Resurrection or anastasis is the concept of coming back to life after death. In several religions, a dying-and-rising god is a deity that dies and resurrects.
The resurrection of the dead is a standard eschatological belief in the Abrahamic religions. As a religious concept, it is used in two distinct respects: a belief in the resurrection of individual souls that is current and ongoing (Christian idealism, realized eschatology), or else a belief in a singular resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. Some believe the soul is the actual vehicle by which people are resurrected.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is a central focus of Christianity. Christian theological debate ensues about what kind of resurrection is factual – either a spiritual resurrection with a spirit body into Heaven or a material resurrection with a restored human body.
While most Christians believe Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and ascension to Heaven was in a material body, a small minority believes it was spiritual.
Ancient religions in the Near East
The concept of resurrection is found in the writings of some ancient non-Abrahamic religions in the Middle East. A few extant Egyptian and Canaanite writings allude to dying and rising gods such as Osiris and Baal.
Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough relates to these dying and rising gods, but many of his examples, according to various scholars, distort the sources. Taking a more positive position, Tryggve Mettinger argues in his recent book that the category of the rise and return to life is significant for Ugaritic Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Osiris and Dumuzi.
Ancient Greek religion
In ancient Greek religion, several men and women became physically immortal as they were resurrected from the dead. Asclepius was killed by Zeus, only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity.
Achilles, after being killed, was snatched from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis and resurrected, brought to an immortal existence in either Leuce, the Elysian plains or the Islands of the Blessed. Memnon, who was killed by Achilles, seems to have received a similar fate.
Alcmene, Castor, Heracles, and Melicertes, were also among the figures sometimes considered to have been resurrected to physical immortality. According to Herodotus’s Histories, the seventh century BC sage Aristeas of Proconnesus was first found dead, after which his body disappeared from a locked room. Later he found not only to have been resurrected but to have gained immortality.
Many other figures, like a great part of those who fought in the Trojan and Theban wars, Menelaus, and the historical pugilist Cleomedes of Astupalaea, were also believed to have been made physically immortal, but without having died in the first place.
Indeed, in Greek religion, immortality originally always included an eternal union of body and soul. The philosophical idea of an immortal soul was a later invention, which, although influential, never had a breakthrough in the Greek world.
As may be witnessed even into the Christian era, not least by the complaints of various philosophers over popular beliefs, traditional Greek believers maintained the conviction that certain individuals were resurrected from the dead and made physically immortal and that for the rest of us, we could only look forward to existence as disembodied and dead souls.
Greek philosophers generally denied this traditional religious belief in physical immortality. Writing his Lives of Illustrious Men (Parallel Lives) in the first century, the Middle Platonic philosopher Plutarch in his chapter on Romulus gave an account of the mysterious disappearance and subsequent deification of this first king of Rome, comparing it to traditional Greek beliefs such as the resurrection and physical immortalization of Alcmene and Aristeas the Proconnesian:
“for they say Aristeas died in a fuller’s work-shop, and his friends coming to look for him, found his body vanished; and that some presently after, coming from abroad, said they met him traveling towards Croton”.
Plutarch openly scorned such beliefs held in traditional ancient Greek religion, writing:
“many such improbabilities do your fabulous writers relate, deifying creatures naturally mortal.“
Alcestis undergoes resurrection over three days, but without achieving immortality.
The parallel between these traditional beliefs and the later resurrection of Jesus was not lost on the early Christians, as Justin Martyr argued:
“when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.”
There are stories in Buddhism where the power of resurrection was allegedly demonstrated in Chan or Zen tradition. One is the legend of Bodhidharma, the Indian master who brought the Ekayana school of India that subsequently became Chan Buddhism to China.
The other is the passing of Chinese Chan master Puhua and is recounted in the Record of Linji. Puhua was known for his unusual behavior and teaching style so it is no wonder that he is associated with an event that breaks the usual prohibition on displaying such powers. Here is the account from Irmgard Schloegl’s “The Zen Teaching of Rinzai“.
