Brief Explanation of the Meaning of Resurrection
In the Western* Christian Liturgical Calendar we are in the midst of Holy Week and fast approaching Easter Sunday or rather Resurrection Sunday (Pascua as it is called in Spanish).
This is a particularly surreal, sorrow-filled time to be celebrating Death and Resurrection given what is going on in the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s still worth the meditation. Maybe now more than ever it is needed.
Lisa Miller, the religion editor at Newsweek has just penned a book on Heaven. An interview with her here.
Second, what happens to our bodies in heaven? This is my favorite part of the heaven conversation. For if you believe in heaven as a real place, a physical place (and most people do), then you need a body or something like a body with which to enjoy it. The critical verse here is 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul explains to those who doubt the truth of the resurrection that the body is like a seed—and when it rises in the resurrection is both has the properties of a seed and of something else altogether. “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Generations of Christians have tried to figure out what that “spiritual body” means. I am reminded of a conversation with Owen Gingerich, a Christian believer who is also an astrophysicist at Harvard. He puts the conundrum this way: Human bodies are characterized by change, and heaven, by tradition, is characterized by changelessness. How does that work? How does the human, who changes minutely every second, exist in a changeless eternity? The church father Augustine solves this by saying that in heaven time has no meaning, but that declaration doesn’t satisfy rational-minded people like me.
More to the point: With bodies in heaven, we can do all the things that bodies do. We can eat, drink, make love. We can hug our parents and walk our dogs. We can have all the pleasure that the Christian tradition promises us in heaven. Without bodies (which is how more and more Americans are inclined to imagine heaven these days) it’s hard to imagine having anything like consciousness or selfhood; or pleasure or friendship. Plato taught that the body was a curse, a drag; it carried all the baser human impulses and desires. After death, the soul was set free to ascend to God and attain wisdom. This vision may work better in a world defined by science and rationality, but it fails to trigger passion and imagination in the same way that a physical vision would.
Unfortunately Lisa Miller has confused heaven with resurrection in all kinds of non-Biblical ways. It’s a common mistake, in fact it’s so normally assumed both by Christians and non-Christians, that it’s hard to point any person out specifically for criticism.
In what follows I am indebted to N.T. Wright’s profound text, Surprised by Hope: Re-Thinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and The Mission of the Church.
The “re-thinking” of these topics turns out to be retuning to what the New Testament (particularly Paul as cited by Miller) actually has to say on the subject instead of centuries of incorrect Christian teaching on the subject.
The central point is this (contrary to everything you’ve been taught and likely disagree with):
The Resurrection is not about Life after death.
The Resurrection is about (as Wright says), Life after Life after Death.
Life after death in the normal sense (for the Christian) is best termed Paradise. It is described as a period of peace and rest.
The Resurrection refers to a “New Heaven and New Earth”. It is about, in Jewish terms, the Restoration of the Cosmos (Tikkun Olam).
When you read 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15, you quickly see the flaw in Miller’s thinking:
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
29 Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
30 And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? 31I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised,
‘Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.’
33Do not be deceived:
‘Bad company ruins good morals.’
34Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
5 But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.39Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The context of this chapter is that some of the members of the Corinthian community are dying. The earliest Christians believed that the Age to Come (i.e. “The End of the World” or rather The End of the World as We Know It Currently) was going to happen any day, any minute. And now some of the members of the church are dying.
If Resurrection, a la Miller’s account is about going to heaven after you die, why would the Corinthian Christians be worried? The dead and dying church members would be going to their heavenly reward in such a case. No problem.
If however Resurrection is about the changing of this world, then their worries make sense–did the ones who die miss out on the Resurrection? That’s fundamentally their question and notice how ludicrous it would be to ask such a question if heaven was understood in the way Miller discusses it.
Death isn’t defeated (v 55-56) by people going to heaven when they die. Not in some Platonic otherworldly immaterial sense nor in some reincarnation sense. Death would simply be another mechanism in the process: the unending cycles of life and death.
In other words, Resurrection is about The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Not going to be with Jesus in the clouds playing harps after you die. Leaving this world in some state of being a “test” or some sort or a “vale of tears” or whatever other pious claptrap you hear.
