13 August 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 3): N.T. Wright on Hebrew Resurrection Thoughts

For this, and hopefully the next couple parts, I would like to visit some of what other people say in support of this line of thinking. While it may not be the most common understanding in today's churches, there are many today who have, after much study, come to understand these issues.

In this case, I would like to look at some comments regarding the Hebrew understanding of life after death (life in Sheol), and this comes from the 2003 magnum opus on resurrection by N.T. Wright. As he is about to begin expounding on verses that show a future resurrection of the dead, he prefixes the section by saying:

The Resurrection of the Son of GodIt is important once more to be clear on the key topic before we go any further. The texts we shall consider, however we understand their detailed nuances, are not speaking about a new construal of life after death, but about something that will happen after whatever 'life after death' may involve. Resurrection is not just another way of talking about Sheol, or about what happens, as in Psalm 73, 'afterwards,' that is, after the event of bodily death. It speaks of something that will happen, if it does, after that again. Resurrection means bodily life after 'life after death,' or if you prefer, bodily life after the state of 'death.' That is why it is very misleading - and foreign to all relevant texts - to speak, as does one recent writer, of 'resurrection to heaven.' Resurrection is what did not happen to Enoch or Elijah. According to the texts, it is what will happen to people who are at present dead, not what has already happened to them. If this point is grasped, a good deal becomes clear; if forgotten, confusion is bound to follow. (Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003, 108-109)
So, hopefully you can understand that he is saying that the texts he is to begin dealing with (such as Daniel 12) are teaching of a resurrection from the life that was after death, the intermediate state for those who had previously died. This validates what we have covered previously in examining the Hebrew thought of life in Sheol, after physical death ends.

Wright continues in a later chapter referring to Hebrew beliefs in future life for the dead, saying:
The evidence suggests that by the time of Jesus, roughly in the middle of the period we are now examining, most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew that it was a standard teaching. Comparatively few remained skeptical. Some held to a kind of middle position - not exactly that of Psalm 73, but not too far off from it either - in which the blessed, albeit disembodied, immortality awaited the righteous after death...

In approaching the man-coloured palette of beliefs, we must remind ourselves once more that the words 'resurrection' and 'immortality' have become used far too loosely, often as though they were equal and opposite, so that one might swap them to and fro as alternatives within the same sort of sentence or paragraph. The reality is more complex. Those who believed in resurrection believed also that the dead, who would be raised in the future but had not been yet, were alive somewhere, somehow, in an interim state. (ibid. 129-130)
So, while it may be common belief in our churches today to believe that Old Testament saints died and were immediately lifted to heaven, that was not the historical Hebrew understanding, nor does it really even logically fit with Scripture teaching in general; but that is a topic for another day.

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10