Apr 2, 2009

Of Samaritans, Sadducees and Plato

By David Brickner

While debating a Reform rabbi on a popular radio talk show, I stated that Jesus' resurrection from the dead was the most compelling evidence that He is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. I expected the rabbi to argue that Jesus had not actually risen from the dead, but he surprised me. He dismissed the idea of resurrection as not particularly important to Judaism, nor taught in the Jewish Bible.

After I recovered from shock, I pointed out that the prophet Daniel spoke clearly about resurrection:
"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).
What's more, the psalmist predicted the Messiah's resurrection:
"For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption" (Psalm16:10).
After the rabbi claimed that I was quoting the Scriptures out of context, he went on to say that those verses clearly represented later ideas, a minority viewpoint that was not found in the Torah (the five books of Moses). I brought up the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, and the rabbi pronounced that Moses was more authoritative than the Psalms or the Prophets. Our talk show host, figuring that the discussion was too technical for his audience, changed the subject.

I've often recalled that encounter, especially at this time of year when we're captivated by the meaning of Messiah's resurrection from the dead. Nothing is more central to the faith of Jesus' followers than His spiritual and physical victory over death. Today, however, I wouldn't be at all surprised to encounter a rabbi making the same claims as my debating partner did that day on the radio. In fact, his view is widely held within Reform Judaism, the largest and most liberal denomination of Judaism. Many of Reform Judaism's stances reflect those of the majority of modern Jews. Rabbi Howard Jaffe wrote on the denomination's official website concerning resurrection and the afterlife:
"Reform Judaism, while not taking any 'official' position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing" (http://urj.org/ask/afterlife/).
But things were not always this way. The main liturgical prayer of Jewish worship is known as the Amidah and is recited every day in the synagogue. That prayer declares:
"Your loving-kindness sustains the living, your great mercies give life to the dead."
The Thirteen Principles of Faith articulated by the famous rabbi Moses Maimonides states,
"I believe with perfect faith that the dead will be brought back to life when God wills it to happen."
These beliefs were not relegated to some fringe group of Jewish practitioners. They were close to the heart of a significant sector of the Jewish people. In fact, the "pro-Resurrection view" won out after a great deal of conflict and debate during the formative period of rabbinic Judaism. The Sadducees and the Samaritans argued against a belief in the resurrection primarily because they insisted it was not a doctrine taught in the Law of Moses. Sound familiar?

The Pharisees, who became the forbears of rabbinic Judaism, argued successfully that the resurrection was indeed taught in the Torah. In the Talmud it is recorded,
"Rabbi Meir asked, whence is the Resurrection derived from the Torah? As it is said, 'Then will Moses and the children of Israel sing this song unto the Lord.' It is not said 'sang' but will sing; hence the Resurrection is deducible from the Torah" (Sanhedrin 90b).
Jesus made a similar argument when he contended with the Sadducees on the subject:
"But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:31-32).
The Pharisees won their point and Judaism embraced the doctrine of Resurrection for nearly 2000 years. But now it seems the views of those Sadducees and Samaritans have made a comeback. In the nineteenth century the leaders of Reform Judaism actually changed the Amidah to give praise to God "Who has planted immortal life within us." The leaders insisted on what has now become known as "the Pittsburgh platform," that the soul of man is immortal, saying, "[we] reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism the belief. . . in bodily resurrection."

Ironically, the idea of the immortality of the soul but not the body comes from Greek Platonic thought, not from the Bible.

A year ago when Jews for Jesus commissioned a professional opinion poll of Israeli views concerning Jesus, only five percent of those surveyed said they had heard that Jesus rose from the dead. (You can see the survey for yourself here.) I find this deviation from the biblical view to be incredibly tragic as the biblical view offers so much hope — hope concerning the Messiah and hope for a future life with God in the world to come. The last thing that Israelis, or anyone else for that matter, need, is to be robbed of that hope.

Whether it's a matter of antisupernaturalism or whether it's merely fuzzy thinking, the views of Plato, the Samaritans and the Sadducees are predominant today. Even among some Christians confusion has crept in on this point. Many vaguely imagine the afterlife as a place where disembodied spirits reside. Perhaps that's to shake loose the almost comical popular depiction wherein the departed somehow sprout angel wings and go flitting among the clouds, playing harps and looking as though this will occupy them quite happily for an eternity. Neither image is in keeping with Scripture.

The Bible confidently affirms bodily resurrection from the dead whereby we'll be radically changed, yet somehow still be ourselves. We know we'll be praising God, but we also know that "eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard" the wonders that await us in those resurrection bodies. The Bible offers unbounded hope for this life and the life to come. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead not only remains the most compelling evidence that He is the Messiah; it also confirms that He alone is the Lord who gives life. Because He rose from the dead, we who believe in Him will also rise. Hope in the resurrection is central to our faith. The apostle Paul said,
"For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:16-17).
While this world is full of decay and despair, we who know the Messiah can be confident of a new, resurrected life. The reality of dust to dust, the very sting and stench of death has been overcome by the power of Jesus' indestructible life, a life we now can share with Him. This hope is sadly missing from most Jewish people as well as from most of the rest of the world. We should feel that as a deep and abiding burden and responsibility. At this holy season may we who have this hope in Him find renewed faith, purpose and zeal to confidently proclaim to Jews and Gentiles alike, "Christ is risen; He is risen indeed!"