This post discusses the state of existence or being into which the Scripture tells us people be transformed at the end of days.
People have many beliefs about life after death, and everyone has a right those beliefs, whatever they may be. I am not here to challenge anyone’s beliefs.
What I am here to do is discuss written information dating throughout the second temple period (515 BCE-70 CE) and what those writings lead one to believe. I have also drawn from 7th century literature (The Qur’an) as regards the nature of “paradise”.
I believe in the communion of the Saints, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Those who find the resurrection troubling should not read this post.
The second book of Maccabees directly exposes the reader to a strong belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of days. This belief is not about the reanimation of a dead body but, rather, a transformation of the human into an “incorruptible” frame bound for eternal life.
The only working example of a resurrected person having undergone this transformation is that of the resurrection appearances of Christ Jesus. Other examples in canonical and deuterocanonical literature involve the raising of a dead person to live out a normal life, not to eternal life.
Those who pray and understand the Lord’s prayer should know that we ask for “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, inviting the establishment of the eternal kingdom through the rebirth of the world and transformation of its people into the resurrection state. As St. Paul writes:
“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 KJV)
The three Abrahamic faiths, that is, most forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are bound by belief in the same God and the resurrection of the dead at the last day. While Jewish scripture (the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) only lightly alludes to the resurrection, extrabiblical sources used in Rabbinical Judaism including daily prayers do. In both Christianity and Islam, scripture is clear. Therefore, it is safe to say that the origins are Jewish and in the middle-eastern region.
As for scripture itself, one may wish to start with a good read of an article from the Jewish Encyclopedia which roughly dates the appearance of the resurrection narrative around 336 BCE. The book of Isaiah (ca 700 BCE-515 BCE) hints at it, so do certain Psalms, the book of Jeremiah (ca 600 BCE), and the book of Job (ca 500 BCE). Ezekiel’s dry bones narrative (Ezekiel chapter 37 as a whole) can be viewed a the resurrection of the dead in messianic times, or simply as a metaphor for the restoration of Israel in messianic times; it is not clear. All that said, we could tentatively conclude that resurrection theology came into the mainstream near the start of the second temple period (515 BCE-70 CE).
By the book of Daniel (ca 167 BCE), this belief is on full display “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2 NRS) and by the second book of Maccabees (ca 124 BCE) resurrection is part and parcel of the faithful resisting the outrages of Antiochus Epiphanes. For example, “After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, ‘Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb’ He replied in the language of his ancestors and said to them, ‘No.’ Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.’ “(2 Maccabees 7:7-9 NRS)
In my studies, I happen upon suggestions that resurrection theology and in particular the resurrection of Christ Jesus have origins in the spring festivals notably the Osiris story of Ancient Egypt and certain Greek Mystery religions. Having read most of the source texts (see my bibliography post), this is simply not the case.
Osiris is killed by Seth (aka Set) and brought back to life by Isis during which process she becomes pregnant with Horus by Osiris. Horus seeks to avenge the death of Osiris and is first defeated by Seth who gouges out the left eye of Horus and then rapes him, Seth is later defeated by Horus who rapes Seth. The Eye of Horus, partially restored by other deities and retrieved in his victory is offered to Osiris by Horus. Over time, in the Pyramid texts and Egyptian book of the dead, Osiris becomes the ruler of the underworld, supplanting Anubis.
In that book of the dead, if the supplicant passes the weighing of the heart test and says the right incantations, they may indeed receive immortal life the apex of which is a daily travel with Amon Ra on the Sun Barque across the sky to do battle with the serpents of the west (controlled by Seth) and be restored in the womb to be reborn again the next morning. The pyramid serves at that womb.
An alternate afterlife is life in the field of reeds, quite like the Elysian fields of Greek Mythology.
While I do see close ties between Hebrew and Egyptian wisdom literature and moral beliefs, and I do find the weighing of the heart test quite like the tests of the Abrahamic faiths, I do not find any correlation between Egyptian or Greek beliefs and the Abrahamic beliefs regarding the resurrection of the dead. I firmly believe that the origins are Jewish and are not dependent on Egyptian or Greek cultures.
In this post, which builds on my earlier The Risen Christ in Luke & John post, I’ll focus on the nature of the resurrection and what we read about who is included.
I don’t want to dig deeply into source documents and make this post long and tedious, but I find that, as usual, I must. Sorry for the long post.
Life, intermediate life, eternal life
Or, life, life after death, and life after life after death, as N. T. Wright puts it. I’m going to skip life, given that we’re alive and reasonably well writing and reading this post.
