Beliefnet

Notice how very little the New Testament says about dying and going to heaven, and that when the matter is discussed, for instance in 2 Cor. 5:1-10, Paul makes clear that life without a body in heaven is by no means his own ultimate hope or expectation in regard to how he will spend eternity. Indeed, Paul refers to life in heaven without a body as nakedness, which to an early Jew was hardly the most desirable state of affairs. While it is true that under the influence of Greek thought medieval Christianity often substituted the discussion of immortality of the soul for the New Testament doctrine of resurrection of the body, this is not what the majority of New Testament passages are speaking of when they refer to the afterlife. Indeed, it could be said that in the New Testament life in heaven is seen only as an interim condition. Resurrection is something that happens in the earthly realm to real persons who have died. It is not an event in some other realm (for instance, heaven) and is not immune to historical scrutiny and evaluation. It is interesting that J. Murphy-O'Connor has suggested in a recent book, Paul: A Critical Life, that the whole reason that Christians believed in the everlasting existence of the human personality beyond death at all was precisely because they believed that there had to be a person there for God in Christ to raise up on the last day. How very different this is from what one usually hears today about dying and going to heaven.

Any position in which claims about Jesus or the resurrection are removed from the realm of historical reality and placed in a subjective realm of personal belief or some realm that is immune to human scrutiny does Jesus and the resurrection no service and no justice. It is a ploy of desperation to suggest that Christian faith would be little affected if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead in space and time. This is the approach of people who want to maintain their faith even at the expense of historical reality or the facts. A person who gives up on the historical foundations of the Christian faith has in fact given up on the possibility of any real continuity between his or her own faith and that of a Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene, or Priscilla. Whatever may be said about such an approach today, its nonhistorical faith is not the faith that the early Christians lived and died for. They had an interest in historical reality, especially the historical reality of Jesus and his resurrection, because they believed their faith, for better or worse, was grounded in it.

Nor was this faith of theirs something conjured up generations or even years later than the time of Jesus' life. Paul was in direct contact with various eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is striking that in Paul's letters, nowhere does he have to argue with other major Christian leaders about his views on the resurrection and the risen Lord. Indeed, he suggests in Romans 10, Philippians 2, and elsewhere that the common and earliest confession of all these first Christians was "Jesus is the risen Lord." Furthermore, he suggests in 1 Cor. 15:1-5 that the earliest Christians also held very particular beliefs about the end of Jesus' earthly life and the transition to his present heavenly state as risen and exalted Lord. Paul writes 1 Corinthians 15 within twenty-five years of Jesus' death, while various original eyewitnesses were still around to correct him. The silence of his Christian peers on this issue compared to their criticism of his views on the law (see Galatians) is deafening. It shows where the common ground truly lay.

Thus, it will not do to suggest that the passion and resurrection narratives in the Gospels are largely constructed from the Old Testament. The outline of and some vignettes from these narratives can already be found in Paul's letters in places like 1 Corinthians 11 and 15. It was the startling things that happened to Jesus at the close of his earthly career--his shocking crucifixion and then his equally astonishing resurrection--that caused the earliest Christians to race back to their sacred Scriptures to help them interpret the significance of these events. They did not first find these events in the Old Testament prophecies and then create new narratives out of the old prophecies. This is shown most clearly by the fact that many of the texts used to interpret the key final events of Jesus' life, in their original contexts in the Hebrew Scriptures, would not have suggested such things to a reader who had not heard of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. I know of no evidence that non-Christian early Jews were looking for a resurrected messiah, and in fact, the evidence that they were looking for a crucified one is also very doubtful.

C. H. Dodd once proposed that the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb was one of the most self-authenticating stories in all the Gospels. In his view, it had all the elements of the personal testimony of an eyewitness. First, knowing what the tradition said about Mary Magdalene's past (see Luke 8:2), it is hardly credible that the earliest Christians would have made up a story about Jesus appearing first to her. Second, it is not credible that a later Christian hagiographer would have had her suggest that perhaps Jesus' body had been stolen from the tomb. Third, it is not believable that later reverential Christians would have suggested that the first eyewitness mistook Jesus for a gardener. The portrait of Mary and her spiritual perceptiveness is hardly flattering here. Fourth, it is not believable that early Christians would have created the idea that Jesus commissioned Mary to proclaim the Easter message to the Twelve. On this last point we have the clear support of 1 Corinthians 15, when we see that the witness of the women to the risen Lord, if not totally eliminated from the official witness list is clearly sublimated.

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