what Revelation 20 calls “the first resurrection,” that is, the resurrection to heaven. From heaven the resurrected martyrs would rule over the earth as the Sun rules over the day (εἰς ἀρχὰς/ἐξουσίαν τῆς ἡμέρας, Genesis 1:14, Psalm 136:8) while the righteous living would participate in Christ’s heavenly rule from earth until the recreation of all things. Thus both the faithful living and the faithful dead would be publicly vindicated. They would both come to rule over the powers that did them harm, one group from heaven, another from earth.
This thought experiment perhaps solves one of the major problems we should have with the historical-narrative approach: How can we equate the eschaton with historical events in Late Antiquity if no one was raised from the dead at that time? After all, the eschaton and the resurrection of the dead are indelibly linked in the New Testament.