For centuries thinkers have examined the evidence of Jesus' empty tomb — and drawn one major conclusion about the resurrection. Here is a new look at that conclusion.
PHILOSOPHERS, sages and theologians have speculated for centuries about the question of life after death. If you die, will you live again? Or do you die to this life only to continue in another state? Is one's life span, however long or short, all there is? Or is there hope beyond the grave?
In the Words of Johannes Brahms
More than a century ago Johannes Brahms described these questions in the words of the Bible set to the music of the German Requiem: "Behold, all flesh is as the grass, and all the glory of man is as the flow'r of the field. The grass is wither'd, and the flow'r thereof is fallen." Whether in German or English, the sober statement penetrates to the very depths of the soul when accompanied by the haunting beauty of the second chorus. It makes no difference what your status in life is. Great or small, rich or poor. All come to the same end and all go to a common grave. The ancient wise man Job cried out in his sickness: "Why did I not die at birth... then I should have been at rest.... There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master" (Job 3:11, 12-13, 18-19, Revised Standard Version). Throughout history some have seen this universal human experience as denying any hope of existence beyond this present life. For example, the ancient Epicureans viewed the world as purely materialistic — a random conglomeration of atoms. Death, they thought, comes about as the gradual dissolution of these atoms in the individual. An important part of their philosophy was devoted toward abolishing the fear of death, yet they gained few adherents during the centuries that the Epicurean school lasted. Others have thought it unimportant to look beyond the present life. Perhaps at no time in history has there been more interest in this life alone than in this latter part of the 20th century. Even among those who profess some sort of religious faith. This is not surprising in light of the obsession with "other worldly" concerns in times past. Yet, by contrast, strong social currents in the 1970s have demonstrated the human need for religious and eschatalogical security. Think, for a moment, of the return to Muslim fundamentalism in Iran and other parts of the Arab world; the interest in oriental religion in the Western world; the stubborn persistence of Christianity, Judaism and other religions in officially atheistic communist countries. This longing for and hope in life beyond the grave still rests within the bosom of the majority of this world's population. Little wonder that among the different religious and philosophical systems one special idea has found an important place: the resurrection of the dead. Yet how many professing Christians know that belief in a universal resurrection of the dead has been held in common by a number of the major religions of antiquity and the present?
A Look at Islam
The prophet Mohammed emphasized a resurrection of all the dead, a time in which all would rise from their graves at one time to stand before God. As in most religions, the resurrection is viewed as a time of judgment, with those who have done well having nothing to fear. The reward of the righteous is expressed in those physical delights important to the culture of the prophet Mohammed's time and situation. It is hope for a life better and more fulfilling than the present one. To Mohammed, the resurrection was the conquest of death as "at the resurrection, the dead will have no knowledge of the time which has elapsed since dying; in fact, they will think that they have just awakened from a deep sleep." The Quran indicates "that at death the individual lapsed into a state of complete unconsciousness, unaware of the decay of his body, and that from this state he would be suddenly awakened by the trumpet heralding the Last Judgment" (S.G.F. Brandon, The Judgment of the Dead, p. 144). Long before the prophet Mohammed, the religion of Persia (Iran) was Zoroastrianism. It, too, was a monotheistic religion which apparently had some influence on intertestamental Judaism. While this religion was largely displaced by Islam, it still survives in modern Iran and India. The resurrection played an important part even in Zoroastrian belief. It was at the general resurrection that man was reconciled to God. There was a judgment followed by reconciliation of the individual to God and the renewal of the entire world. It is expressed in the following manner in a work which seems to go back to the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book: "All men become of one voice 'and administer loud praise to Auharmazd [God] and the archangels. Auharmazd completes his work at that time, and the creatures become so that it is not necessary to make any further effort about them.... and all men become immortal for ever and everlasting" (Bundahishn 30:23-6).
The Eastern View of Life
The place of the resurrection in Christianity and Judaism is basically well known and need not be described. But it is also true that certain religions, especially those of the Far East, do, not have a concept of resurrection. The main reason for this is their view of reality. The world process they see as cyclical — that is, essentially timeless — with no end or consummation of world history. There is no awareness of the need for a resurrection of the dead. With due respect for the insights of these various religions, one must still recognize the evidence of modern science that the world and the universe are not timeless and eternal. A cyclical view of the world and life on it is unsupported by present knowledge. Rather, greatest interest and intellectual excitement has surrounded the supportable view that world history is leading to a culmination, an ultimate fulfillment of some eternal plan or destiny. It is from such a basis that hope springs. Things don't have to be what they are today. They can be improved. The future will be better than the present mundane life. A cosmic plan is being worked out in history. To look to the future with optimism is indigenous to human nature, regardless of whether history and present world conditions justify this hopefulness. As contemporary thinker Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote of man: "All other creatures live entirely in the present.... All human interest is concentrated on the future. It is not natural for men to live only for today" (What Is Man?, p. 41).