“One day at the street market Fuke was begging all and sundry to give him a robe. Everybody offered him one, but he did not want any of them. The master [Linji] made the superior buy a coffin, and when Fuke returned, said to him: “There, I had this robe made for you.” Fuke shouldered the coffin, and went back to the street market, calling loudly: “Rinzai had this robe made for me! I am off to the East Gate to enter transformation” (to die).” The people of the market crowded after him, eager to look. Fuke said: “No, not today. Tomorrow, I shall go to the South Gate to enter transformation.” And so for three days. Nobody believed it any longer. On the fourth day, and now without any spectators, Fuke went alone outside the city walls, and laid himself into the coffin. He asked a traveler who chanced by to nail down the lid.
The news spread at once, and the people of the market rushed there. On opening the coffin, they found that the body had vanished, but from high up in the sky they heard the ring of his hand bell.”
In Christianity, resurrection most critically concerns the resurrection of Jesus but also includes the resurrection of Judgment Day known as the resurrection of the dead by those Christians who subscribe to the Nicene Creed (which is the majority of mainstream Christianity), as well as the resurrection miracles done by Jesus and the prophets of the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, Jesus is said to have raised several persons from death. These resurrections included the daughter of Jairus shortly after death, a young man amid his funeral procession, and Lazarus of Bethany, who had been buried for four days.
During the Ministry of Jesus on earth, before his death, Jesus commissioned his Twelve Apostles to, among other things, raise the dead.
Similar resurrections are credited to the apostles and Catholic saints. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter raised a woman named Dorcas (also called Tabitha), and Paul the Apostle revived a man named Eutychus who had fallen asleep and fell from a window to his death.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus’s resurrection, many of those previously dead came out of their tombs and entered Jerusalem, where they appeared to many. Following the Apostolic Age, many saints were said to resurrect the dead, as recorded in Orthodox Christian hagiographies. St Columba supposedly raised a boy from the dead in the land of Picts.
Resurrection of Jesus
Christians regard the resurrection of Jesus as the central doctrine in Christianity. Others take the incarnation of Jesus to be more central; however, it is the miracles – and particularly his resurrection – which provides validation of his incarnation.
According to Paul, the entire Christian faith hinges upon the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope for a life after death. The Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
The resurrection of the dead
Christianity started as a religious movement within 1st-century Judaism (late Second Temple Judaism), and it retains what the New Testament itself claims was the Pharisaic belief in the afterlife and resurrection of the dead. Whereas this belief was only one of many beliefs held about the world to come in Second Temple Judaism and was notably rejected by the Sadducees, but accepted by the Pharisees (cf. Acts 23:6-8).
Belief in the resurrection became dominant within Early Christianity and already in the Gospels of Luke and John included an insistence on the resurrection of the flesh. Most modern Christian churches continue to uphold the belief that there will be a final resurrection of the dead and world to come.
Belief in the resurrection of the dead, and Jesus’ role as judge, is codified in the Apostles’ Creed, which is the fundamental creed of Christian baptismal faith. The Book of Revelation also makes many references about the Day of Judgment when the dead will be raised.
The emphasis on the literal resurrection of the flesh remained strong in the medieval ages and remains so in Orthodox churches.
The difference from Platonic philosophy
In Platonic philosophy and other Greek philosophical thought, at death, the soul was said to leave the inferior body behind.
The idea that Jesus was resurrected spiritually rather than physically even gained popularity among some Christian teachers, whom the author of 1 John declared to be antichrists. Similar beliefs appeared in the early church as Gnosticism. However, in Luke 24:39, the resurrected Jesus expressly states:
“behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
There are folklore, stories, and extractions from certain holy texts that refer to resurrection. One major folklore is that of Savitri saving her husband’s life from Yamraj.
In the Ramayana, after Ravana was slain by Rama in a great battle between good and evil, Rama requests the king of Gods, Indra, to restore the lives of all the monkeys who died in the great battle.
Belief in the “Day of Resurrection” is also crucial for Muslims. They believe the time of Qiyāmah is preordained by God but unknown to man.
The trials and tribulations preceding and during the Qiyāmah are described in the Qur’an and the hadith, and also in the commentaries of scholars. The Quran emphasizes bodily resurrection, a break from the pre-Islamic Arabian understanding of death.
