Heart’s Hope Fulfilled
You dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the Universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life because we have died for his laws.
II Maccabees 7:9
The Second Book of Maccabees is the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs of Second Temple Judaism, depicting in grizzly detail the persecutions suffered by the followers of Judas Maccabeus as they fought to resist occupation and Hellenization of their land by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of Syria. When on the death of Alexander the Great his empire had been divided among his generals, Judah and Galilee, lying as they did between Egypt and Syria, became contested territory, occupied at times by the Egyptian Ptolemies, at other times by the Seleucids, represented from 175 to 164 by Antiochus.
As part of its program to make the Jews an unexceptionable part of his empire, Antiochus required his subjects to share in pagan sacrifices and to eat swine’s flesh. This seven brothers with their courageous mother refused to do. “We are ready to die rather transgress the laws of our fathers” (II Maccabees 7:2).
The result was the first brother’s death by torture, his tongue cut out, scalped, his hands and feet cut off, then burned to death while still alive. The other six brothers died, one by one, through similar tortures, always refusing to eat the swine’s flesh. Their courage, heroic and memorable in itself, was rooted in a conviction that, just as God had not abandoned the Three Children in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:3–30), God would not abandon them but would, because their deaths had been occasioned by obedience to His laws, “raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life ” (7:9).
The peoples of the larger Mediterranean world, with the exception of some skeptical philosophers, Stoics, Cicero, and Lucretius, never believed that death ended life, for there was Hades and, for the Jews, Sheol. But the seven brothers believed something nobler, that after death God would reward those who are faithful to Him. This is one strand of a growing consensus of faith in Israel that life ended not in the grey forgottenness of Sheol, the Hebrew version of the half-life after death that haunted Mediterranean imagination, but in renewed life. In the background was the conviction that something in man is by God’s will eternal. It was foreshadowed in Job’s reflection that his life was less than that of a plant, which, though seeming dead in winter, when the spring rains came would flourish green, a reflection that ended with this meditation:
If a man should die, shall he live again.
All the days of my service I would wait til my release should come.
Though wouldst call and I would answer thee.
Though wouldst long for the works of thy hands.
For then thou wouldst number my steps;
thou wouldst not keep watch over my sin (14:14–16).
Job is longing for the forgiven, everlasting life with his Creator that in imagination and hope always belongs to the human estate.
Job’s hope found context in a second line of inspired reflection that grew with the prophetic conviction that the promise of God to Abraham was more than historical, that while the promised land might be realized imperfectly in the Davidic kingdom, its ultimate meaning and perfection lay beyond the Day when God would reward the faithful in a new creation from which crying and death and mourning had been banished in favor of a pacified and perfected new creation (Isaiah 11:1–10, 66:22–23). Intrinsic to the Prophetic vision was the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. Daniel prophesies that a day will come when the great prince Michael who had charge of Israel shall arise to awaken from the dust many of those who sleep in the earth whose names have been written in the book, some to everlasting life and some to shame and contempt. “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever” (12:1–3).
These same themes are embellished in a literature that while never canonical deeply influenced Jewish and early Christian thought about the future, IV Ezra and the Book of Enoch. Thus it would happen that when the seven brothers faced death, they did so with the certainty that God would reward their fidelity with eternal life. Two hundred years later belief in the resurrection to life eternal would be a commonplace of Pharisaic theology, so that Martha could say of her brother Lazarus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24). But when Martha spoke, although there was the conviction that Moses and Elisha had been taken up to be with God, no man had risen from death, until Jesus said to Lazarus,”Come out,” demonstrating by this seventh of the Johannine signs the power of the Son of God over death.
Lazarus was resurrected into life as a work of friendship and a sign pointing to the resurrection of Christ into the glory which Saint John described in wonder: “The Word was made flesh and we beheld His glory.” Though hidden when after His resurrection He walked along the road with the disciples (Luke 24:13–35), this was the glory that had been revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration; the glory that made the Apostle Thomas say, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
The first fact of the establishing of the kingdom of the new heart, the kingdom of Heaven, was the resurrection of Christ to the life of glory that foretold and promised life eternal to those whose lives were in Christ. Christ entered Sheol and called to Himself the Patriarchs and Prophets and all those who would believe. He then called everyman into His friendship, and therefore into His resurrected life.
The Apocalypses of Matthew 24-25 and of the prophet John set life’s possibilities in a new key. Christ uses the images of a heavenly home, of that communion with Himself when He wipes away the tears of life, of the messianic banquet to describe the future that awaits the seven faithful brothers of Maccabees. He uses the images of the burning waste land, of unquenchable fire, and of outer darkness to describe the future of those who do not believe in Him. In either case our future is the resolution in eternity of our relation to Jesus Christ, Himself the summary of reality, With the hope of eternal life comes the possibility of eternal death, for just as our allegiance to the Kingdom of Christ is an act of the whole will and soul, rebellion and willful neglect are also defining moral acts.
One can be sure that in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes many Jews ate and sacrificed as the king commanded.