This week, I read Chapters 3-4 of NT Wright’s book, “Surprised by Hope.” In these chapters, Wright continues to disambiguate the Christian doctrine of the general resurrection from Greek and Roman views of the afterlife.
Consider Book XI of Homer’s “Odyssey,” in which Odysseus converses with the spirits of the dead in the Underworld. The spirit of Odysseus’ friend Elepenor comes forward and he explains to Odysseus that when he died, his soul went down to Hades. He beseeches Odysseus to give his body a proper burial.
Consider also Book VI of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” in which Aeneas is guided by the Cumaean Sybil down into Hades, so he can speak with the shade of his father,
“The chief unsheath’d his shining steel, prepar’d,
Tho’ seiz’d with sudden fear, to force the guard,
Off’ring his brandish’d weapon at their face;
Had not the Sibyl stopp’d his eager pace,
And told him what those empty phantoms were:
Forms without bodies, and impassive air. ”
In Homer and in Virgil, the souls of the dead descend into Hades. The souls are, as Virgil describes, phantoms or forms without bodies. Indeed, Dante offers a similar description in the “Inferno,” when he refers to Virgil and others as “shades.” In the Italian original, Dante uses the word “ombra” or “shadow.”
But as Wright points out, the word “resurrection,” as used by the early Christian writers, refers to “a new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be.” So Dante’s description of the shades in Inferno should not be taken to be their final state of being. They, like all of us, will experience a resurrection of the physical body on the last day, and their souls will be rejoined with their resurrected bodies.
As Wright points out, this is why the doctrine of the resurrection is so central to Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus changes the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, and establishes the celebration of Easter. As he writes, “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 redescription of death; it is its overthrow, and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it.”
To this I would add that none of us will spend eternity in the shadows or as shades of our former selves. Rather, we will all be resurrected. This is part of the good news of the Gospel and it is the basis for hope, as he points out in the closing paragraphs of Chapter 4:
“Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.”
I’ll be continuing my reading this week with Chapters 5-6. I invite you to join me. Feel free to participate by posting comments and questions. Please feel free to invite others to join our conversation.
Peace be with you all, and peace be with the world,