Note from CM: As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.
After a recent break, we are now getting back into this subject, considering what Gerhard Lohfink has to say in his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life.
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This means that Christian faith must hold to Israel’s loving devotion to this world. It must not be spiritualized to its detriment. Everything Israel knew and knows about death and life retains its place in Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. It would be a dangerous mistake to say that, because the church’s faith in resurrection simply knows more than ancient Israel knew, those older ideas about life and death are outmoded. No, anyone who wants to know what resurrection really means must accompany Israel on the whole journey on which it has been led. Christian theology must carry Israel’s this-worldly thought within it. (p. 89)
Today, we conclude our look at Gerhard Lohfink’s thoughts about the development of thought about the resurrection of the dead within Israel as it appears in the Hebrew Bible.
Last time we saw how, in the psalms in particular, we begin to read of “a confidence that extends beyond the borders of death.” Earlier in the story, Israel seems to have separated herself from the cults of death and the afterlife that were practiced by the nations around her. Her perspective, springing from belief in a creator God, was thoroughly this-wordly, an embrace of life here and now. However, her constant experiences of God’s saving grace led her to express a growing faith that God would be there to provide deliverance and security from death and Hades themselves.
Lohfink continues to show this developing belief by looking at four late Judaic texts.
- Isaiah 24-27
- Daniel 12:1-3
- Ezekiel 37:1-14
- A passage from a work called Biblical Antiquities
The Isaiah text envisions the world as a whole and portrays a worldwide judgment when God will take up rule over all the earth. In that context we read Isaiah 25:7-8 —
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
Then, in 26:19, we read about those who had died earlier —
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead.
Of course, we may ask whether this is not just a way of talking in a transferred sense about the preservation and protection of the people of Israel, whom God constantly raises up from perilous and life-threatening situations — or is the text really talking about those who have already died? The answer seems to be that throughout the whole text complex of Isaiah 24-27 the subject is the events of the end time; hence the text must be speaking of the eschatological raising of the dead. But it is an awakening of the dead for life on a renewed earth. (p. 83)
Gerhard Lohfink does similar analysis for the other texts mentioned and comes to this conclusion:
Thus the day will come when this age of the world reaches its end; then death will be destroyed and the dead will arise to judgment. They come from the underworld where they have been staying. Then there will come a new heaven and a new earth — though it remains open whether this new world will be pure transcendence or a transformed earth. Probably for the author the two were not mutually exclusive. (p. 86)
An important point he wants to make about Israel’s understanding of resurrection is that it is “firmly anchored in this world.” Indeed, many segments of Judaism do not believe or emphasize the resurrection of the dead and some leave it an open question.
Jewish prayers such as the Kaddish and the Eighteen Benedictions reflect a similar emphasis to Jesus’ “Lord’s Prayer” — “May your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Biblical Israel takes death seriously and does not attempt to “prettify” or sentimentalize it in any way, knowing that there is nothing in human nature itself that is immortal. If there is life after death, it is God’s gift, bestowed to people made from and destined to return to dust.
Furthermore, Jewish religion has always emphasized the joy of this life and what we know here. Whatever resurrection means, it does not signify some kind of escape or release from the world.
Christians are only with God when they are totally in this world; they only do the will of God when they love this world, help to build it up, and refuse to dream of worlds behind the world. (p. 90)
It is interesting that many, if not most, of the heresies that have attacked Christianity have also expressed a profound distrust in the Hebrew Bible, denying its worldliness as less than the esoteric spirituality they seek. On the other hand, Lohfink quotes a mature Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote from prison: “I notice more and more how much I am thinking and perceiving things in line with the Old Testament….Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems to be lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 192)
Indeed, Gerhard Lohfink argues that Israel “had to go through an epoch of pure worldliness” so that its earthy thinking would pervade both its faith and that of Christianity. Whatever “the resurrection of the dead” means and implies, it is not “pie in the sky, by and by.”