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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

God not of the dead but of the living

And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead but of the living.

Here is the question: When Jesus says, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living,” does he mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive somewhere, awaiting resurrection? Those who maintain that the New Testament teaches at least a conscious intermediate state in the presence of Jesus will often find support for their view in this passage.

These two verses are an argument for resurrection directed against the Sadducees, who rejected all belief in an afterlife and for whom only the Torah was authoritative.

If Jesus means, therefore, that the patriarchs are currently alive and conscious, he must believe that they have already been raised, otherwise it is an argument not for resurrection but merely for the continued existence of the dead—as shades in Sheol, for example. With the exception of the anomalous account of the raising of the dead from their tombs in Matthew 27:52-53, this would run contrary to the broad biblical understanding of resurrection as an end of the age event—though what is meant by “end of the age” is another matter. In the New Testament Jesus is the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).

The quotation is from the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 3:6; cf. Mk. 12:26). The significance of the claim to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is specifically that YHWH remains faithful to the promise made to the patriarchs that he will bring his people into the land that he has given them. This is made clear by what directly follows:

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. (Ex. 3:7-8)

I would suggest that Jesus has a similar story in view: at this time of extreme eschatological crisis God will remain faithful to his promise to the patriarchs and will deliver his people from their bondage—a redemption which this time will include in some manner the resurrection of the dead.

The quotation from Exodus 3:6, therefore, means that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is committed to the future life of his people: he is God not of the dead but of the living. The specific thought is simply that the patriarchs will also be raised in the coming resurrection.

I should point out that belief in the continuing existence of the patriarchs is found in 4 Maccabees 7:19 and 16:25. Faithful Jews who die under torture will live, as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live. Two things need to be taken into account, however. First, these martyrs expect to be raised from dead (cf. 2 Macc. 7:9, 14), not simply to enter an afterlife. Secondly, the reference is always to the patriarchs. Why this particular group? Why not other righteous Jews? Arguably it is the symbolic significance of the patriarchs that is at issue here rather than any more literal belief in their continued life.

Comments

Here’s another passage that illustrates that the apostles did not believe that the dead were conscious. Peter’s first sermon at Pentacost, he said:

“…Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

   “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
   “Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
   a footstool for your feet.”’[f]

 36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

His point was that David (like all people who had died) was unconscious in the grave but that god had raised Jesus because he was a righteous human prophet (or god’s agent if you will). The key point is that Peter’s proof that Jesus was the messiah was that he was raised from the grave (the unconscious natural state of the dead) to life.

Now I don’t believe that this is a quotation from an actual speech. The writer of Acts had an agenda that has little to do with actual history. Nor do I think that other NT writings necessarily follow the same formulations, which is why people can mine verses and come out with different opinions.

However, I think Acts accurately preserves traditions about Jesus, including the attitude of his disciples about the dead.

he must believe that they have already been raised

Well, not necessarily.

I can go with the rest of what you wrote, and that the Patriarchs are symbolic of the whole of God’s people (however defined).

a redemption which this time will include in some manner the resurrection of the dead

Yup, that of Christ Himself as firstfruits.  That does not preclude consciousness in the intermediate state.  I don’t see how that would damage your overall historical argument.

Dana

 

Dana, you may be right. It may not damage the overall historical argument. But it’s also a matter of how we read the New Testament. As modern readers we have a strong need to retain the traditional belief in going to heaven when we die, so we look for some sort of compromise. I would also add to this my view that “going to heaven” is reserved for the early martyr church, who will reign with Christ throughout the coming ages. This is a very different apocalyptic scenario to the traditional belief that Christians go to heaven when they die.

Andrew, you’ve cited verses that seem to back up the belief that dead believers are consciously with Christ. And then you say they cannot be saying that because of other verses regarding the resurrection. I’m not sure why the tension in these various passages cannot support the view that our souls (in some manner) are present with Christ until the physical resurrection. From my exposure to theology, this seems to be a prominent view.

Sorry for the confusion. Hopefully this piece on resurrection makes things a little clearer. I’m afraid I still come down on the no-intermediate-state side of the debate—this seems an inescapable conclusion from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. But I take Dana’s point that it doesn’t greatly affect the narrative-historical argument.

This idea of going to heaven is one that has been impsoed on the sayings of Christ through translation and interpretation. Jesus was walking in heaven and invited people to walk with him in heaven. The dimensions primitvely understood as heaven and earth are neither spiritual nor carnal, they are a simultaneous, overlapping, contiguous, concurrent, parallel existence of everyone in two places at the same time. Jesus expressed this reality in various ways which has become entombed in the archaic ill-informed religion of the Torah to which his new revelation has been retrofitted.