Even the Dead Will Not Be Safe: An Easter Meditation

One of the few things the three great monotheisms agree on is the resurrection of the dead. All of these great Abrahamic faiths envision a day when every human being who has ever lived is re-created in order to be judged, then rewarded or punished. The afterlife is not a matter of a disembodied soul or ghost or “becoming an angel.” The joys of heaven are bodily joys, and the pains of hell are bodily pains. And the true afterlife is not the fate of the individual after death, but the fate of all human beings after the end of all earthly life as we know it. A new heaven and a new earth, bodily and material, to replace what will have become the hollowed out husk of the old — death and resurrection on the grandest possible scale.

In Christianity, the death and resurrection of Christ is supposed to be the inauguration of this apocalyptic process. Paul teaches that Christ is the firstfruits from among the dead, and it is clear in 1 Thessalonians that he expects the general resurrection to follow within his own lifetime. In Matthew, the death of Christ sparks a resurrection of some unspecified saints, as if by anticipation of the general resurrection. And no matter how much the teaching of the resurrection has been overshadowed by the fate of the individual soul in Christian piety, the expectation of the general resurrection remains very much on the books — most notably in the final line of the Nicene Creed: “And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”

The celebration of Christ’s resurrection is also the anticipation of our resurrection — and here, by consensus of all monotheist faiths, we can say “we” and “our” in the broadest possible sense. As James Joyce (and after him, Thomas Altizer) would say: “here comes everybody.”

Where did this strange belief come from? In my research for The Prince of This World, I came to understand that it grew out of circumstances of extreme persecution. Under the mad king Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jews in Jerusalem and the surrounding area were being tortured and executed in an attempt to eradicate the Jewish religion and force conformity with Hellenistic culture. By all accounts, this should have been theologically impossible. This was a period when Jews had returned to the Holy Land from exile, and hence were supposedly already enjoying the reward of purification and obedience. And it was hard to view the current persecution as further divine punishment, since people were being persecuted precisely for obeying the divine law.

Out of the crucible of this deep trauma, which was also a theological trauma, came the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead — almost as a challenge to God. “None of this makes sense according to the promises you made to us, but you will set it right, won’t you, God? Won’t you? Even if it means restoring these righteous sufferers to life, you will set it right — won’t you?” The earliest discussions of resurrection in 2 Maccabees seem to have the persecuted individuals in mind, but in Daniel it is expanded to include the notably righteous and the notably wicked. Setting things right means making sure that God’s enemies cannot escape their just punishment through the expedient of death. Only subsequently did the circle of the resurrected grow to include all the lukewarm mediocrities who surely make up the majority of our fallen race.

All of us will be resurrected to face the judgment of God — and all three traditions are emphatic that nothing will be forgotten, nothing will fail to register on the scale of divine justice. Everything we do has a permanent, unforgettable meaning. Later unorthodox theologians like Spinoza and Whitehead have picked up on this aspect of the resurrection by claiming that we exist eternally in the mind of God, who will never forget us. In its original form, though, God does not merely remember us, he judges us. The eternal meaning of our actions is a moral meaning, determined by obedience to God. And the eternal memorial of that meaning will be our resurrected bodies themselves, either enjoying our reward or suffering our punishment — performing God’s just judgment forever.

As with the Cross, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the radical political potentials of the resurrection of the dead — and in this case, I remain more convinced. Living in the hope of resurrection could inspire a unique form of bravery and resistence, and an insistence that the powers and principalities can never have the final word because their most fearsome weapon, death, does not have the final word. I have even suggested in the past that the doctrine of hell could have a salutary place in our political imagination, because there are some monsters so abbhorent that it shocks the conscience to think they could simply repent and be redeemed. The simplistic rejoinder to universalism — do you think Hitler should go to heaven? — does have a point.

The problem, as ever, is the misidentification of who is beyond the pale. In an infamous text of Tertullian’s, quoted by Gibbon, Nietzsche, and many others, he invites his listeners to set aside the petty entertainments of the Roman Empire in anticipation of the greatest show anyone will ever see — the spectacle of the damned in hell, which will be enjoyed by the saints in heaven. Among the damned, he includes what I consider legitimate targets (the kings and rulers of this world), but also the Jews (you may have picked up that this is a recurring theme), and the poets, and of course those sarcastic philosophers. More than the physical wounds of persecution, it is the emotional wounds of mockery and dismissal that seem to motivate much of the discussion.

I remain attracted to Walter Benjamin’s reimagination of the doctrine of resurrection from a radical political perspective. In the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, he declares:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

What does it mean that even the dead will not be safe? On the one hand, there’s the possibility that the dead will simply be forgotten and lost. Yet it seems more likely to me that he has in mind the ways that the dead are often demonized and their struggle and resistence is retroactively cast as a justification for the persecution they were responding to. Most profoundly, the victims of power and domination can be recruited as “saints” who can then be weaponized to shore up the forces of reaction — the fate of a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr., or indeed Jesus of Nazareth himself. In Benjamin’s political vision of resurrection, even the dead can be pressed into the service of the greater glory of the empire, just as all the dead will be forced to eternally perform God’s righteous judgment in the traditional doctrine of the resurrection.

The question that I would present to you in this, the final installment of my less-than-fully-uplifting Easter Triduum series, is whether the doctrine of resurrection still has the messianic spark — the note of outrage against unjust oppression, the justified resentment against the impostures of the powerful — or whether it has been fully recruited to the side of the Antichrist.

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