Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Hope of Resurrection of the Dead/Body

When Christians gather for worship they usually say one of two classic affirmations of faith.

They either say the Nicene Creed which includes the line,
"[We believe] in the resurrection of the dead"
or they say the Apostles' Creed which includes the line,
"[I believe] in the resurrection of the body"
Thus Christians regularly affirm that our bodies matter – God created them and declared them good after all – and that we expect to be embodied beyond death.

In spite of these affirmations, many contemporary Christians have inculcated a rather gnostic view of of the body and material reality in general as unimportant if not somehow bad. This view leads to an expectation of life after death in which an immortal, immaterial soul escapes the dead body and goes directly to its eternal fate in the spirit-realms of either Heaven or Hell (or maybe Purgatory).
This was driven home to me recently in a conversation with someone who has been a lifelong Christian with consistent church attendance, involvement, and leadership. Despite over 70 years in the church, this Christian spoke of the body as something insignificant that we leave behind when we die. 
I suspect this is not an uncommon view. But, such a view makes little sense in light of the belief the Church and her members affirm in the creeds represented in the lines above, which in turn reflects a more complete biblical view of the indispensableness of the body for our ultimate hope.  This spiritualizing tendency undervalues the goodness of our bodies as creations of God. It also misses the wonder and mystery of the sanctification of embodied life represented in the Incarnation and Ascension. And it negates the aspect of hope contained in the creeds that we await the fullness of  the resurrectioon and restoration not just of our bodies but of new creation at the end of history.
Some contemporary theologians have been attempting to correct this over-spiritualized view of our hope. One of these is Bishop N. T.Wright (see for example Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop or, for a longer, but still accessible treatment, see Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church).
I want to point out that what Wright and others are advocating is not some new teaching. It is the classic Christian understanding that the soul - whatever it is and whether or not it can be separated from the body at all - is incomplete without the body. Thus, the ultimate Christian hope is not that our disembodied souls might enjoy eternal life relieved of our bodies in a spiritual heaven, but that at the Last Day, there will be Resurrection, Judgment, and Life Everlasting as transfigured embodied persons in a restored transfigured New Creation.
Here are some examples:
St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356):
God teaches us to keep the body in order–the whole of it, from head to foot; eyes–to look with purity; ears–to listen in peace (or to peaceful things) and not to take pleasure in gossip, slander, and criticism; tongue–to say only what is good, weighing every word, and allowing nothing impure or passionate [passion is a technical term of the early church referring to sinful agitations of the spirit, e.g., anger, envy, greed, lust, etc.] to become mixed with its speech; hands–to be moved primarily for lifting up in prayer and for acts of mercy and generosity; stomach–to be kept within suitable bounds in food and drink, allowing only as much as is needful to support the body, not letting lust and gluttony lead it beyond that measure; feet–to walk righteously, according to the will of God, aiming at the service of good deeds. In this way the whole of the body becomes accustomed to every good and, submitting to the power of the Holy Spirit, gradually changes, so that in the end it begins to participate, in a certain measure, in the qualities of the spiritual body, which it is to receive at the resurrection of the just.
– Directions on Life in Christ, Epistle I. 20 in Early Fathers from the Philokalia

St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373) in Hymns on Paradise writes:
The soul cannot
have perception of Paradise
without its mate, the body,
its instrument and lyre.
- Hymn VIII.2
Though the soul exists
of itself and for itself,
yet without its companion
it lacks true existence;
it fully resembles an embryo
still in the womb,
whose existence is as yet
bereft of word or thought.
- Hymn VIII.5
That blessed abode
is in no way deficient,
for that place is complete and perfected
in every way,
and the soul cannot
enter there alone,
for is such a state it is in everything
in sensation and consciousness;
but on the day of Resurrection
the body, with all its senses,
will enter in as well, one it has been made perfect.
- Hymn VIII. 7
Thus in the delightful mansions
on the border of Paradise
do the souls of the just
and righteous reside
awaiting there
the bodies they love,
so that, at the opening
of the Garden’s gate,
both bodies and souls might proclaim,
amidst Hosannas,
“Blessed is He who has brought Adam from Sheol
And returned him to Paradise in the company of
- Hymn VIII. 11
A hundred times finer
and more subtle
are the bodies of the righteous
when they are risen at the Resurrection:
they resemble the mind
which is able,
if it so wills, to stretch out and expand,
or, should it wish, to contract and shrink;
if it shrinks it is in some place,
if it expands, it is in every place.
- Hymn V. 8
Even Dante (c1265–1321), who Bishop Wright takes to task, in his delightful and mostly spiritualized vision of Paradise, retains as essential the hope of the resurrection of the body. From within a circle of dancing light, the soul of Solomon explains,
'Long as the joyous feast of Paradise
shall last, so long our burning love
shall clothe us in the radiance you see.
Our brilliance is in ratio to our love,
our ardor to our vision, and our vision
to the degree of grace vouchafed to us.
When our flesh sanctified and glorified,
shall clothe our souls once more, our person then
will be more pleasing since it is complete;
wherefore, the light generously bestowed
on us by the Supreme Good, is increased --
the light of glory that show Him to us.
It follows, then, that vision must increase,
as must the ardor kindled by the vision,
as must the radiance the ardor gives.
But as a coal burns white in its own fire,
whose inner glow outshines its outer flame
so that its form is clearly visible,
so this effulgence that envelops us now
will be surpassed in brilliance by the flesh
that for so long has lain beneath the ground;
Nor will such light be difficult to bear,
the organs of our bodies will be strengthened
and ready for whatever gives us joy.'
- Paradiso, Canto XIV, Lines 37-60

For Christians, the resurrected body has always been (officially if not in popular imagination) an integral aspect of our ultimate expectation. But affirming that raises other questions such as:

How do bodies that have turned to dust and whose atoms have been scattered and shared by other bodies get resurrected?

Can we expect any conscious existence between our individual deaths and the Resurrection of the dead/body?

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