Christianity proclaims Jesus’ resurrection as a new lease on spiritual life, and specifically as a proof of eternal life. In Jesus’ rising from the dead, what God did for Jesus, God will do for us, and by raising Jesus, God stamped Jesus’ life with divine approval. The resurrection is said to be Jesus’ victory over death, in which all believers will share at the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The resurrection, celebrated at Easter, is Christianity’s central truth. However, given the cultural climate in which the resurrection was first proclaimed, it is puzzling that it became enshrined so firmly, first in Mediterranean, and later in European, culture.
The ancient world generally held a belief in the afterlife. The soul’s survival of physical death was a cultural given. There were, of course, materialists and those who denied human immortality, but even these operated in a social milieu that widely held survival to be real. From the earliest shamanism through Egyptian spirituality, classical “paganism,” Greek Olympian theology, to Rome’s own religion and its borrowing from Greek and Asiatic religions, the soul’s immortality was a common theme.
That being the case, the question arises: What did the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection have to add to Hellenistic religion, that Hellenistic religion did not already have? The present writer does not have an answer to this question. On the contrary, I find the eventual embrace of Jesus’ resurrection by Hellenistic and European culture a lively riddle. Paganism considered that it already had spiritual immortality as its birthright. Human beings were guaranteed immortality, usually, not through a miraculous action of God or Gods, but because it is in the soul’s nature to be immortal, just as it is (say) in the nature of certain seeds to survive forest or grass fires. No special intervention is required for the soul’s survival of physical death, although the ultimate disposition or state of the surviving soul can depend on the person’s moral behavior during his or her “enfleshed” life.
So, granted a prevailing belief in natural immortality, what could the addition of a risen body do to enhance or support or further that belief? I can’t see that it does. On the contrary, a resurrected body only adds an unnecessary complication. If the mind, personality, consciousness of the individual is immortal, of what use is an extraneous body? Much of Hellenistic culture, in fact, viewed the body as a spiritual impediment in this life, and would regard its posthumous survival, along with the soul, as dead weight. Since our personal consciousness – our soul, our spirit – by nature survives death, the body’s survival is at best a non-issue, at worst, a difficult-to-explain encumbrance.
Typically, Semitic religion viewed the human person not as a soul temporarily incarnated in a body, but as a unity, a “body-soul.” So that notion of an afterlife necessarily included resurrection of the body. Jesus’ resurrection was held to be the first case in the coming general resurrection – the resurrection of the human person considered as body-and-soul. Jesus’ resurrection, then, perfectly represented Semitic afterlife concepts, but was remarkabely unsuited for importation into the greater surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Therefore its existence and persistence in Gentile Greco-Roman and northern European culture is somewhat baffling. Certainly the “Church Fathers” and the network of bishops were responsible for spreading and maintainin Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the resurrection. But what accounted for its seemingly easy, if not enthusiastic, acceptance by an audience that already possessed immortality as its birthright?