The basic template for New Testament belief in any sort of life after death is the Jewish idea of the resurrection of a person from the dead at the end of the age—and probably the resurrection of the righteous Jew who has lost his or her life out of loyalty to YHWH (cf. Dan. 12:2-3). Personal resurrection derives from a theology of martyrdom (cf. 2 Macc. 7:9, 14), and I think that this pattern largely controls references to personal resurrection in the New Testament.
The personal resurrection of the martyrs, however, has to be related to two other “modes” of resurrection: the metaphorical resurrection of the people of God following judgment; and the final resurrection of all the dead in conjunction with the renewal of all creation, which in John’s apocalyptic schema is a “second” resurrection (cf. Rev. 20:5-6, 12-13).
Jesus’ resurrection entailed the metaphorical resurrection of the people of God—hence the significance of a resurrection on the third day (cf. Hos. 6:1-2). But it also anticipated—we might say ontologically—the final renewal of all creation. The resurrection of Jesus, therefore, is followed by his ascension or exaltation to the right hand of the Father in heaven until the final renewal of all things.
I think that the same is true for the suffering church that is called to share concretely in Jesus’ death and vindication in the course of eschatological transition. The martyrs are to be “raised” at the moment of Jesus’ final victory over the pagan aggressor in order to share in his reign as Lord throughout the coming ages (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15-17; Rev. 20:4).
This means that the only people who get to go to heaven in the New Testament are people who have been raised from the dead in advance of the renewal of all things. Jesus was raised on the third day; the martyrs are to be raised at the parousia, which I think refers—historically speaking—to the moment of Christ’s victory over Greek-Roman paganism and the deliverance of the churches from persecution.
This belief in the resurrection of the body some time after death is very different from—and on the face of it quite incompatible with—the Hellenistic and traditional “Christian” notion that the soul of the believer goes directly to heaven (or perhaps to purgatory) at death.
It is often argued—as a way of saving the traditional view—that the New Testament envisages an intermediate state between death and resurrection, when the believer in disembodied form is consciously in the presence of Jesus. I am not persuaded by this argument. I think that the texts usually cited in support of it point somewhere else, mostly in the direction of a narrative of national restoration.
Moreover, Paul’s argument about those who have “fallen asleep” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 seems to me directly to rule out the idea that these dead Christians are already with Christ. Paul has to reassure his grieving readers that those who have already died will not be excluded from the eventual vindication of the suffering church at the parousia. He does not tell them—though the thought would have been deeply reassuring—that they are already with Jesus in heaven. He says that Jesus will descend from heaven (without the dead), that the dead in Christ will then be raised from death, the living will be “caught up together with them in the clouds”, and both groups “will always be with the Lord”.
It is then relatively easy to fit Paul’s very personal statements about his desire to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:23) into this apocalyptic narrative. The thought of being away from the physical earthly body in which he suffers and being “with the Lord” or “with Christ”, clothed in a new imperishable resurrection body, simply compresses into a non-apocalyptic idiom the expectation that the dead will be raised at the parousia and so be “with the Lord”.
Hello, I stumbled upon your blog after ordering your book, “The Future of the People of God.” I may use it for a paper. My theology professor, Peter Leithart, recommended it.
Here is my immediate question: What was the parousia you speak of here? Are you saying it was the Temple destruction in AD 70? And are you saying that there was a literal resurrection of the dead saints at that time? If so, why is this not recorded in history?
I must say your ideas on heaven and hell are intriguing me. So would you say the unbeliever’s body is resurrected, and then destroyed? What do you make of verses, such as in Matthew 18, of eternal fire? Is the eternal aspect just reflecting that the fire which destroys comes from an eternal God, rather than meaning that the sinner burns eternally?
Hi Steven, thanks for getting in touch—and for ordering the book. And say a cheerful hello to Peter from me.
Briefly and rather scrappily, I think that the whole nexus of ideas associated with the parousia or coming of Jesus tells a story about the deliverance (salvation) and vindication of those who have followed Jesus down a difficult historical path leading to the future life of the people of God.
From Jesus’ perspective it is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that looms large and which will constitute decisive historical confirmation of the rightness both of his message of judgment and his way of salvation for Israel.
Paul, I think, extends Jesus’ language to construct a similar story of vindication for the churches facing persecution in the Greek-Roman world.
Integral to these stories is the “resurrection” of those who lose their lives out of loyalty to Jesus and the gospel. They participate quite literally in the template of Jesus’ suffering and vindication—to the extent that they too are exalted to the right hand of the Father and reign with Jesus throughout the coming ages.
Now whether we should expect there to have been a physical, historical fulfilment of this hope—comparable to the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb to be seen by his followers—depends on how we read prophetic-apocalpytic language. We being modern tend to expect this language to conform either to known historical events or to a rationalised theology. But the language is meant primarily to create hope out of the nothingness of the future—to shine a thin ray of light into the darkness. It is poetic and symbolic rather than rationalistic.
That doesn’t mean that resurrection doesn’t really happen—just that we must recognize the limitations of language and imagination.
