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Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Physical or spiritual resurrection.

Alexander S. wrote:

As the "empty tomb," initial disbelieve [sic] on the part of Jesus' followers, and Jesus subsequent showing himself to them were described as facts in the four Gospels, how can we assert that "resurrection has nothing to do with bodily resuscitation"?

Oh, such tricky business! There are many ways to approach this question. Here's where I'd start:

"Resurrection" and "bodily resuscitation" are not the same thing in the New Testament, although it is possible that they aren't strictly dissimilar. The story of Lazarus describes "bodily resuscitation," but one can argue that Paul, whose account of the resurrection is the earliest historical document about it, makes an important distinction between the physical revival of a dead body and the resurrection of Jesus.

1 Corinthians 15 is the place to look, and to look again. It's challenging stuff — but the key to the long tradition of interpreting the resurrection in non-physical (or at least more-than-physical) terms is here.

The chapter opens with a very short early confession "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared . . . [to a long list of apostles concluding with Paul]." This is probably one of the earliest "accounts" of the resurrection, much earlier than any of the gospels.

Later in the chapter Paul addresses the question you raised, starting in verse 35: "But some one will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'" and Paul replies with an agricultural metaphor:

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.

For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish . . .

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. 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. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

It goes on from there, and gets even better — leading to the great passage Handel set to music, "The trumpet shall sound!" — but the key thing to notice is that Paul is emphasizing how the resurrected body is different from the physical body. It's not just "alive again"; something much more than resuscitation has occurred. It may be that Paul assumed that when the resurrected Christ appeared to him that he was encountering the transformed but nevertheless "resuscitated body" of Jesus of Nazareth. But he is clearly more interested in the meaning of the difference between the "physical man" and the "spiritual man" than in their continuities.

The first man [Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust," he writes; "the second man [Christ] is from heaven. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

There's a lot of scholarship on this crucial chapter. Any reference library will have the Anchor Bible commentaries, and if you get really ambitious, there is no shortage of material to read.

I took an entire course on the resurrection from N.T. Wright, which led me to conclude that there is no possible way to say with certainty, "This happened, but that didn't." Those of us whose faith affirms the resurrection, but whose minds doubt that dead bodies get back up and walk away, have ample evidence which the New Testament doesn't really refute — but we have no proof. Those of us whose faith affirms the resurrection, and who believe that after our physical death "we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," we stand in faith. But Paul is challenging us not to assume that resurrection describes something easy to understand. Try painting or depicting what Paul is describing. If it comes easily, read 1 Corinthians 15 again.

(Originally posted to UUCF-L)

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 10 July 2002 at 10:45 AM

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