I look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the Age to Come

The last part of the third main section of the present Creed says, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”  Though this part of the Creed was not included with an eye to refuting the heresies of the fourth century, the words still rang with controversy in the ancient world.  The sizable pagan population of those days thought that the whole notion of resurrection was preposterous, absurd, and unworthy.

The Church taught that the life of the age to come would not be like life in this age.  Life in this age is attended by pain, hardship, disease, weakness, and tears, and of course it ends in death.  Life on earth in the age to come, after the Second Coming of Christ, will be a new kind of existence, a life freed from such terrible things.  Living this new kind of life will be made possible only by rising from the dead.  And it was upon hearing this part of the Church’s teaching that the pagans began to scoff.

Pagan thought was profoundly dualistic.  On the one hand was the world of flesh, of material existence, a world characterized by weakness, pain, hunger, and sex.  On the other hand was the world of the spirit, the immaterial, heavenly, and the two worlds were radically incompatible.  Physical life in this age was life lived in a prison, as if the soul was held in bondage within the body.  At death, the soul was freed from its prison, free to ascend to the stars, liberated at last from the cramped and humiliating constraints of bodily existence.  Talk of the resurrection of the body sounded to such pagan ears as absurd as the thought of a liberated prisoner voluntarily returning to his prison cell.  Why would sensible people long to be enclosed in a body again?  It was obscene; it made no sense.  That was why the good pagan people of Mars Hill patiently listened to Paul’s speech only until he mentioned the resurrection from the dead (Acts 17:31-32).  After he said that, they began to scoff, to mock, and to write him off.  Time to change the channel.

The concept of the resurrection of the dead, though foreign to paganism, had a history within Judaism.  The first clear indication that the dead would rise from the dust is found in Daniel 12:2.  By the time of Christ, the concept had won acceptance with large sections of the Jews, so that when Christ stood beside the grave of Lazarus and assured Martha that Lazarus would rise again, she immediately replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24).  All Pharisees believed in the final resurrection.  (The Sadducees were not so sure; see Acts 23:8.)  This Jewish belief in a final resurrection was just one more way in which Jews and pagans viewed reality differently.

One objection that the pagans had to the concept of resurrection was the evident absurdity of thinking it desirable to live forever in our present pained and weakened state.  St. Paul deals with this objection, and clarifies that the final resurrection does not so much restore a person to his original state as elevate him to a greater one.  In his long discussion of the topic in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul focuses upon the discontinuity between that which is sown and that which sprouts from it.  Take any seed, he says, perhaps a seed of wheat.  The farmer will have his wheat from it, but not unless the seed dies, and what arises from the earth and grows into a beautiful stalk of wheat looks very different from the small and unimpressive seed that it once was.  Or one might also take the example of a small acorn, of which our secular proverb, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”  The acorn also is small and unimpressive, but the oak which sprouts from it is towering, mighty, and grand.

It is the same, Paul says, with the resurrection of the dead.  Our bodies also are sown in the earth, and when they enter the earth they are weak and perishable, they are sown in dishonour, subject to worms.  But when our bodies arise from the earth, they are full of glory and power, they are raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42-43).  There is thus a major discontinuity between our current poor state of existence and the glorious state to which we will be raised.  Seeing this discontinuity of nature and this little miracle of death and new life all around us in the form of seeds and fully-grown plants should prepare us for this spiritual truth.

Yet for all this explanation some still thought the whole thing was too fantastic to be believed.  The idea that all the bodies which had suffered decomposition and returned to the dust could be reassembled and reconstituted, and be reunited with the souls which had once indwelt them, and stand upright again—all this beggared the imagination.  How could it be so?

It seems that lack of sufficient imagination is indeed the problem.  If God could create the world from nothing, then surely rearranging it and restoring it should not be too difficult a task for the infinite almighty God.  Our tiny imaginations cannot conceive of an act of power of this magnitude, but then neither can we conceive of creating a universe ex nihilo to begin with.

It was perhaps as an aid to the imagination that Christ raised Lazarus from the dead.  He had received the news from Martha and Mary that Lazarus was sick, with the implicit request to slip down quietly to Judea and heal him (John 11:1-3).  But rather than going quickly to Lazarus and healing him of his malady, Christ stayed two days longer in the place where He was until Lazarus was dead.  Only then did Christ travel into Judea to visit the family of Lazarus, and by that time, Lazarus had been dead four days (v. 17).  The other occasions when Christ had raised the dead took place on the day of the deceased’s death, since in that hot Palestinian climate especially, the dead were buried immediately (see Mark 5:23, 35-43, Luke 7:11-17).  This was different, for after four days, the forces of putrefaction and decomposition would have set in.  In a word, Lazarus had begun to rot, and to smell.  When Christ commanded that the door to his tomb be moved aside, Martha objected, “Lord, he already smells!” (John 11:39)—an objection which the RSV demurely renders, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor.”  But there is no sense in being demure and trying to blunt the horror of it—after four days of rotting, the corpse indeed stank.

That was the point of Christ waiting until Lazarus had died and decayed.  The miracle of raising Lazarus was to be the crown of all His miracles, and coming just a few days before the Passover, was the spark igniting all of Jerusalem in a frenzy of Messianic enthusiasm on Palm Sunday (see John 12:9, 18).  For this miracle did not only consist of restoring Lazarus’ departed soul to his body and making that body live again.  It also consisted of a reversal of the processes of decomposition and corruption, making the clock of death tick backward, for every cell in the corpse’s body which had begun to suffer dissolution had to change and be restored to its original condition.  Lazarus’ rising from the dead was a tiny taste and foreshadowing of what Christ would one day accomplish for all people.  “The hour is coming,” He said, “when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Son of Man’s] voice and come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).

Admittedly, the case of Lazarus was  just a pledge and a faint foretaste of the last day, for Lazarus was restored to the kind of life he enjoyed before he sickened and died, not to the immortal and imperishable life which still awaited him.  Later on, Lazarus would die again.  But it will be otherwise in the final resurrection at the last day.  Then he will rise to a life in which death no longer has dominion over him (compare Romans 6:9), to a life which will never end, to an existence drenched in power, and glory, and joy.  In its final syllables, the Creed promises that all who have loved the Lord’s appearing in this age will join Lazarus in that final victory.  The overwhelming weight of glory promised to us can scarcely be imagined.  Fortunately we are do not have to accurately imagine it.  Instead, we simply need look for it, and wait with patience.  And while we wait, we work.  As St. Paul said when he concluded his discussion of the resurrection with his Corinthian converts, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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