Monday, August 15, 2011

“The resurrection of the body; and life everlasting." (part 1)

         "The sages have a hundred maps to give
         That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
         They rattle reason out through many a sieve
         That stores the sand and lets the gold go free.
         And all these things are less than dust to me
         Because my name is Lazarus and I live."
                  G. K. Chesterton, "The Convert"

         "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." 
          Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

         If sin brings death and destruction, the forgiveness of sins brings life and hope, the result of which the creed brings before us in its twin affirmations concerning the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.  These two affirmations are the creed's last words to us, its parting declaration.  They are words of unparalleled hope and confidence:  If sin embraces the whole person and consigns the whole person to death, the forgiveness of sins and the blessedness to which it leads are equally all-embracing.  The victory to which the creed here refers is total.
         This is the second time the creed has struck the note of resurrection, the first being its reference to the resurrection of Jesus.  Those two grand events, his resurrection and ours, are intimately connected.  Christ is the head or pioneer of our race.  He is the first fruits of those who are raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15: 23).  The Spirit Who raised Him shall raise us (Rom. 8: 11).  We follow on to where Christ has gone before us, and He has gone to the grave and beyond.  Though He was dead, yet He lives.  So shall we, for what is true of Him shall be true of the race over which He is head. 
         From Christ's defeat of death we learn that earthly life is but a preface to the life to come.  This life is not all there is and must not be treated as if it were.  The grave that awaits us is a door not a wall, a beginning not merely an end.  The life to come, as the creed implies in its final words, is the end of the reign of death and of dying.  The life to come is the reign of life and glory, which makes it the death of death.  The One Who gave us life will give us life again.  Our Creator is also our Re-creator.
         As are so many of its affirmations, this part of the creed arose in response to the Gnostic heresy, which, because it contended that all matter was inherently evil, denied the resurrection of the body, which obviously is matter.  The Gnostic idea of redemption was to escape the confines and pollution of flesh altogether, not to grant it continued existence or redemption.  By contrast, the Christian doctrine of resurrection means not deliverance from the body but deliverance of the body.  Body and soul are not opposed; they are not enemies.  Their conjunction was pronounced good by God Himself at the creation, and He has not changed his mind, though the Gnostics might have wished otherwise.
         The Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection also stands over against both the ancient Greek belief in the immortality of the soul and the eastern notion of reincarnation, ideas that have some distant similarity to the Christian doctrine of resurrection, but that are by no means the same.  Immortality of the soul implies that our survival of death happens automatically or naturally, as if something in us were immortal of its own accord, or by its own power, rather than by the power and love of God, Who raises us from the dead.  If the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body really were the same as the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul, then the apostle Paul would not have been mocked by the Athenians for preaching it (Acts 17: 32).  By the same token, we must not confuse resurrection with reincarnation.  Reincarnation implies that we survive death only to die again, over and over.  Reincarnation is not the defeat of death, as is Christian resurrection, but rather its repeated victory over us.  Resurrection is the defeat of death, both body and soul, by Christ.  The death we must die is real, but no more so than the resurrection that overturns it, a resurrection found only in Jesus Christ, Who is the resurrection and the life (John 11: 25).
         The resurrection of the body is but a part of the restoration and renewal of all things, a part of Christ's work to create a new Heaven and a new earth, not out of nothing as He did at the world's beginning, but out of the only creation that is or ever shall be.  Just as the new Heaven and the new earth are made from those that now are, the resurrected body flowers from the one we lay in the grave, though that fact must not be crudely understood or misinterpreted, as if the phrase "resurrection of the body" meant something like the reassembling of the particular set of molecules that one's body happened to possess at one specific point in time, which cannot be:

         "Matter which appertains to one body at one time appertains to another body at another.  The notion of particle being joined to particle, so as to re-form a certain body, involves an impossibility, because that same particle may have belonged to a thousand different bodies, and may be claimed by one as rightfully as by another.  In fact, it is only necessary to bring the notion into contact with what we certainly know concerning material particles to break down and annihilate it." (Goodwin, The Foundations of the Creed 384)

Or, as George Hedley puts it, "the single datum of cannibalism absolutely refutes any notion that all human bodies can be raised again in their former constituencies of particular proteins" (The Symbol of the Faith 142).  Monseigneur Ronald Knox makes the same point more comically by bringing before us the bizarre sight of a cannibal and his victim engaged in heated debate over whether the physical matter in the victim's big toe belonged to him or to the stomach that digested it.
         But let us not miss the point by moving too far in the opposite direction.  Between the physical body we lay in the grave and the resurrected body that shall be ours forever there indeed exists "a physical continuity; but it is a continuity of life and not of simple reconstruction" (Westcott, The Historic Faith 138).  In other words, the physical bodies we now have and the resurrected bodies we shall inherit are materially continuous but not materially identical.  Rather, much as a seed is planted in the ground and by its decay gives rise to a stalk of corn or a mighty oak, the physical body that we lay in the grave decays and gives rise to a spiritual body, one no longer subject to death and weakness, one well suited to its purpose as the vehicle of eternal life.  In Paul's words, "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15: 42-44).  Though it springs from the physical body that now is, we must not think of the spiritual body in precisely the same terms, as if it were flesh and blood as we now know them.  As Paul also says, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15: 50), and to that kingdom, and to the day of resurrection and judgment that precedes it, we all are hastening, both body and soul.
         Because they make it possible for us to see, hear, speak, touch and smell, our bodies make it possible for us to have relationships.  Spirit expresses itself by matter.  Our bodies allow us to exist at a particular place, to have a context, to come into contact with the universe around us and with those beings who inhabit it.  Our bodies are our means of self-expression.  To be without any means of gathering information from the world around us, or of injecting information into it, to be unable to respond to our world or to help shape it, is to be less than a person, is to be no different from those who are dead.  Bodies make possible our interaction with our universe.  To say that we are to have bodies in the resurrected life means that we are to be then what we are now -- real persons capable of real life.  We shall not be bodiless wraiths or phantoms, not ephemeral, ethereal, or unsubstantial.  We shall be genuine, solid, authentic human beings.  Our complete and genuine identity shall be preserved.  We shall be fully human, more human even than now we are.  This affirmation of the creed means that we lose nothing at death but our sin and its attendant hindrances.  Our bodies are not a tomb, they are the implements of eternal life:

                  "Our ultimate expectation is that our entire personality will conquer death, and thereby attain to a life fuller and richer than any which we can lead or even picture here.  This is what we mean when we speak of the Resurrection of the body.  Experience shows that the phrase is liable to crude and childish misinterpretation.  But it would be difficult (as with the Ascension) to find a substitute sufficiently terse to be included in a creed, and sufficiently concrete to convey any meaning whatever to the great majority of people."  (Malden, Christian Belief 82).

In other words, we anticipate the resurrection of the whole person, an entire human being, not simply a disembodied soul and not simply the physical body as it now is.  Had the creed meant to suggest only the resurrection of the physical body, it perhaps would have said "corporis resurrectionem" rather than "carnis resurrectionem."  By saying what it does, it teaches that our resurrection entails, but is not limited to, the body we now possess.  Nor is the resurrection we anticipate like that of Lazarus, who was raised only to die again.  Having died once, we shall put death forever behind us.

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