Question: Conquering death

May 5, 2006 | Struggles | 6 comments

OK, as I said in my recent post, I’ve been making an effort to clarify what exactly is still so confusing to me about Christian doctrine. In the process of doing this I realized that I’m coming to understand quite a bit of it. But there’s one big sticking point that’s completely baffling to me, yet is the cornerstone of Christian belief: the fact that they say Christ “conquered death”.

I was reading Mark Shea’s excellent Making Sense Out of Scripture over my vacation (I highly recommend it for others new to Christianity) and in it he was talking about how Christ’s death for our sins undid the process of death and decay that Adam and Eve began with the Fall. Pope John Paul II talked about the same thing in his letter on suffering, and it’s clear that understanding this concept is key to understanding God’s role in suffering (as well as many other things).

So I need to wrap my mind around this concept, but I’m confused. Here are my questions:

1. Didn’t the Jews believe in some sort of afterlife before Jesus came? What did/do the Jews believe happens after you die?

2. Other people were raised from the dead before Jesus (right?). I think I heard something about it in the Old Testament, and Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. So it would seem that death had already been conquered. What makes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead mean that death has officially been conquered while the others did not? (I do understand that the significance of his death and what it accomplished is completely different from the others’, but I’m just not sure how the resurrection is necessary/fits in to all that).

3. I’ve read a lot about how Jesus’ resurrection means that those who believe in him will be resurrected in body as well as spirit. Some things I’ve read make it seem like this is the main thing the resurrection accomplished. Why is this important? It seems like heaven is so great that being there as a spirit or being there with some sort of physical body would be great either way. Also, (I hate to be so stupidly literal here, but I have to ask…) if we are resurrected with physical bodies does it mean that we’re meant to have eternal life here on earth?

OK, enough cluelessness for one post. Thanks in advance for all comments.

6 Comments

  1. SteveG

    So glad to have you back!

    Excellent questions as always. I’ll take my usual stab at them.

    Jennifer Said: 1. Didn’t the Jews believe in some sort of afterlife before Jesus came? What did/do the Jews believe happens after you die?

    Belief was actually somewhat varied. By the time of Jesus, most Jews did believe in an afterlife via the general resurrection of the body, but I think that the common modern idea of life after death would have been very foreign to them.

    But even at that, there was a vocal group of Jews who denied the resurrection. They believed this life was all we had.

    They where known as the Sadducees. They were apparently still prevalent enough in Jesus’ day that the gospels indicate that Jesus had a direct confrontation with them on this very topic…

    Luke 20 – 27: There came to him some Sadducees, those who say that there is no resurrection, 28: and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the wife and raise up children for his brother. 29: Now there were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and died without children; 30: and the second 31: and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32: Afterward the woman also died. 33: In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 34: And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; 35: but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36: for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37: But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38: Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.” 39: And some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40: For they no longer dared to ask him any question.

    As to what is commonly believed by Jews regarding what the resurrection means, here’s a link to an article on the afterlife from a site (Judaism 101) I found a few years ago.

    The site does an excellent job of explaining the basic understanding of Judaism (both historic and current).

    For someone uninitiated in the thinking of either Christianity or Judaism, it is well worth spending some time there getting familiar with Jewish thought as it so profoundly effects Christian thought.

    Beyond that, for Jews (and consequently for Catholics), it’s very important to understand how the human being is viewed. The common notion that many people have that our body is some kind of vessel, or container which ‘holds’ our soul is mistaken according to both Judaism and Catholicism.

    Jennifer said:Why is this important? It seems like heaven is so great that being there as a spirit or being there with some sort of physical body would be great either way. Also, (I hate to be so stupidly literal here, but I have to ask…) if we are resurrected with physical bodies does it mean that we’re meant to have eternal life here on earth?

    We human beings are in fact embodied souls. Soul without body is a ghost, body without soul is a cadaver. One without the other is not something truly human.

    The concept of heaven that many hold, with our disembodied spirits ‘floating’ around in heaven, is likewise not in keeping with orthodox Christianity.

    However long our souls are separated from our body after death, that kind of existence would be a temporary state that we participate in until the bodily resurrection when we are reunited with our bodies.

    Indeed, I don’t think it’s too much to say that spending all eternity w/o our body would hardly be heaven for a creature whose being is so integrated with the body. It would simply not be in keeping with our true nature as God created us.

