by ProfDave, ©2021
(Apr. 8, 2021) — What does Easter tell us about life after death? Given that Israel actually exists today, and that people all over the world call themselves Christians, should the Biblical history be taken as seriously as, say, Thucydides or Caesar’s Gallic Wars? The problem is not a lack of historical evidence, but the unrelenting entanglement of that history with moral and religious significance we cannot accept without changing our lives. Does the account of the resurrection of Jesus give evidence for life after death? The earliest Christians believed so. Does the report give us any idea of what it will be like? OK, what do the primary sources tell us?
1. Was he really dead? He was executed by professionals, with a spear thrust to make sure. Could a modern trauma center have revived him? If they had gotten him within a few minutes of death? Three days later? Are you kidding? He was dead, dead, dead.
2. Did his friends and relatives see his ghost, or an apparition? Jesus took pains to refute the impression of a merely spiritual immortality. Do ghosts have flesh and bones? Do they eat fish? Do 500 people see the same hallucination at the same time? Where was the body? An empty cocoon of mummy-like wrappings was all that was left behind.
3. Was this a resuscitation, like the near-death experiences of modern times – just an interruption in brain function? Jesus’ body had been beaten, flayed (pretty much hamburger all over), punctured, limbs pulled out of joint, drained of blood, dehydrated, asphyxiated, and pierced through the heart. Don Piper suffered years of therapy to get back on his feet. Could the Mayo clinic have put Jesus back together? In three days? He would still be in ICU. But after three days wrapped in desiccants, Jesus got up and walked several miles to Emmaus and back, with major wounds still open to inspection (as identification), but otherwise showing no ill effects! The same body, but a different nature? He seemed to have access to different dimensions, passing in and out of this world and through locked doors, but was still physical, still human. Thus Christians insist on a bodily resurrection. We will have a recognizable body, but transformed.
4. Was there a continuity of identity? If Jesus had been reincarnated as someone else, we never would have had a New Testament. Those who knew him best insisted (though some did not immediately recognize him) that he was the same Jesus they knew. Does this imply a Nirvana-like loss of individuality in the godhead? Hardly. Will we recognize each other in our new bodies?
5. Christians believe God raised Jesus from the dead. Is there any other possibility? Would God raise a madman or a blasphemer from the dead? Does the resurrection vindicate (among other things) Jesus’ teaching on the subject of life after death? He confirmed what the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets had hoped. He claimed to come from another world and to be returning there to prepare a place for his followers. He claimed the power to give eternal life to believers. He spoke often of an eternal heaven and an eternal hell. He referred the sect of Judaism that did not believe in resurrection to the way God introduced himself to Moses: “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – not “was.” [Somebody check the Hebrew on this, was Jesus right?] “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” he declared. Did He know something even before His resurrection that we didn’t? Did His post-resurrection appearances lend credibility to these arguments?
What does this mean? Life on this earth has meaning beyond death. Tragedy is not the end. Loss will one day be restored. Wickedness will one day be punished. Righteousness – even on the deathbed – will one day be rewarded. There is hope and justice!
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.