In our discussion of the history of doctrines as set forth by the church during these early years of the New Dispensation, 80-250 A.D., we will now call attention to the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh or of the body.
The late Rev. H. Hoeksema, in his notes on the history of dogma, observes that the teaching of the glorious resurrection of the body was general in this period, and that it was generally accepted that the same body that was buried would be raised in the last day. However, several speculative questions were raised even at this time in connection with the resurrection of the body. These questions concerned especially the form of the resurrection body and more particularly those members for which there will be no place and no function in glory, as for instance, the digestive and the sexual organs. And, as far as the latter was concerned, Irenaeus uses the rather less appealing illustration of the mule. Origen makes an attempt to eliminate from the conception of the resurrection all those elements to which reason might object and in that way of rationalism sometimes almost loses the reality of the resurrection. As might be expected the Gnostics denied the resurrection of the body entirely.
Hagenback makes the observation, in footnotes which appear at the conclusion of his writing in his History of Doctrines, Vol. I, page 218, that it naturally excites surprise that, while Paul represents the resurrection of Christ as the central point of the whole doctrine, the fathers of this present period keep this fact so much in the background; at least it is not, with all of them, the foundation of their opinions concerning the resurrection of the body. This, however, does not apply to all the fathers of this early period. Some, as Athenagoras, who devoted an entire book to the subject, and Minucius Felix, are entirely silent on the resurrection of Christ, whereas others also rest their arguments chiefly upon reason and analogies from nature, as the change of day and night, seed and fruit, etc. I am sure that it will be of interest to call attention to the writings of these fathers in connection with the glorious Scriptural truth of the resurrection of the body.
In Athenagoras, whose very game is a retrospect, we discover a remote result of St. Paul’s speech on Mars Hill which the apostle delivered in the city of Athens (see Acts 17). Do we not recognize the name, Athens, in his name, Athenagoras? We read in Acts 17 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.” But here, in Athenagoras, comes a philosopher, from the Athenian agora, a convert to St. Paul’s argument in his Epistle to the Corinthians, confessing “the unknown God,” demolishing the marble mob of deities that so “stirred the apostle’s spirit within him,” and teaching alike the Platonist and the Stoic to sit at the feet of Jesus. “Dionysius the Areopagite, and the woman named Damaris,” (see Acts 17:34) are not longer to be despised as the scanty first-fruits of Attica. They, too, have found a voice in this splendid trophy of the Gospel; and, “being dead, they yet speak” through him.
Athenagoras has written a treatise on the Resurrection. As a firm and loving voice to this keynote of Christian faith, it rings like an anthem through all the variations of his thought and argument. Comparing his own blessed hope with the delusions of a world lying in wickedness, and looking steadfastly to the life of the world to come, what a sublime contrast we find in this figure of Christ’s witness to the sensual life of the heathen, and even to the groping wisdom of the Attic ages. This treatise is the outcome of meditation on that sad history in the Acts, which expounds St. Paul’s bitter reminiscences, when he says that his gospel was, “to the Greeks, foolishness.” Of the Athenians, we read in Acts 17:32, that when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, and others said that they would hear him again of this matter. The apostle had left them under the confused impressions they had expressed in the words, “he seemeth to be a setter-forth of new gods.” Paul had preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection, and what did the Athenians want of any more wares of that sort, especially under the introduction of a poor Jew from parts unknown? Did the apostle’s prophetic soul foresee Athenagoras, as he “departed from among them”? However that may be, his blessed Master “knew what he would do.” He could let none of Paul’s words fall to the ground, without taking care that some seeds should bring forth fruit a thousand-fold. Here come the sheaves, at last. Athenagoras proves, also, what our Saviour meant, when He said to the Galileans, “Ye are the light of the world.”
We cannot quote, of course, this treatise of Athenagoras on the Resurrection in detail. He addresses himself to the view of wicked men that the resurrection is impossible. They, who oppose the resurrection of the dead, must show that this resurrection is either impossible for God, or contrary to His will. If they cannot do this, let them cease from their godless unbelief, and from their blasphemy against sacred things. Then, in chapter III, the writer declares that God Who could create can also raise from the dead. He writes, and we quote:
For that power which could give shape to what is regarded by them as shapeless matter, and adorn it, when destitute of form and order, with many and diverse forms, and gather into one the several portions of the elements, and divide the seed which was one and simple into many, and organize that which was unorganized, and give life to that which had no life,—that same power can reunite what is dissolved, and raise up what is prostrate, and restore to life again, and put the corruptible into a state of incorruption. And to the same Being it will belong, and to the same power and skill, to separate that which has been broken up and distributed among a multitude of animals of all kinds which are wont to have recourse to such bodies, and glut their appetite upon them,—to separate this, I say, and unite it again with the proper members and parts of members, whether it has passed into some one of those animals, or into many, or thence into others, or, after being dissolved along with these, has been carried batik again to the original elements, resolved into these according to a natural law—a matter this which seems to have exceedingly confounded some, even of those admired for wisdom, who, I cannot tell why, think those doubts worthy of serious attention which are brought forward by the many.
Incidentally, we are quoting here from Volume II of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, pages 149 ff. Here the writer declares that the living God, Who created all things, can certainly raise the dead, can certainly reunite what has been dissolved, yea even although what has been broken up has been distributed among a multitude of animals.
In conclusion, the writer sets forth his conviction that the necessity of the resurrection also follows from the purpose of man’s creation. Man was certainly not created at random and in vain, but for some purpose. Besides, the resurrection of the body also rests upon the fact of a future judgment. Man must be possessor both of a body and soul in the hereafter, in order that the judgment passed upon him may be just. And he declares that the resurrection is necessary when viewed in the light of the chief end of man.
(to be continued)