11 Feb 2012

Resurrection: A Medley from the Early Church

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Church History, eschatology, resurrection

the_resurrection_of_the_bodyIt goes without saying that the New Testament is totally informed by the resurrection of Jesus and the hope it engendered among his early disciples. It literally permeates Christian faith and indeed the history of the early church is difficult to explain without it. But the resurrection of Jesus was not simply a miracle to prove that Jesus was divine and Paul does not make such a move. Rather Paul argues for the fact of the general resurrection from the truth of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was the “first fruit.” What happened to Jesus is the fulfillment of the hope of Israel – the promise that God is doing this to creation itself and to all … or this is how the Fathers understood it. What follow are some samples of quotations from the early centuries of Christianity that clearly reveal what was considered apostolic belief on the resurrection. It never occurred to them that resurrection of the flesh and its corollary the renewal of creation was somehow “unspiritual!”

It is necessary to point out that “resurrection” is not a synonym for either “life after death” nor for “the immortality of the soul.” It is surprising how many simply act as if that is what resurrection means.


For I know and am confident that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. And when he came to those with Peter he said to them, ‘Take, handle me, and believed, being mingled with his flesh and spirit. Therefore they despised death and were found to be above death. And after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as being of flesh, though he was spiritually united with the Father.” (To the Smyrnaeans 3)

Justin Martyr

To anyone who thinks about it, what could be more incredible, supposing we were not in a body, than to say that bones, nerves, and flesh come into existence from a small drop of human seed and are shaped into the form that we see? Let this now be stated as a hypothesis: if you were not such as you are and from such parents, and someone said to you and strongly affirmed — after having shown you the human seed and a sculptured image — that they are the same and from the same thing, would you believe it before seeing it come to pass? No one would dare to contradict this! In the same way, although you have never seen a dead person raised, you are disbelieving. But just as you would not believe at the beginning that from a small drop such a person can come into being — yet you see them coming into being — so also understand that it is not impossible for human bodies that have been dissolved and dispersed in the manner of seeds in the earth to be raised at the time appointed by God and to be clothed with incorruption [reference to 1 Cor 15.53].” (1 Apology 19)

Even if anyone is laboring under a defect of body, yet if he is an observer of the doctrines delivered by Christ, He will raise him up at His second advent perfectly sound.” (Dialogue with Trypho)

Treat us, therefore, in a similar manner as you treat them [i.e. Plato, Socrates & Homer who told stories], for we believe in God not less, but more than they do, since we expect that our own bodies, even though they should be dead and buried in the earth, will be revived; for we claim that nothing is impossible with God” (1 Apology 18)


For just as I did not exist before I came into being and did not know who I was, since I existed only in the underlying substance of fleshy matter, but believe that I, who formerly did not exist, came into existence and exist now, so I, who came into existence and through death no longer exist and are no longer seen, will come into existence again, even as I formerly did not exist but was then born. Even if fire utterly destroys my flesh, the world receives the vaporized matter. Even if I am consumed by rivers or seas, or torn apart by wild animals, I am stored up in the treasuries of a rich Master. The poor, godless person does not know what is stored up, but God the King — when he wills — will restore the substance visible to him alone to its original condition.” (Oration to the Greeks, 6.2)


But how, you say, can the matter of a body that has been dissolved reappear again? Consider yourself, O man, and you will come to faith in the resurrection. Reflect on what you were before you came into being — nothing at all. For if you had been anything, you would remember it. You, then, who were nothing before you came into being and likewise are made nothing at the will of the same Creator whose will brought you into being out of nothing … Give an account — if you can — of how you were created, and then you can ask how you will be re-created. Indeed, it will be easier for you to be made what you once were, since at one time, equally without difficulty, you were made what you never were before.” (Apology 48)

If God does not raise people entire, then he does not raise the dead … God is quite able to remake what he once made … In the great future there is no need for fear of blemished or defective bodies … Our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection; … it is the same flesh, but at the same time incapable of suffering, because it has been liberated by the Lord for the very end and purpose of being no longer capable of enduring suffering.” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 57)

Gregory of Nyssa

In the superabundance of his power, the divine power does not simply restore to us the body that was once dissolved, but makes great and beautiful additions to it, whereby our human nature becomes even more magnificent … We say that the resurrection is nothing other than the restoration of our nature to what it originally was.” (On the Soul and the Resurrection)

I leave off copious quotes from Irenaeus, Athenagoras and Augustine and many other writers. Apostolic Christianity retained the Jewish hope of the resurrection of the body of the dead. This is because of the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in the flesh.

As Christianity moved into the Empire it was those who embraced a Platonic worldview, as opposed to a Hebraic, we find increasing denial of the resurrection of the flesh … of Jesus, his disciples and his creation. Some of these thinkers can be named such as Valentinus and others cannot. Regardless it is not difficult to see that the early Christians were quite clear about what they meant by resurrection and what it means for not only people but for God’s creation.

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