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“We look for the resurrection of the dead.” (Nicene Creed)
“It was always the broken hand we learned to lean on after all.” (Sam Beam, Iron and Wine, “Innocent Bones”)
In the past few years, I’ve come face to face with death. I was with my grandmother when she drew her last breaths, and since then I’ve lost both of my grandfathers as well. At this time of year, Christians face that mysterious thing called death, and somehow declare that it’s been defeated. We celebrate the raising of Christ from the dead, despite the fact that death is still a painful and devastating aspect of our experience.
Because of these experiences, I’ve been thinking more about what the Christian tradition teaches about life after death. In the popular imagination, there’s the clichéd and fairly sentimental idea of heaven; you know, the puffy white clouds, and Peter guarding some kind of pearl-encrusted gate, and everyone becoming angels with wings and harps and white robes. The idea is that your body dies, but your soul floats up to heaven, where the streets are paved with gold and everyone is happy forever. Aside from the triteness of this idea, I’m left wondering: what exactly does this have to do with the resurrection of Jesus?
We tend to be so focused on resurrection as something that happened to Jesus and as the reason we celebrate this Easter season that we overlook the fact that Jesus is described in the Bible as the “first-born of the dead” (Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5) – implying, of course, that all the rest of us are to be raised from the dead eventually too, which is sometimes referred to as the “general resurrection” (Isaiah 16:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Mark 12:25; 1 Corinthians 15:52; etc.). Though this might seem less believable and more other-worldly than the familiar image of heaven, I think it’s actually a more helpful way to think about death and eternal life.
For one thing, the idea that the soul and the body are separable is not a Christian idea. It actually comes from some streams of Greek philosophy, and the belief that souls are trapped in evil, suffering and vulnerable bodies until they’re set free at death. The resurrection of the dead, by contrast, is a way of affirming that bodies are good, that we are embodied beings, and that souls/spirits/life-breath and bodies cannot be separated, even in death. And this applies to our attitude toward the earth as well. It’s not about escaping this earthly life for some other-worldly, disembodied/immaterial place. The book of Revelation actually describes both heaven and earth being made new at the end of time, as well as the descent of the New Jerusalem to earth. Whatever mystery awaits us in the future, Revelation is clear that this earth will somehow be involved. Like our bodies, it will be changed, but not dismissed or discarded.
Without resurrection, though, there is no orientation toward the future, toward the eschaton or “end of the age.” The idea of a heaven we go to immediately after we die is a kind of instant-gratification version of resurrection, not to mention its individualism, as souls go one-by-one to heaven. Where is the time given to build up the church, to make a space for the kingdom of God among human beings? Where is the time to wait in hope for the return of the Resurrected One, who will raise all others, together, and renew heaven and earth? Heaven short-circuits these ideas, making history seemingly meaningless, just something to be escaped, since it seems God does not dwell there. In Jesus, though, as well as in the Israelite history before him, God’s presence is decidedly near to humankind, in the midst of their lives in time and history.
This nearness of the divine to the ordinary, messy realities of human lives is highlighted even more in what we’re told of Christ’s resurrected body. Given our societal hang-ups about physical perfection as beautiful, we might expect Jesus’ raised body to be absolutely flawless, with all traces of the brokenness of earthly life wiped away. But this couldn’t be further from what the Bible presents, since the risen Jesus still bears the scars and wounds from his crucifixion. This is actually what allows the disciples to recognize that it’s really him, the one who was just crucified; his disciple, Thomas, even places his hand inside the wound in Jesus’ side (John 20:24-27 – see the picture above, found here). This is what leads theologian Elizabeth Stuart to speak of the risen Jesus Christ as the image of “the disabled God,” which “reveals the full personhood of disabled people,” i.e., of those whom our culture would see as living with less-than-perfect bodies (see this book, p. 327). It’s also the allusion musician Sam Beam makes in speaking about learning to rely on the “broken hand.” It’s a profound thing to think about, the way one of the clearest signs of divinity is marked with the experiences of human vulnerability and mortality. The risen Jesus also seems to be unrecognizable to Mary Magdalene in the garden, and to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, indicating that he’s a strange mix between the familiar, or even ordinary (besides his wounds, he also makes breakfast for the disciples, and eats with them) and radical otherness (passing through walls and ascending to heaven, as well as just being alive after being dead!). So resurrection seems to be some combination between an embodied life resembling the present one, and an almost unimaginable, indescribable newness.
Now resurrection is a deep mystery, and I’m not advocating sci-fi-esque speculation about what exactly the resurrection is going to look like. (Though Augustine of Hippo, the infamous third-century theologian, wasn’t afraid of going there in his huge book, City of God). From what we know of Christ’s resurrection, though, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the next life is an embodied one, that our bodies do matter, that they won’t just be thrown away. That’s partly why the proper burial of the dead has been so important throughout Christian history. So what happens to us when we die? Well, we die, and we’re buried in the ground. But in death, as in this life, God remains with us, and we remain in God’s care. The God who can overcome death, even the horrific, tortured death of crucifixion, is with us even when we are dead. And this God gives us the hope that one day we, like Jesus before us, will experience the resurrection of our bodies.