This was a question I received and answered on the old “Frank Answers” column while I was still Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church. It’s similar to the question I answered in my first posting on this blog (Frank Answers About Resurrection Bodies and Tattoos), but more pointed. Since we’re still in the Easter season, it is timely and I post it here as emended with the addition of images.
Question: I have learned to defer to the creed in the sense that I declare that I believe something that I’m not quite sure I do believe, in the faith that I’ll eventually see the wisdom in that declaration. But I still don’t understand why we say “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body.” Better yet, I don’t see why I should aspire to such an event; especially, as I get older, I wonder which body we’re talking about, the increasingly decrepit one I inhabit or the one I had in my prime.
Frank Answers: I commend you for reciting the ecumenical creeds of the Church even if you don’t understand everything in the creeds. By reciting the Creed we identify with the faith of the Church even if we have difficulties with some particulars. We teach children the creeds in the expectation that their faith will seek understanding as they mature. It’s the same for us adults. We don’t necessarily understand every article of faith, but we trust that we will increase in understanding as learning and experience increase.
The Creeds are a distillation of what’s most important to our faith. When it comes to the so-called “after life,” people have all kinds of notions about this. Some people believe in reincarnation—that after death our soul migrates into another body, perhaps some other animal form. Christians do not believe in an immortal soul, about which the Bible is mostly silent. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds express the biblical and Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead, specifically the resurrection of the body.
This hope and expectation grew in the history of ancient Israel. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a great vision of the resurrection of the body in which the Spirit or Breath of God is breathed into the raised bodies by the prophet to animate them (Ezekiel 37). We Christians do not believe that we have a divine spark within us that gives us immortality. There’s no immortal part of us waiting to be rid of the shell of the body. Eternal life is a gift of God himself. It is also an expression of God’s love that he does not want to lose the creatures he has made in his own image. The God who created us in the first place will recreate us in the last place—as we have been, with body and soul joined together.
Resurrection is not something we can aspire to; it will simply happen to us. St. Paul writes that “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The issue is whether we will withstand Christ’s final judgment of the living and the dead. We can expect to pass muster with Christ’s coming administration if Christ knows us and counts us among his brothers and sisters.
As for our condition when we are raised from the dead, the only resurrection we know of so far in human history is Christ’s. People have been resuscitated, even Jesus’s friend Lazarus. But resuscitation is not the same as resurrection. One of the interesting features of the resurrection stories is that Jesus’s friends and disciples did not always immediately recognize him until he did something familiar, like calling Mary Magdalene by name or breaking bread with the two disciples at Emmaus. These stories suggest that our resurrection bodies will be in continuity with our present bodies but also in discontinuity. Something about our physical appearance will be familiar to those who knew us, but, as St. Paul says, “we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:50).
What will our “changed” resurrection bodies be like? C. S. Lewis, in his remarkable book, The Great Divorce, gets us to envision resurrection bodies that are more solid, more real, more substantial than our present ones. These will be bodies for which “the weight of the glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17) will be seen, felt, and known. But if it is a body that is still me, at what stage of its development will it be resurrected? As I was when I died or at any stage along life’s way? I’ve wondered about that myself.
(Illustrating the seven ages of man from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It)
As I think about my body, which has been broken, wracked with illness, and weaker than I would prefer, I would like to imagine my resurrection body to be better than its current state, maybe even at its best potential state. I aspire to be worthy of such a gift of grace in the new creation. But if I have a new, hopefully improved, body it will be a gift, not something that I can accomplish by daily workouts in the gym. On the other hand, if I work out daily to keep my earthly body fit and healthy, isn’t that part of who I am and shouldn’t that identity be reflected in my resurrection body?
Michelangelo’s 1521 statue of the risen Christ, located in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, is a pretty muscular figure as Christ rises naked from the dead. A puritanical 17th century pope had the figure’s exposed genitals covered with a bronze drape. In the image below that one is the first version of the Risen Christ that had to be set aside because of imperfections in the marble.
Maybe Michelangelo was on to something. Christ had shed his grave clothes. They were rolled up in the corner of the slab on which the body of Jesus had been laid. He came forth from the dead in his living glorified body. Shouldn’t we enter paradise restored to the same state as the first man in the original paradise? Naked before God and unashamed? And since God has given such dignity and worth to the human body as to create it in the first place and promise to raise it up in the last place, shouldn’t we do what we can to take care of it here and now?
Pastor Frank Senn