Friday, April 20, 2007

What Happened To Them Before They Were Resurrected?

This is one of those questions I have discovered that hasn't received much attention. Maybe for good reason, maybe not. However, it came up in Bible class recently and again at our winkel this month. The question I am referring to has to do with the handful of people who were raised from the dead in both the Old and New Testaments, and what their state was between death and resurrection. In other words, did they go to heaven, and if so, why would they be recalled from such a glorious place? The resurrections, are, to wit:
1.) The raising of the widow's son in Zerephath under the prophetic ministry of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17ff).
2.) The restoring to life of the Shunamite's son during the prophetic ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 4:32ff).
3.) The raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; Luke 8:40-42, 49-56)
4.) The raising of the widow's son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17).
5.) The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
6.) The opening of tombs following Jesus' death (Matthew 27: 52, 53)

As I did some research yesterday for class, I was surprised that no one really had anything to say about the questions I was encountering. Again, that may be for good reason. Turning these events around in my mind it occurred to me that there are some things appropriately hidden by our God from our knowledge. One such area, as I recall the Confessions, especially the FC, is the doctrine of election. Calvin got himself into all kinds of trouble by peering too deeply into this area, and by reason attempting to fill in the blanks that God wished to be left alone.

We know that when a believer dies they "depart to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23). Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross that he would that very day be with him "in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). We also understand that death is, by definition, a separation of soul from the body (Eccl. 12:5-7). In the "intermediate state," as it is called, we live in a disembodied condition. However, the goal of our salvation is our eventual resurrection on the Last Day, and for this reason, I believe, the scriptures do not dwell on the intermediate state. It is transitional, not permanent. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of our resurrection in relation to Christ's, and says nothing of the state preceding.

So, now that we have established this, back to our original question. What has troubled some people is that those believers who died and were privileged to see and experience heaven's glories, were "yanked back" into sinful reality. It didn't seem fair. And this especially in light of the fact that we believe the dead no longer have any intimate knowledge of life on earth or interaction with the living after their death, even though they do indeed pray for us (Yes, the saints do pray for us. As Lutherans we, however, do not pray to them!)

I will admit that I do not have a very conclusive answer for this dilemma (according to the curiosity of some.) And part of me realizes that it is never good to ask more questions than God is willing to answer. But this much I can conclude:
1.) Each of those raised did in fact die.
2.) This death constituted a separation of soul and body (1 Kings 17:21, 22).
3.) Since scripture does not teach "soul sleep" or the JW belief of the annihilation or destruction of the soul, the only other conclusion would be that these believers were welcomed into "Abraham's bosom" and into heaven itself.
4.) What they experienced there is unknown. Although, one can be sure that being in the presence of the living God is a place of peace and joy.
5.) That they had to "return" from this place is not, by definition, unnecessary cruelty. In some ways their experience was not so different than Paul's visionary experience in 2 Corinthians 12 or John's in his extended vision on the island of Patmos as recorded in the book of Revelation. Each of these men, in a sense, stood in the presence of heaven for a time. And each of them returned again for additional work and suffering in the name of Christ. But they now had the unique blessing of seeing even more clearly the goal of their salvation, the eventual permanent resurrection of their bodies.
6.) Since each of these resurrections was of temporary benefit (that is, each eventually died again), it is still true that Christ is the "first fruits" of all who rise from the dead. Our Lord's resurrection was in a glorified body and he would never die again. Thus, only Christ has risen in the fullest sense as revealed in 1 Corinthians 15.

One other question, though, also needs to be addressed that has not been included. In Luke 9:28ff we read of the presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration of our Lord. They appear, we read, in "glorious splendor." Does this not constitute a prior resurrection? No, I do not believe it does. Their "form" identifies them as individuals, but it does not conclusively indicate that such "forms" are glorified and resurrected bodies. They appear here, but they never leave the mount. They are never touched. Just as angelic beings can assume forms for our limited visual benefit, obviously Moses and Elijah were allowed the same. That is the only way I know how to explain this.

So, now that we have come to this point, what can we learn? Each resurrection is by nature limited in itself, for it is only an anticipation or foretaste of Christ's own resurrection and our resurrection through his own. They demonstrate Christ's control over death and life and show his divine ability to bring back to life that which was dead, which he would do himself after his own death on the cross. Thus, they are only "pointers" to something greater, and not an end in themselves.

Each resurrected person was uniquely privileged to give witness to this power of life in Christ. Did they speak also of what was seen in heaven? Paul refrained. John was commanded to write his experiences down, although they are in highly symbolic prose. As to the others - we don't know. And that's OK. Sometimes it's better to leave the period at the end of God's sentence without needing always to place a comma or endless "dots" for more to say ("....") The point is: in Christ you have risen to new life through the life-giving waters of Baptism, and at the last day you will rise again never to die again. That's enough.

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