The intermediate life which transcends bodily death is an interesting subject because scripture doesn’t really talk much about that state. The New Testament and the (Jewish) Midrashim lead us to believe that it’s a mixed state where some people are up and around and some are dormant in Samuel’s sleep-like state given us in the first book of Samuel:
“Then Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’” (1 Samuel 28:15 NRS).
So the dead Samuel was somewhere in spirit form and was disturbed by the witch. That somewhere is generally the Hebrew concept of Sheol, not unlike the Greek concept of Hades really – a dark dreamlike existence.
However, Jesus talks of paradise: Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43 NRS) and also: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:2-4 NRS) That’s not preparing for a period of dormancy, it’s preparing for an intermediate life.
St. Paul also writes of the third heaven which is paradise: It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (2 Corinthians 12:1-4 NRS) and goes on to relate his famous metaphor of sleep “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,” (1 Corinthians 15:51 KJV). Note here that the NRS has substituted “die” for for “sleep”. We should also note that the Vulgate text is different, saying that we shall all rise but we shall not all be changed (i.e., those to be punished will not be changed).
And Revelation adds a twist: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed. (Revelation 6:9-11 NRS)
So, are we awake or not and what’s this paradise all about?
I believe in the communion of saints, so I certainly believe that at least some of us in the intermediate state are up and about and able to hear us and pray for us. After all, Jesus says as much when he declares Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be living:
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.
“Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:34-38 NRS)
Paradise, that’s where. Paradise is a proto-Iranian word originally meaning a walled garden and hunting compound. In the Qur’an (received 609-632 CE), this is the final stop for the resurrection as we see below, and see my bibliography post for the exact translation of the Qur’an:
For such the reward is forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens with rivers
flowing underneath,- an eternal dwelling: How excellent a recompense for those
who work [and strive]! (Sura 3, Al-i-Imran -or The family of Imran, verse 136)
And they have been commanded no more than this: To worship Allah, offering
Him sincere devotion, being true [in faith]; to establish regular prayer; and to
practise regular charity; and that is the Religion Right and Straight. Those who reject [Truth], among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein [for aye]. They are the worst of creatures. Those who have faith and do righteous deeds,- they are the best of creatures. Their reward is with Allah: Gardens of Eternity, beneath which rivers flow; they will dwell therein for ever; Allah well pleased with them, and they with Him: all this for such as fear their Lord and Cherisher. (Sura Baiyina, or The Clear Evidence, verses 5-7)
So, from Jewish and Christian scripture at least, there you have the intermediate state. Sleep or life quite like we know it now in a very hospitable environment like a luxuriant garden.
But where, in the time space universe, in existential reality, where?
Now there’s a fine question. Where indeed. Our forebears in faith still believed in a flat earth centric universe with various spheres surrounding it on which the stars moved. The planets, from the Greek word planan meaning “wanderer” didn’t quite obey the rules albeit their movements were predictable in the incorrect earth centric model. In that era, whence scripture comes, “heaven” means “up there somewhere”. As St. Paul has written, the most popular notion was that there were seven heavens each being a celestial sphere around the earth and various distances with the outermost sphere being the seventh heaven wherein the Almighty God resided. The where for those believers was on the third heavenly sphere, paradise. We should also note that early interpreters did not agree that Eden was on the earth as we know it. Some believed it to be a heavenly location.
In our world, with scientific endeavor, evidence, and truth before us, we know these beliefs to be incorrect. Our ancient ancestors had an inkling of this as we read in 4 Esdras (bold text mine):
“But what of those for whom I prayed? For who among the living is there that has not sinned, or who is there among mortals that has not transgressed your covenant? And now I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many. For an evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God, and has brought us into corruption and the ways of death, and has shown us the paths of perdition and removed us far from life– and that not merely for a few but for almost all who have been created.“
He answered me and said, “Listen to me, Ezra, and I will instruct you, and will admonish you once more. For this reason the Most High has made not one world but two. Inasmuch as you have said that the righteous are not many but few, while the ungodly abound, hear the explanation for this. If you have just a few precious stones, will you add to them lead and clay?” (4 Esdras 7:46-52 NRS, ca 70-200 CE likely ca 90 CE as consolation after the fall of the temple in 70 CE).
So while the Apocalypse of John “Revelation” famously promises that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5), Esdras at least postulates that the intermediate and final states are on a different world altogether.
Our forebears were limited by their earth centric views. After all, an observer can’t help but take the notion that they are the center of the universe because this indeed their point of view. It takes a layer of abstraction, and then subsequent proof, to understand the reality seen from a different more objective observation point. Galileo paid a heavy price for that view. The truth often carries a heavy price.
