Alright, sorry for the delay in finishing chapter 3 of NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, “Early Christian Hope in its Historical Setting.”. The last section is “The Surprising Character of Early Christian Hope.” Let’s take a look…
Wright continues to press us outside of our “eternal” comfort zones as he talks about what it means to say that “the early Christian future hope centered firmly on resurrection” (p. 41). He asserts, “the early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world.” And adds, “There is nothing remotely like this is paganism. This belief is as Jewish as you can get.”
But, he says, there are seven modifications made by the early Christians to this Jewish understanding of resurrection (noting that I didn’t say “the” Jewish understanding). I’ll try to share them in a brief form here.
1. “Within early Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of belief about life beyond death.” According to Wright, bodily resurrection was THE uniform belief of the early Christian Church until the late second century, a good 150 years after Jesus, when the first instances of people using the word “resurrection” to mean something else–“a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future”–crops up.
2. Resurrection is central to early Christian theology, unlike in second-Temple Judaism in which resurrection is “important but not that important” (p. 42). Consider how much text of the gospels we would lose by removing the portions about Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. The relative time spent in the gospels on this subject is evidence of its place in the thought and life of the church.
3. In contrast to Judaism’s vagueness about the sort of body those who are resurrected will recieve, early Christianity is remarkably specific, referring to a new body that is physical but transformed and thus has “new properties.” We often read Paul’s words about a “spiritual” body to mean disembodiment. But he instead means to cast the two, the physical body and the spiritual body as differently “animated,” the new spiritual body being animated by the Spirit.
4. Resurrection morphed from being understood as one-time huge event in which all would be raised to being understood as a two-stage process in which one was resurrected before the rest (as a kind of “first fruits” of the whole resurrection event). Thinking about how Jesus’ resurrection was understood as a part of God’s plan for the “end times.” In that vein, Wright says, “we never find outside Christianity what becomes a central feature within it: the belief that the mode of this inauguration [the beginning point for God’s new creation breaking into the old creation] consisted in the resurrection itself happening to one person in the middle of history in advance of its great, final occurrence, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history.” (p. 45)
5. There is also a missional shift that happens with the early Christian view of resurrection. “Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.” (p. 46)
6. Also, the metaphorical use of the term “resurrection” changes for Christians. This historical shift is not hard to recreate logically: “So when resurrection is used metaphorically in Judiasm, it refers to the restoration of Israel.” In early Christianity, the metaphor shifts over to baptism as our initiation, leading us into a life that progresses in Christ-like character.
7. Finally, another significant shift concerns the association of resurrection and messiahship. While his sufferings and disgrace would seem to suggest that Jesus was not the promised Messiah. However, Paul and other NT writers affirmed Jesus’ Messiahship “precisely because of his resurrection.”
Having shared these with us, Wright emphasizes again that “resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow, and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it.”