Adventures in Athens – A Bodily Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning was physical, not just spiritual. Likewise, Christians do not live eternally as disembodied spirits, we will have perfect physical bodies.

During our recent trip to Athens, Anna and I wanted to see some of the key Greek places mentioned in the Bible. Philippi and Thessalonica were too far to travel during our stay, at least a six hour drive each way, but Corinth was close, just over one hour by auto.  About 12 miles west of Athens on the road to Corinth, however, lies another important Greek religious site, Eleusius and the site of one of the most renowned mystery cults.

The Eleusinian Mystery Cult

According to legend, the Greek god of the dead, Hades, kidnapped Persephone (AKA Kore), the daughter of the Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter. Hades took Persephone into the underworld, and her distraught mother searched throughout the earth but failed to find her lost child. Eventually, Zeus forced Hades to give up Persephone, but because the goddess had eaten three pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she had to return there for three months each year. The three months that Persephone was absent was winter, when the earth was barren and little grew. When Persephone returned to the surface, the seasons were spring, summer, and fall; times of rebirth, growth, and harvest. Demeter ended up in the realm of a local king, Keleos, who built a temple to her. That temple became the site for the Eleusinian mystery cult that was popular throughout the Greek and early Roman periods.

Cult initiates walked the 12-mile pilgrimage from Athens to the Eleusinian temple.  Once they arrived, they began a multi-part rite, including initiation, dedication, and revelation. The rites were strictly secret so most of the specific people, acts and items are lost to history. However, opium was widely used, the story of Demeter and Persephone was recounted, and sacred objects were displayed.[1] Since Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, the harvest, and fertility, it is likely that sex played an important part in the festivities.

Michael, our tour guide, played a video in the van about Eleusinian mystery cult. The video commentator explained that since Persephone “died” but then “returned to life”, initiates into the Eleusinian mystery cult expected that their bodies would die but that their spirits would “return to life”, or even live on forever. Michael, a Greek Christian from the charismatic tradition, noted how similar this was to Christianity. I paused:

“Michael, this is not similar to Christianity at all. Many faiths, including Islam and Hinduism, teach that our bodies die and our spirits live on. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, His spirit as well as His body. Only followers of Jesus expect a bodily resurrection from the dead.”

Michael looked a little startled, but under the guidance of the Spirit realized the truth he had just heard. Later, while I was lingering over the Eleusinian ruins, he told Anna, “Your dad is right, and I had never really thought of that before.”

A Bodily Resurrection

The ancient Hebrew scriptures contain little about an afterlife. The departed simply “go down to Sheol” – the grave (Genesis 37:35). Longevity on earth is a great gift (Exodus 20:12), and a man’s name and influence will live on through his children (Genesis 12:1-3). The post-exilic prophet Daniel (c. 605-535 BC) provides the first clear mention of individual, bodily life after death (Daniel 12:2-3, 13). As a pastoral people who greatly valued the body, a disembodied afterlife would have been anathema. By the time of Christ, physical resurrection from the dead was a key part of Jewish, especially Pharisaical teaching (Acts 23:8). Jesus Himself confirmed the reality of bodily resurrection (Mark 12:18-27).

Before Homer (751-651 BC), Greek mythology saw the afterlife as a miserable, gray, disembodied existence. In the Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles saw a vision of Patroclus, his friend recently killed by the Trojan hero Hector. Afterwards he said, “Ah then, it is true that something of us does survive…but with no intellect at all, only the ghost and semblance of a man.” In Homer’s second great work, the Odyssey, when Achilles himself was dead, the hero said to Odysseus, “Put me on earth again, and I would rather be a serf in the house of some landless man, with little enough for himself to live on, than king of all these dead men that have done with life.”  Achilles obviously wanted a body after death, as did the Jews before and after the Iliad.

Socrates and Plato distinguished between matter and immaterial, physical and spiritual, and diminished the role of the material, physical world. By the time of Paul, Athenians were happy to talk about god, gods, and the afterlife, but scoffed at the idea of bodily resurrection (Acts 17:22-34). It seemed so foolish – after a person died their body remained in the ground (or urn, or sea, or wherever it was disposed). The living could exhume bodies from hundreds of years before, seeming to prove that the dead do not rise again…ever.

Yet the Bible goes to great lengths to show that the Resurrected Christ had a human body. He talked (John 20:13-17), walked (Luke 24:13-31), could be touched (John 20:23-29), and even ate (Luke 24:41-43). The Apostles recognized His voice, His appearance, and even His touch. Jesus’ glorified body could do things no current human body could do. He moved through locked doors (John 20:19), defied gravity (Acts 1:9), and could vanish instantly (Luke 24:31).[1] Nonetheless, it was a physical body.After rising from the dead, Jesus was no ghost. He was a complete man – glorified body and perfect spirit.

Paul explicitly taught that Jesus Christ was physically resurrected from the dead (1 Corinthians 15), and that His followers will also be physically resurrected. They will have new bodies, arising from the seed of the old one – the perishable raised imperishable. The best Biblical evidence suggests that at death, our spirits proceed immediately to the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), followed shortly by our glorified bodies (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Jesus Christ is the first fruit of bodily resurrection, even as the early grain was the first fruit of the Hebrew harvest (1 Corinthians 15:20). Christians are the harvest of resurrection to come.

Few of us imagine how life might be without a body. If we had no material component, how could we interact with the world around us, which is also material. How could we eat or drink – or play or work. Without physical eyes, how could we see? Without physical ears, how could we hear? How can one spirit touch another in any meaningful way? If human bodies and the material world were not important, why did God make them? When He said that the material world was “good”, did that somehow change after the Fall? Questions like this should make us question our Greek-style assumption that our bodies decay and we live on forever as spirits alone.

Conclusion

Too many Christian books, and too many Christian preachers, do not teach clearly that our resurrection in Christ will be a bodily, physical one, as well as a spiritual one. No other major world religion makes that claim, and then backs it up with historical data. If Christ is not risen, we are of all men most to be pitied. But Christ is risen, in body and in spirit. He is risen indeed!

 

[1] Some say that these miraculous acts could not have been done in the physical body and these passages therefore prove that Jesus was only resurrected as a spirit. Others argue for naturalistic explanations for these phenomenon (i.e. the disciples opened the locked door and Jesus walked in). I would suggest that the best option is to take the Bible at face value. Considering what we know of physics, it is theoretically possible through rare for one solid object to pass through another, to defy gravity, and to vanish. Let’s not assume that we know more than we actually do, Biblically or scientifically.

[1] Martin Booth, Opium: a History, u.s. ed. (New York: St. Martin, 1998), 17

 

 

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