“We believe that a person without a body is incomplete. Salvation involves the renewal of a person’s life in a resurrection body.”
“An actual body?”
“So … reincarnation …?”
I witnessed a conversation like this take place a few days ago at a Greek Orthodox church in town. I was there for the annual Greek Festival. Greek food, Greek drink, Greek dancing, Greek jewelry.
And Greek rock walls and Greek bouncy things.
Oh, and of course, Greek Orthodoxy as well. A priest offered tours of the sanctuary, and he explained in detail why the architecture is designed as it is, why icons (images of Christ and the saints) are so important. He even took questions, and one of them led him to this discussion, with this woman in the front row who seemed baffled that Eastern Orthodox Christians keep as central to their idea of salvation the idea of resurrection into an actual body.
The priest gave a fine explanation of what resurrection is, particularly as opposed to reincarnation. Reincarnation is the idea of a soul transferring from body to body over time with no real memory of previous incarnations. Resurrection, on the other hand, is the belief that a person is created and possesses only one body. Death separates a person from his or her body but God will in the age of salvation reconstitute that person to an embodied existence. I leaned over to my Episcopalian friend and whispered “Protestants often forget this.” She nodded in agreement.
I don’t know whether or not this woman was herself a Christian. If she was, I doubt I would be any more surprised by the fact that she found the Christian doctrine of resurrection so foreign to her perception.
Christians have not been known for their belief and hope in resurrection for a long time. We have instead been known for many other things, such as the majority stance on marriage, praiseworthy things such as our commitment to charity, or not so praiseworthy things such as our frequent hypocrisy.
When it comes to the idea of Christian salvation itself, if those outside the Church know anything about it, they probably are familiar with the idea that Christ died for sins. And they probably are aware as well that the majority view among Christians is that salvation is found in Christ alone. And what that salvation probably seems to entail is a disembodied ethereal existence “in” some sort of non-place called “heaven.”
Are Christians ever known for their belief in resurrection? Perhaps that of Jesus alone … I do hear “Happy Zombie Jesus Day” at least once every Easter Sunday. But the fault is our own that we are not known for our belief in resurrection–not just “the resurrection of Christ,” but, properly represented, the resurrection of essentially the world.
The Christian doctrine of resurrection became central after the singular resurrection of Jesus himself. But resurrection formerly conceived in the Jewish thought world was a broad concept. Snippets of the Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 65) and early Jewish sources indicate a view that God’s salvation at a certain point in the future would consist of him renewing and recreating the physical world–and physical human bodies as part of that world.
Though we can find clear traces of such a belief, it was not nearly as central to Jewish teaching as it would become in early Christianity. After Jesus’s resurrection, hopeful expectation in a renewal of the rest of the world became the cornerstone for the entire doctrine of salvation.
The Nicene Creed, which (whether your church has anything to do with it or not) for over 1.5 millennia has helped provide a canon for what is seen as orthodox, historical, Christian belief, holds to belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
Salvation in an actual, physical body? Sounds more like reincarnation to those who have been accustomed to Christian salvation being concerned with disembodied souls making their way through pearly gates.
This is the way Christians for the past couple centuries or so have articulated what they look forward to, and the wider world has gone along with it. There is no room for belief in a renewed physical existence in this world within this system, and so biblical texts that plainly teach resurrection such as 1 Corinthians 15 are simply not seen for what they are vividly attesting.
So what is the harm of not having a belief in resurrection?
Simply put, the harm is that the physical world proclaimed by God as “good” and even “very good”in Genesis is seen as that which God is seeking to save his people from. The value and beauty of the “stuffness” of the earth and our bodies are diminished. And it is tragic.
It is a distortion. It is twisted. And it makes us friends with death, when death is rather the last enemy to be defeated (see the great resurrection chapter of 1 Corinthians 15). The truth is not that death is good because with it we are finally separated from our bodies; the truth is death is bad because it means our end. Unless we are saved.
Thank God we have such a savior.
What if Christians were known for our hope in the divine redemption instead of the world instead of the divine rejection of the world? What if Christians were known for holding steadfast to the goodness of the world we live in instead of looking forward to an escape from it?
What if Christians were known for our belief in resurrection?
For a very readable, concise introduction to Christian theology that retains the centrality of resurrection, buy the great little book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology by Michael W. Pahl.