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.
Christianity is an incarnational faith. We believe that God created us as bodies and that we will be raised bodily in a new creation.
“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in 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 shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Was this young man startled awake at the sound of the archangel’s trumpet?
We’ll get to the resurrection body. But first I want to commend you for reciting the creeds of the Church even if you don’t believe everything in the creeds. By reciting the creeds 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 in some other animal form. Christians do not believe in an immortal soul, about which the Bible is mostly silent, and therefore don’t believe in reincarnation. We believe that the body and soul are a unity. Therefore our soul is inseparable from the body. At death the soul is in God’s keeping until the body it once animated is raised from the dead. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds affirm the biblical hope of the resurrection of the dead, specifically the resurrection of the body, as an article of faith for Christians.
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, both body and soul. And since God created us as bodies, it is as bodies that we will be raised to new and eternal life.
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. We believe we are adopted as God’s children and made brothers and sisters of Christ in Holy Baptism, and that in Baptism we receive the life-giving Spirit of the Father and the Son who energizes us in our service to God and neighbor in this life and will enliven our bodies in the resurrection of the dead.
Michelangelo’s mural of Christ coming to judge the living and the dead on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel. It is as naked bodies that we will be raised and Christ is greeting them in a naked state. The Vatican Curia caused an artist to paint a thin linen over Christ’s genitals some years after Michelangelo’s death. Michelangelo understood about the alchemically changed body in the resurrection. That’s probably why his nudes are all so fleshy and muscular. An interesting detail is St. Bartholomew, whom tradition said was flayed alive, holding his old skin as he rises in his resurrection body.
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 in 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? Will my resurrected body be as I was when I died or at some stage along life’s way? Or will it be a new me? Another configuration of cells beyond the configurations of cells that have been totally renewed at seven-year intervals throughout my life? I’ve wondered about that myself.
Illustration of 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 may aspire to be worthy of such a gift of grace in the new creation. But if I have a new body, “a spiritual body,” as St. Paul calls it (1 Corinthians 15:44), it will be a gift, not something that I can accomplish by daily workouts in the gym.
Michelangelo’s 1521 statue of the risen Christ, located in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, portrays 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, perhaps representing the burial linens falling from his risen body.
But Michelangelo was on to something. We’re not going to rise from the dead all dressed up. Our festive garments await us when we attend the marriage supper of the Lamb. In an earlier sculpture of the risen Christ that Michelangelo set aside because of imperfections in the marble, Christ is nude and holding his burial linen as if to say, “I don’t need this any more.”
As Christ came forth from the dead in his living glorified body, won’t we too enter paradise restored to the same state as the first man in the original paradise? Naked before God and unashamed?
The problem is that we are ashamed. It is a consequence of the fall into sin—into alienation from God, from other people, and from the creation itself. That sense of shame focuses on the genitals, which is where we most express intimacy. When the candidates for Baptism in the ancient church stripped naked to have their bodies anointed with oil and to go naked into the water for their Trinitarian immersion, church fathers like Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of paradise and innocence being restored. But, of course, we must continue to live our lives in a world that is not paradise. And, unfortunately, the Church has inculcated guilt about “the flesh” with its requirements of modesty—even covering up the risen Christ so our eyes should not behold his and our own resurrected state.
Moreover, we are dissatisfied with our bodies. No matter how much we diet and exercise we remain dissatisfied with our bodies. When the risen Christ appeared to his apostles, he was not ashamed to show them his wounds. Certainly the risen Christ wanted his disciples to see him in continuity with the Jesus they knew. Also, those wounds purchased their redemption from captivity to sin, death, and the devil or forces of evil. As one who learned a theology of the cross, I think there was something more in Jesus showing his wounds than just continuity. Great Christian saints like the apostle Paul, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther have known that only vulnerability can be entrusted with spiritual power. St. Paul wrote that “power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So Christ exposes his wounds to us, the signs of his weakness.
This example of the risen Christ encourages us, his disciples, to also embrace our scars, our wounds, our vulnerability. We need not be ashamed of our bodily selves, no matter what our personal shape and size and age may be.
Pastor Frank Senn