Resurrection Philosophically Justified?
Wolfhart Pannenberg is one of the most provocative men of recent times. His grasp of Christianity is an intellectual one. A theological philosopher, he presently holds a chair at the University of Munich in West Germany. His statements about man's awareness of the future have just been quoted. Dr. Pannenberg argues further there is something beyond death, and the most appropriate metaphor for the expression of this is the resurrection of the dead. Conversely, Dr. Pannenberg argues that the concept of the immortality of the soul — so popular in many religious circles — is inappropriate, for the following reasons: The idea of the soul's immortality comes from the ancient Greeks. It rests on a distinction between body and soul, a concept which has been overturned by modern anthropology. Furthermore, to propose an immortal soul fails to take account of the real seriousness of death. For an immortal soul would mean that there is no death, whereas life beyond death requires the revival of the individual who died; that is, a resurrection. Human existence is possible only in community with others, so that, in addition, a general resurrection is necessary for true life. Dr. Pannenberg recognizes that a resurrection may presuppose a radical transformation, even a new creation, as it were. Yet there is still a clear connection with oneself and one's life before death. But is this hope in a resurrection — in your resurrection — in the resurrection of all mankind — only an empty hope? No, for evidence exists of the resurrection. The resurrection of all mankind at the end of history has been anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus.
The Facts Surrounding the Resurrection of Jesus
The culmination of history is the time when God brings all the dead from their graves and makes them live again. This is the hope of the living for their dead, and the hope with which the living approach their own end. There is only a futile hope if there were no resurrection. So now, look a t the evidence. This evidence lies in the experience of Jesus Christ who died on the cross' and was buried before the eyes of His disciples. This Jesus was reported to have been raised from the dead by women who visited the tomb. On their initial testimony this is a foretaste of the final resurrection at the end of history — a real reason for hope. But isn't belief in Jesus' resurrection only a matter of faith? Dr. Pannenberg takes into full account the skepticism of the historical inquirer. Historians would generally consider the gospel accounts insufficient because they are usually dated some years after Jesus' death. Dr. Pannenberg accepts this skepticism, with one exception. Some researchers, he points out, would exclude the possibility of a resurrection from the start as contrary to physical law. Dr. Pannenberg argues this is illegitimate since it substitutes dogma for sound argument and IS, furthermore, contrary to the caution of many physical scientists on unusual phenomena.
Dr. Pannenberg argues there are two strands of evidence in early Christian literature which withstand the scrutiny of historical criticism: 1. The appearances of the risen Jesus to His disciples. Most scholars consider Paul's writings some of the earliest of the New Testament. Yet he himself was converted soon after the crucifixion, according to his own testimony. Therefore, when he enumerates the witnesses to the resurrection, he is basing this on eyewitnesses from whom he heard testimony within only a few years after' the events. Furthermore, he also personally witnessed a similar appearance of the one resurrected from the dead. Despite attempts to psychologize them away, there is no other explanation for these appearances to so many individuals over an extended period of time than an actual manifestation of the resurrected Lord. The phenomenon of mass delusion is inapplicable here. 2. The empty tomb. Although Paul does not mention the empty tomb, the early Christian community would have been impossible without it. The faith of the disciples had been shattered by the crucifixion. Stealing the body away would have accomplished nothing. Nor would it have explained their later willingness to die for their faith. The Pharisaic polemic did not deny the empty tomb. Rather it attempted to explain it as theft of the body by the disciples. Thus, there is no early evidence contradicting the empty tomb by either disciples or enemies. The very existence of early Christianity is based on the evidence of the empty tomb: "The consideration of the historical situation of the first community in Jerusalem... cannot be understood without the tomb having been found empty" (Pannenberg, "Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?" Dialog 4 , 134).
"Blessed Are the Dead, Which Die in the Lord"
Death is thus revealed as having already been conquered. It was conquered by Jesus of Nazareth through the power of God. Death is still our enemy; we will die. Yet that is not the end. Jesus' resurrection has already anticipated and confirmed the hope and the promise of the resurrection of all the dead at the end of human history. Without this evidence our hope — our faith — would be only so much wishful thinking. Now in addition to faith there is evidence — historical evidence open to scientific inquiry. As the sixth chorus in Johannes Brahms's Requiem expresses it with such fierce emotion from I Corinthians 15: "Behold, I shew you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet: for behold, the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed. "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"