The Significance of Resurrection
When we say that Jesus rose from the dead, we need to be clear about what we mean. The word “resurrection” was not something invented by Christians, and much of what they said about it was not new (though they did give it a new twist). Resurrection was something that existed in discussions of the afterlife long before Christianity came along, and to understand Christian resurrection, we need to have a basic understanding of this discussion and how Jesus’ resurrection fits into it.
Greek and Jewish Views on the Afterlife
The two main views that we’re concerned with are the Greek and the Jewish views. Without getting too detailed, I want to point out a couple key differences between them and then explain how the Christian view compares. The Greeks thought of death as escape from the body. Death was the point at which the outer garment was shed, and consequently, death was seen as the great liberator. So, for them, death was not the problem, because man was better without his body. When you died, you went into the afterlife (and various places within that depending on your life on Earth), but death was basically a one-way ticket.
The Jewish view, on the other hand, was a bit different. Death was not the great liberator; it was a curse that resulted from sin. At this point, things began to diverge a bit. Not all Jews believed in the resurrection (the Sadducees, for example, did not), and the theology of the afterlife was something that developed over time. For those who believed in the resurrection (like the Pharisees), man would have gone into a disembodied state after death to await final judgment and eventual return to a bodily existence.
There are two main things that I want to point out in comparison of the views. First, the Greeks viewed death as the point at which man gained his freedom, whereas the Jews viewed death as a curse that resulted from sin. Second, the Greeks viewed the final state of man as being a soul with no body, whereas the Jews who believed in the resurrection thought of man in his final state as having both a soul and a body.
Christianity and the Afterlife
Now, when we talk about the Christian view of the afterlife and resurrection, basically we’re looking at the Jewish view (specifically, that of the Pharisees) with a few changes. The Christian view presupposes the Jewish connection between sin and death. Therefore, Christians view death as something that came into existence as a result of the Fall and as a problem that needs to be solved. That also means that we’re talking about a body in the person’s final state. The person who is resurrected does not simply float around in space as a soul with no body. Resurrection involves a return to bodily existence.
In order to reverse the effects of sin, one cannot simply trade one sort of existence for another as if he is making a compromise with sin and death. For death to have been defeated, all the effects have to be dealt with. That means that man needs to be returned to his original (embodied) state. Anything less would mean that sin had not been adequately dealt with and the effects of the Fall not reversed. The point of resurrection on the Christian view is that the problems that resulted from the Fall have been fully dealt with. Christian resurrection claims that God has finally fixed what was wrong with man.
Where We Go Wrong Today
The problem we have today is that the way Christians talk about the afterlife sounds a lot more like the Greek view. Christians speak of heaven as a disembodied existence that’s supposed to be really great. Unfortunately, this isn’t what we see in Scripture. If you look at the last two chapters of Revelation, you will see that the end of all things is not believers floating around on a cloud somewhere with a harp, it is Heaven coming to Earth. The final state of man is an Earthly existence with a body that bears a striking resemblance to the Garden of Eden. The end of all things is the return to the way things were meant to be before all the problems happened.
This is why Jesus’ resurrection was such a big deal. It was the announcement that God has acted to begin renewing man from his fallen state into the way he was meant to be. It meant that the beginning of the end had now come. This is why the early Christians talked about the end coming soon. It was because through the resurrection of Jesus, the end had been announced. The problems of sin and death had been dealt with, and man was finally being renewed. This is also why the gospel was known as the “good news.” The end of sin, the end of death, and the end of the effects of the Fall are the best news there could be. Man is being returned to full humanity, and God and man can once again exist in harmony. The resurrection of Jesus represents the climax in the story of God and man.