“Do you believe we’ll live forever?”
“I hope not in this body!”
They both exploded in catty laughter, either masking deeper anxiety or revealing a shocking shallowness. In any event, that was the end of the conversation! A topic like everlasting life treated with such mocking! The problem for them was—with sagging jaw lines and increasing flab—do we really want this body to take us into eternity? Obviously they misread the intention of eternal life. The Christian church does not teach that we will live forever in this earthly body. What then do the Christians mean by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body?
The Apostle Paul concerns himself throughout his writings with the persistent question of suffering (a form of theodicy). Why must God’s people suffer when we are following God’s will for us in Jesus Christ? Romans 8:18-25 provides the most extensive responses. He begins by expanding the scope to the entire creation, “the universe” in contemporary terms. (Paul uses creation three times in verses 19, 20, and 21.) The people of God groan, with all non-human creation, because our destinies have been wrapped together. But suffering does not have the final word. A cry arises in us as a sign of something more. We hope for glory. For Paul, our hope does not represent vain presumption, but secure expectation. That long-expected, glorious day will also dry all tears.
What does Paul say specifically about the new creation? He affirms that there will be glory (verses 18 and 21)—a word for the divine Presence in fullness, in this case unveiled in Christ’s final coming. Paul looks to freedom (verse 21) from decay—that the fallenness of the world will cease. And so we look forward with hope (verses 24-25), which is the theological virtue that corresponds to God’s future, to the final triumph of the cosmic comedy. Finally, God’s Spirit represents the first payment of this new creation (verse 23)—there will be the fullness of joy of which we now only know in part.
Paul contemplates the resurrection of the body most extensively in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44. Paul, as many after him, struggles with an apt analogy for resurrection. His conclusion offers profound hope. Eugene Peterson’s fresh contemporary paraphrase, The Message, gives it directness:
Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you look at this question closely, you’ll realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body what we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.
You will notice that the variety of bodies is stunning. Just as there are different kinds of seeds, there are different kinds of bodies—humans, animals, birds, fish—each unprecedented in its form. You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies—sun, moon, stars—all varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re looking at pre-resurrection “seeds”—who can imagine what the resurrection “plants” will be like!
This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only in you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!
Certainly, every detail about our resurrection is not fully laid out. Paul is trying to understand and express the depths of the God. At several other places—in 1 Corinthians 2:9-10, for example—he simply admits the limits of his understanding:
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
Nor human heart conceived,
What God has prepared for those who love him”—
These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything even the depths of God.
Overall, Paul sketches the great promises, but leaves the details open.
But as a pastor, I know that church members remain unsatisfied with only generalities. In fact, when I have taught this material in adult education classes, the specifics captivate the students. Once I presented the idea that the immortality of the soul was not a truly Christian teaching, but a loan from Plato who taught that the body was mortal and decaying and the soul inherently immortal. Once we died, Plato asserted, we thankfully freed ourselves from the shackles of the body. I countered that Hebrew thought conceives of human beings as a unity of body and soul. The class was not pleased to hear this denial of our soul’s immortality. They did not want to taste death. (It reminded me of Woody Allen’s quip, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through art. I want to achieve it by not dying.”) I had to moderate my point by saying, when we are raised, it is God who does the work, not because of something intrinsic to our nature.
And then I have also been asked the practical questions: What exactly will be the nature of my resurrected body? Will my father recognize me in heaven? On other hand, can I cremate my grandmother? What will my disabled child look like? From the sketch presented so far, the critical element in our resurrected bodies as the New Testament understand it, is not our flesh and bones. It is our concrete selves. Generally, Eastern religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, describe a state in which our individuality disappears. Buddha talked about the transition from one life to the next (remember we keep migrating from one body to the next in Eastern thought) as a flame being passed from one candle to another. Alternatively, we become a drop of water in the ocean of Being. Instead the Christian faith believes that God will raise us as concrete individuals, who altogether comprise God’s people. Ultimately, because it is God’s work, we can cremate or bury because our resurrection does not depend on flesh and bones. (Specifically, how else can we understand God’s promise of a perfected, whole body in the resurrection for a victim of a violent dismemberment?) Our resurrected bodies will be us, but freed from the defects inherent in a fallen world.
We will recognize one another in heaven. Who and what we are on earth represents the concrete self that God created. The body-soul unity that now comprises us will dissolve at death, but our individuality—the “pattern of information” is another metaphor—will be instantly recreated at death into the resurrected body. The English writer, Susan Howatch—who made her own headlines by funding a chair at Oxford in science and theology—describes this doctrine in her novel, The Wonder Worker. She presents a dialogue on the bodily resurrection between a confused agnostic, Alice, and an Anglican priest, Nicholas Darrow, using the contemporary analogy of information. Alice’s aunt has just been cremated.
“But if Aunt’s now ashes, how can one talk of a resurrection of the body?”
“‘Body’ in that context is probably a code-word for the whole person. When we say ‘anybody’ or ‘everybody’ or ‘somebody’ we’re not talking about flesh and blood—we’re referring to the complex pattern of information which the medium of flesh and blood expresses.”
I struggled to wrap my mind around this. “So you’re saying that flesh and blood are more or less irrelevant?”
“No, not irrelevant. Our bodies have a big impact on our development as people—they constitute to the pattern of information, and in fact we wouldn’t be people without them. But once we’re no longer confined by space and time the flesh and blood become superfluous and the pattern can be downloaded elsewhere… Do you know anything about computers?”
“Okay, forget that, think of Michelangelo instead. In the Sistine Chapel he expressed a vision by creating, through the medium of paint, patterns of colour. The paint is of vital importance but in the end it’s the pattern that matters and the pattern which can be reproduced in another medium such as a book or film.”