The readings for this Sunday bring the idea of the resurrection to the forefront. In a recent post at Commonweal, Fr. Joseph Komanchak, with reference to this Sunday’s Gospel reading in Luke 20: 27-38, drew on the work of N.T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God and St. Thomas Aquinas to argue for the centrality and necessity of the resurrection to the Christian understanding of life after death. Both Wright and Fr. Komanchak find that many Christians misunderstand the teaching on the resurrection and transform it and heaven into a spiritual existence in which the saints live as spiritual beings, “like angels.”
This Gospel passage in Luke does discuss the reality that the righteous dead “are like angels,” but Jesus prefaces that by saying “they can no longer die.” Those who are resurrected, therefore, are “like angels” in that they will live eternally, one of the attributes of the angels, not that they are simply spiritual beings, another attribute of the angels. Resurrection is the Jewish belief that those who have died, when they are brought back to life are brought back as whole beings, body and soul, for this is who they truly are. Our bodies are not impediments to our humanity, but the sure sign of our true humanity.
Indeed, the resurrection is not just for humanity, the completion of God’s creation, but for all of God’s creation. Terence L. Nichols writes in The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith and the Challenge of Naturalism that “those worthy of salvation will find eternal peace with God in the resurrection. But the universe itself will share in the glory of the resurrection, according to Romans 8:21, ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’” (85). All creation, in its embodiment and contingent being, will be fulfilled at the end of time in God, and this means that God brings the whole creation to what it was intended to be: those who have bodies will have bodies perfected because it is what and who we are from the beginning of creation. The nature of these bodies is hinted at in the resurrection accounts of Jesus, particularly those of John and Luke, and in 1 Corinthians 15, amongst other Pauline passages.
Yet, the confusion that N.T. Wright and Fr. Komanchak identify regarding the resurrection does have a source, beyond poor catechism, teaching or starry-eyed angelism. Much about the world to come is opaque and confusing, but the question of where the dead are now, righteous or wicked, is a particularly intriguing one. How do the righteous exist now, those who have died a year ago, ten years ago, one hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, and beyond? Where are they and what are they? The Church has posited an interim period between death and the resurrection, in which one receives their eternal reward upon death, based to a large degree upon passages in Paul (2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23) that suggest that one might be with Christ immediately upon death but prior to the resurrection. In this case, the person is not whole, their body is absent, but do they truly lack anything in the presence of divine love? Do they yearn for their bodies, so that they can be complete? There must, naturally, be a purpose to resurrection, a profound necessity that makes even the eternal spirit incomplete.
There is also the question raised in the Luke passage by who is resurrected for it states that “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:35-36). This citation indicates that there are those “considered worthy of a place in that age” because they “are children of God, being children of the resurrection,” which would have a corollary of those not worthy of resurrection because they are not children of God, not children of the resurrection. Yet, John 5:29, similar to Daniel 12:2, state that both the righteous and the wicked will arise in the last day: “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” The body, that is, belongs to all human beings for eternity.
Paul says in Philippians 1:22 that he desires “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than remaining in the flesh and in 2 Corinthians 5:6 that “we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Still, however much our spirits long for Christ now, it is only at the resurrection when all is brought to completion. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul also creates a scale of being, as it were, in which one might be in “this earthly tent” (v.1 = human body here on earth), “naked”/”unclothed” ( vv. 3, 4 = dead, without our resurrection body), or a “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”/”our heavenly dwelling” (vv. 1,2 = resurrection body). It is the latter that is the apex of our creation for it is the end of our new creation in Christ, the purpose for which we were made. And it makes me think anew about the goodness of my body and all of our bodies, the goodness of my very being in this world, and the power of God upon which all creation is contingent to bring us to be, against the reason that sees the decay of the dead, once again to complete and full perfection.
John W. Martens