How Is the Doctrine of Resurrection Developed From the Old Testament to the New Testament?
Does Everyone Agree About Resurrection?
The progression of the doctrine of resurrection throughout the Bible is a contested issue with many prominent thinkers, authors, and theologians on various sides. Some, such as Charles Hodge and Normal Geisler, assert that the doctrine of the resurrection of the individual to life after death has been well understood from the earliest days. According to Hodge, “That the Jews when Christ came, universally, with the exception of the sect of the Sadducees, believed in a future life, is beyond dispute” (720). Many others, such as Kevin Vanhooser, Ted Dorman, and Stephen Reed, adamantly dispute that claim, noting that even by Jesus’ day there was a large amount of dissension over how the concept of “resurrection” should be understood. Vanhooser states, “The early Christian belief in resurrection marked a significant mutation in the Jewish belief” (677). Vanhooser, Dorman, and Reed are most likely correct in their understanding. Without a doubt, Jesus brought unprecedented clarity to the doctrine of the resurrection, and not only by teaching it. He also demonstrated it on a scale that had to that point been unmatched and will remain unrivaled until His second coming.
The debate over resurrection that was raging in Jesus’ day continues today.
The debate over resurrection that was raging in Jesus’ day continues today. Further evidence that the doctrine of the resurrection was somewhat ambiguous before the time of Christ is that many non-messianic Jewish scholars and theologians still do not consider the doctrine of the resurrection important as it relates to creed or confession. Many are unconvinced of a bodily resurrection altogether. According to Rabbi Jo David in her article aptly titled “Resurrection Through a Jewish Lens: God, What Have You Done For Me Lately?” states, on the topic of life after death, “Quite simply, Jews don’t worry very much about theology…Religious theoretical reflections often are cast in philosophic rather than theological terms” (David 14). For the Christian, however, the doctrine of the resurrection is anything but inconsequential as it relates to doctrine. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:16-17, “For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (NKJV) The death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge on which the door of resurrection swings.
For the Christian, the doctrine of resurrection informs not only the theology but the practice of everything from evangelism to how funerals are conducted. Interestingly, the modern Rabbis who deny the deity Christ also take part in practices that are heavily influenced by an idea of resurrection though the doctrine does not enter into their theological considerations. Rabbi David goes on to explain that should a Jewish individual need to have a limb amputated, they must take that limb home and have it buried in their burial plot “so that the body can be resurrected with all its parts” (17). While they may not believe that the resurrection is a likely possibility, they are well prepared just in case. Practices such as this one are influenced by the many cloudy references to resurrection found in the Old Testament.
Resurrection in Job
Job, who is assumed to have lived long before Moses, makes a clear statement of resurrection expectation. In Job 19:26, he confidently declares, “And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God.” According to Norman Geisler, “While this text refers to bodily resurrection, it also encompasses immortality after death. There is no hint of the soul’s nonexistence or unconsciousness between death and resurrection, only assurance that Job will live eternally because of his Redeemer” (249). Dorman, however, considers this reference to resurrection an “indirect hint” at the New Testament concept of resurrection (321). While the meaning of resurrection at this time was probably uncertain, Job’s statement encompasses two important truths: Job will see God after death, and he will see God from a body, not as immaterial spirit.
Resurrection in 1 Samuel
1 Samuel, which was likely written around 1100 B.C., states, “The Lord kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and brings up” (2:6). While this verse may appear to be a clear resurrection claim to those who possess New Testament revelation, Reed points out, “Such texts indicate that God has control over life and death. Still, this does not lead to a belief in resurrection for most people” (10). The assumption that this text refers to bodily resurrection is valid for those with New Testament insight, but the original reader likely did not attribute a message of personal hope to this passage. Rather, it would have been understood as an account of God’s power.
Resurrection in the Psalms
While a few theologians point to the Psalms as evidence for a well-defined understanding of the resurrection, Dr. Stephen Reed claims that for the psalmists, “there is relatively little interest in the afterlife. Some psalmists may describe experiences of sickness and oppression as being dead, and then say how God brings them back to life. They are not speaking about literal resurrection after death” (12). This is how many original readers understood passages such as 1 Samuel 2:6 and Isaiah 26:19. The original reader of Psalm 16:9-11, (verses with Messianic implications for those who believe the New Testament) would likely have also understood these verses as divine salvation from physical or emotional suffering that felt like death. Because illnesses could be so deadly in that day, the psalmists would have been right to praise God for snatching them from death’s doorstep. For example, Psalm 116:8-9 states, “You have delivered my soul from death…I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Interestingly, even Anthony Petterson, an apologist for the view that the ancients had a well-rounded understanding of resurrection, admits that “it is generally considered that the Psalter has no theology of resurrection.”
You have delivered my soul from death…I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.— Psalm 116:8-9
Resurrection in Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes captures some of the ambiguity of ancient people’s notions of what happens after death. Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 compares the fate of humans and animals and concludes that they are the same, stating in verse 20: “All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.” According to Reed, “There appears to be no hope of resurrection here” (10). Ecclesiastes 12:7 seems to provide more hope stating, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” While Qoheleth does claim that the spirit of man returns to God, it quite possibly was not apparent to these ancients what became of the spirit after it was returned to its Creator. According to Vanhooser, “[It is not] clear within Jewish thought whether resurrection will mean a return to a body identical with the present one, or transformation into something different (a shining star, for instance)” (677). The original reader would not have found as much hope in this verse as the modern reader who understands it in light of the resurrection of Christ.
