Last week in dealing with eschatology I urged us to keep our focus on the definitive state of salvation rather than getting bogged down in discussions of transitional end time events. Whatever the transitional events turn out to be, the definitive state of salvation is eternal life in the presence of God. However there is one transitional event that the New Testament so connects to the definitive state that I need to deal with it, that is, the resurrection of the body. Though I won’t take the space in this essay to discuss it, my thinking on the resurrection has been definitively shaped by repeated reading and reflection on Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.
Everyone dies, and everyone knows it. But death means different things in different religions. For some religions and philosophies, death is merely a transition from this order to another. The higher part of the soul is freed from the body to return to the divine realm from which it came. Life in the cyclical of nature is bondage from which we need liberating and death is the way out. But for Christianity, death is not a transition to another mode of life; it is the end. Death is not the promise of liberation but the threat of annihilation. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the resurrection of the body is the central event of transition from this order to eternal life with God. Pinpointing death instead of the resurrection of the body as the transitional event, as popular religion often does, distorts and disrupts the entire Christian way of understanding the world. Let’s examine two reasons why the resurrection instead of death makes sense as the transition to eternal life.
First, God created this world, matter and nature, body and soul, and pronounced it very good. The body is not a prison, and life in this world is not a place of purgatory to which we were consigned because of our pre-incarnate sins. So, resurrection makes perfect sense as the transition from the present order in which creation is wounded and imperfect—though still good—to the healed and perfected order that God is preparing. Resurrection saves and perfects creation and affirms its created goodness. Or, to say it another way, God’s act of saving creation from death and decay and bringing it to its intended goal is called resurrection.
The promise of resurrection affirms continuity between the creation as it now exists and the new creation God will make. The new creation is not a replacement for the old one but the present creation saved and perfected. As for individual people, resurrection promises continuity between our present identity and our future selves. What good would it do for me to survive death if the part of my soul that survives has no memory of me and if my life in the body makes no ultimate difference? I have no more reason to look forward to this mode of survival than to survival of the atoms in my body after its dissolution! Who would find comfort in that? I can hope that my resurrected self (body and soul) will be expanded and illuminated and intimately united with Christ and filled with God’s Spirit. But unless there is continuity with the “I” that I am now, it makes no sense to call this transition resurrection or salvation.
Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central revealing and saving event of the Christian faith. Why would God raise Jesus, body and soul, from the dead if death itself were the transition to eternal life? If Jesus had merely survived death as a spirit, he could have appeared as a ghost to his disciples to declare his innocence and to assure them of the possibility of surviving death. But God raised him from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection declared not only his innocence of the Jewish’s accusation of blasphemy and Roman charge of sedition but it also declared his victory over death. Jesus’ resurrection made God’s intention to save and perfect his creation more than a hypothesis consistent with God’s act of creation. It made it a fact in history. And this fact calls for a revolution in the way we live:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:55).
It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).
Next Time: What shall we make of the doctrine of Hell? Is it part of the gospel or an especially difficult part of the problem of evil? Should we take the language about Hell as literal or metaphorical?