Between Death and Resurrection

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. I thought it would be worth considering what the early Christians thought about human nature with respect to the resurrection.

In New Testament Theology Philip Esler tackles this question, first by outlining the “four major accounts of the nature of the person in Western cultures” (pp 234-251).

1. Reductive Materialism. A person is no more than a physical organism. Emotions, morality, and religious experiences can all be explained by science. Death is the end of life; there is no afterlife.

2. Radical Dualism. A person consists of a body and a mind/soul, sharply distinguished, and identified chiefly with the latter which can survive the death of the body.

3. Nonreductive Materialism. A person is a physical organism in relation to the world and God, which gives rise to capacities like morality and spirituality. Nothing survives of the body after death; resurrection is the hope for an afterlife.

4. Integrative Dualism. A person is a composite of separate parts in relation to the world and God, but is identified with the whole. The soul might survive death; resurrection is the hope for the re-unity of body and soul in the afterlife.

I’m a (1) reductive materialist, but needless to say the NT authors lean in other directions, particularly towards (3) or (4). Tom Wright, in Resurrection of the Son of God, insists on (3), but Esler (pp 196-208) has offered a convincing argument for (4), based on texts like Heb 10-12, Lk 23:43, Lk 16:22, II Cor 5:8, Philip 1:23. In Hebrews especially, the faithful from the past applaud the faithful in the present, implying some form of lively existence in the interim state between death and resurrection. Esler’s argument for integrative dualism in the NT is convincing (and even outside the NT: the dead Samuel addresses Saul in I Sam 28; Abel’s soul speaks against Cain in I Enoch 22; etc).

Frankly, I’m not sure why people like Wright insist on “resurrection only” when there are texts which point to the idea of “lively souls” apart from, or prior to, resurrection. Is there a need to make the doctrine of the resurrection square with science (materialism) as much as possible? Does the idea of disembodied souls floating about somewhere now, in the present, raise unease with some Christians?

Who knows. I’m probably too reductive to perceive the hidden issue, if there is any. But I do wish a happy resurrection-day to all nonreductive materialists and integrative dualists, whatever your flavor is and why.

UPDATE: In comments many have pointed out that Wright is closer to position (4) than I was willing to grant. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he underplays any activity of the soul between death and resurrection as much as possible. He emphasizes “sleep” in this period, and isn’t wild about the idea of believers reuniting before resurrection (as in ROSG, p 217). I believe that’s what Esler is getting at by referring to Wright’s “resurrection only” argument (p 247; cf. pp 197-199), and that’s how I’ve always understood him.


8 thoughts on “Between Death and Resurrection

  1. Hello Loren, Do you have a citation from Wright concerning position # 3? Because, unless I’m mistaken, he seems to fall into category # 4. The author is grateful for the attention given to his book The Resurrection of the Son of God … David Bryan is right to highlight the Enoch literature as a more fertile source of resurrection ideas than the book allowed for; but he has overstated his objection… the book’s argument did not hinge on the wide spread of resurrection belief at the time but on the meaning of ‘resurrection’, i.e. a two-stage post-mortem existence, the second stage being a new embodiment. […] I was concerned (and a glance at the secondary literature will show how necessary this was) to head off any suggestion that because Judaism in the period contained quite a variety of beliefs about what happened to people after they died this meant that the word ‘resurrection’ itself was slippery and could mean a wide variety of different things, including (for instance) some kind of spiritual exaltation which would be perfectly compatible with Jesus’ body remaining in the tomb. My point, which neither Bryan nor anyone else has challenged, is that this is not so… ‘resurrection’ always referred, in ancient Judaism and first-generation Christianity, to a two-stage post-mortem life in which the second stage would involve a physical body, whether the same one or one in some way transformed. Regards,John

  2. Hi John, I don’t have <>Resurrection of the Son of God<> handy now, but will verify and get back to you. I remember Wright arguing that the dead “sleep” before resurrection. I certainly don’t recall him (ever) advocating anything about souls being lively in the interim period.

  3. <>I also agree that Wright doesn’t believe in (3)<>Hi Stevie. I miss hearing from you. I guess it took the Easter madness to bring you out.I think Wright allied himself most closely with (3) in his book on the resurrection, though judging from the newer citations from John (above), he seems to have backpedalled a bit. In ROSG he emphasized <>sleep<> during the interim period — and not much more than that as far as I can recall. For example, he downplayed the significance of Lk 23:43 (burying it in a footnote), saying that it points to a “resting place” more than anything else. Again, I have never heard Wright wax enthusiastic about lively souls engaging the living during the interim period between death and resurrection. That’s really the key issue.

  4. Doesn’t Wright believe that Moses returned from the dead, walked the Earth in what looked like a body, never died again, and ascended into Heaven?Pretty much what Jesus did.Wright is unclear about this, because he cannot tell his readers about the parallels between the resurrection of Moses and the resurrection of Jesus.But that shouldn’t stop him admitting that the Bible teaches a afterlife in Heaven.Even if it does contradict other parts of the Bible.

  5. I’m with the others, Loren. Wright very specifically articulates his view of resurrection as “life <>after<> life after death,” or better “transphysical” (transformed physical) life after (nonphysical) life after death. Whatever you think of his attempt at neologisms and witticisms, he seems pretty clearly to fall into category #4.

  6. It’s also worth saying Wright is pretty firmly in the moderate evangelical camp. That means he doesn’t want to give too much exegetical space to any theology that concerns itself too much with what happens to souls after death.

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