Resurrection in Daniel
By the time of Daniel, fragments of progressive revelation begin to come together. Daniel makes the first statement of a resurrection for both the people of God as well as for the rest of humanity: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). It is worth noting that the Old Testament references to resurrection are much pithier and occur with less frequency than New Testament references. It is also significant that many Old Testament allusions to resurrection tie the concept back to the creation of man in Genesis 2:7, “from the dust of the ground.” This is because “creation theology provides the grounds for a resurrection hope” (Petterson 3).
Resurrection in the Gospels
In the New Testament, Jesus makes many allusions to his coming death and resurrection, but these statements go almost entirely misunderstood by the disciples. This is not only because of their kingly expectations for their Teacher but also because the idea of coming to life after death was simply not part of their thinking. This is demonstrated in John 2:18-22, Matthew 16:21-23, and John 10:17-18. In each of these cases, the disciples either didn’t understand or attributed an incorrect meaning to Jesus’ claims. If the disciples had a well-defined understanding of the implication of Jesus’ statements it would be apparent from the text, but it is clear that even those closest to the Messiah did not yet entirely understand what resurrection meant.
If the disciples had a well-defined understanding of the implication of Jesus’ statements it would be apparent from the text, but it is clear that even those closest to the Messiah did not yet entirely understand what resurrection meant.
In his conversation with the Sadducees (who denied any form of resurrection), Jesus says, “But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living…” (Mark 12:26-27). While it would seem that Jesus could have selected from any number of ostensibly clearer verses to claim the validity of confidence in life after death, he ties the concept of resurrection to God’s identity. Another reason is that “the Sadducees, to whom this was addressed, acknowledged the authority of no part of the Old Testament but the Pentateuch” (Jamieson 84). Regardless, it is apparent from these two verses that resurrection hope is tied to God as “[the] one who could bring life from the dead” (Petterson 13).
Not only did Jesus claim that he would rise again personally, but he also claimed to be “the resurrection and the life,” adding that, “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25). It is from this concept that the New Testament authors derive the hope that since Christ rose again, the believer will also rise again. Paul states in Romans 6:5, “For if we are united together in the likeness of his death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection.” The word Paul uses in this sentence means “to cause to come forth or arise” (Schlier 351).
Resurrection in the Epistles
In Colossians, which was written just a few years later, the concept of resurrection appears in a statement of Christ’s creative role. Verses 15-18 refer to Jesus as both the “firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created” and the “firstborn from the dead, that in all things he may have the preeminence.” As Stephen Reed, a resurrection skeptic, points out, “What happens during resurrection is similar to what happened at creation. So, resurrection is a kind of new creation…If God could create humans in the first place, why could he not re-create or resurrect them once again?” (11). The Apostle Paul would likely add that those who are in Christ are already a new creation, born again for eternal life in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
The doctrine of the resurrection as developed throughout Scripture has applicational value both for the individual and the universal Church. This doctrine is missional in nature, and it compels the church to spread the gospel to the world because all souls are will live either in eternal bliss or eternal suffering as Daniel 12:2 makes clear. In the words of Jamieson et al., “To God, no human being is dead or ever will be” (84). For the individual believer, this doctrine gives hope for life after death and motivates the believer to live with an eye on the world to come that they will inhabit in resurrected bodies. This can both provide encouragement during times of suffering as well as spur the believer on to good works (1 Corinthians 3:12). As C.S. Lewis states, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next” (134).
The Old Testament passages that refer to resurrection are relatively few and far between, but the New Testament is rife with passages that explain the resurrection and its implications for individuals. The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the believer to eternal life has life-altering clarity when viewed through the lens of the teachings of Jesus. In the words of Charles Hodge, “It is to be remembered that we have in the New Testament an inspired, and, therefore, an infallible commentary on the Old Testament Scriptures. From that commentary, we learn that the Old Testament contains much which otherwise we should never have discovered.” Without that sacred commentary, which depends on the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Christians would have far less understanding of resurrection and its consequences.
- Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper Collins, 1980.
- David, Jo. “Resurrection through a Jewish Lens: O God! What Have You Done for Me Lately?” The Living Pulpit (Online), vol. 21, no. 2, Apr. 2012. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001981571&site=eds -live.
- Dorman, Theodore Martin. A Faith for All Seasons: Historic Christian Belief in Its Classical Expression. Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.
- Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology Volume Four: Church, Last Things. Bethany House, 2005.
- Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology Volume Three: Soteriology. Eerdmans, 1999.
- Jamieson, R. et al. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Vol 2. Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
- NKJV. New King James Version. The Holy Bible. Thomas Nelson, 2015.
- Petterson, Anthony R. (Anthony Robert). “Antecedents of the Christian Hope of Resurrection Part 1 The Old Testament.” The Reformed Theological Review, vol. 59, no. 1, Apr. 2000, pp. 1–15. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001291070&site=eds -live.
- Reed, Stephen A. “Imagining Resurrection in the Old Testament.” The Living Pulpit (Online),vol. 21, no. 2, Apr. 2012. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001981570&site=eds-live.
- Schlier, H., et al. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Eerdmans, 1964.
- Vanhoozer, Kevin J., et al. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006.