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Surprised by Hope: II

“God’s miraculous makeover.” That’s how Lisa Miller, in Newsweek‘s Beliefwatch column (Feb. 2), describes the Christian teaching about bodily resurrection that is receiving fresh Levenson and madigan b emphasis these days from (of all people!) scholars of religion. Our resurrection bodies will be the same ones we have now, only made “buff and beautiful.” That’s according to St. Augustine, according to Paula Frederiksen, author of Augustine and the Jews.

Miller also refers to the recent book Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, by Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson, and to Levenson’s earlier book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (2006), and to Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, a best-seller in evangelical circles.

So, N.T. Wright is not alone in making the contemporary case for resurrection as an actual return to personal, embodied existence – “transformed physicality” – as he sometimes calls it, not as a metaphor for the power of goodness to rise again from apparent defeat or for the survival of the immortal soul.

Miller’s “heavenly makeover” brilliantly captures the appeal of the resurrection hope for a TV-addicted society. But the column misses entirely the explosive, politically-dangerous radicality of the belief for life in the present, which is what N.T. Wright aims to help us see in Surprised by Hope….

In Chapter 3, Wright summarizes the arguments from his exhaustive The Resurrection of the Son of God, that only belief that Jesus experienced, in advance, the bodily resurrection that devout Jews believed that all God’s people would experience together on the last day, adequately accounts for the apostles’ conviction that their crucified master was in fact Messiah and Lord, and that the most convincing historical explanation for that belief is that what they believed actually happened.

It is a lucid, stimulating, and to me, convincing argument. But then, just as I’m ready to lean back and enjoy a smug glow about my beliefs being confirmed by a world-renowned scholar, followed by some gratifying contemplation of the buff contours of my heavenly makeover, here it comes:

But already in Paul the resurrection, both of Jesus and then in the future of his people, is the foundation of the Christian stance of allegiance to a different king, a different Lord. Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the rediscription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it. Despite the sneers and slurs of some contemporary scholars, it was those who believed in the bodily resurrection who were burned at the stake and thrown to the lions. Resurrection was never a way of settling down and becoming respectable; the Pharisee couild have told you that. It was the Gnostics, who translated the language of resurrection into private spirituality and a dualistic cosmology, thereby more or less altering its meaning into its opposite, who escaped persecution. Which emperor would have sleepless nights worrying that his subjects were reading the Gospel of Thomas? Resurrection was always bound to get you in trouble, and it regularly did (50).

Now I’m disturbed. I am also moved. But I also have to ask, How is it that today belief in the bodily resurrection and second advent of Jesus Christ to overthrow the present order of things, seems to rest so comfortably with “settling down and becoming respectable,” preoccupation with “private spirituality,” and “dualistic cosmology” (i.e. this world — down here — bad; heaven — up there — good)?

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