Resurrection #2: How Did Ancient People View the Afterlife?

It is commonly purported by some that the entire idea of a bodily resurrection was in fact not a novel idea but one borrowed from other ancient philosophies and spiritualities. Wright has done a painstakingly exhaustive and revolutionary study of ancient beliefs regarding resurrection that is incredibly helpful. Most books on the resurrection of Jesus begin by studying the Gospel narratives and then work outwardly from this vantage point to an analysis of the appropriate pagan and Jewish sources found in antiquity. Wright takes the exact opposite approach. He begins with a study on resurrection (or, better, the lack thereof) in ancient paganism and then narrows the scope of his investigation tighter and tighter, concluding with a study of the resurrection as recorded by the writers of the canonical Gospels. Wright concludes, “In so far as the ancient non-Jewish world had a Bible, its Old Testament was Homer. And in so far as Homer has anything to say about resurrection, he is quite blunt: it doesn’t happen.”16

The idea of resurrection is denied in ancient paganism from Homer all the way to the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus, who wrote, “Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.”17 Wright provides a helpful summary: “Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection.”18

One of the most influential writers in antiquity was Plato. Wright summarizes Plato’s views on the soul and body as follows:

“The soul is the non-material aspect of a human being, and is the aspect that really matters. Bodily life is full of delusion and danger; the soul is to be cultivated in the present both for its own sake and because its future happiness will depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and will continue to exist after the body is gone.”19

This dualistic view promoted a tendency to see the body as a prison of the soul that made death something to be desired. According to Wright, “in Greek philosophy, care for and cure of the soul became a central preoccupation.”20 Furthermore, “neither in Plato nor in the major alternatives just mentioned [e.g., Aristotle] do we find any suggestion that resurrection, the return to bodily life of the dead person, was either desirable or possible.”21

This view is also evident in the writings of Cicero:

“Cicero is quite clear, and completely in the mainstream of Greco-Roman thought: the body is a prison-house. A necessary one for the moment; but nobody in their right mind, having got rid of it, would want it or something like it back again. At no point in the spectrum of options about life after death did the ancient pagan world envisage that the denials of Homer, Aeschylus and the rest would be overthrown. Resurrection was not an option. Those who followed Plato or Cicero did not want a body again; those who followed Homer knew they would not get one.”22

After surveying several other ancient pagan writers and philosophers, Wright concludes: “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” 23

Death, in ancient paganism, was a one-way street. According to Wright:

“The road to the underworld ran only one way. Throughout the ancient world, from its ‘bible’ of Homer and Plato, through its practices (funerals, memorial feasts), its stories (plays, novels, legends), its symbols (graves, amulets, grave-goods) and its grand theories, we can trace a good deal of variety about the road to Hades, and about what one might find upon arrival. As with all one-way streets, there is bound to be someone who attempts to drive in the opposite direction. One hears of a Protesilaus, an Alcestis or a Nero redivivus, once or twice in a thousand years. But the road was well policed. Would-be traffic violators (Sisyphus, Eurydice and the like) were turned back or punished. And even they occurred in what everybody knew to be myth.”24

Wright notes:

“We cannot stress too strongly that from Homer onwards the language of ‘resurrection’ was not used to denote ‘life after death’ in general, or any of the phenomena supposed to occur within such a life. The great majority of the ancients believed in life after death; many of them developed…complex and fascinating beliefs about it and practices in relation to it; but, other than within Judaism and Christianity, they did not believe in resurrection.”25

Do you believe that the concept of Jesus resurrection was unique, or borrowed from previous non-Christian beliefs?

16. Ibid., 32.
17. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647– 48, quoted in Wright, Resurrection, 32.
18. Wright, Resurrection, 35.
19. Ibid., 49.
20. Ibid., 53.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid., 60.
23. Ibid., 76.
24. Ibid., 81–82.
25. Ibid., 82–83.

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