You say that the Hebrew bible is not largely concerned with what happens to people when they die. That might surprise many Christians.

Yes, but it is not actually controversial. You can search the Old Testament from end to end, and even if you take a maximal view of passages like the "I know that my redeemer liveth" bit in Job, you're still left with a very small selection over against the vast mass of the Old Testament in which the question is not even raised.

What is the point then?

I grew up with the view that in the early Old Testament period, there was no interest in life after death. In a middle period, represented by some of the Psalms, there were the beginnings of an interest in life after death. And then finally, with Daniel, you get resurrection, as though that's a progression away from the early period.

The view that I came to is that the main thing the whole Old Testament is concerned with is the God of Israel, as the Creator God who has made a good creation, and that what matters about human life really is that it's meant to be lived within God's good, lovely, created world. That is equally emphatic in the early period, where you get agricultural festivals that celebrate Yahweh as king over the crops and the land. It's equally emphatic there and in the doctrine of resurrection. From that point of view, the idea of a disembodied, nonspacio-temporal life after death appears as a rather odd blip in between these two strong affirmations of the goodness of the created order and the wonderful God-givenness of human bodily life within that created order.

So, instead of resurrection being a step away from the early period, it is a way of reaffirming what the early period was trying to get at: the goodness of creation.

Scholars have said for a long time that the immortality of the soul is a Greek concept while resurrection is a Hebrew concept. What's wrong with this picture?

That's one of those half-truths that points vaguely in the right direction. But you have to know which roads to go down once you've followed that initial signpost.

It's certainly true that Greeks did not believe in resurrection. It's not true, however, that all Greek thinkers believed in the immortality of the soul. That concept is specifically developed in Platonism. Some Greeks believed that nothing at all happened after death. It's also true that by no means did all Jews believe in the resurrection of the body. Some Jews like Philo of Alexandria, a Platonist philosopher, believed in the immortality of the soul.

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But the idea that no Greeks believed in the resurrection of the body is very important for understanding the context of the Christian proclamation.

It really is. Over a period of more than a thousand years, whenever the question of resurrection—some substantial bodily life at some distance after death—comes up, people just say, "Sorry, no, that's not on." That really is very important to grasp.

Much of your book is designed to refute liberal scholars who treat Jesus' resurrection as equivalent to one of the pagan notions of afterlife. But what do you hope your conservative Christian readers will take away?

I count myself in all sorts of ways a conservative. (You ask Dom Crossan if I'm a conservative or not. He'll tell you I am.)

But conservative Christian readers often scrunch together two very different things. One is going to heaven after you die, and the other is the resurrection of the body as the final destination. Many conservatives are puzzled when I tell them that there's not very much in the New Testament about going to heaven when you die, and that where you do find material in the New Testament about going to heaven when you die, this is a temporary thing. What really matters is resurrection—Life After Life After Death.

In many conservative circles, the word resurrection has come to denote the state upon which the Christian enters immediately after death. And my point is that throughout—from Paul as our earliest Christian writer right onto Origen at the end of the second century—that is simply not what the word resurrection meant to such people. Actually, if I walk around Westminster Abbey, most of the tombs earlier than the 19th century say, in effect, I am resting at the moment but I shall be raised in the future. That two-stage life after death is the classic Christian position.

When did we lose that sense of the two stages of life after death?

I think you can see it already in Dante, in the Middle Ages, where you get basically heaven, hell, and purgatory, as the three options. And though Dante still appears to believe in the resurrection, it's already clear that the Middle Ages bought into a Christian version of Platonism (or a platonic version of Christianity) in which these ultimate spiritual destinations were what mattered. And the word resurrection got brought on the heaven side of that.

But you see it as well in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. When Christian and his friends go across the river and all the trumpets sound, there is no sense that after their death they are now going into a period of waiting or resting, at the end of which, when Jesus returns to this world, all the dead will be raised. There's rather a sense that we're simply on a pilgrimage from this present world to the one that is to come, and that at death we enter into the one that is to come and there will be a celebration and a sigh of relief. And that's simply not the picture that the New Testament gives us.

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The same sort of thing is reinforced in C.S. Lewis's Great Divorce.

Well it is, although Lewis combines that with a very robustly physical view of the new world that is much, much more solid and substantial and resurrectionish than most Christian pictures have been.

And it is Lewis, in his book Miracles, who actually explores what it means to have a risen body in ways that are close to some of the patristic discussions. He's quite close to Tertullian at one point. It was reading Miracles as a teenager that first made me realize that the ideas I'd grown up with about heaven were not bodily enough.

How does the doctrine of the resurrection affirm the goodness of creation?

That is absolutely central. In both the Jewish circles where resurrection was firmly believed, moving on towards the rabbis, and in early Christianity, both in the New Testament and in the second-century fathers, where you get resurrection, it goes very closely with two things—a doctrine of the goodness of creation and a doctrine of the justice and ultimate judgment of God. Judgment is not just negative, but also positive. Judgment is God's putting the world to rights.

