Some Social Dimensions of Life After Death
I'd like to begin my contribution by raising a series of questions about resurrection and life after death, which summarize some of my chapters in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. This seems to be a perennial question. But I am also fascinated by the fact that the same symbols that governed life after death in New Testament times are still very understandable today and still operate in similar ways. For example, I found that resurrection was born in apocalyptic sects (like that which produced the book of Daniel about 165 BCE). This therefore is the biblical doctrine, though it arises fairly late in OT history and but a blink before the rise of Christianity. It promises bodily resurrection to those who have been martyrs, which helps explain the expectations surrounding Jesus’ death. And it promises that martyrs, who have sacrificed their bodies for the faith, will get them back when God brings about the coming kingdom. It is not only a solace to martyrs but also to freedom fighters. And this doctrine later becomes the expectation of all. But it is not the only doctrine available in NT times.
On the other side of the social spectrum, there is the doctrine of immortality of the soul. It is characteristic of the upper classes, but only those who interact significantly with the Greco-Roman aristocracy. This is because the doctrine’s origin is to be found in Platonic thought, though Jewish intellectuals like Philo show us that it could be tailored to fit Jewish sensibilities—especially Jewish notions of God’s ethical behavior. This doctrine essentially says that we will discorporate on death and that our souls, which contain our thinking and memory, will survive us. I said that this is characteristic of a class of people that valorizes the life of the mind. It says our thoughts and experience survives us. The body, in contradistinction to resurrection, is unimportant and carries no personal identity.
We have to realize, as well, that many Jews, especially in the aristocracy of Judea—those called Sadducees—did not believe in any form of afterlife at all. That means that a belief in the afterlife is not automatically important in Judaism. Furthermore, that means that the Sadducees must have interpreted their Bible tradition as having no evidence of an afterlife. For sure, this means that their “Bible” would have contained no book of Daniel. It also means that they interpreted every other book in the Bible to say that there was no afterlife. That means they took a naturalistic interpretation of Ezekiel 37 and Isaiah 24-27. It is inconceivable, however, that their Bible didn’t have these important books in it.
The problem is the Pharisees, as I have said before. The Pharisees believed in tehiat hametim, a term taken from Isaiah 26:19. But they are not apocalyptic sectarians. However, I point out that they thrive some century and a half after the sectarians who produce Daniel. They “borrow” the notion, as it were, from an earlier sect. Nevertheless, they are in the power game politically in first century Judea. To resolve the issue, I have partly to rely on Paul, who talks about the transformation from body to body, a very ambiguous and incompletely understood doctrine in 1 Corinthians 15. Also, I try to point out that the term tehiat hametim” does not actually mean resurrection in the sense of the re-animation of the corpse. If the Pharisees had wanted that term, they would have developed it from the parallel verse in Isaiah 26:19 where the technical term hakamat haneveilot is available. That term explicitly means that the corpses will get up. By using the less explicit term, I contend, the Pharisees and later the rabbis were fudging the afterlife. They did not want to be more explicit.
This makes our job in understanding Paul more difficult, rather than less difficult. The canonical Gospels all explicitly or implicitly accept a literal resurrection of the corpse. The story of the empty tomb makes this explicit. It tells us what the canonical position is on Jesus, even though, as is clear, it cannot any longer be thought to be the exact story of the believer. But that is the point. The Gospels are written after it is clear that the end of the world is not coming immediately after the resurrection of Jesus. One or two generations had passed and their corpses had all deteriorated to bones or even to dust.
Paul, who wrote before the Gospels, never mentions the empty tomb, though he certainly goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was buried. I suspect that he saw this as a victory over the Roman oppressors because they rarely granted permission for crucified criminals to be buried with honors. It is also clear that the resurrection body is a spiritual body. But it is nowhere clear that it is the physical body of the Gospels. It may be the same body transformed but that is far from clear in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 essay on the subject. It seems out of the question that it is merely the flesh revivified as he says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50). But what it is positively is ambiguous. The metaphor of the grain of wheat suggests two bodies because the ancient world thought that the seed disappeared and was reborn. Other parts of the passage suggest a single body transformed. What is clear to me is that it does not automatically cohere with the Gospel story. And why should it? He did not know the finished Gospel tradition. The real question is: “Why do the Gospels ignore Paul?”
To return to the contemporary world for a moment: Fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (I’m restricting myself to those who have a developed biblical notion of resurrection) are knowledgeable about their scriptural tradition and affirm resurrection. They also know that martyrdom is a cost which may be asked of them personally. The majority of Americans however are the equivalent of mainline and normative. Whether Jew Christian Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or nothing at all, most Americans affirm a form of immortality of the soul, though some call that immortality of the soul resurrection because they know that is the core of Christianity. In fact, more Americans believe in an afterlife than actually believe in God. And when they do believe, they believe in a form of immortality that is consonant with immortality of the soul. So the same social and ideological connection that was established in the Hellenistic world is influencing our religious lives today, though there is no theoretical reason why we could not have changed metaphors completely. The differences between immortality of the soul and resurrection are still informing our religious life today.