Most religions have some sort of concept of the after life. What makes Christianity unique among world religions is the promise of some sort of life after death, but the quality and type of life that is promised.
Wright begins the essay by briefly sketching the different pagan ideas of life after death. While there are different varieties most of the ideas held the idea of a disembodied spirit going into the underworld or the place of the dead.
Indeed, whenever the question of bodily resurrection is raised in the ancient world the answer is negative. Homer does not imagine that there is a way back; Plato does not suppose anyone in their right mind would want one. There may or may not be various forms of life after death, but the one thing there isn’t is resurrection: the word anastasis refers to something that everybody knows doesn’t happen. The classic statement is in Aeschylus’s play Eumenides (647-8), in which, during the founding of the Court of the Areopagus, Apollo himself declares that when a man has died, and his blood is spilt on the ground, there is no resurrection.So what does this mean? It means that the early Christian did not arrive at the idea of resurrection through pagan influence. These ancient people may have lacked many of scientific and technological advances, but they did know a dead body stayed dead. They may have believed that the spirit may go off and continue to live, but the body remained dead, so they did not believe that resurrection was possible.
Their hope was a very limited hope. If you have seen the movie Gladiator then you are probably familiar with the scene early on in the film when Maximus gives his "pre-game" speech to the Roman Calvary with him; "What we do in life echoes in eternity." These words of hope were not about heaven or even life after death as much as they were about encouraging the men to do brave deeds that will be spoken of long after they have died. The pagan hope of the first century was very limited and had very little in common with the "new and living hope" the apostle Peter writes about in 1 Peter 1:3.
What then did people mean when they spoke of ‘hope’, and indeed built temples to the goddess Spes, including some in Rome itself? Very much this-worldly futures: peace and security, social stability, crops and harvests, large families and good fortune. The best future, indeed for some the only future, was a lasting name and reputation. Though the importance of the individual is hardly a modem invention, as is sometimes supposed, there was in the classical world considerable fluidity between one’s own fate and that of one’s family, one’s city, and one’s culture.We shouldn't be all that surprised that the Christian doctrine of resurrection had so little in common with paganism, after all Christianity has its roots in ancient Judaism and not paganism. We should expect to find similarities between what first century Judaism believed and what the early Christians believed. So what is surprising isn't the similarities but the differences.
A very important fact that we need to remember is that ancient Judaism wasn't one cohesive thing. Different sects held to different doctrines.
Post-biblical Judaism offers a range of beliefs about life after death. Resurrection is by no means the only option; and, when it is specified, it is not a general word for life after death, but a term for one particular belief. In fact, resurrection is not simply a form of ‘life after death’; resurrection hasn’t happened yet. People do not pass directly from death to resurrection, but go through an interim period, after which the death of the body will be reversed in resurrection. Resurrection does not, then, mean ‘survival’; it is not a way of describing the kind of life one might have immediately following physical death. It is not a redescription of death and/or the state which results from death. In both paganism and Judaism it refers to the reversal, the undoing, the conquest of death and its effects. That is its whole point. That is what Homer, Plato, Aeschylus and the others denied; and it is what some Jews, and all early Christians, affirmed.
Resurrection, in other words, means being given back one’s body, or perhaps God creating a new similar body, some time after death. It is, in fact, life after ‘life after death’; because where you find a belief in resurrection you also find, unsurprisingly, a belief in some kind of intermediate state in between death and resurrection. Various ways of describing this were developed: the souls of the righteous, said Wisdom (3.1), were in God’s hand. Others spoke of a quasi-angelic intermediate existence, or of spirits that lived on prior to the resurrection. The patriarchs were ‘alive to God’. The Persian term ‘Paradise’ was employed, not necessarily for the final destination of resurrection, but, sometimes at least (e.g. 1 Enoch 37-70), for the peaceful garden where people rested before their new bodily life began.Here is the important point that I want you to remember from this: resurrection is a technical term that means a specific thing. Resurrection is not a synonym for going to heaven when we die or having life after death. Resurrection is the reversal of death and that means life in a physical body. The fact that Jesus was resurrected was due to the fact that his body left the tomb as well as his spirit. The two go together.
Resurrection is thus one point on the spectrum of Jewish beliefs about life after death. If Christianity had been simply a sect of miscellaneous Jews who had followed Jesus or approved his teaching, we might have expected a similar spread of views, and the fact that we do not is a major part of our question about Christian origins; but that is to run ahead of my story. The second point to note about Jewish belief in resurrection is that, where it did occur, it was never a detached belief. It was always part of a larger picture of what God was going to do for the nation and indeed the world.Here is another important point. Resurrection is a piece of the puzzle of what God is doing in this world, and to miss this piece is to get an incomplete picture of what God is planning to do. What resurrection tells us is that what God is doing is more than saving people so they can go to heaven when they die. Resurrection points to the reality that God is going to restore, renew, and re-create us and the universe that is all around us.
For those Jews in the first century who believed in resurrection it was a future event for all the righteous people. They did not believe that isolated individuals would be resurrected at different points in time. It was something that would happen once for all people.
While there were some connect points between the early Christians and the Jews of the first century there were some significant differences.
It was from within one such prophetic and messianic renewal movement that the early Christians emerged, saying two things in particular: Jesus was and is the Messiah, and this is proved because he has been raised from the deadSo our main area of concern shouldn't be those areas where there are similarities, but the points that are different. We should try our best to understand why these differences occurred.
