Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Resurrection of the Body: Becoming Whole

I think it is important to be aware of how little we as theologians can say about existence after death. If one wants to attack a persons faith with the weapons of reason, surely the post-mortem existence is the easiest target.

The bible actually has very little to say about this. The common conceptions about life after death are based much more on Virgil and Dante than on Scripture. In fact, I think one can argue that what the Christian tradition actually states about what comes after death is essentially “negative theology”, in the sense that if we combine these pieces of doctrine, we end up with concepts that are completely incomprehensible to the human mind. It is a firm belief of the Church that time will not be a part that existence. Now, this in itself makes all symbols we use to describe the future world of limited worth, because time is such a fundamental component in this existence. And if we add to this statement the notion of the resurrection of the body, the most important symbol of life beyond death in the NT, the last pieces of our pastoral images of heaven crumbles to dust. What kind of a body can we imagine without existence in time?

Paul, of course, in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), does combine these two statements. “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (v. 42). It is fairly clear that Paul means something quite different with the body here than the physical body have/is in this life. I’m no exegete, but I think we can get a clue of what he is talking about from Romans 6. Here Paul seems to use the body as a symbol for what we have come to be, in the sense of a deviation from our true selves caused by life in the world. “The old self” (v. 6) is what has we have become because of original sin (in the sense I described it in my previous post – the sum of all the things that affect our personality but does not come from ourselves).

The imperishable body is our personality as it would stand, freed from this deviation. In other words, the Christian hope, as Paul envisions it, is that death will only affect those parts of ourselves that are not genuine. Our true selves, freed from negative outside influence, will continue to exist in some way. This is also how I like to interpret that other important eschatological symbol, the judgment. It will be a separation of what is true in me and what is not, more than a separation of the good people from the bad.

The important question then is, what is this “true self”. Can we even imagine a personality apart from the influences of our environment? I think this image is fundamentally flawed, and it is the dominating anthropological concept in our time: the assumption that there is one part of our personality that is natural (often: biological) and one that is caused by society, influence. See any debate on homosexuality, for example.

No, our genuine self is not defined by our genes, and it is not (the religious equivalent) given by God as a specific calling. If we believe that humans are created free, this is the essence of that freedom: we are free to define who we are ourselves. “True” when we speak of the self, is not to be translated as “original” or “what once was”. True is that which we have defined ourselves, which of all the influences that come to us we in our freedom accept to incorporate in our personality. False is that which we accept, not by freedom, but by lack of responsibility over our own life, and because of the circumstance under which we live. These are all the parts of our personality that we just let happen, since we do not take our life seriously.

It is from those elements of our personality we will ultimately be saved. This is to become “whole”. Now, how this will feel, look, take place – these are questions we do not have the answer to.


Steve Blakemore said...

Thanks for taking on such interesting and important topics. But let me ask you.

Exactly what would a true "self" be? The concept of the "self" is a pretty modern one. I fear a subtle anachronism at work in your reflections.

Why do you think it unlikely that St. Paul did not envision a real physical resurrection? The Pharisees of his day (forthe most part did).

Also, isn't the idea of bodily resurrection entirely consistent with the seemingly New Testament focus on the renewal of all of creation, not merely the redemption of individual humans.

And what actually makes for an "negative" influence from "outside" a person? One's response to "influences" is a part (even if only a part) of their "positivity" or their "netativity," is it not? So, the "self" as you put it, is not some independent entity that could be located amongst all the other items of reality.

Finally, I fear that your focus on release from negative influences and being one's "true self" leads one more readilty toward gnosticism more that apostolic doctrine. Maybe I have read you wrong or I am thinking wrong.

Looney said...

Cool post.

Nature + Nurture + Something Fuzzy

This fundamentalist looney looked hard for something to challenge, but found little. Unlike Steve, I think that 'self' as an abstract concept is in the new testament. The concepts are preached by example in the old testament, but this has something to do with the, er, evolution of human abstract reasoning facilities combined with the revelation of Christ, while God remains unchangeable.

There is one point that bothers me:

"It will be a separation of what is true in me and what is not, more than a separation of the good people from the bad."

My main hope is that what remains of the "bad" nature in me will be taken away entirely and God will provide me with something pleasing to Him.

The idea that there will be a separation of what is "true" from what is not strikes me as a synthesis of some Westernized Eastern concepts with Christian concepts.

Patrik said...

Steve, se my new post.

Looney, I'm glad someone who calls himself a fundamentalist can agree with me. That gives me hope!

I think what you say about the part of you that is "bad" being replaced by something that is pleasing to God is rather close to what I mean. Of course, what is pleasing to God would be my true self, seeing that God has created me.

I can't say if my thinking is eastern it is style, I haven't studied any other religions than Christinity in depth. But it is my understanding that the Buddhist idea of salvation is rather the opposite: the annihilation of the self, whearas my understanding of the Christian doctrine is that this is what is in the end saved. So that does not seem very close. But were you thinking of something else?

Looney said...

"That gives me hope!"

Ha! If you put your hope in me, universalism won't save you!

Keep up the good work.

byron said...

"It is a firm belief of the Church that time will not be a part that existence."

Why is that? I've never felt the reason for it. Certainly Moltmann rejects any conception of a 'timeless eternity'. If time is part of God's good, very good creation (rather than part of the fall, as Augustine needs to end up saying, since he is the one who really introduced this time/eternity split), then won't it too be redeemed in the 'restoration of all things'? Moltmann develops the concept of 'the fullness of time' - at the end, every moment will be completed, summed up, gathered together, purified and transformed into redeemed time. God will have time for us, because he takes his time with us. Let's have a good time with God.

Sem_Student said...

I just read your post and it reminds me of a new book which I found interesting and which may interest you.

The book is Heaven is a place on Earth (Wittmer). A key point of this book is that God made the world and everything in it good. This goodness is broken by sin. God, through Jesus is in the business of restoring the world to it's original goodness.

This restoration come to its culmination with the creation of the new earth (a physical place) which will be populated with our new bodies (the physical bodies which I believe Paul is referring to in the above passage). Here, God will make all things new. If we see the physical world as originally good then a new phyical world can be a natural result.

Bennie said...

You write, "I'm no exegete..." Will it not be necessary once again--is it not necessary now--that systematic and dogmatic theologians become exegetes? Since I am, by vocation and appointment, and exegete, let me acknowledge right away that exegetes need to become theologians.

klatu said...

Could the Resurrection of Jesus possibly have meant that the living God was indeed prepared to intervene directly into the natural world, in a personal yet absolute and irrefutable manner to create the wholeness within man that human kind is missing? The is the argument being made by a wholly new interpretation of the Resurrection and moral teachings of Christ spreading on the web. And this is not just abstract argument: Quoting OVI and OpEdnews:

"Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the worlds great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle offering the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds to an act of perfect faith with a direct, individual intervention into the natural world; correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception outside all natural evolutionary boundaries. Understood metaphorically, this experience of transcendent power and change is the 'Resurrection' and justification of faith."

Apparently trials of this new teaching are already under way in several countries. If this paradigm change in the nature of faith is proved to be authentic, history has some very difficult questions to answer...!

Further information and to join the trials at: