Monday 8 March 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (47/50) – The Resurrection of the Dead: Soul or Body?

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-seventh of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44

As we have followed God’s unfolding plan for the human race, we are now in the final act.

Considerable confusion surrounds the Christian concept of eternal life. This goes right back to the culture prevalent at the time of the early church. It is commonly thought that Christians believe in the ‘immortality of the soul’. This was, of course, a Greek concept, put forward for example by Plato in his Dialogue Phaedo, in which he contrasts the pre-existent immortal soul with the corruptible human body. It is probable that Hellenistic converts held this dualistic belief. Paul, however, does not accept this theory. ‘The perishable’, he wrote (1 Corinthians 15:53), ‘must clothe itself with (or put on) the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality’.

No, the Bible teaches not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. As long as we think of an immaterial, spiritual ‘heaven’, we find it hard to conceive of what Tom Wright, in his masterly book Surprised by Hope, describes as ‘a new mode of physicality’. But if, along with the apostle Paul, we conceive of Christ’s return as inaugurating not only a new heaven but a new earth, this physicality makes perfectly good sense.

Wright points out that the contrasting adjectives in verse 44 are misleadingly translated as ‘natural’ or ‘physical’, and ‘spiritual’. Rather, he says, the contrast is between the present body, which is ‘animated’ by the normal human soul, and the future body, which is animated by ‘God’s breath of new life’.

This understanding astonishingly liberates us from two of our great dilemmas about the future life: first, Shall we be able to recognise each other? And second, Will all my present physical characteristics, many of which seem to me unattractive, be there for all to see throughout eternity? Jesus is described as ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (15:20). So as we look at his resurrection body we get a glimpse of what it may be like for us: the individual essence of each of us ‘in beauty glorified’, recognisable yet transformed.

In the meantime, may we seek to look at our brothers and sisters in Christ through the eyes of the future, seeing them, by faith, in their ultimate beauty?

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. How far are your own beliefs about life after death consistent with each other? How far are they consistent with Scripture?

2. How may our understanding of the resurrection body shape our attitude to our present bodies? Can we learn to thank God for the bodies he has given us, as well as praising him for what they will be?

3. May we seek in the large and small areas of our lives to make the world a better place, in preparation for the physical return of Jesus?

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