Look at that final verse:
Always be steadfast in your labors (on EARTH!!!!) because it is not in vain. Not because what you do here on Earth is so you can win divine brownie points so you can go to heaven (which as Nietzsche would say is a rather egocentric point of view) but rather so that spirit-filled actions here in this life begin to reveal/anticipate the Kingdom to Come.
The Resurrection body is NOT about what kind of body you will have in “heaven” after you die. What again we should really term Paradise or the interim period of rest being in the Presence of God (if this teaching is correct/to be believed of course).
The Resurrection body discussion is about what kind of physicality you will have in The New Heaven and New Earth….i..e in The Age to Come.
Talking about what kind of body you will have in heaven–if by heaven you mean life after death–is the wrong question. The question is what kind of body you will have when Heaven and Earth become married in the New Reality to Come. In Life after Life after Death.
And while it might seem strange to ask about what kind of body, the issue really is: is there a body in such a life? The Platonic (and still dominant) view is that your soul flies up to heaven (or wherever) after you die in some immaterial state. The Jewish-Christian notion of the Resurrection is about the Redemption of physical existence, since Creation is initially seen to be Good. Not as in other traditions where creation is some fall from some immaterial divine perfection.
The Christian theologian Origen (in the early 3rd century) said that there must be a new spiritual body and not simply a literal reviving of the old flesh because what would happen to the martyrs eaten by the lions in the resurrection?
The Resurrection or “spiritual” body is meant to suggest a new way of bodily being but still holding some continuity to the earthly one and the earthly personality which expressed bodily. Which is why this life both matters and is not the final word.
The secular world is one in which this life alone matters. Traditional religion (particularly traditional Christianity) teaches that this life is some pilgrimage through pain and horror and all that matters is the other life.
Neither position I think is correct.
This “different but yet somehow the same” quality of the Resurrection body, according to Wright, explains the rather odd stories of Jesus’ resurrected body in the Gospels. It’s both different (they don’t recognize him) and the same (he still has the wounds of the Cross).
The teaching of The New Testament canon is that in Jesus’ Resurrection the Age to Come (actually The “New Age”) has already begun. The kingdom of God as Christian theologians says, is both already and not yet. Already in the sense that the Resurrection has finally established the Kingdom. Not yet insofar as it is not yet manifest in the world. The world is still dominated by prejudice, hatred, oppression, violence, injustice, cruelty, and not by peace, mercy, justice, and true flourishing for all of creation.
Incidentally the pattern of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection shows why people who teach about a Rapture are wrong (or at least they are not teaching what The Christian Bible says).
In The Rapture view, the righteous “escape” from the world before the coming tribulations. The righteous are spared suffering. Which is I suppose is meant as a consoling view for people who are suffering but it’s false hope. It’s opium in Marx’s terms. The Christian story is that God came into the predicament of creation and went through the suffering out the other end, overcoming (by allowing) the resistance itself.
Christians are supposed to follow in the way of Jesus and yet according to Rapture theology you get to escape, moving in exact contradiction to the life of Jesus as a pattern, a prototype in Paul’s terms (“The New Adam”), of the new divinely-spirit infused humanity.
Notice also the political overtones of resurrection–given that the death occurred through public state-sponsored execution this should be obvious but has so long been forgotten–the principalities and rulers are overthrown. Then death. This more proper view of Resurrection overcomes the liberal/conservative divides that have been tearing Christianity apart for a couple of hundred years now. Liberal and liberation theologies have tended to focus on the overthrowing of the powers and principalities while conservative-evangelical Christians have focused on death being overcome (usually in the misplaced sense of going to heaven after you die).
Heaven is not unchanging–or rather you can imagine it to be unchanging until the point at which it will be dissolved and a New Heaven will emerge (along with a New Earth).
* Western is a little complicated here thanks to the globalization of Christianity. “Western” Christians include people like Nigerians, Kenyans, Chinese, South Africans, Indonesians, Filipinos, and Vietnamese. Basically Western here means all Christians who aren’t Eastern Orthodox, i.e. those following the Julian (not Gregorian) Calendar.