A functional approach to early Christian apocalyptic rhetoric attempts to peer beyond the smoke and spectacle, to discover the true aims of the man behind the curtain. A functional approach asks What does it mean, practically speaking, for the Son of Man to appear like lightning in the sky? What does it mean, in concrete terms, for his kingdom to arrive in power upon the earth? What does it mean, moreover, for Michael to bind the primordial dragon for a thousand years? What does it mean for the dead in Christ to awake from their slumber?1
The traditional answers to these questions emphasize the transcendental and the cosmic. The resurrection of the righteous, as such, primarily resolves the issue of human mortality. By resurrection, the personal and physical life of the believer is restored so that it may be enjoyed forever in a world without death. By resurrection then, the mortal man becomes the immortal man. He is no longer pestered by the natural fate of all living things: death and decay.
While this understanding of resurrection has its exegetical merits, it prevails in the church not because it has grasped the motivating principle of the ancient apocalyptic mind, but because it appeals to the existential psyche of Western man. For those steeped in apocalyptic, however, it is not mortality that is most troubling about the human condition, but rather the humiliation of God’s people among the nations. For example, take the words of one Jewish apocalypticist as he struggles to make theological sense of the demolition of the Temple in AD 70:
O Lord, you have said that it as for [Israel] that you created the world. As for the other nations that have descended from Adam, you have said that they are nothing, and that they are like spittle, and you have compared their abundance to a drop in from a bucked. And now, O Lord, these nations, which are reputed to be as nothing, domineer us and devour us. But we are your people, whom you have called your firstborn, only-begotten, zealous for you, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will be so?2 Esdras 6:55-59 NRSV
2 Esdras (i.e. 4 Ezra) is not unique in this outlook. Virtually all Jewish apocalyptic texts (e.g. Daniel 7-11, Zechariah 9-14, War Scroll, etc.) and a good deal of the prophetic literature that preceded them, await divine answers to pressing political problems. Such writings, in fact, often emerged in the wake of national crises. Accordingly, the apocalyptic genre calls upon God to act with swift vengeance to save his people from evildoers, reverse their pathetic fortunes, and bestow upon them “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12).
This is true even of early Christian apocalyptic. Christ comes to undo and reverse the humiliation of his persecuted churches. He publicly vindicates them, dispatches their enemies, and establishes ecclesiastical rule over the nations. In other words, Christ’s apocalyptic kingdom enters the world so as to realign its socio-political structures in favor of the churches. I argue that it is within this narrative and in reference to these concerns that resurrection has its primary function in the New Testament. Resurrection, in sum, is the means by which the faithful dead participate in the church’s victory and reign over their persecutors. The dead are raised in order that they might judge the earth and rule its nations (cf. Revelation 5:10).
Resurrection is not therefore, in the first place, a solution to death in general terms. Human mortality is a secondary concern for early Christian apocalyptic—as is the character of the resurrected body (i.e. spiritual or physical).
I have tried to advance this argument regarding the resurrection in a number of different ways:
- In Revelation 11 & 20 the faithful martyrs are, like Christ, resurrected to heavenly thrones from which they judge and rule those who tormented them.
- In various texts the resurrected body is likened to a shining heavenly light whose glory inundates the land of the living.
- Jesus tells parables in which the resurrection is like a humble man who is unexpectedly honored by the master of a feast while at the table.
- The Wisdom of Solomon posits that the resurrection of the righteous manifests in the calamities suffered by the wicked on the earth.
In each of these cases resurrection enables the Christian dead to share in the eschatological triumph of the churches on earth, their vindication and rule over the nations. Indeed, this is the essential purpose of resurrection in early Christian thought.
Bodies shamed and honored
In pressing this argument further, Paul’s writings can be of help. Paul consistently explains the significance of the resurrection in relation to the Greco-Roman honor-shame system. A key text in this regard is Philippians 3:20-21.
The Lord Jesus Christ will transform our humiliated body (τὸ σῶμα τῆς ταπεινώσεως) to be like his glorious body (τῷ σώματι τῆς δόξης), by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
With the phrase “humiliated body,” the Apostle speaks here not of the mortal body per se but rather of the persecuted body, the body shamed by the authorities of the world. As Paul describes elsewhere, this body is subjected to “hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword” as it is “led to the slaughter on account of [Christ],” opposed and marginalized, as it were, by the powers that be (Romans 8:35-36). In this way Paul and other persecuted Christians carry the “death of Jesus” in their bodies as they face resistance from both Jew and Greek, becoming “like men sentenced to death, a spectacle to the world,” “fools for the sake of Christ,” and “rubbish to the world” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10, 1 Corinthians 4:9-13).
The suffering and death in view here is not, therefore, that of the fallen creation, doomed to death and decay, but rather the suffering and death endured by those put to shame by the Greco-Roman pagan order: “persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:9). It is not the consequences of mortality that the apostles suffer, but the consequences of humiliation—being like slaves and criminals, emptied of honor, filled with disrepute.
It is this body sown in “shame” (ἀτιμίᾳ) and “weakness” (ἀσθενείᾳ) that will be raised in “glory” (δόξῃ) and “power” (δυνάμει) Paul writes (1 Corinthians 15:43, cf. Colossians 3:4). At the parousia the Lord will transform this persecuted body into its glorious counterpart. Then the Christian will no longer be vulnerable to those who persecute and shame him. Instead, he will receive the authority to cast down and replace those deemed honorable by the world; he will acquire authority to neutralize and supplant his highly-esteemed tormenters (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Romans 2:9-10, 1 Peter 1:7). The same power that subjects the kingdoms of the world to the once-humiliated Christ, therefore, will transform the Christian’s persecuted body into the glorious body—the body full of honor, authority, and might. With this new persecution-proof body the dead in Christ will be able to rule the nations alongside their Lord (cf. Revelation 20:1-6).
The upshot of this reading of the resurrection in light of honor-shame cultural norms, I would submit, is that the concepts of resurrection and eschatological dominion were inseparable within earliest Christianity, being at times synonymous: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). Being that the substance of the resurrected body (i.e. its physicality) was not yet at issue, the Apostle could speak of the resurrection body as a “spiritual” body as opposed to a “physical” body and of the exalted Christ as a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). What mattered at this stage was not the nature of the resurrected life but its function. A spiritual body raised to a heavenly throne was still acceptable. What mattered was that the dead exerted their divinely-granted authority within the world for the church.
It is worth considering this framing from a sociological perspective. Just as early Christians envisioned an eschaton in which their enemies would be denied proper burial, their bodies devoured by wild animals and fire, and thus their memory obliterated, the resurrection of the righteous allowed those believers who suffered contemptible fates, often without proper burial themselves, to receive the highest possible honor, however conceived.2 The resurrection signified that the saints and martyrs of the early churches would preside over the imperial church in and through their enduring legacies. The church would, in a sense, immortalize Peter, Paul, the martyrs, and all the faithful churches, accrediting their sacrifices with the victory of Christianity over paganism and codifying their teachings as the “deposit of faith.” In this way the cults of the Roman Mediterranean, ancestor cults included, would eventually cease to exist, at last replaced by the church’s canonization of its own past. The pagan sacrifices that had long fed the gods and the ancestors would give way to the church’s petitions to the heavenly saints.
1—These questions are not meant to imply that the first Christians, or apocalytpic thinkers in general, transcended their pre-scientific understanding of the world—they did not. Rather, they are meant to help us recognize the concrete hopes, fears, and frustrations that generated apocalyptic discourse.
2—E.g. Enthroned in Heaven, shining like the sun, alive on earth, etc.