Agapé Chicago
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Thursday Q: Acts 20:1-12

Why do you make such a big deal of distinguishing the word “resurrection” from words like ‘reanimation”? 

There are many reasons for this and I would highly recommend people that want to understand more of the implications on this issue to read Surprised by Hope by NT Wright. I will give just one major implication for this distinction.

The distinction between “reanimation” and “resurrection” helps give us confidence that Jesus actually did come back from the dead. In the Greco-Roman world there were stories of people coming back from the dead besides Jesus’ (i.e. Osiris, Hercules, etc.). Thus many will suggest that the story of Jesus coming back from the dead was borrowed from pagan legend, or at least is not a very novel legend.

The problem with this line of thinking is that the idea of someone coming back from the dead was not a novel Jewish idea either. This is essential to know because Christian teaching arose within a Jewish understanding of the world and what happens to people when they die, not from Gentile notions. You can see the stories of the Jewish prophets Elijah and Elisha bringing people back from the dead in 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament. Jewish people had a concept, a set of ideas about these occurrences—and these events were not called “resurrection.”

For a Jewish person in Jesus’ day the word “resurrection” did not reflect one individual dying and then coming back to life—that would have been closer to what we would better call “reanimation”. Rather “resurrection” was not an event that Jesus' contemporaneous Jews expected would happen in the middle of human history, but was the word used for the end of times event where God would raise both just and unjust for judgment (Daniel 12:1-3, Ezekiel 37).

Thus the early Jewish Christian using the word “resurrection” to describe Jesus’ coming back from the dead, implied not simply that Jesus had come back from the dead, but that all of their expectations of the future, of God’s judgment, of God’s vindication for the righteous, and judgment against evil had already begun in the person of Jesus.

How does this give me confidence that Jesus actually rose from the dead? I have confidence from this difference for two reasons: 1) The Jewish concept of resurrection was so vastly different from pagan notions of rising from the dead, that Jesus’ coming back from the dead could not have been borrowed from pagan ideas—the claims are far too different. 2) You have no hint before Jesus that any Jewish person expected the resurrection to happen before the end of time or that it would have anything to do with a particular individual being the first person in the resurrection—that changed because of Jesus. The early Christians way of viewing judgment and the ressurrection changed vastly because of what they claimed Jesus had accomplished. The distinction between “reanimation” and “resurrection is not just a matter of words, but a matter of world-changing significance.