The New Physicality of Resurrection

Last week Bruce Epperly offered an alternate progressive understanding of Resurrection, one that allowed for it to be more than a parable or metaphor, but allows for a sense of physicality.  This post got considerable discussion going, for we struggle with what all of this means.  Part of our issue is that we must, whether we like it or not, recognize that science plays a role in the conversation.  Progressive/liberal Christians tend to have a problem with discussions of reality that rely on supernaturalism.  The assumption is that God does not contravene the laws of nature.  There are a lot of reasons for that position, which I'll not go into here.  But, it does raise questions about the physicality of Jesus' resurrection and that of any post-death experience.

Last night, if you watched it, the conclusion to the Lost series reflected upon life after death and while envisioning a rather inclusive/interfaith understanding, offered a sense of physicality -- even resurrection.  On that end, I'll leave it to expert Lost watchers like James McGrath to break down the meaning of the finale.  But, what it does suggest is that many people hope for an embodied future post death. 

With that introduction, I wanted to add in a paragraph from N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, that deals with Paul's understanding of post-death physicality.  As a prelude to this quote, Wright makes it clear that he has in mind a sense of this new physicality of resurrection being part of "life after life after death."  That is, what is spoken of in John 14 as the "many mansions" or Jesus in Luke speaking of paradise, infers an intermediate state prior to the new physicality that Jesus will embody in his own resurrection, and which we will share in at the time of the General Resurrection.

What Paul is asking us to imagine  is that there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body does to a ghost.  It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit.  We sometimes speak of someone who's been very ill as being a shadow of their former self.  If Paul is right, a Christian in the present life is a mere shadow of his or her future self, the self that person will be when the body that God has waiting in his heavenly storeroom is brought out, already made to measure, and put on over the present one -- or over the self that will still exist after bodily death.  (p. 154). 
In this statement, which is a reflection upon Paul's discussion of the new creation in 2 Corinthians 5, he speaks of our current bodies being mere shadows of the future body, the spiritual body.  The spiritual body is not ghostlike, but even more tangible than the current one.  I would invite your response to this statement as we wrestle with what it means to embrace the idea of resurrection in the contemporary world.  What is it, after all, that the hope of the resurrection, which Paul makes so central, have to say to our lives in the hear and now? 


Great discussion, Bob. I, too, watched the Lost finale (even though I was not a faithful watcher through all 6 seasons) and it's got me thinking hard about resurrection. That and a couple of recent discussions with people who are extremely grounded in science and therefore find it impossible to make the case for a physical resurrection. Much as I wanted to make a strong case, I was unable to.

So what you're suggesting, in a sense, is a reclaiming of the word "reincarnation." We may become bodily beings after death, in an entirely different sense than that word is often used. I've read Paul's words but interpreted them in the context of his warnings about immorality of "the flesh." [i.e. you'll mess up your resurrection body if you don't live a "pure" life]. I'm wary of Paul's tendencies toward dualism in this regard (but maybe that's just my interpretation of Paul, which could be incorrect.)

You present a much more interesting and powerful interpretation that is non-dualistic. I'll continue to think on it.
Abundancetrek said…
My concern is that all too many Christians reject those of us who can't affirm literal resurrections, people walking on water, people turning water into wine and other supernatural events. Also, I and many millions of us find the evidence for evolution overwhelming and indeed beautiful.

I simply don't believe a loving God would insist that we must believe in certain kinds of supernatural miracles as a litmus test of who can be called Christians and who can't. Also, I'm fascinated by the insistence that these miracles only happened for Christians and to the earlier Israelites. The same kind of supernatural miracles are often presented by other wisdom traditions but narrow-minded Christians have no trouble denying that those miracles happened. You can't have it both ways.

I believe in a mystical approach which is the foundation of all of our wisdom traditions. It is often called The Perennial Philosophy. Mystical perception allows us to leave the time-space continuum and experience the mystery of eternity. Yes, in that realm, we become More and not Less but I can not bring myself to describe that as a physical event as we understand that here on planet Earth.

A wonderful description of Christian myth and ritual and how it basically embraces the Perennial Philosophy is found in MYTH AND RITUAL IN CHRISTIANITY by Alan Watts.

love, john + + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.
Abundancetrek said…
I love the title of your Blog.
Mike L. said…
I like Wright, but his apologetic attempts play right into the hands of both religious fundamentalists and atheists. As long as he leaves the meaning of resurrection locked in the notion that "it's important because it really happened", I think he's keeping us from ever getting past that horrible modern divide.

"What Paul is asking us to imagine is that there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body does to a ghost."

I like much of what NT Wright has done to promote more reasonable scholarship within Evangelical theology, but what is the difference in this reasoning and the kind of pseudo-science found at the creation museum? On what grounds can Wright (or Paul) make claims to know something about this "new physicality"? Here is where Wright turns from exegesis to something that sounds more like a flying saucer enthusiast.

What is this other kind of physical existence? How is that different from dualism (the belief in some other kind of substance like a spirit or soul)? Maybe he's drawing from Aristotle than Plato, but do they get the last word?

Let's assume Wright is right about Paul. What gives Paul the right to be an authority on these scientific matters for every generation after him? Should we take his word on nuclear fission? How about the germ theory of disease? Why does being Christian have to be tied up with adopting an understanding of the universe common in the 1st century?

I don't think being Christian means we have to agree on metaphysics with Plato, Aristotle, or even Paul. More importantly, I don't think Paul was even trying to argue for his own view over other common metaphysical explanations. When it comes to the possibility of resurrections, I think Paul probably had the same view as most everyone else at the time. The modernist fixation on "it had to have happened" shifts us away from the bigger questions of meaning. Paul's real emphasis has to do with the real world and the implications of following Jesus in the world, not getting people to adopt a 1st century metaphysical view.
Doug Sloan said…
To me, talking about the resurrection of Jesus or aspects of a post-death existence seem as relevant as talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is absolutely indeterminable and has zero relevance to life - it is a waste of time.

How well we can abandon and ignore such discussions is a measure of our faith and trust in God.
David Mc said…
"Mystical perception allows us to leave the time-space continuum and experience the mystery of eternity." I like that. Most of us must have all experienced this at least once?

"talking about the resurrection of Jesus or aspects of a post-death existence seem as relevant as talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."

I agree.
Keith Watkins said…
Since I'm 78, with a low-level bout with cancer in my medical history, discussions of resurrection are taking on a certain timeliness. Thank you, Bruce and Bob, for your contributions. Books that provide constructive materials for the discussion are Peter Berger's "Questions of Faith," Larry Hurtado's "How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?" and "Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments,' edited by Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker." I have not read the essays in the last of the books. We should continue the discussion.
Robert Cornwall said…
Keith, thank you for your comments -- and the recommendations of resources!
phil_style said…
Personally I CAN get my head around the resurrection. It's the ascention that makes no sense to me. How does a physical body eneter "heaven"?

And why do the gospel writer(s) fdescribve it floating up until it's out of view... as though heaven were a physical place, just beyond the clouds.....

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