Friday, April 15, 2011

The Strange Absence of Post-Mortem Existence in the Gospel Resurrection Stories

Me & Robbie Dawkins,
at Furious Love
I'm re-reading sections of N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, and am on p. 602 and the section called "The Strange Absence of Personal Hope in the Stories." There is something that the resurrection narratives lack which should cause us to be surprised. Wright writes: "It is extremely strange, and extremely interesting, that at no stage do they mention the future hope of the Christian." (602)

That feels counter-intuitive to we Western Jesus-followers who have attended many Easter services where the emphasis is on life after death. "The significant thing to notice here is this: neither 'going to heaven when you die', 'life after death', 'eternal life', nor even 'the resurrection of all Christ's people', is so uch as mentioned in the four canonical resurrection stories. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wanted to tell stories whose import was 'Jesus is risen, therefore you will be too', they have done a remarkably bad job of it." (603)

What, then, is the emphasis? It is: "Jesus is risen, therefore you have work ahead of you." The followers of Jesus are given an "open-ended comission within the present world... This mission coheres cloxely with the missionary imperative displayed in Paul and Acts." (603) But we are not given, in the Gospel resurrection narratives, words about being "with Jesus" in a post-mortem existence.

Paul, on the other hand, always connects the resurrection with the followers of Jesus. As does Peter; e.g., 1 Peter 1:3 ff. - Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

If we only had the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection we would not know that the resurrection narratives gave us any basis for life after death. The core of the Gospel accounts, according to Wright, have the following elements:

  • The vindication of Jesus
  • The validation of his messianic claim
  • and the commissioning of his followers to act as his announcers, telling the world about its rightful Lord
Of course we do have Paul's further interpretation of Jesus' resurrection as grounds for hope after this life. But, in context, it seems that the core elements of the Gospel accounts get slighted, even go unmentioned, as Easter preachers preach out of these accounts without really addressing what those accounts clearly do and do not state.

For those unfamiliar with what Wright is doing:
  • Focus on what the texts say more than on what they do not say.
  • What they say is important.
  • In the case of the Gospel resurrection accounts, on their own, they do not rush forward to declare our personal post mortem existence with God. I do believe in this, as does Wright. But I value the kind of NT studies Wright and others do by getting into the actual texts rather than impatiently reading into them.