Life After Life After Death?

Since watching many of the videos from the Wheaton Theology Conference from last month, I have been pondering the issue raised by Markus Bockmuehl about “resurrection”. The question, if I recall correctly (which I may not be) is this: Is “resurrection” for a Christian what we experience/are led into immediately after our death (life after death)? Or is it, instead, something that the dead in Christ await, something that will be consummated on a final day of judgment (life that is given to us afresh after our life after death)?

N. T. Wright has made a lengthy case for the latter: resurrection is something that will be given to the faithful when the earth is fully and finally renewed. It is an embodied existence that comes to us after we have spent however long in heaven with Jesus after we die.

Bockmuehl was making the opposite point, namely, that heaven isn’t a holding tank where we wait in anticipation of something more, but the place where we go and immediately receive the gift of life in our new bodies.

What do you think?  Is resurrection life after death? Or life after life after death? Why?

Three things are rattling around in my head about this.

(1) In Bockmuehl’s favor is the fact that whatever this “heaven” is, where Jesus is, it must be the kind of place that can hold resurrection bodies–because Jesus has one and that’s where he is.

(2) It seems to me that Bockmuehl’s case is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, it makes Jesus’ resurrection categorically different and unlike the resurrections of everyone else. For me, if Jesus’ body is found, the jig is up. His resurrection means that his body has been transformed and is no longer with us. “A ghost does not have flesh and blood as you see I have.” “Put your fingers in my hands and in my side.”

But, the people whom Bockmuehl says are raised, now, with Christ are still “lying dead in their tombs.” Whereas discovering Jesus’ corpse would invalidate his resurrection, MB wants to say that our ability to see the corpses of our dearly departed is no proof for their not being raised, now, with Christ. This disjunction is too much, in my opinion, for MB’s position to be correct.

(3) In addition to the problem of the analogy, I shared NTW’s dissatisfaction with MB’s method of argument. “The NT doesn’t teach NTW’s position, and we know this because the church fathers said something else.” This simply adds fuel to my fire that the early church is a dubious guide when it comes to understanding the New Testament.

For all that earlier generations overestimated the differences between Jew and Gentile ways of thought, I repeatedly find that the move of Christianity beyond the pale of Judaism creates an almost instant rereading of words and concepts such that the church fathers become witnesses to a very early recontextualizing and transformation of the Christian message into their own world’s idiom. This is not a bad thing, but it does add to the case that the early church is a helpful guide for understanding the history of interpretation, but that this is a different thing than helping us understand what the ideal authors of our texts intended their ideal readers/auditors to understand.

When the NT speaks of the resurrection of believers, the idea that the dead are transformed at a future, one-off moment seems to be almost the univocal position. Resurrection comes with the consummation of the eschaton, at the final judgment, when the heavens and earth are made new. To quote my beloved church fathers: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Those are my two cents. What about you?

13 thoughts on “Life After Life After Death?”

  1. I might be wrong about this, but, when I was at the conference, I felt that MB was suggesting that NTW does not place any importance on “heaven” (i.e., life after death). However, NTW, to me, attempts to bring contemporary Christianity back to its Jewish roots rather than Platonic ones. The early church appears to have fallen into the trap of the latter. Thus, I would agree with your point re: “…the church fathers become witnesses to a very early recontextualizing and transformation of the Christian message into their own world’s idiom.” Plus, from what I can remember, MB utilizes church fathers a couple centuries after the NT. This would seem to muddy the waters of interpretation on “resurrection.”

    1. I think you’re right about MB’s concern about NTW on “heaven,” but I also thought that some of the positions assigned to NTW by MB weren’t accurate depictions. Yes, he downplays heaven, but he doesn’t deny it or its important. “Heaven’s great, it’s just not the end of the world.”

      1. Exactly, I walked out of the session saying to a friend, “I don’t think NTW is saying what MB is suggesting he’s saying. In fact, NTW says that when we die we go to be with the Lord in heaven BUT there is something much greater awaiting us in the resurrection.”

  2. MB’s comments in my opinion represent the discomfort many have with NTW statement, life after life after death.” Personally I think the statement challenges us to move past heaven as the traditional end goal to the ultimate goal of living with Jesus in the new creation, in a new physicality, with bodies just like Jesus’, and on a physical earth free from corruption. I think this what final chapters of Revelation speaks about.

  3. Thanks for this, this is terrific.

    In NTW’s Surprised by Hope he certainly seems to want to move us away from the present common usage of “heaven” as the goal of the Christian life and I heartily agree with NTW on the necessity of that project. “Heaven” has become a luxurious afterlife commons over which religions deemed too exclusionary battle for access.

    Thanks for this post and for your blog, very helpful. pvk

  4. Daniel, what do you think the relationship between this discussion is in relation to where Jesus was after his death yet before his resurrection? The tradition that Jesus went to Hades/Sheol/Hell is very early. Do you think the early church thought Jesus went to this place in a body or in a soul/spirit? What difference, if any, does that make?

    Origen, in his comments in relation to 1 Pet 3, writes: “I think that the incarnation, when the Son of God takes on flesh and bones, is one of the shoes, and the descent into hell is the other.”

    1. I think that wherever Jesus “went” when he died, that it was in “spirit,” perhaps into sheol, the place of the dead like everyone else. The resurrection is a moment of transformation and conquering, something that happens with the body being transformed, etc.

      I’m not entirely sure what to do with the tradition of descent, though it does make sense that he would have gone to the place of the dead and then left when he was freed and conquered.

      1. Given the dictum that whatever happened to Christ will happen to his followers, it seems to make sense to assume that dead Christians are also in the place of the dead (sheol or heaven) in “spirit” until the last day, that is, until their “moment of transformation and conquering.” Then they will receive their resurrected physical bodies like Christ’s. No?

  5. What a question! I don’t know if I can shed further light into an already scrutinized controversial subject matter as life after death. In the Holy Bible in I John Chapter 5 it explains even death. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed and is so stated in I Corinthians 15:26. I know this is true because of what I experienced and then lived to write of it in Mommy’s Writings. I guess the only way in which to understand such things are to discuss them, wherein lies the rub, because of the varied religions. Jesus Christ’s resurrection in St. John 20 very simply states the crux of this subject matter in ‘verse 31: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name’. To answer the question for me, in my perspective, our present reality “resurrection” leads immediately after our death.

    Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author, would you like a sandwich?

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