This is part two of a series on the evidence for the resurrection adapted from N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. The title is one of his subheadings and I thought it was an apt turn of phrase to describe the pagan view of the afterlife in the time of Yeshua.
Wright begins his lengthy case for the reality of Yeshua’s bodily resurrection with a look at afterlife and resurrection in the pagan and Jewish worldviews of the first century.
The pagan view is easily grasped from the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Greek and Ancient Near Eastern mythology was highly connected. Storm gods (Zeus, Jupiter, Baal, Marduk), fertility goddesses (Aphrodite, Venus, Ashtoreth, Ishtar) and so on were common between them. The gods of Mesopotamia and Greece were immortal beings fashioned in the image of human beings. They were full of mortal emotions and imperfections. They were subject to higher powers and were not omnipotent. It was a very different view of deity than the biblical view.
If I were to fault Wright on something it would be for not taking time to cite Mesopotamian literature on the underworld. It would have served his case well. Nonetheless, in citing Greek concepts, he is accurately depicting the popular pagan view of afterlife.
The pagan view was not exactly pleasant. After this life, a person could expect to move to the underworld (Sheol, Hades) where they would exist as a shade and not a human, a sort of witless ghost more asleep than alive.
The classic example is from the Iliad. Achilles is grieving over his lost friend-as-close-as-a-brother, Patroclus. And Patroclus’ ghost appears to him:
There came to him the hapless spirit of Patroclus, in all things like his very self, in stature, in fai eyes and in voice, and in raiment was he clad withal; and he stood above Achilles’ head and spoke to him, saying: “Thou sleepest, and hast forgotten me, Achilles. Not in my life was thou unmindful of me, but now in my death! Bury me with all speed that I pass within the gates of Hades. Afar do the spirits keep me aloof, the phantoms of men that have done with the toils, neither suffer they me to join myself to them neyond the River, but vainly do I wander the wide-gated house of Hades. And give me thy hand, I pitifully entreat thee, for never more again shall I come back from out of the land of Hades.” . . . Achilles held out his arms to clasp the spirit, but in vain. It vanished like a wisp of smoke and went gibbering underground. . . . [He said] “Ah, then it is true that something of us does survive, even in the halls of Hades, but with no intellect at all, only the ghost and semblance of a man.”
Later, Plato developed a happier, though still not biblical, view of the afterlife. Plato decided our true essence is soul, not body. Just as his idea of forms, what makes us people is not our limbs and physicality but our inner essence or soul. The soul is immortal, Plato taught, but the body is mortal and temporary. The body is a prison for the soul, which is released at death. Later, Gnosticism (a Christian cult denying the value of creation and physical things) would develop out of Plato’s philosophy mixed with a warped definition of Christian doctrine.
Plato taught that wicked souls went on to punishment (Tartarus) while good souls were blessed (Isles of Blessedness). He also believed in reincarnation or transmigration of souls — that some souls return, not as the same person they were before, but as new and different people.
Wright goes on to speak of other ideas and examples, including Egyptian concepts of afterlife in which people would need their physical posessions. He notes that none of the pagan views involve resurrection.
Resurrection is the view that after a period of being dead, during which period the soul is with God, the body and soul are rejoined making the person alive again. Further, the resurrected body is perfect and immortal.
The pagan view, as Wright puts it, is instead a one-way street. Death is a one-way ticket away from life and to the underworld. Even when some hints of physicality (Egyptian burial rites) are present, the assumption is that death moves you one way. There is no coming back.
Wright compares this pagan reality with the Jewish and New Testament doctrine of resurrection and makes these points about Yeshua’s resurrection:
1. When Yeshua-followers claimed that be had been resurrected, they were claiming that something had happened to Yeshua that was unparalleled. Others had been resuscitated [temporarily revived only to die again], but none had been resurrected.
2. The early belief of Yeshua’s followers that he was divine is not, as some scholars claim, tied to the resurrection. Divinity and resurrection are separate categories.
3. We should not be confused by the language of second-century Christians who used the word resurrection incorrectly to describe the whole range of views of afterlife. They were trying to show agreement with philosophers and compromised their language.
Bottom line for this part of our investigation of the resurrection of Yeshua — it was an unparalleled event with a meaning beyond any form of life after death in the pagan world.
Next time: The Jewish view of resurrection and afterlife, part 1.