Thursday, November 12, 2015

Newfangeled Resurrection


Recently, in a weekly men's bible study, I've been exploring the differences in the Old and New Testaments. Actually, I've been surveying a range of theological topics and attempting to demonstrate that any internal inconsistencies within the bible are not as simple as Old Testament vs. New Testament. For example, on the subject of women, we read misogynistic passages from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and egalitarian passages from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. When the bible is inconsistent with itself, the solution isn't to tear the Old Testament out and focus on the New. It's more complicated than that.

Another subject we discussed was the resurrection. The Christian hope is absolutely, unequivocally focused on life after death. That is the basis of our belief: Jesus was raised so that we, too, may be raised from the dead. Without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. The Hebrew scriptures, though, don't have quite as much to say about it.

In the Jewish tradition, God promises to keep his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. He promises to bring God's people into a particular land. He promises to protect them and dwell with them. He promises to set the captives free and shelter the oppressed. He promises to turn their struggle into prosperity. He promises to punish the wicked and defeat the enemies of God's people. But, even though those promises are made in the one-day, some-day sense of time, the hope that lies within them is not to be achieved in some paradisial afterlife but here on earth when God finally completes his promises.

There is, in short, almost no mention of resurrection or afterlife or heaven or hell in the Old Testament. In the latter half of the Book of Daniel--the most recently written part of the Old Testament--we finally get a glimpse of resurrection, and we read about that in Sunday's Track 2 lesson: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." And that's it.

What a remarkable theological innovation! Imagine writing those words. Imagine having that realization. Imagine making that intellectual leap. For thousands of years, your people have been continuing in the hope that one day their descendants will experience the fulfillment of God's promises, and you suddenly see that those promises may be experienced even by those who have already died--that the good and the bad will be brought back from the dust of the earth to dwell in eternal bliss or agony. What a huge moment! Where in the world did that realization come from? Why in the world did it take so long?

On Sunday, we will pray my favorite collect in the church year: "Blessed Lord, who hast cause all holy scriptures to be written for our learning..." There's a particular majesty to those words. God has caused the writing of these sacred texts--not written them himself but caused human beings to write them. And they aren't written for God's sake but for ours. We are to learn from them--not worship them but study them. Just as we are to grow and develop in our study of scripture, so, too, did scripture itself grow and develop through the centuries of writing. The experiences of God's people--like the exposure of the Jews to the belief in the resurrection during the Babylonian exile--become the basis for sacred writings. We learn as we grow and develop.

No, the resurrection wasn't a part of the hope of God's people for most of their existence. As the arguments between Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus' day demonstrate, there was not and is not an agreement among God's people about what happens when we die. The Christian scriptures, however, take this tiny sliver of theological truth and build an entire religion upon it. Imagine what else we might learn about God and God's plan for the world in the next 2,000 years.

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