“What Do Christians Mean When They Say Resurrection?'”

Over the years I have taught on the resurrection of Jesus. We as Christians sometimes take for granted that we understand what we mean when we talk about resurrection in the Bible. Perhaps this post will help spark some interest to go further on the topic.

Doctrinal Issues

When it comes to the Christian faith, one of the most important doctrines is the resurrection of the dead/the resurrection of Jesus. Biblical faith is not simply centered in ethical and religious teachings. Instead, it is founded on the person and work of Jesus. From a soteriological perspective, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, we as His followers are still dead in our sins (1Cor.15:7). Jesus said in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even of he dies.” Jesus could not have made full atonement for our sins without the resurrection. Also, through the resurrection, Jesus took on the role as advocate and intercessor (1 John. 2:2; Rom. 8:34). His resurrection also guaranteed us the opportunity of having a resurrected body’s like His (1 Cor.15:20-23, 51-53; 1 Pet.1:3; Phil. 3:20-21; John. 5:25-29).

An important aspect of possessing eternal life is the ability to raise the dead. The Jewish people knew the God of Israel as the only one who could raise the dead (Job 19:26; Ps. 17:15; 49:15; 73:24; Is. 26:19; 53:10; Dn. 12:2;12:13).Therefore, by claiming the authority to raise the dead, Jesus was exemplifying both the same actions and attributes of the God Israel. The resurrection also marked Jesus as the one who will be the judge all men (Acts 17:31).

Where do we see resurrection in the Tanakh?

As just stated, belief in a resurrection of persons from the dead are seen in eight passages: (Job 19:26; Ps. 17:15; 49:15; 73:24; Is. 26:19; 53:10; Dn. 12:2;12:13). The resurrection terminology is seen in two places (Ezek. 37:1-14; Hos. 6:2) to show a national and spiritual restoration brought about by the return from the exile. As far as the nature of the future bodily resurrection, it may involve a corpse or the receipt of a material body comparable to the present physical body (Job 19:26; Is. 26:19), or it may be a matter of transformation (Dn. 12:2-3 and perhaps 12:13); or glorification after reanimation, in the case of the righteous.

As far as the function of the resurrection, it may be personal vindication (Is. 26:16; 53:10-12). Resurrection may also have a function in relation to reward or punishment (Dn. 12:2; 12:13), an assumption to heaven and enriched fellowship with God (Ps. 49:15; 73:24,26), or preface to the beatific vision of God (Ps. 17:15 and possibly Job 19:26). (1)

The Greek word for resurrection is “anatasis” which means “a raising up” or “rising.” There are resuscitations in the Tanakh such as the example of Elijah and Elisha raising a person from death (1 Kings 17-23; 2 Kings 4:34-35). While these figures may have been raised in a resurrection sense, they were not raised immortal in the same way Jesus was.

J. D. Levenson and K. J. Madigan, say the following:

““Christian understandings of resurrection, along with the church’s appreciation of its religious depth, its historical richness, and its reverberations, would be much impoverished if Christians thought that the expectation of resurrection were merely theirs. In particular, and what is most crucial, they would lose sight of the extent to which resurrection is rooted in the belief and practice of Judaism. Indeed, it occurs already in the Old Testament, the only scriptures the church knew at the time of Jesus (when it wasn’t yet called the “Old Testament”). In fact, not only the notion of the resurrection of the dead, but the expression of God’s vindication of Jesus in the language of resurrection, owes its origins to its parent religion, Judaism-or, to be more precise, to Judaism as it stood late in the Second Temple period (about 515 B.C.E., when the Temple was rebuilt after its destruction in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, to 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed it.”  (2) 

Extra-Biblical Passages on Resurrection

There are also extra-biblical passages that speak about the resurrection such as:

Enoch 91:10

Then the righteous one shall arise from his sleep, and the wise one shall rise; and he shall be given unto them (the people) and through him the roots of oppression shall be cut off. Sinners shall be cut off”

Enoch 92:2 “ The righteous one shall awaken from his sleep; he shall arise and walk in the ways of righteousness”

4 Ezra 7:32

“ The earth shall give up those who are asleep in it; and the dust those who dwell silently in it”

Testament of Benjamin 10:6-8

“And you shall see Enoch, Noah and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rising on the right hand in gladness-then we also shall rise, each over our tribe, worshiping the king of heaven…then all will rise, some to glory and some to dishonor”

