As I have been discussing the topic of resurrection in early Christianity, a number of readers have asked about a related issue, namely, where the Christian teaching of heaven and hell came from. For most Christians, the afterlife seems to be the ongoing existence of the soul. But for the earliest Christians, the afterlife involved the resurrection precisely of the *body*. How did that change, and why?
I discussed this issue some years back in my book Jesus Interrupted, and what I say about it there seems to be directly on target for what these readers have asked. And so I include it here. This will take two posts, the first one (today) to explain why “resurrection” came to be believed by Jews and eventually by Christians and the next post to explain how that belief in resurrection came to be transformed into the later idea of heaven and hell that may people today continue to subscribe to.
Heaven and Hell
In some parts of Christendom today, especially the parts that I was one time associated with, the religion is all about the afterlife. On the very personal level, people are eager to experience the joys of heaven and to avoid the fires of hell. Most Christians that I meet today (I know this isn’t true of all Christians everywhere) believe that when you die, your soul goes to one place or the other.
I’ve never quite figured out all the inconsistencies of this view. On the one hand, the afterlife of the soul sounds like some kind disembodied existence, since your body stays in the grave; on the other hand, people think that there will be physical pleasure or pain in the afterlife, and that you’ll be able to recognize your grandparents. That would require having a body.
The earliest Christians, starting with Jesus, did not believe in that sort of heaven and hell, as a place that your soul goes when you die. This too is a later Christian invention.
The Early Apocalyptic Views of the “Afterlife”
As we have seen, scholars have widely argued that Jesus and his followers were Jewish apocalypticists. In some ways, the apocalyptic view developed, well over a century before Jesus, as a way to deal with the problem of theodicy. That is not a term they themselves used; it was coined in the seventeenth century by the French philosopher Leibniz. Technically “theodicy” means “God’s justice”; the problem of theodicy is to explain how God can be just given the state of pain and misery in the world. In other words, given the amount of suffering that people experience, how can one explain that a good and loving God is in charge?
The apocalyptic view of ancient Judaism did not …
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The apocalyptic view of ancient Judaism did not address this problem in modern philosophical terms, but its concerns were very similar. For centuries there had been thinkers in Israel who maintained that the people of God had experienced such hardship as a people and individually because they had sinned against God and God was punishing them for it. This is sometimes called the “prophetic” view because it is the perspective found on page after page of the prophets of the Old Testament.
But what happens when people do what the prophets urge, when they return to the ways of God, stop behaving in ways contrary to his laws, begin to live in the manner that he requires, and yet they continue to suffer? The prophetic view can make sense of the suffering of the wicked: they are getting what they deserve. But it cannot make sense of the suffering of the righteous. Why is it that the wicked prosper but the righteous suffer?
There were different responses to that question among ancient Israelites, including the response, or rather responses, found most famously in the book of Job. The apocalyptic worldview takes a different tack. For apocalypticists, as we have seen, suffering is only a temporary state of affairs. For some mysterious reason God has relinquished control of this world to cosmic forces of evil that are wreaking havoc on it. But soon, in the near future, God will intervene in history and make right all that is wrong. He will overthrow the forces of evil, disband the wicked kingdoms that they support, and bring in a new kingdom, here on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice. The wicked rulers of this world and all who side with them will be destroyed, and the poor and the oppressed will rule supreme.
This view is first found in the Bible in the Old Testament book of Daniel, which was the last of the Hebrew Bible books to be written, sometime in the middle of the second century BCE. It is a view found in a number of Jewish writings produced in the centuries after Daniel, including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it is a view found on the lips of Jesus.
Included in this view was the notion that at the end of this age, when God finally intervened, there would be a resurrection of the dead. Belief in the resurrection was directly related to the concerns of ancient theodicy. How is it that people have sided with God and been tortured and murdered as a result? Where is God in all this? And how is it that other people have sided with the powers of evil, grown rich and powerful as a result, and died and gotten away with it? Where is justice?
For apocalypticists there would be justice. Not in this life or this age, but in the resurrection, in the age to come. God would raise all people from the dead, bodily, to give them an eternal reward or an eternal punishment. No one would escape. Evil would not have the last word; God would have the last word. And death would not be the end of the story.
So taught the early Jewish apocalypticists, and so taught Jesus. The Kingdom of God was soon to appear with the coming of the Son of Man. People needed to prepare for it by mending their ways and siding with God, even though it meant suffering in this age. But a new age was coming in which God and his ways would rule supreme, in the kingdom of God to come here, on this earth. All would eventually be made right with this world, and everyone would be brought back to life, bodily, to see and experience it.
This was also the teaching of the apostle Paul and, so far as we can tell, of all the earliest Christians. One key difference between Paul and Jesus is that, for Paul, it is Jesus himself who will bring this kingdom when he returns in glory (thus 1 Thessalonians 4-5). Moreover, for Paul, the resurrection at the end of the age has already, in some sense, begun. That is one reason Jesus’ resurrection was so significant for Paul. Since the resurrection is to occur at the end of the age, and since Jesus has already been raised, that shows we are living at the end of the age. Paul, as a result, talks about living in the end times.
What happens, though, to a person who dies before the end of the age? Paul evidently came to believe that for those who die before the return of Jesus, there is some kind of interim existence with Christ. That’s why he told the Philippians that “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). He evidently believed that believers in Jesus would have some kind of temporary body given them in heaven; but this was a purely temporary arrangement. When Christ returned in glory, the “dead in Christ will rise first,” and then all those still living, Paul among them, would be gloriously transformed, so that their bodies would be made immortal (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-57). They would then live eternally, here on earth.
Thus, eternal life, for Jesus, Paul, and the earliest Christians, was a life lived in the body, not above in heaven, but down here, where we are now. Paul emphasizes this point strenuously in the book of 1 Corinthians. The fact that Jesus’ body was raised from the dead shows what the future resurrection would involve. It would involve bodies being raised, physically, from the dead, and transformed into immortal bodies. Paul scoffed at his opponents in Corinth for thinking they had already experienced a spiritual resurrection, so that they were enjoying the full benefits of salvation now, in the spirit. The resurrection was physical, and since it was physical, it obviously had not happened yet. This world is still carrying on under the forces of evil, and it will not be until the end that it is all resolved and the followers of Jesus are vindicated, transformed, and given an eternal reward.
This is the view of the Apocalypse of John as well. After all the catastrophes that hit this planet at the end of time – catastrophes that the author revels in telling, in chapter after gory chapter — “a new heavens and a new earth” will appear. There will be a future resurrection of all who died; there will be a new, heavenly Jerusalem that descends from the sky to replace the old, corrupt, and now destroyed Jerusalem as the city of God. It will have gates of pearl and streets of gold. And that is where the saints will live forever, here on earth (see Revelation 21).