You Can't Keep a Justified Man Down
You say that the Hebrew bible is not largely concerned with what happens to people when they die. That might surprise many Christians.
Yes, but it is not actually controversial. You can search the Old Testament from end to end, and even if you take a maximal view of passages like the "I know that my redeemer liveth" bit in Job, you're still left with a very small selection over against the vast mass of the Old Testament in which the question is not even raised.
What is the point then?
I grew up with the view that in the early Old Testament period, there was no interest in life after death. In a middle period, represented by some of the Psalms, there were the beginnings of an interest in life after death. And then finally, with Daniel, you get resurrection, as though that's a progression away from the early period.
The view that I came to is that the main thing the whole Old Testament is concerned with is the God of Israel, as the Creator God who has made a good creation, and that what matters about human life really is that it's meant to be lived within God's good, lovely, created world. That is equally emphatic in the early period, where you get agricultural festivals that celebrate Yahweh as king over the crops and the land. It's equally emphatic there and in the doctrine of resurrection. From that point of view, the idea of a disembodied, nonspacio-temporal life after death appears as a rather odd blip in between these two strong affirmations of the goodness of the created order and the wonderful God-givenness of human bodily life within that created order.
So, instead of resurrection being a step away from the early period, it is a way of reaffirming what the early period was trying to get at: the goodness of creation.
Scholars have said for a long time that the immortality of the soul is a Greek concept while resurrection is a Hebrew concept. What's wrong with this picture?
That's one of those half-truths that points vaguely in the right direction. But you have to know which roads to go down once you've followed that initial signpost.
It's certainly true that Greeks did not believe in resurrection. It's not true, however, that all Greek thinkers believed in the immortality of the soul. That concept is specifically developed in Platonism. Some Greeks believed that nothing at all happened after death. It's also true that by no means did all Jews believe in the resurrection of the body. Some Jews like Philo of Alexandria, a Platonist philosopher, believed in the immortality of the soul.
But the idea that no Greeks believed in the resurrection of the body is very important for understanding the context of the Christian proclamation.
It really is. Over a period of more than a thousand years, whenever the question of resurrection—some substantial bodily life at some distance after death—comes up, people just say, "Sorry, no, that's not on." That really is very important to grasp.
Much of your book is designed to refute liberal scholars who treat Jesus' resurrection as equivalent to one of the pagan notions of afterlife. But what do you hope your conservative Christian readers will take away?
I count myself in all sorts of ways a conservative. (You ask Dom Crossan if I'm a conservative or not. He'll tell you I am.)
But conservative Christian readers often scrunch together two very different things. One is going to heaven after you die, and the other is the resurrection of the body as the final destination. Many conservatives are puzzled when I tell them that there's not very much in the New Testament about going to heaven when you die, and that where you do find material in the New Testament about going to heaven when you die, this is a temporary thing. What really matters is resurrection—Life After Life After Death.
- Good Boundaries Make Good Christians
- Thugs in Jesus' Hometown
- The Erosion Continues
- Ground Rules
- 'We Live What We Believe'