I recently completed N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), and I have now read about 250 pages of his massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003). I continue to be fascinated with the different views of life after death that serve as the backdrop for the early Christian message of Jesus' resurrection and lordship - a message which, Wright argues, is unique and surprising.
Here are a few quotes from Surprised by Hope that give a flavor of the different perspectives on life after death available within ancient paganism, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity. For those interested in going deeper, Wright provides a far more exhaustive treatment of each of these areas in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
Ancient Pagan (Greeks & Romans)
“As far as the ancient pagan world was concerned, the road to the underworld ran only one way. Death was all powerful; one could neither escape it in the first place nor break its power once it had come. Everybody knew there was in fact no answer to death. The ancient pagan world then divided broadly into those who, like Homer’s shades, might have wanted a new body but knew they couldn’t have one and those who, like Plato’s philosophers, didn’t want one because being a disembodied soul was far better” [pp. 35-36].
“Some Jews agreed with those pagans who denied any kind of future life, especially a reembodied one. The Sadducees are famous for taking this position. Others agreed with those pagans who thought in terms of a glorious though disembodied future for the soul. Here the obvious example is the philosopher Philo. But most Jews of the day believed in an eventual resurrection – that is, that God would give his people new bodies when he judged and remade the whole world. That is what Martha assumed Jesus was talking about in their conversation beside the tomb of Lazarus: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” [John 11:24]. That is what resurrection meant” [p. 37].
“ … the early Christian future hope centered firmly on resurrection. The first Christians did not simply believe in life after death; they virtually never spoke simply of going to heaven when they died. … When they did speak of heaven as a postmortem destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body” [p. 41].
“ … from the start within early Christianity it was built in as part of the belief in resurrection that the new body, though it will certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object occupying space and time, will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties" [p. 43; Wright's emphasis].
“Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble postmortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death” [p. 45].
In other contexts, Wright refers to the early Christian understanding of bodily resurrection after bodily death as "life after 'life after death.'"