Friday, June 10, 2011

The Resurrection of the Body

I had a conversation last year that left me a little shocked and not a little frustrated.

"I believe in the separation of the body and spirit at death."
"But what about the resurrection of the body?"
"Is it the resurrection of the body?"
"That's what the creed says."
"... but what is 'the body'?"

At this point I, the second voice, was caught in something of a stunned silence. I was listening to a well-educated, intelligent, confessing Christian deny the bodily resurrection of the dead. I don't remember now what exactly I said next--only being dissatisfied with it and thinking of a hundred better responses later that day.
Of course, for all my talk about being 'shocked' or 'stunned' I realize that I might have had the same conversation with a hundred thousand different people across the US. There is some serious confusion here; which is why I'm blogging on it. This post won't reach a hundred thousand people, but it might reach a handful, and that's better than none.
So let's talk about the resurrection of the body.

"I believe in... the resurrection of the body"
This is a clause in one of the ancient creeds of the Church, the Apostles' Creed. This classical statement of faith concludes: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen." Christians have been confessing a future, bodily resurrection since the earliest centuries of the Church.
We see this not only in the creeds, but also in the early Church Fathers. As early as Polycarp (c. 69-c. 155) and Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 ), one who denied the resurrection of the body--even if they affirmed the immortality of a disembodied soul--was considered to be no Christian at all.
If you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians...

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 80

Saint Augustine later claimed that "all Christian doctrine perishes" if we take away faith in the resurrection of the dead.
These are strong claims. Where did the Fathers get such confidence? And what do we make of it? Clearly people have believed in a bodily resurrection for a long time, but is this a biblical idea?

The short answer is 'yes, absolutely.'

the Resurrection in scripture
The most powerful discussion of the resurrection in the Bible, I find, is in 1 Corinthians 15. Here Paul discusses, among other things, the centrality of Jesus' own resurrection to the gospel and the implications of Christ's resurrection for the eternal hope of believers. This long, detailed, and adamant discourse came after the apostle discovered that some in the church in Corinth had dispensed with a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the raising of corpses (15:12). Paul, anticipating Augustine's confession centuries later, reasoned that if the dead are not raised, inevitably "our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (14).

Paul says much in the chapter that is pertinent to our topic, and I encourage you to go and study 1 Cor 15 closely, but here I will highlight two claims the apostle makes:

  • Jesus is "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (20). The "firstfruits" are but the beginning of the season; just as Christ was raised, so the full resurrection harvest is yet to come. The death Adam brought into the world reaches out and touches all, and likewise the resurrection that came with Christ will come to all at His return (21-23). Easter was the beginning of the final resurrection of the dead.
  • In the resurrection of the dead, we will "bear the image of the man of heaven," Jesus (49). This is "a resurrection like His," as Paul writes elsewhere (Rom 6:5; see also Phil 3:20-21). This is, finally, Paul's answer to the question "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" (1 Cor 15:35ff). If you want to know, look at the body of Jesus.
Our expectation of resurrection and our very understanding of resurrection are rooted in the risen Lord Jesus.
Here, then, is the answer to my friend's question: "but what is 'the body'?"
'The body' is the thing that came out of the grave on Easter morning. This thing could enter a room through locked doors, but it could also be touched, and could ingest broiled fish. This is no disembodied spirit. The portrait of the future resurrection is a real body--different, made new and changed, but very real.

Richard Hays, who for my money may be the finest New Testament scholar alive today, summed up the early Church's belief (and 1 Cor 15) well:
The early Christians proclaimed that God had broken the power of death by raising Jesus bodily from the grave; therefore, the New Testament writers and the early Christian creeds looked forward to the resurrection of the body as the consummation of God's redemptive action in the world.

Belief in the bodily resurrection flows naturally out of our confession of the victory of God in the resurrection of Jesus.

a full, Christian hope
The gospel, then, is not about "this soul, stranded in some skin and bones" (sorry, Bono). That's the ancient pagan philosophers talking--an attitude that has quietly crept into the Church's popular theology. Paul's gospel was mocked by many of his hearers in Athens precisely because of his belief in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32). The 2nd century Greek thinker Celsus ridiculed this hope, calling it "the hope of worms"--and he sure didn't say that because Christians believed in the eternal bliss of a disembodied spirit. Any notion today of a soul going off to heaven at death is the descendent of this ancient pagan thought, not the Christian teaching. The Church has always witnessed to God's healing, not discarding, of the body.

I realize that this will all sound pretty scandalous to a lot of people. We're so used to the comforting talk of escaping the sufferings and difficulties of our bodies. It's a message that you hear at many Christian funerals, from the pulpit and in the private consolations offered to the bereaved. The idea is that we can take hope--we who are left behind, or we who look forward to freedom from our own pain--in the knowledge that the troubles of life on earth will pass away for eternity. We just have to hang on.

There's a grain of truth in this, but it's taken the wrong way. Yes, there is freedom ahead, and a time when "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore" (Rev 21:4). These old things will pass away.
But this does not come with the abandoning of the body. We do not, in death, throw off the flesh like a husk that has served its purpose. The body is not abandoned but transformed. God is going to make all things new. That's the heart of the gospel and the hope of believers. Suffering, all enmity, and the poisoning of our bodies that came in Eden will be extinguished--all of Creation will be put right. "'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:54-56).

That is the hope of the resurrection of the body. As long as we feed each other a different message of another 'hope', we are missing out on the power of the truth of the gospel to heal and minister to the people of God.

Much of this post is indebted to the work of Richard B. Hays, "The Resurrection of the Body: Carnis resurrectionem" in Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles' Creed and Brian E. Daley, "A Hope of Worms: Early Christian Hope" in Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments.


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I suppose the 'disembodied' afterlife that many people (and your friend) may have in mind is probably either something like a ghost of phantom (like Obi Wan after he died?), or is something so abstract that they cannot describe it too well.

In Dante we seem to get the idea that people pass into heaven/hell immediately at death and that at the Day of Resurrection/Judgment those souls will be reunited with their bodies but remain in basically the same state they were in before (though their bliss [or suffering] will intensify).

I believe we can say confidently that when a believer in Christ dies, his soul (personality/essential self) does indeed 'go to be with the Lord' (whether in 'heaven' or 'paradise' we could search that out) based on Phil. 1:21-24 and 2 Cor. 5:8. But this state anticipates the final resurrection when the believers will recieve their glorified bodies (as in 1 Cor. 15).

I can only speculate as to how different the experience of these two states is (soul with the Lord v. resurrected body) though I kind of like Dante's idea that the states are similar, but the latter is MORE SO. This would mean a greater continuity between the heaven after death and the new life in the new creation after the resurrection (which might allow more coherence with much popular Christian teaching).

But you are quite right that a real importance of the resurrected body is that it IS the complete victory over death (the consequence of sin), a victory that is not fully realized by those souls resting 'with the Lord' after death but before the resurrection.

Charity said...

Nice piece. I will have to see if I can dig up Richard Hays (I mean his writing, of course) here in Indonesia.