There are three explicit examples in the Hebrew Bible of people being resurrected from the dead:
- The prophet Elijah prays and God raises a young boy from death
- Elisha raises the son of the Shunammite woman whose birth he previously foretold
- A dead man’s body that was thrown into the dead Elisha’s tomb is resurrected when the body touches Elisha’s bones
According to Herbert C. Brichto, writing in Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College Annual, the family tomb is the central concept in understanding biblical views of the afterlife. Brichto states that it is
“not mere sentimental respect for the physical remains that is…the motivation for the practice, but rather an assumed connection between proper sepulture and the condition of happiness of the deceased in the afterlife”.
According to Brichto, the early Israelites believed that the graves of family, or tribe, united into one, and that this unified collectivity is to what the Biblical Hebrew term Sheol refers, the common grave of humans.
Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died. The Babylonians had a similar underworld called Aralu, and the Greeks had one known as Hades.
During the Second Temple period, there developed a diversity of beliefs concerning the resurrection. The concept of resurrection of the physical body is found in 2 Maccabees, according to which it will happen through the re-creation of the flesh.
The resurrection of the dead also appears in detail in the extra-canonical books of Enoch, in Apocalypse of Baruch, and 2 Esdras. According to the British scholar in ancient Judaism Philip R. Davies, there is “little or no clear reference … either to immortality or resurrection from the dead” in the Dead Sea scrolls texts.
Both Josephus and the New Testament record that the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, but the sources vary on the beliefs of the Pharisees. The New Testament claims that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection, but does not specify whether this included the flesh or not.
According to Josephus, who himself was a Pharisee, the Pharisees held that only the soul was immortal and the souls of good people will “pass into other bodies,” while “the souls of the wicked will suffer eternal punishment.” Paul, who also was a Pharisee, said that at the resurrection what is “sown as a natural body is raised a spiritual body.” Jubilees seem to refer to the resurrection of the soul only, or a more general idea of an immortal soul.
Cryonics is the low-temperature freezing of a human corpse or severed head, with the speculative hope that resurrection may be possible in the future. Cryonics is a pseudoscience.
It is regarded with skepticism within the mainstream scientific community and has been widely characterized as quackery.
Russian Cosmist Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov advocated the resurrection of the dead using scientific methods. Fedorov tried to plan specific actions for scientific research on the possibility of restoring life and making it infinite.
His first project is connected with collecting and synthesizing decayed remains of the dead based on “knowledge and control over all atoms and molecules of the world“. The second method described by Fedorov is genetic-hereditary.
The revival could be done successively in the ancestral line: sons and daughters restore their fathers and mothers, they, in turn, restore their parents and so on. This means restoring the ancestors using the hereditary information that they passed on to their children. Using this genetic method it is only possible to create a genetic twin of the dead person.
It is necessary to give back the revived person his old mind, his personality. Fedorov speculates about the idea of “radial images” that may contain the personalities of the people and survive after death. Nevertheless, Fedorov noted that even if a soul is destroyed after death, Man will learn to restore it whole by mastering the forces of decay and fragmentation.
In his 1994 book The Physics of Immortality, American physicist Frank J. Tipler, an expert on the general theory of relativity, presented his Omega Point Theory which outlines how a resurrection of the dead could take place at the end of the cosmos. He posits that humans will evolve into robots which will turn the entire cosmos into a supercomputer which will, shortly before the Big Crunch, perform the resurrection within its cyberspace, reconstructing formerly dead humans (from information captured by the supercomputer from the past light cone of the cosmos) as avatars within its metaverse.
David Deutsch, the British physicist, and pioneer in the field of quantum computing agree with Tipler’s Omega Point cosmology and the idea of resurrecting deceased people with the help of quantum computers but he is critical of Tipler’s theological views.
Italian physicist and computer scientist Giulio Prisco presents the idea of “quantum archaeology“:
“reconstructing the life, thoughts, memories, and feelings of any person in the past, up to any desired level of detail, and thus resurrecting the original person via ‘copying to the future'”.
In his book Mind Children, roboticist Hans Moravec proposed that a future supercomputer might be able to resurrect long-dead minds from the information that still survived. For example, this information can be in the form of memories, filmstrips, medical records, and DNA.