This is Part II of a three-part series by Fr. Jesse, leading up to All Saints Sunday and the construction of a Columbarium.
Reclaiming the Resurrection
We say it every Sunday morning. At the end of the Nicene Creed, the summary of our Christian beliefs, we say together, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Similarly, when we say the Apostles’ Creed as part of Morning or Evening Prayer, or in the question-and-answer form as in the liturgy for Baptism, we say, “I believe in…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
What is it that we mean when say those words? What does the Church mean by them? The Catechism, that small and often overlooked section in the back of the Prayer Book, says this on p. 862:
Q. What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?
A. We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of the saints.
Since the beginning of the Christian movement, our belief in Christ’s resurrection from tomb has been inseparable from our hope in our own resurrection that is to come. To understand our belief in the resurrection of the body, we must understand both what Jesus’ resurrection means and what it means for us.
But, as you’d expect, it all starts with Jesus. The foundational principle of the Christian gospel is that Jesus rose bodily from the tomb on that first Easter morning. In fact, when the New Testament speaks of “Good News,” it specifically means the news that Jesus has risen from death, that his tomb is empty. This news is the central tenet of our faith. Or, as scholar Raymond Brown put it, “Jesus’ victory over death has been a fundamental Christian concern from the beginning until the present day” (The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, Ch. 2). This is the news that all the apostles’ shouted loud and clear, even though it was met with death-threats and even execution, and as apologist Josh McDowell has noted, nearly all of the apostles, on pain of death, refused to deny this truth and did give up their lives.
They were willing to die for this faith, because Jesus’ victory over death and the grave, means that we—those who follow him—have a share in his victory. As the verse of the original version of the Exsultet at Easter Vigil proclaimed, “The night is come, whereby all that believe in Christ upon the face of all the earth, delivered from this naughty world and out of the shadow of death, are renewed unto grace, and are made partakers of eternal life. The night is come, wherein the bonds of death were loosed, and Christ harrowing hell rose again in triumph” (1921 Anglican Missal, B91).
The Church has talked since the beginning about our resurrection whenever it talks about Jesus’ resurrection, and vice versa. Jesus’ rising from the tomb is considered not a separate event, so much as the inaugural event in God’s total resurrection of the dead, or as Paul terms it, Jesus is “the first fruits” of God’s resurrection act (1 Co. 15:23). In fact, Paul says that the whole purpose of our faith hinges on the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the tomb:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Co. 15:12-14).
A few centuries later, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria would describe the Resurrection as one of the ultimate purposes for Jesus taking on human form. His death and resurrection, Athanasius wrote, was a sign of what God ultimately has in store for the rest of us:
The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to His victory over death, the assurance to all that He had Himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that He kept His body incorrupt. (On the Incarnation, 4.22)
When it comes to resurrection, it is clear that both Scripture and Church Tradition have been on the same page from the start: Our ultimate fate in linked to Jesus Christ’s. One day, “in the fullness of time” (what theologians call an eschatological event), Jesus will come again in glory and we all will be resurrected, both soul and body.
So, what does that mean? For those who have not spent much time studying or thinking about bodily resurrection, it might conjure up scenes from zombie movies, or images of resuscitated corpses after supernatural CPR–but that’s not what resurrection is at all. The promise of the resurrection of the body is not about being revived but is about being transformed into something better than we can begin to imagine. C.S. Lewis described it this way:
The point is that while believing in survival they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection narratives are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe. Something new had appeared in the universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into ‘ghost’ and ‘corpse’. A new mode of being has arisen. (“What do we make of Jesus Christ?,” God in the Dock, 1950)
Resurrection is a transformative act of God. It is both a recreation of our human nature and a restoration of what God had originally hoped for us in Creation. Our old, mortal, frail bodies will be transformed into something better than we can now know. Paul described it to the Corinthians this way:
So it is 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 a, it is raised a spiritual body.…in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Co. 15:42-44, 52-53)
This new body is similar to ours now but it is more than that. It is new and improved, made suitable for the new heaven and new earth where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Of course, belief in bodily resurrection was not new with the Jesus movement, Jews had been talking about this resurrection of the body already. But with Jesus and the apostles, we begin to get a better idea of what that resurrection means: “Jewish sources leave it vague as to what form the new body will take, but the early Christian sources, again and again, indicate that the body will be transformed into a new type of immortal physicality” (N.T. Wright & John Dominic Crossan, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 19). In Christian theology, in contrast to popular culture, those who have passed away do not become angels, but rather they are in the process of becoming transformed, perfected humans.
Can we possibly imagine what it might be like? Yes, in a way, if we look at the stories of the Resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples after the Easter miracle. His body still bore resemblance to his mortal body. For instance, he still had wounds on his hands, feet, and side that Thomas could touch and feel (John 20:27); and yet his body was different enough that a familiar, dear friend didn’t immediately recognize him when running into him in the garden (John 20:11-16; cf. Luke 24:13-16).
As the book of Revelation describes, our resurrected bodies will be beyond the touch of illness, corruption, disease, death, or decay. The former physical needs we had will no longer limit us. No longer will we need to sleep or eat. Yet, while a resurrected body doesn’t need to eat, Jesus was able to eat in his resurrected form, as he did when he ate fish and bread with his disciples (see Luke 24:41-43, John 21:9-15). Resurrected Jesus could walk and journey with his disciples (as he did on the road to Emmaus, see Luke 24), and yet he could also just appear instantly, despite locked doors and closed windows (Luke 24:36, John 20:19,26). These descriptions from his resurrection appearances can help us imagine what our new resurrected life might be like in the fullness of time (see Philippians 3:20-21).
For Christians, death is not the end, but the beginning of a new stage of living and sharing in God’s life. As Dr. Chris Bryan says, “The transformation of all things will then be the true end of our story—or perhaps, after a false start, its true beginning. In Christ’s rising from the dead, according to Paul, this reversal has already begun…” (The Resurrection of the Messiah, p. 188)
Our belief that God is not done with the human body at mortal death is one of the reasons Christians have been so careful about our burial rites, and that’s where Part III of this series comes in…