How are the Dead Raised?
|The resurrection of Adam and Eve|
One of the big questions Christians face concerns the resurrection. We’re still in Eastertide, so the question is a live one. The hymns of the season boldly proclaim Christ to be alive. Death cannot hold him. Therefore, death has lost its sting. This is good news, is it not?
Then comes the question of how this all happens. Science seems to represent a significant hurdle. Though there are numbers of reports of near-death experiences, they remain controversial and problematic. I won’t argue for or against them, but I confess to being skeptical about the reports. But, for some these reports have proven helpful, and so I’ll leave them there.
The reason I ask the question is that my Wednesday Bible Study has reached part two of 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul responds to the question of how the dead are raised. People apparently asked then, as they do now: “With what kind of body do they come? (1 Cor. 15:35). It’s a good question, though Paul’s response suggests that he found it without merit (or rather the sentiment behind it that rejected the resurrection). Consider his use of the word “fool” as the opening of the response in verse 36.
Though I affirm the bodily resurrection, I do not understand the resurrection to be a simple resuscitation of the physical body so that it can go on as before. In John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It is clear, however, that Lazarus has simply resumed normal human life. Thus, at some point, he will die. This is not what Paul means by resurrection, nor does John for that matter. What Paul has in mind is a transformed body.
When we read Paul, we need to take into account that he is rarely clear in his pronouncements. That being said, he makes a strong distinction between what is perishable and what is imperishable. There is a mortal/physical body and an immortal/spiritual body.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. [1 Cor. 15:42-44 NRSV).
Whatever is the nature of this resurrection body, Paul understands it to be different from the physical body, which is sown in weakness but raised in power. That is, it is “sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” This doesn’t give us much to go on, but it is clear that it is of a different order, even if there is a clear relationship between the physical and the spiritual. One is perishable, but the other is imperishable. In other words, resurrection involves a new beginning. It is, according to Charles Campbell, an “apocalyptic interruption” of the old age. [1 Corinthians, p. 252]. If this is true, then perhaps all our efforts to explain the resurrection (bodily or otherwise) misses the point. We don’t have words or even understanding that will help us truly grasp what is involved here. But, according to Paul, what is true is that we may not all die, but everyone will be changed or transformed. (1 Cor. 15:51).
It is a mystery, as Paul notes, but resurrection will happen, and change/transformation will take place. What is perishable will be replaced with what is imperishable. As a result, death will have lost its sting. Because death has lost its sting (Paul seems to be mocking death in verses 54-55), we can excel in the work of the Lord (vs. 58). In this, Paul believes, there is hope, and we who hold steadfast to this hope can excel in the work of the Lord.
So we return to the question: How are the dead raised? What kind of body will those who are resurrected have? Are these questions relevant to who we are as Christians? Remember that in Paul's mind, if there is no resurrection, then our faith has no value.
Image attribution: Fresco from Kariye Camii, Anastasis - showing Christ and the resurrection of Adam and Eve, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54562 [retrieved May 21, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trevino/314606353/in/photostream.