We have less limitations, but we’re still limited by our views of what reality is. By that I mean our experience of space and time limits our thinking regarding what types of existential reality are possible. Let’s try a few examples.
We’ve all heard of Einstein’s famous equation e=mc**2, e equals m c squared – energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light. From this, one assumes that mass can be converted into energy, but that’s not exactly correct. In its more useful form, the equation is m=e/c**2, mass = energy over the square of the speed of light. In other words, mass is a measure of energy. Mass per se does not really exist.
Another rather astounding find is the Higgs Boson particle. What’s astounding about the find is not the particle itself but that it is a necessary outcome of the Higgs field theory, at least partially proving that theory. What’s astounding about that, quite like gravitational and other constants, is that the constant associated with the Higgs field in this universe is not at all what was expected. In practical terms, this means, with current thinking, one of two things: (1) there are an infinite number of universes and we exist in the only universe in which these constants allow us to exist or (2) someone has intentionally manipulated the dials.
The corollary to those two possibilities is that, assuming (1) is correct, nothing we know could exist in those other universes so we, at present, cannot know if the answer is (1) or (2).
We know a lot of things. We know that our Universe is 13.8 billion years old and that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. We know that the universe, the area in which space exists, continues to expand and that it is accelerating in its expansion. We know that Humans are a vapor in geological time, being around as homo sapiens sapiens for about 150,000 years. We know what the moon is made of, and that it is a desolate location. We know that we are born, live, and die. We know that the world is full of suffering.
I know that I’ve been in the presence of my God. I know that He has healed me, and has changed and is changing my life and that He’s heard my mother’s prayers after her death and the prayers of my wife who is still with me. I know that the demonic are active and I’ve felt demonic presence. I know that God in all three persons loves you. I have no doubt of these things, nor do I doubt science.
We also know that there’s a plenitude of things that we don’t know or understand. This is the most important aspect of the wisdom that this blog seeks – the wise freely admitting their folly, their lack of knowledge. There is a reconciliation, and it involves solution (1) to the infinite universes quandary. God, and paradise, are not of this world, or universe. That’s where. Like our ancient friends, we can say “somewhere out there”, and not much more.
We know very little from scripture about this state except for the descriptions of the resurrection appearances of Christ Jesus. Human plus perhaps – not a spirit, a physical being, but much more than human. Able to appear and disappear at will but able to enjoy a nice breakfast and able to be touched.
I’ve discussed this is more detail in post The Risen Christ in Luke & John, but suffice it to say that the risen Jesus is like an angelic apparition inasmuch as people seem in a fog about who he is, being mistaken for the gardener by Mary:
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:11-16 NRS)
Like other appearances, Mary does not recognize Jesus until He speaks, until He wants to be known. I suppose that a person who’d seen a scourged and crucified body laying dead and now happening on the same person transformed into an ideal form with spotless attire could be shocked into such disbelief as to not recognize a person. That notwithstanding, Luke tells us more:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. when their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:13-53 NRS)
Here again, Jesus is not recognized until He wants to be recognized, and He appears and disappears at will. Note that, to quell their fears, Jesus eats in front of them and then allows Himself to be touched to prove that He’s not an apparition or a ghost or an angel. Those familiar with the book of Tobit know that angels do not eat but also know that the divine can make people think that angels do eat.
So that’s a short survey of the characteristics of the risen Christ in Christian scripture. Here but not here, Jesus but not the same Jesus, touchable when present, enjoying food. Ascending into “somewhere out there” known as Heaven.
The Qur’an solves the resurrection problem by Jesus ascending into Heaven alive:
“That they said [in boast], “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no [certain] knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:- Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;- And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them” (Sura 4. Nisaa, or The Woman, verses 157-159)
Either way, resurrected incorruptible human or living human, the question of where remains as we’ve previously discussed.
I once consoled a friend whose wife had left him with their children and returned to Africa, to parts unknown. As he sat on a bench I told him “Henry, it’s time to lean on Jesus. He’s here right now, sitting next to you. He’s always here.” Henry, who though me to be a rather aloof manager, said “hell, you’re just a regular guy”. That may be the best compliment I’ve ever received. And in the end, we’re all regular folks, unable to comprehend what is and what science tells us. Somehow Jesus is here, somehow God is present in this time space universe. I believe that we will join Him, somehow. That, my friends, is the essence of the faith.
And what will it be like? His presence is pure joy. That’s what it will be like, wherever and whenever we join Him.