An enduring temptation is to interpret the idea of the resurrection metaphorically. Of course the dead will not rise at the end of time. Surely it must be their spirits that will live. The idea that the dead will actually walk again beggars belief. This is what the Gnostics thought. The Spirit is holy, but flesh is sinful. At death we will finally be able to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Yet this is not what we believe. During the Easter season especially, we profess that the dead will walk again, as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, the wounds in his hands and his side proof that he was no mere apparition. For if the resurrection of the flesh is to be denied, the prime article of faith is shaken, Tertullian once wrote; if it is asserted, the faith is established.
Our flesh may betray us over time, but there are few of us who would want to do without its pleasures in the life to comethe satisfaction of a good meal, the sublime wonders of music, the healing that comes with touch. The genius of the Christian narrative is that it promises life in the Spirit lived in the flesh.
Over the centuries, the doctrine of bodily resurrection has been a great comfort to believers facing the overwhelming fact of death. In a forthcoming book, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and Americas Culture of Death (Cornell), Mark S. Schantz writes that a vision of heaven that literally restored bodies to wholeness had a powerful effect on the young men sent off to fight in a gruesome war. The doctrine was also no doubt a comfort to the parents of the slain, many of whom never were able to see their child whole again.
Yet there was a propensity then, as there is among some Christians today, to imagine the afterlife as simply a heavenly reflection of life on earth, the only difference being that we can enjoy the company of the deceased. If the awesome nature of the resurrection teaches us anything, it is that a God capable of such miracles is beyond our comprehension. Imagining the kingdom is a futile activity.
A more fruitful exercise is to consider what other faiths can teach us about the world to come. Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale), by Kevin D. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson, traces the Jewish roots of the Christian belief in resurrection. Perhaps the least known teaching in Judaism, resurrection is in fact a defining doctrine, argue Madigan and Levenson, a Christian and Jew respectively, both professors at Harvard. During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees professed belief in resurrection, though the Sadducees did not. In the first and second century of the common era, the authors write, the rising of the dead was linked to political revolution, as Jews believed that God was about to make a new creation and to vindicate his loyal people. Today a common Jewish prayer ends with a paean to Gods life-renewing power: Faithful You are to revive the dead. Blessed are You, O Lord, who revive the dead.
Although there is no explicit reference to resurrection in the Old Testament until the Book of Daniel (12:1-3), one of the later texts, Madigan and Levenson detect seeds of Gods ultimate promise in earlier episodes of Jewish history. Consider the many stories about childlessness in the Hebrew Bible. For Abraham and Sarah, who cannot conceive a child, and Job, who loses his 10 children to Gods mysterious wrath, a life without children is comparable to death. Seen from the reverse angle, birth is a form of resurrection, a taste of the new life that awaits. The birth of Isaac to the previously infertile Sarah and the creation of a new family for Job are miracles that foreshadow Jesus own risingand our own.
Indeed, the miracle of birth seems like an especially good place to contemplate the miracle of resurrection. As a sage Jewish scholar once remarked, if God can create life out of nothing, then surely the feat of rebirth is not so unbelievable.