Monday, February 11, 2019
Really Real Resurrection
Although a deeply Pauline Christian, I find the apostle to be a little wordy from time to time, but I don't recall Paul ever being as redundantly repetitious as he is in Sunday's reading from 1 Corinthians 15: "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...For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." Over and over and over, Paul holds a rhetorical mirror up to the Corinthian church as if to say, "You do understand what you're saying, right? You can't believe in the resurrection unless you believe in the resurrection."
I can imagine Paul receiving word that some of the leaders among the Corinthian Christians had begun to question whether the resurrection of the body is a reasonable hope. "Sure, we believe in Jesus' resurrection. That's central to our faith, but the resurrection of the rest of us...well, maybe it isn't that important." Over the years, Christians were dying. Their bodies were placed in the ground. Jesus had been gone for a decade or more, and the corpses, although not piling up, were collecting in graves. Everyone knew what happened to a dead body. You don't need to know about cell structure and decomposition to know that a body stinks after a day or two. By the end of a week, what is left is in the kind of condition that no one wants to inhabit for eternity. After a month or a year or ten years, the only thing left to be raised from the earth is a collection of zombie-like remains. Yuck!
For a first-century Christian, the resurrection of the body had its problems. How will God put everything back? When will that happen? How will we live forever? For a Greek-minded believer, it's easier to imagine God welcoming the spirit or soul of the believer into a non-physical realm, leaving behind the earthly matter-suit one doesn't need for the afterlife. Maybe Jesus' resurrection was physical because his followers needed to see it and know it in order to believe it. Maybe we can believe in the resurrection of Jesus without needing to believe in our own resurrection. Sound familiar?
At the risk of being labelled out-of-touch, scientifically illiterate, old-fashioned, close-minded, and spiritually naive, I want the record to show that I believe in an actual, real, physical resurrection. Like all beliefs that are worth having and sharing with others, a claim like that needs careful consideration and should be based on something more than "my mama told me so" or "I read it in the Bible." How do all the body's cells get put back together? If I am an organ donor, do I get my organs back, and, if so, what happens to the poor person who needed them? What sort of body will I have when I come back--the over-the-hill, out-of-shape, tired body that most of us have when we die or something fresher than that? Where will we all go? The earth is already crowded with the people who are living today. What about the billions of people who have believed in Jesus and who have died? And what about the people who haven't believed? If you are a universalist, you've got to find room for them, too, and, if you're not, where is the physical hell? And what happens to the physical universe? It won't go on for ever. Sure, it can exist for a long, long, long time, but, compared with forever, that still isn't very long at all. If we are resurrected in a physical body, where will that body last forever when the sun swells and swallows up the earth, when all of energy of all of the stars in the universe dissipates into a big sigh or collapses back together in a big crunch? The answer? I don't know.
I don't know how all of that happens. I can't explain the bodily resurrection. I can appeal to alternate planes of existence (Kathryn Tanner) or to some other fundamental change in reality, but I don't know how to explain the physical resurrection in a physically limited/defined universe. But neither could Paul. And Paul wasn't worried about it either.
Paul's response is not to explain away all of the questions or concerns or unanswerables of the Corinthian Christians. Instead, he wants to remind them of the importance of the bodily resurrection and encourage them to believe even in things they cannot understand. We are not merely spirits in mortal flesh. We are mind-body-spirit beings whose existence cannot be real without our physical bits. Paul wants his readers to know that the resurrection is not a metaphor for resting in peace. He wants them to remember that following Jesus is not (only) about living a good life, standing up for justice, and being the hands and feet of the Incarnate One after his ascension. Following Jesus is about new life, everlasting life, living forever in God's reign. Jesus wasn't making this stuff up, and we don't follow him because he told nice stories. We follow him because doing so leads us through death and beyond--into God's victory even over the physical realities we inhabit.
No, I don't know how that works in a twenty-first-century, scientifically informed mindset. Neither did Paul. Of course I might be wrong about it, but dismissing something because I can't explain it isn't good epistemology. And there are too many important reasons to believe that which we cannot prove.