    Jennifer Said:2. Other people were raised from the dead before Jesus (right?). I think I heard something about it in the Old Testament, and Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. So it would seem that death had already been conquered. What makes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead mean that death has officially been conquered while the others did not? (I do understand that the significance of his death and what it accomplished is completely different from the others’, but I’m just not sure how the resurrection is necessary/fits in to all that).

    3. I’ve read a lot about how Jesus’ resurrection means that those who believe in him will be resurrected in body as well as spirit. Some things I’ve read make it seem like this is the main thing the resurrection accomplished.

    I started typing up an even longer response to part 2 and 3 of your question, but I kept finding my self referring to the Catechism, and the Catholic Encyclopedia for how to explain things. It became pretty clear that those two sources actually do a good job of handling these topics and I think they addressed most of what you raise here.

    Check out the section in the Catechism which is explicitely on The Resurrection of the Body. as well as the entry in NewAdvent (Catholic Encyclopedia) on the General Ressurection.

    My thought is that you can use these to become more familiarized with a general understanding and then we can offer clarification on key points that you may have trouble with.

  2. Jennifer

    Jen:

    I think Steve did a bang up job as usual answering your questions and I would second the recommendation of the Catechism and the Catholic Encyclopedia as #1 resources.

    I just wanted to say hello, that I’m continually impressed by your penetrating thought on these matters and also to give a hi to Steve G. who I haven’t had the good fortune to bump into lately.

    People like you get me so excited about the faith–bless you for your inquisitiveness–even to the point of reading Mark Shea on your vacation.

    You are the best.

  3. Jennifer F.

    Steve and Jennifer – thanks so much for your comments. Going to print and read the resources you recommend tonight…

  4. SteveG

    Wow, as a reread my comments, I realized how inadequate they are for such serious questions. I have just been pressed for time more than usual of late. I don’t think I did too terribly bad at Q1, but I really gave short shrift to the 2nd two questions. I am going to come back over the next couple days and try to add more.

    A few things to get started, and to begin to flesh things out. First, I’d suggest you take a look at the comment I made back in January on your old blog here as it really is tied in to what it means to say that Christ conquered death. It’s mostly Dr. Hahn’s exegesis on the fall.

    In particular, make note of the section where he talks about the death that Adam’s sin brought upon himself (and by consequence, upon humanity). I’ll repost just the significant portion here for easy access…


    [Dr. Hahn]
    Death Threats
    But before we move from Adam to Jesus, let’s look at the riddle of the story. God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “The moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die,” he warns (see Genesis 2:17).

    In the Hebrew there is a “double death” threat here – literally “You shall die die” or “die the death.” Why the repetition of the word “die” Can you be more dead than dead?

    The serpent directly contradicts God. He tells Adam and Eve: “You certainly will not die” (see Genesis 3:14). He says, too that they will be like “gods who know what is good and bad” (see Genesis 3:5).

    And it’s true that when they eat the fruit, they don’t keel over and die. Instead, their eyes are opened just like the serpent said they would be (see Genesis 3:7). Even God has to admit, “See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (see Genesis 3:22).

    Is the serpent right? Was God lying to the two? It certainly looks that way on the surface.

    But of course it isn’t that way.

    Adam and Eve do die the moment they eat the fruit – spiritually. The truth in Satan’s lie was this: Adam and Eve would not die a physical death once they ate the fruit. Adam and Eve lost something greater than natural life when they sinned; they lost supernatural life, the life of grace in their souls.

    Seduced into trying to be like God without God, they died the death. Yes, they chose the fruit freely, like God they exercised free will. But their freedom only led them into slavery. Their eyes were indeed opened, and they discovered their nakedness and were ashamed.
    [/Dr. Hahn]

    What Dr. Hahn is highlighting here is that it is primarily (but not exclusively) spiritual death that resulted from Adam’s sin. In Theology And Sanity, Frank Sheed takes this further and discusses very eloquently how one of the capacities Adam (humanity) lost as a result of this spiritual demise was the soul’s supernatural capacity to prevent bodily death from occurring. This capacity was but one of the many ‘gifts’ that we were created with in the beginning, but lost due to the spiritual death suffered.

    This means that while Adam and Eve didn’t physically die immediately, one of the consequences of their spiritual death was their eventual physical death. Originally, we were not meant for death, either spiritually of physically. God made us for immortality, both spiritually and physically, and that is what was lost. That’s what needs to be conquered and overcome.

    Now, back to my drumbeat of selfishness vs. selflessness as the key to understanding all of this. It was through the prideful, selfish sin of Adam that death (primarily spiritual, but also physical) was introduced to fallen humanity.