If death is the dissolution of this body, never to be reassembled, then death has succeeded in saying present creation is bad and is going to be abandoned. But resurrection says, No. Present creation is good. It is corruptible and transient, not least because of sin, but God, having dealt with sin in the cross of Jesus Christ, will deal with corruption. And the result therefore must be the reaffirmation of the good creation, including the reaffirmation of human bodies.

You say that you're quite sure that the interim state is conscious, but you use very little Scripture to describe the interim state.

It's remarkable how little is said about it in the New Testament. But when the dying thief says to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," and Jesus says, "Today you will be with me in Paradise," there are several things to note: The first is that the kingdom is coming as Jesus is dying. It isn't simply a future thing.

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But Paradise is not a final destination. It's a resting place in "between whiles," and already we have the sense that somebody who dies with faith in Jesus on their lips will be with Jesus. It seems to me that's pretty thin if everyone is unconscious there. Being with somebody implies some sort of a consciousness of the presence of the other. And that is, of course, powerfully reinforced by Paul in Philippians 1, when he says, "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better." If Paul had meant, "I'll be sound asleep and unconscious," I don't think he would have said it would be far better [to be with Jesus].

So, though Paul does refer to the interim state as sleep, it seems to me that is clearly a metaphor taken from Daniel 12 or Isaiah 26, where "Those who sleep in the dust of the earth" clearly means those who are at present dead and not yet raised.

There is consciousness even though it will not be anything like the final, glorious, newly embodied human life that we look forward to in the resurrection.

How is the doctrine of the resurrection related to justification?

Justification in Paul is thought of in three tenses: past, present and future. In Romans 2, justification is spoken of as God's ultimate verdict, which says, These are my people, and they will receive glory and honor and immortality. When will that future justification happen and what will it look like? The answer Paul himself gives is that it will happen when Jesus returns, when creation is renewed, and it will look like people being raised from the dead. That resurrection will be justification in the sense that the actual event of the future resurrection is to be interpreted as the vindication of those people, despite their death because of sin.

I have in mind particularly Romans 8:10-11: "Though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness (righteousness comes by justification), and if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies by his Spirit who dwells in you." Paul clearly brings that idea of ultimate righteousness and ultimate resurrection extremely closely together.

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All talk about justification and resurrection has to begin with the future and work back to the present. In the present we find somebody coming to faith and being baptized. When somebody comes to faith, Paul says, that person is justified by faith in the present. But he also says when he talks about baptism, that baptism is itself a dying and a rising with Christ.

So, the justification and the resurrection come forward into the present when someone believes and is baptized. So if you start with the future and say the event will be resurrection, and it is to be interpreted as justification, and then the present event is the coming to faith and baptism which is to be interpreted as resurrection, and which is the moment when God declares in the present, this person is righteous. And that is justification by faith.

Why do you say that the doctrine of the resurrection is politically revolutionary?

Liberals like Crossan seem to imagine that bodily resurrection is just a way of saying the present world is irrelevant and what matters is the future postmortem existence. Like Marx, they think that if you tell people that all is going to be right in some future life, they won't worry about their social and political disquiet in the present.

Clearly, in the 1st century and in the 21st, that is not so. The reason the Sadducees opposed the doctrine of resurrection was not primarily philosophical, but because they knew that people who believed this kind of thing were likely to be much more vigorous in their pursuit of upending the social order and trying to redress injustice than people who didn't.

If you believe in resurrection, you believe that the living God will put his world to rights and that if God wants to do that in the future, it is right to try to anticipate that by whatever means in the present. It is your job as a Christian, in the power of the Spirit, to anticipate that glorious final state as much as you possibly can in the present. Live now by the power that is coming to you from the future, by the Spirit. And in the same way, live socially and politically because God is going to put the world to rights. That's the great theme of justice in new creation. It is up to us to produce signs of resurrection in the present social, cultural, and political world.

Because resurrection is a creation-affirming doctrine, it also goes with the desire to change injustice in the present. That's why I love the epigraph at the beginning of the book's final part—a quote from Oscar Wilde's play Salome, where Herod hears about Jesus raising the dead and says, "I forbid him to raise the dead. This man must be found and told I don't allow people to raise the dead."

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Herod knows, as all tyrants know, that if somebody is going about raising the dead, then their power has met a greater power.

I also apply this culturally: within the Enlightenment world of the last two centuries (as represented not least by liberal theology), we see a horror of any idea that God might actually act in the world. People produce fancy-sounding reasons for this, as though it would be quite wrong for God to step in and raise one person from the dead. Why didn't he step in and stop the Holocaust? And so on. But in fact the whole Enlightenment project is at risk. They want God banished upstairs so they can get on with running the world downstairs.

But with the resurrection, we have God saying, "No, I want to put things downstairs to rights, thank you very much. I started doing it with Jesus and you'd better get in line." That's a shock to liberal theology, just like it's a shock to all kinds of other tyrannies—and liberal theology has become its own sort of tyranny.

Related Elsewhere

The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Other sites of interest include:

Buy the book online
Buy other books of N.T. Wright
Read our extended review by David Neff

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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