I don’t go all the way with N. T. Wright on the New Perspective on Paul or on the category of Empire being as significant as he thinks it is. But he does have some great turns of phrase. One of them is that resurrection does not mean life after death, but life after life after death. Wright’s point is that biblically our final goal is not heaven as popularly conceived but bodily resurrection in a new heaven and earth (see here).
In my Easter sermon I used his phrase. It caused some perplexed looks. People tend to assume that Easter is about life after death.
But the great thing about the idea of life-after-life-after-death is that it does not challenge people’s belief in life after death. You can explain that the Bible has very little to say about what happens right after you die. This leaves us free to speculate. You can reframe popular beliefs like the transmigration of souls or the tunnel and white light of the near-death-experience books as interesting speculations. You don’t have to argue with them. You just say that Easter means that something happens after that.
Indeed, in the ancient world pretty much everybody believed in some idea of life after death. If that was what the resurrection was about, it would not have shocked anybody. A wide-spread idea in the Hellenistic world was that the material world was flawed and death was an escape into a more ideal spiritual world.
However, what if God is powerful enough to change this flawed world? In Romans 8, Paul characterized this life as tied to a creation in “bondage to decay” (v. 21). He associates the idea of the “redemption of our bodies” with freeing creation from this bondage.
So, it seems, the resurrection is a part of something bigger than our individual fates. It is part of a renewal of reality so that the law of entropy, for instance, no longer operates.
As Wright points out, this gives more meaning to this creation and our bodily life. If the earth and our bodies will not just get cast aside in God’s future, then that gives them dignity and importance now.
Resurrection or anastasis literally means standing up again. Death means a laying down. Most think the laying down is permanent, although the soul may go somewhere. But standing up again? That seems absurd. Yet it is hard to get around the New Testament’s claim that Jesus did and that his standing up is like the first fruits of a future harvest or a deposit or down payment on a future purchase.