2 Maccabees 7:9

“With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”

2 Maccabees 7:14

“When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

The Messiah Apocalypse: (4Q521)

“He [God] frees the captives, makes the blind see, and makes the bent over stand straight…for he will heal the sick, revive the dead, and give good news to the humble and the poor he will satisfy, the abandoned he will lead, and the hungry he will make rich.” (3)

In the Rabbinical literature there are explicit teachings on the resurrection. It says in the Mishnah 10.1, it says, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come; … and these are they that have no share in the world to come: he that says that there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Law.” Moses Maimonides, a Jewish rabbi and a medieval Jewish philosopher who has forever influenced the Jewish and non-Jewish world said:

” The resurrection of the dead is one of the cardinal principles established by Moses our teacher. A person who does not believe this principle has no real religion, certainly not Judaism. However, resurrection is for the righteous. This is the earning of the statement in Breshit Rabbah, which declares: “the creative power of rain is both for the righteous and the wicked, but the resurrection of the dead is only for the righteous.” Our sages taught the wicked are called dead even when they are still alive; the righteous are alive even when they are dead” (Bab. Talmud Brakhot 18 b).

Three  points are made here: 1. Resurrection is a cardinal principle taught in the Torah which all Jews must believe 2. It is for the righteous alone 3. All men must die and their bodies decompose. (4)

Resurrection in the New Testament

As we approach the New Testament, Joachim Jeremias comments:

” Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event in history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to doxa [glory] as an event in history.” (5)


Other Issues in  Defining Resurrection

1. Resurrection is completely different from reincarnation which is a many-times event: Reincarnation is also categorized as a rebirth of a soul into a new and different but still physical and mortal body. Resurrection is a one-time event where the believer receives not a second body but a transformed body. In resurrection, there is continuity between our present bodies and the transformed body to come.

2. There are three resuscitations in the Gospels: Lk. 8:49-56; Jn. 11:38-44; Lk. 7:11-15. Lazarus was resuscitated. He went on to live on in his old mode of but still had to face a second death. Lazarus and these other resuscitations are similar to the raising of the dead as already mentioned in the examples of Elijah and Elisha raising a person from death (1 Kings 17-23; 2 Kings 4:34-35). Jesus was not only but resurrected, he was changed. His body was transformed into what Paul calls a glorified body. He never died again. Therefore, it is important to remember that Jesus is not the only one in human history that has been raised from the dead ( if we call it resuscitation), but he certainly is the only one that has ever been resurrected! In other words, He is the only one who has been raised immortal.

3. Resurrection is not translation: Within the Tanakh (the Old Testament) people such as Elijah and Enoch did not die but were simply translated to heaven (2 Kings 2:11; Gen. 5:24). Also, within the extra-canonical Jewish writing called Testament of Job 40, an account of translation was given as a category to describe recently deceased people as well as to the living.(6) Translation is defined as the bodily assumption of someone out of this world into heaven while resurrection is defined as raising up of a dead man in the space-time universe.(7)

4. In relation to the Christian view of resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15:51, is a critical passage. Paul says, “We shall all be changed.” Paul is indicating that the resurrected body is the transformation of the existing body into a new mode of physicality. When Paul describes the new body as a soma pneumatikon, which is often translated “spiritual body” he does not mean a “nonphysical body.” Therefore, Paul is not contrasting a “spiritual body” with a “physical body” but instead a soma psychikon, which is literally a “soulish body.” The real contrast is between a body “animated by the soul” (the present natural body, which, will, like animals, die and decay), and a body animated by a spirit, which is presumably God’s spirit, which will allow a quality of life that transcends the present decaying existence.

In 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, Paul contrasts the present, earthly body and the future, resurrection body, which will be like Christ’s. Paul says the earthly body is mortal, dishonorable, weak, and physical whereas the resurrected body is immortal, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. (8)

5. Resurrection is not the same as the so- called dying and rising fertility gods in the ancient world: The myths of dying and rising gods in pagan religions are merely seasonal symbols for the processes of nature and have no relation to historical individuals. (9)

6. Resurrection involves transformation since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Accordingly, Paul indicates that believers will be “raised immortal” (1 Cor. 15:52), which suggests the transformation or change that results in immortality is coincident with resurrection. In fact, this is part of the resurrection event itself.

