Book examines monotheistic faiths’ views.
Western religions that believe in a single god traditionally teach that after the present life, individuals will exist eternally in resurrected bodies. Eastern religions believe the soul is embodied in either human or animal forms in numerous past and future lives.
Now comes Alan F. Segal of Barnard College in New York with the latest review of Jewish, Christian and Muslim concepts: “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion” (Doubleday). As one of the leading Jewish analysts of first-century Judaism and Christianity, Segal is admirably equipped to produce a 731-page blockbuster on this central, powerful theme.
He tells how Christianity borrowed and reshaped the Jewish belief in a mind-plus-body afterlife and carried it to many nations, and how Islam did the same with Christian beliefs. But before the Jews, resurrection was being taught by Zoroastrians in pre-Islamic Persia (Iran), the forebears of India’s present-day Parsees.
Few hints of afterlife
The Hebrew Bible (the Christians’ Old Testament) contains only hints of an afterlife. The most explicit mention comes in one of the latest books, Daniel: “and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame” (12:2-3).
Resurrection became pivotal in the New Testament, and on that Segal’s interpretation disagrees with the equally hefty Christian treatment, “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (Fortress) by N.T. Wright, a Church of England theologian and bishop.
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Like many liberal Christians, Segal sees a “flat contradiction” between the four Gospels and the letters of the Apostle Paul.
He says Paul thought Jesus‘ resurrected body was a “spiritual body” that believers would also receive in eternity. This resurrection was “bodily” but not “fleshly,” Segal writes, arguing that contemporary Jewish concepts on the nature of the resurrected body were fluid. He says the Gospels taught “a literal, physical body revivified.”
This cuts to the heart of Christian tradition.
The key is 1 Corinthians 15, written a couple of decades after Jesus’ resurrection and before the writing of the Gospels in the form we have them. Verse 44, describing the resurrection body, reads this way in the Revised Standard Version translation:
“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”
Disagree on translation
Segal argues that if Paul had meant a “fleshly” body is raised, he would have used a different Greek word.
Wright’s detailed examination of this passage says English translations are misleading if they’re taken to mean that the resurrection body is “non-physical” or something “you could not touch, could not see with ordinary eyesight.”
He says Paul did not mean “spiritual” in the sense of non-physical but (as elsewhere in the apostle’s writings) that God’s spirit operates upon aspects of the bodily life.
Therefore, in Wright’s view, Paul and the Gospels agree that Jesus arose in a tangible body, but one that was transformed and perfected, which is what the rest of us receive in eternity. Paul and other Jews rejected contemporary Greeks’ elitist immortality of the mind or soul, in which bodies were unimportant.
Segal says many modern Christians have adopted ancient pagan belief in which the body gets little attention, souls are immortal by nature and all will be saved. He says it’s a very appealing message to Americans.
Segal concludes that belief in eternal life seems to be an essential human need and ideal.
This concept, he writes, “exists in our minds rather than the world and gives a sense of meaning to our lives. Like beauty and justice, life after death is no less important for being unverifiable.”