Christianity would be such an easy sell if it was just about love. We could take our example from Jesus, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for children, and reaching out to people in need. The death and resurrection of Jesus would be a beautiful metaphor for what it means to take the suffering and dying and put them securely on their feet.
Though this would simplify our faith immensely, and allow us to link arms with people of other faiths in a common cause, we would have to pull a Thomas Jefferson and take a pair of scissors to the Bible.
Of course God supports any and all efforts to rehabilitate this sick and suffering world, that’s his heart, but God’s ultimate solution is not just to fix this world. He wants to renew it.
Many of the first century Jews believed in a divine justice that would not allow a single wrong to go unpunished or a single righteous act to go unrewarded. In order for this to happen, each person needed to be brought back to face the consequences of their actions. This was to happen on a very specific day. They called it the Day of Yahweh or the Last Day. We call it Judgment Day.
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Daniel 12:2
“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:40
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” John 11:23-25
Although this concept of a future resurrection was debated in the first century, Jesus affirmed it, claiming to be the one who would gather the nations before him to be sorted out, establishing a new kingdom on the earth. His ultimate act of affirmation was to literally die in front of them, be buried, then come back to life.
As I mentioned in my last post, the apostles claimed that our future resurrection state will be just like the risen Christ. But what does that even look like? Flesh? Spirit? Something new?
Arguments for Flesh:
The tomb was empty. This implies some kind of resuscitation or transformation of the raw materials that had been wrapped up in burial clothes. Jesus ate food with his disciples. This argues for a functional stomach and digestive system. Jesus encouraged Thomas to touch his scars, implying that physical contact was possible, and that something from the previous body endured to the next.
Somehow the body that Thomas touched had suddenly appeared in their midst. Did Jesus walk through a wall? Teleport? Materialize? Flesh doesn’t do that. A similar thing happened with the two men on the road to Emmaus. They walked and talked with Jesus, sat down to a meal, then he suddenly vanished.
In Genesis, the angels that came to talk with Abraham and brought about the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah also sat down for a meal. If immaterial beings like angels can walk around in a tangible form and eat food with humans, couldn’t Jesus do the same?
Arguments for Spirit:
We believe that the risen Christ is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. That’s heaven, a place for spiritual beings like God, angels and departed saints. Can a physical being live in heaven? Is Jesus on a literal chair with literal clothes on, looking down on the earth with literal eyes? What did Paul see on the Road to Damascus? A physical Christ? Is that what Stephen saw when he was being stoned?
Think about the ascension. When Jesus passed beyond the sight of the apostles what happened to him? Was he transformed into a spirit at that point? Or did he shoot into outer space like Galaxy Quest, his physical body protected by some kind of magical force-field until he got to heaven?
If Jesus’ body was disintegrated and replaced, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, he could no longer be the promised descendant of David that would reign forever on his throne. That descendant would have been lost to history, and Jesus would have turned back into the spirit being he was before.
But if Jesus returned to his former state, why would God bother promoting him to a position of authority over all things? In fact, being King of Kings is a huge demotion from being God. A promotion only makes sense if it is the man, Jesus, being promoted in order to accomplish something for the rest of humanity in his resurrected state.
Arguments for Something New:
When Paul describes our transformation in I Corinthians 15, he claims that our natural bodies, as part of this current age, are perishable, dishonorable and weak. Yeah, that sounds about right. Then he claims that our new bodies will be unperishable, glorious and powerful. He calls them spiritual bodies.
I wonder if Paul knew that he was giving us an oxymoron, like sharp curves or jumbo shrimp? Being spiritual means being without a body, right? As far as we know, bodies are containers for spirits. Having spiritual bodies would be like have cups made out of liquid.
NT Wright suggests that Paul was using the same distinction between natural and spiritual that he used in I Corinthians 2, that our former bodies were directed by our natural urges and instincts, but our new bodies will be directed by the Spirit of God. That may be true, but it doesn’t help us to practically imagine what this new earth/heaven hybrid is actually like.
Paul uses the analogy of a seed. It is buried, dies, then re-emerges as a plant. The plant is directly related to the individual seed, but its resurrected state is far more expansive and beautiful and useful.
Same holds true for a caterpillar. It crawls into its little tomb, and after a while it emerges as a butterfly, leaving an empty chrysalis being. Once it was bound to the earth, now it flitters among the flowers, beautiful and transcendent.
It makes sense for God to inject his Creation with symbols of death and resurrection. Every time the sun sets we are reminded of the darkness of our current age, and each time it rises we are encouraged to think of a coming kingdom of truth and righteousness. Every time we retire to our beds and slip out of consciousness we illustrate our state of sin and death, but then we open our eyes to the light, and rise, celebrating new life.
It is fitting that we observe Easter during the spring solstice. This is when the earth begins to wake from it’s long death. Creatures come blinking from their hibernation holes. Dormant plants begin to poke through the soil, bursting into new leaf and flower. The world begins to buzz with life and color.
It happens every year, cycle after cycle, as if God is trying to pound the message into our stubborn little brains. Sometimes it’s hard for us caterpillars to get our heads wrapped around wings and flowers. Besides, that chrysalis looks dark and scary. We’d rather focus on the solid earth beneath our feet, find something dead to eat, maybe find a pretty caterpillar to share it with. That’s good enough for us.
But thankfully it’s not good enough for God.