7. Another aspect of resurrection is the how it impacts our present life: We as believers now live in a resurrection state. For after noting that God “made us alive together with” Messiah (this is a past event). Eph. 2:5 says: “by grace you are now in a state of salvation” (indicating a present resurrection state).(10)

This is where many of us miss the boat. When Jesus rose from the dead, He not only reversed the curse of death (1 Cor. 55-56) but also broke the power of sin in this life for us. This doesn’t mean we will be perfect. But it does mean we can have a transformed life and victory over sin in this present life.

8. What are the differences between our resurrection and the Messiah’s resurrection? Jesus was raised on the “third day” whereas we will be raised on the last day. And only of Jesus was he installed as Son of God (Rom. 1:4), as universal Lord (Rom. 14:9; Eph.1:20-21; Phi.2:9-11), and judge of the living and the dead (Acts 17:31). (11)

What is the final destination for the follower of Jesus?

Sadly, due to a lack of teaching on the resurrection, the average Christian assumes that that the final destination is to be in the intermediate state- the place that is called “heaven.”

Hence, immortality is generally viewed as the immortality of the soul. Contrary to what many people think, salvation in the Bible is not the deliverance from the body, which is the prison of the soul. The believer’s final destination is not heaven, but it is the new heavens and new earth- complete with a resurrection body. Eternal life is a quality of life that does not start when we die, but right now in the present (John 17:2).

In the final state, heaven including the New Jerusalem portrayed as a bride breaks into history and comes to the renewed, physical, earthly, existence (see Rev 21). This shows that God is interested in the renewal of creation- God cares about the physical realm.

Peter Walker leaves us with a detailed defintion of resurrection:

“Resurrection” (anastasia) in Greek was a word which has already developed a  clear meaning. It referred to a physical raising back to life within this world of those whom God chose –“the resurrection of the just” “on the last day” (cf. Matthew 22:28; John 11:24). So when the disciples claimed Resurrection for Jesus, they were claiming that God  had done for one man what they were expecting him to do for all his faithful people at the end of time (what Paul refers to as the “hope” of Israel [Acts 23;26:6]. If they had meant merely that Jesus was a good fellow who did not deserve  to die and whose effect on people would surely continue beyond his  death, they would have used some other word. They would not have dared to use this word, which meant one thing and only one thing—God’s act of raising from physical death. That is what they meant. And that is what they would have been heard  to mean.”  (12) 



1. Adapted from Harris, M.J. From Grave to Glory: Resurrection In The New Testament (Grand Rapids: MI: Academie Books. 1990), 66-67.

2.  J. D. Levenson and K. J. Madigan, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (New Haven, Yale University Press. 2008), 2.

3. See Yamauchi, E.M. Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History? Available at http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/yama.html.

4. Gillman, N. The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought (Woodstock, VT. Jewish Lights Publishing), 1997.

5. Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith.Third Edition. Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books, 1984.

6. P. Andrew Sandlin. New Flesh, New Earth: The Life Changing Power of the Resurrection (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown Books), 2003.

7. Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith, 394.

8. Ibid.

9. Marcus J. Borg and N.T Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 120.

10. Longenecker, R.N. Life After Death: The Resurrection Message in the New Testament ( Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans), 1988.

11. Ibid.

12. P.W. Walker, The Weekend That Changed the World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 63.


One thought on ““What Do Christians Mean When They Say Resurrection?'””

  1. Wow- Excellent article. This is the crux of both the OT/NT.
    How ever the “rapture” (change of location) and heaven (G_DS throne) ever became the goal of Christianity vs the resurrection (internal/external change) is unfounded and unscriptural.

    It is worthy to note that there are two resurrections.

    This is seen in gospels (Luke 14:14 & 20:35) , Revelation 20:4-5 . and Pauls epistles (Phil 3:10-17).

    Interestingly enough, the Greek specifically supports this in Phil 3:10-11 as exanastasin (rising up and out from the dead) vs anatasis. The exanastasin was the apostles Pauls goal (Phil 3:10-17) !!!

    Using scriptural terms – there is a vast difference bringing a dead person to flesh /spirit eternal life (resurrection) than ascension. Christ was resurrected before He ascended – this cannot be denied.

    One is a change in being and the other is a change in location. The change in being (resurrection) can and will determine location and not the other way around.


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