So What Is Resurrection Really All About?
There should be no surprise that in his book A New Heaven and a New Earth J. Richard Middleton connects resurrection to the idea of holistic salvation. Far from only being only forgiveness from sin or even escape to an other-worldly heaven, salvation is a matter that involves all that exists. God is rescuing all He has made, and resurrection plays an important role in God’s victory over forces opposed to God’s rule. It is this last point that is especially important to Middleton: resurrection and the victory over death it signifies paves the way for humans to return to their original role as stewarding rulers of this good world (Genesis 1:28).
Resurrection & Rule in the Old Testament
In almost all of the Old Testament the closest you get to a view of the afterlife is their belief in Sheol, or the grave. The grave is a dark, foreboding place devoid of God and the kind of flourishing brought by a life with God. It is a place to resist and avoid as much as you can (the attitude many people have about death still today). For people in the Old Testament, “earthly life is what really matters” (135). Death only offers despair.
By the end of the Old Testament era, we begin to see an otherworldly development in their eschatology. Psalm 73:24 talks about God “tak(ing)” the psalmist. Psalm 49:15 says the psalmist will be “receive(d)” by God. Isaiah 25:7 declares that God will “swallow up death forever,” turning on its ear the conventional view that the grave is the swallower of the dead (c.f., Proverbs 1:12).
Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones rising to life again in chapter 37 is often pointed to as resurrection language. Most scholars, though, in light of the paucity of literal resurrection language in the Old Testament, see this as a metaphorical way to explain Israel’s return from exile — new life as a nation. Isaiah 26:19 is also explained this way:
But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise – let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy – your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.
Next Middleton makes, what seems to me, a tenuous connection. Daniel is the most apocalyptic of the Old Testament writers. People often refer to Daniel 12:2 as a clear reference to resurrection. And so it may be.
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.
That this is referring to some sort of other-worldly resurrection cannot be shown by this verse alone.
The tenuous part comes when Middleton connects resurrection with the cosmic change in power that occurs in Daniel 7. Four beasts surrender their power to “one like a son of man.” Control of the world changes from oppressive regimes to a kingdom of righteousness. God’s story here in Daniel ends, as it does everywhere else in Scripture, with the great reversal of power. And so Daniel starts what will be a strong theme running alongside and intertwined with resurrection: the restoration of rule to the righteous. This is a sound theological connection, especially based on what is to come in the New Testament, but Middleton’s use of Daniel seems a bit stretched.
Resurrection & Rule in the New Testament
This idea of a divine reversal of fortune is a common one in the New Testament. Jesus talked about a repayment at the resurrection of the righteous when those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who have been humbled will be exalted (Luke 14:11, 14). Jesus reassures the disciples that because they have left family and home behind they should expect a reversal in which they will reign over Israel from twelve thrones (Matthew 19:27-29).
Of course, Paul picks up this same idea in the familiar passage of Jesus’ emptying and subsequent exaltation from Philippians 2. Paul echoes Jesus in reminding his readers that those who suffer with Jesus will also be glorified with him (Romans 8:17). According to Paul, Christians will serve as the future judges of the world (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
Since the introduction of sin to the world, the power to rule that God intended humans to use for good has usually been used selfishly to oppress. In particular we have lived our lives under the oppressive fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). Tying the themes of resurrection and rule together, it was through resurrection that a flesh and blood Jesus was exalted to a position higher than the angels and restored to rule (Hebrews 2:14-17). Middleton describes it this way:
Just as Jesus has shared in the human condition (including the humiliation of death), so too all who follow him will share in his exaltation and rule, this fulfilling God’s purpose for humanity (150).
The connection between resurrection and rule is seen in particularly strong ways in Revelation. In chapters 2-3 faithfulness is induced from the seven churches with mention of crowns and thrones. In maybe the clearest statement in the Bible, the righteous are “a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). As the new heavens and new earth come in completion in chapter 22, John says God’s people “will reign forever and ever” (22:5).
For Middleton, resurrection is the pivotal act of God. To borrow a phrase from the title of an N. T. Wright book, resurrection is how God became the undisputed king of this world again. But in an astounding reminder that our future is tied to God’s, resurrection is also how and when we are restored to a place of rule over the world. Should this sound too arrogant and power-hungry, Middleton reminds is that the problem in our world today is not power, rather the abuse of power. When God and his people return to their places as the stewards of this world, for the good of the world, through resurrection, this will be heavenly. Or maybe better said, this will be heaven.