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The Undead

If you expect to die and then go straight to heaven (or hell, as the case may be), you might be in for a long wait. Apart from the robber who died with Jesus on the cross, the New Testament says nothing about people going straight to anywhere. First there must be a resurrection of the dead, and who knows when that will be? According to Christian belief, Jesus was resurrected three days after being crucified, but the rest of us will have to wait for “the end of the age.” But don’t hold your breath on that one – not that most of those waiting around to be resurrected are doing much breathing.

Belief in a bodily resurrection of the dead is a tenet of faith shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The ancient Israelites had no well-developed belief in an afterlife, yet a number of allusions to a resurrection of the dead can be found in the Old Testament, notably this verse from the Book of Daniel: “Many who sleep in the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to the approach of eternal abhorrence." Jews in Jesus’ time were divided on the subject, with Pharisees supporting the idea and Sadducees opposing it. Jesus himself sided with the Pharisees and once explained to a group of Sadducees that those who are resurrected “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” This was in answer to their question about whom a widow would be married to if she had to choose among multiple resurrected husbands from her previous life.

The Greeks, who believed in the immortality of the soul, found the idea of a bodily resurrection to be both perplexing and distasteful. "What sort of person would have any further desire for a body that has rotted?" asked Celsus, a second-century Platonist. Even a body that had somehow escaped corruption might otherwise be aged and infirm. In my own case, certainly, I would not relish the prospect of hobbling around for eternity on my arthritic knees. The rabbis who pondered such questions conceived of a two-stage process in which the dead are first raised and then healed of their infirmities. St. Paul told the Corinthians that our perishable bodies will be replaced by spiritual bodies, which presumably are not subject to arthritis.

The early Christians fully expected Christ to return in their lifetimes or soon after, which meant that there would be no waiting around for the Resurrection. Once it became clear that the Second Coming would not be coming any time soon, they began to consider the possibility that they could spend centuries stuck in a hole in the ground while their bodies slowly turned to dust. Gradually it occurred to them that the Greeks had a ready-made solution to their dilemma: the immortality of the soul. As the Greeks conceived it, death is a kind of liberation as the soul is freed from the confides of the body – all the more so if, as many Christians came to believe, the soul then ascends to heaven to be with God and all those loved ones who have gone before. The only trouble with this idea is that there is absolutely no basis for it in the Bible or in any of the creeds. It is folk religion, pure and simple. Thus, millions of devout Christians have unknowingly come to embrace an idea that is essentially pagan.

Daniel 12:2
Luke 20:27-40
Claudia Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in Early Judaism and Christianity
1 Corinthians 15
Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?
 

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