    It is through the selfless sacrifice of Christ (the new Adam) that spiritual death is conquered (primarily), and as a result the physical death (immediately in Christ, eventually in all of us) will be un-done by the regaining of those original gifts given us by God.

    Though Christ won that victory for all, it is a victory that must be accepted by each in order to be appropriated. Each of us has to strive to appropriate it in this life, and is something we won’t know for sure if we have appropriated until after death. Consequently, we don’t get our physical immortality returned to us until all things are remade in the new heaven and new earth (at the general resurrection) at the end of the age.

    I’ll stop there for now, but I’ll try to come back soon in order to touch on that last bit by addressing what is meant by ‘new heaven and new earth’, and the ‘end of the age.’

    Hopefully, after that, I can close by addressing the physical ‘resurrections’ you mention (Lazarus, and in the OT).

  5. SteveG

    Jennifer (Perfect Work):
    Great to see you! I Haven’t forgotten about your wonderful blog. I’ve Just been so pressed for time lately. I’ll be back by…promise. 😀

  6. Wonders for Oyarsa

    Hi Jennifer F.,

    I don’t know if you still read comments to posts this old, but I think you are hitting on some really crucial issues. I’m Anglican, not Catholic myself, but I don’t think anything I say should be problematic for a Catholic. A lot of my thinking is guided by the work of N.T. Wright, one of the chief New Testament scholars of our time, and also the Anglican Bishop of Durham. His deep grasp of the worldview of the first century is rather amazing.

    Didn’t the Jews believe in some sort of afterlife before Jesus came? What did/do the Jews believe happens after you die?

    The Jewish beliefs of the afterlife were bound up with the Jewish hopes for Israel. The majority in Jesus’ day believed in something called the resurrection of the body, but this was in the context of something bigger. The idea was that the Lord would finally act decisively in history and restore the kingdom of Israel, and then all the earth would enjoy the just rule of the people of God. When this happens, all of his faithful people would be raised from the dead to enjoy this wonderful culmination of all that they had hoped for.

    So Jews would say that the souls of the departed – especially the martyrs – were in the hand of God, but that their ultimate hope was in the resurrection of the body. The word “Heaven” was often interchangeable with “God” – so the dead simply go to God, and await the resurrection.

    Other people were raised from the dead before Jesus (right?). I think I heard something about it in the Old Testament, and Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. So it would seem that death had already been conquered. What makes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead mean that death has officially been conquered while the others did not? (I do understand that the significance of his death and what it accomplished is completely different from the others’, but I’m just not sure how the resurrection is necessary/fits in to all that).

    It has to do with who Jesus was. If one of the two thieves crucified next to Jesus had been raised, people would have been shocked and awed, but they wouldn’t have said “he’s the messiah” or “the resurrection has begun in him!” No, it was the fact that the man who claimed to be ushering in the kingdom had now been raised from the dead. This is what made his followers conclude that what God is going to do to everyone at the end of history he has begun with Jesus now. God has begun his work of new creation already – in Jesus’ resurrection.

    I mean, those others were raised again, but presumably they died again as well. It was only an appetizer – a sneak preview of the real thing. Jesus’ resurrection is the real thing – that same real thing he promises to give those of us who are baptized into him. We will have gone through the curse and out the other side to a new creation.

    I’ve read a lot about how Jesus’ resurrection means that those who believe in him will be resurrected in body as well as spirit. Some things I’ve read make it seem like this is the main thing the resurrection accomplished. Why is this important? It seems like heaven is so great that being there as a spirit or being there with some sort of physical body would be great either way. Also, (I hate to be so stupidly literal here, but I have to ask…) if we are resurrected with physical bodies does it mean that we’re meant to have eternal life here on earth?

    Actually, Jen, I would answer your last question with “yes”. That is our ultimate hope – not escaping from this world, but with the transformation of this world into God’s new creation. This isn’t to say that the transformation won’t involve serious destruction and the like (for Jesus, it meant death on a cross). But we need to remember that the picture at the end of Revelation is one of the new Jerusalem, the perfect city of God, coming down from heaven to earth as a bride coming to her husband.

    The doctrine of the resurrection of the body is huge, because (like the rainbow after the flood) it reinforces God’s commitment to the project he started in creation. He doesn’t just want to take our disembodied souls into his presence and leave it at that. No, he wants an entire restored creation filled with life and beauty. And the sacraments are a bit of that new creation already breaking in.

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