Having said that, given Paul’s reflections on the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15, we should probably not expect the martyrs to have been visibly raised—their bodies belonged to a different order of reality. Perhaps the ambiguous appearances of Jesus were really quite anomalous as resurrections go. (There is also, of course, Matthew 27:51-53 to contend with.)
It’s very difficult, finally, to pin down the precise nuance of “eternal” in those texts. But the important question, in any case, is not so much what “eternal” means but what “fire” signifies. My view is that the imagery of destruction and suffering describes the coming judgment on Israel. Having established that, we can then ask what the adjective aiōnios contributes to the idea of a catastrophic judgment on the people of Israel. It could mean that it is associated with the end of the age. It could mean that its effects are permanent. It doesn’t mean that this judgment takes place somewhere in eternity, which we tend to think of as a post-mortem state of affairs.
Thanks for the reply, Andrew!
Here’s some more questions, though I should probably wait until after I read your book as I am new to these ideas. But here’s some general ones…
I have seen on your website the words Emergent/Emerging pop up. I’m sure you’re aware of the negative connotation these words carry with them…How do your ideas and your work fit tie to the Emergent/Emerging Church? Can you give your analysis of this movement, good and bad?
I dismissed Rob Bell’s book, but after reading your thoughts I am reconsidering the doctrine of hell. My biggest hangup is that I have always asssumed that it has been part of the Church’s beliefs since the time of Christ (correct me if I’m wrong). How do you answer someone who is very cautious to go against what most of the church believes and has believed for so long? In other words, how could we be wrong about such an important issue for so long? Also, what would you say is the strongest argument *for* the idea of eternal punishment?
Also, in regards to your response to me, regarding 1 Corinthians 15 and the idea that their resurrection was different than Christ’s, what do you mean by that? If Christ was fully human, wouldn’t our resurrection be the same as his? Wondering if you could expand on that…
Thanks again, this stuff is pretty interesting!
I think your paradigm for resurrection, the parousia, and the martyred runs into trouble at the 5th Seal in Revelation 6. Without presuming to be able to interpret all of the symbols of that section it seems to clearly declare a certain order of events that I don’t think fits with yours. Before the Parousia, we see the martyrs in heaven being judged and rewarded for their good works (see: White Robe Resurrection). Even if you don’t accept this as an actual resurrection, they are at least alive, consious, and interactive in heaven before they are supposed to be there according to your paradigm. They are resurrected and rewarded before the events of 1st Thessalonians 4. I agree that this indicates that there is a separate destiny in judgment between martyred saints and those who die a natural death. It might be that the idea of having to check the Book of Life at a future judgement seat becomes mute if someone demonstrates that they remained faithful by dying as a martyr. I don’t think the final destination of the two groups is significantly different, but their roadmap there seems to be so. Regardless of how you try to fit the fact of the White Robe Resurrection into soteriology, the unavoidable reality is that it happens before the Parousia.
Doug, it’s probably simplest just to explain how I understand the fifth seal. I don’t think it contradicts my argument about resurrection as set out above. But as you suggest, Revelation is not the easiest text to make sense of.
The seven seals, in my view, are portents of judgment against Jerusalem (see The Coming of the Son of Man, 182-210); and I rather think that the souls of those slain for the word of God, who appear when the fifth seal is opened, are righteous Jews who suffered at the hands of unrighteous Israel (cf. Matt. 23:34-36; Rev. 16:5-7). They cry out for judgment against the nation which killed them, but they are told to wait “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (6:11). When the martyrs are mentioned again in Revelation 20:4, they are described as those beheaded “for the testimony to Jesus and for the word of God”. If the martyrs of 6:11 are Jewish and not Christian, they are given a white robe because they died before Christ, unlike the “great multitude… from every nation”, who come out of the “great tribulation” having washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb (7:9-14). I would take the white robes, therefore, to be symbols of righteousness rather than of resurrection.
The “souls” of the martyrs are seen “under the altar”, because the altar is the place from which the fire of judgment is taken (8:5; 14:18). They are under the altar because they are waiting for judgment against the enemies of the just people of God. Perhaps John believed they were literally in heaven, but I think that is unlikely given the symbolic character of the genre. John imagines the “souls” of the righteous dead crying out for vengeance against their murderers. In fact, it seems to me quite likely, given the Jewish background to the idea of “soul”, that the word is used because these people have lost their lives (psychai), not because he means to describe a literal disembodied existence in heaven.
They are seen, as you say, in heaven before the parousia. I understand the parousia to be the moment when, among other things, the enemies of the martyrs are judged and the martyrs vindicated. The destruction of Jerusalem would have been one such moment, but in Revelation 20:4 the resurrection of the Christian martyrs (perhaps including Jewish martyrs) follows judgment on Rome. John sees the souls of the martyrs in this vision, but he also says that they “came to life” (ezēsan), whereas the “rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended”. Nothing indicates that the rest of the dead were also in heaven. The second resurrection is presumably described in 20:13, but notice here that it is “Death and Hades” which give up the dead in them.