Early Christian views about life after death, clearly belonged within the Jewish spectrum, not the pagan one, but were also clearly different. This gives us a fresh purchase on the question, why did they reshape the hope in that way?The early Christian view of resurrection different with Judaism because there was no spectrum of belief concerning resurrection. All early Christians believed the same thing. One of the things they believed about resurrection was that it was an act of new creation through the work the Holy Spirit. This is the requires the total transformation of who we are. Laying behind the promise of new creation is that God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, is transforming us into brand new people! What an amazing hope that is.
I think this point cannot be emphasized enough:
What then do the New Testament writers mean when they speak of an inheritance waiting for us in heaven? This has been much misunderstood, with awesome results in traditions of thought, prayer, life and art. The point of such passages, as in 1 Peter 1.4, 2 Corinthians 5.1, Philippians 3.20, and so forth, is not that one must ‘go to heaven’, as in much-popular imagination, in order to enjoy the inheritance there. It is rather that ‘heaven’ is the place where God stores up his plans and purposes for the future. If I tell a friend that there is beer in the fridge, that doesn’t mean he has to get into the fridge in order to enjoy the beer. When the early Christians speak of a new body in heaven, or an inheritance in heaven, they mean what St John the Divine means in Revelation 21: the new identity which at present is kept safe in heaven will be brought from heaven to earth at the great moment of renewal. Yes: the great majority of Christian expressions of hope through the middle ages, the reformation, and the counter-reformation periods have been misleading. ‘Heaven’ is not the Christian’s ultimate destination. For renewed bodies we need a renewed cosmos, including a renewed earth. That is what the New Testament promises.Our inheritance is in safe storage in heaven, the place God dwells. We don't need to go there to receive it, but we can have confidence that we will receive it one day because it is being prepare and kept in a very secure and safe place.
Here is the key question we need to try to answer:
Jesus had not done what Messiahs were supposed to do. He had neither won a decisive victory over Israel’s political enemies, nor restored the Temple (except in the most ambiguous symbolic fashion). Nor had he brought God’s justice and peace to the world; the wolf was not yet lying down with the lamb. But the early gospel traditions are already shaped by the belief that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah; Paul regularly calls him Christos, and if that term had become for him merely a proper name (which I dispute) that only goes to show how firmly Jesus’ messianic identity was already established by Paul’s day. For Revelation, Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that he was Israel’s Messiah? (emphasis added)We have to understand that history records several other "messiahs" that showed up on either side of Jesus. All of these so-called messiah movements ended with the death of the messiah. The movement of Jesus is unique because it endured his death. Why did a small group of disciples hang on to the belief that their crucified leader was the one true messiah God had promised Israel?
Here is the answer:
The answer the early Christians themselves give for these changes, of course, is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. It is Jesus’ own resurrection that has given force and new shape to the Christian hope. It was, they insist, Jesus’ own resurrection which constituted him as Messiah, and, if Messiah, then Lord of the world.The only explanation for the reason why early Christianity took the shape it did in the doctrines they believed and the lives they lived is the conviction that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Jesus' resurrection, as unexpected as it was, give these early followers hope that God would do the same thing to all of creation, themselves included, that He had done in Jesus. Jesus became the first fruits of our ultimate hope.
In Jesus' resurrection we have something different from what the pagans hoped for and what the Jews expected:
We are forced to conclude that when the early Christians said that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and gave that as their reason for reshaping their beliefs about resurrection itself on the one hand and Messiahship on the other, they were using the language in its normal sense. That which Aeschylus said couldn’t happen to anyone, and Daniel said would, to all God’s people at once, had happened to Jesus, all by himself.
Here is the bottom line: the resurrection of Jesus was something that was unexpected by both paganism and Judaism. The disciples would not have come up with the doctrine Jesus' resurrection through the influence of these teaching alone.
To cut a long story very short: to explain why the early Christians really did believe that Jesus really had been raised from the dead, we must postulate three things: Jesus really had been dead; the tomb really was empty, and it really was his tomb; they really did see, meet and talk with a figure who was not only demonstrably the crucified Jesus but who seemed to be in some ways different — though not in the ways one would have imagined from reading Isaiah, Ezekiel or Daniel.Historically the best explanation for the rise of Christianity is that resurrection of Jesus:
Historical investigation, I propose, brings us to the point where we must say that the tomb previously housing a thoroughly dead Jesus was empty, and that his followers saw and met someone they were convinced was this same Jesus, bodily alive though in a new, transformed fashion. The empty tomb on the one hand and the convincing appearances of Jesus on the other are the two conclusions the historian must draw. I do not think that history can force us to draw any particular further deductions beyond these two phenomena; the conclusion the disciples drew is there for the taking, but it is open to us, as it was to them, to remain cautious. Thomas waited a week before believing what he had been told. On Matthew’s mountain, some had their doubts.Here is the point that I would like to leave you with: regardless of the quality of the evidence there will always be doubters. When it comes to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus we have to responsibilities. Our first responsibility is decide what we will do with the evidence personally. Will we actually believe that Jesus was resurrected and is thus God's promised messiah? Our second responsibility is to share the evidence the best that we can. People need to understand that there are good solid reasons for believing that Jesus did rise from the dead. It isn't just some baseless hope. We can look towards the future confident that God will one day make everything right.
Hopefully this has given you a taste of N. T. Wright. I know it is on the intellectual side, but our faith needs to have a solid intellectual foundation to help us through those dark times of doubt. I would encourage you to take some time and read the entire essay: Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins.