Resurrection of the dead

Aug 2003    


Resurrection of Christ is the very foundation of apostolic preaching and Christian faith

BELIEF in the resurrection can be traced to the Old Testament. Daniel 12:2 unequivocally declares that “[m]ultitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt”.

Hope for the resurrection is alluded to elsewhere in the Old Testament as well. In Isaiah 26:19 we are told that “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” In similar vein, we read these words in Psalm 49:15: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”

The most detailed portrayal of the resurrection is found in the New Testament (NT). There the decisive character of the resurrection of Christ is clearly and powerfully asserted. The NT teaches that the general resurrection of the dead is profoundly and inextricably related to the resurrection of Christ, the “first-born from the dead”. Perhaps the most elaborate teaching in the NT about the resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15, a chapter devoted to discussing the resurrection against the backdrop of scepticism.

In that chapter, Paul makes it very clear that the resurrection of Christ cannot be seen simply as a validation of the hope that is expressed in apocalyptic literature. Rather it must be understood as being constitutive of our own resurrection. This is brought home clearly when Paul asserts that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. (1 Cor 15:14). The resurrection of Christ is the very foundation of apostolic preaching and the Christian faith. If claims about the resurrection are falsified, then the Christian faith itself collapses like a deck of cards.

Like many modern people, some among Paul’s immediate audience were not convinced about the resurrection. They have been influenced by Greek philosophy which taught the immortality of the soul. 1 Corinthians 15 can be read as Paul’s defence for the Church’s faith in the resurrection. Paul is emphatic that the resurrection is not some curious piece of theological opinion or some clever metaphysical theory. It is central to the Christian faith. The urgent ring in his words reveals just how crucial belief in the resurrection is for him: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor 15:17-19).

Faith in resurrection constitutes Essence of Christianity

But the Creed does not only speak of the resurrection, but the resurrection of the body. In the final state, human beings must not be conceived as having a disembodied existence. The Christian tradition does not merely hold to the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. This claim is supremely important, for it demonstrates that the Christian faith is not dualistic. It does not teach, as the Greeks do, that the spirit alone is good, while the body is evil. Rather, the Christian Tradition maintains that God created human beings as a psycho-somatic unity. And it is as a psycho-somatic unity that humans will enter either into eternal life or eternal punishment.

But the idea of a bodily resurrection poses some serious problems. In a sense it is difficult to speak of the bodily resurrection without also enquiring about the physiology of the resurrected body. What will the resurrected body be like? Will it be like our earthly bodies – perhaps an enhanced and improved version? Or will it be a totally different body, one which defies our imagination? In what body will a still-born baby, an elderly person, or a handicapped person be raised? Such questions have long exercised the minds of theologians and philosophers. Theologians have found the discussion important because it has to do with an essential feature of the future life, namely, the question of identity.

The problem can be presented as follows: what constitutes the identity of the human being? If, according to modern anthropology, it is both body and mind (traditionally, the soul) that together constitute identity, what becomes of it when a new body is raised in place of the present corruptible body? How are we to think of identity in this case? To put the question quite differently, what is it that ensures the continuity of identity of the person who has died and the person who will be raised? If both continuities and discontinuities obtain in the resurrection, what is there to guarantee that the “I” who died, is the same “I” who will be raised?

Theologians through the centuries have reflected on these issues and offered some interesting solutions. One such solution comes from the pen of the formidable Gregory of Nyssa, one of the famous Cappadocian Fathers, who wrote in the 5th century. For him, it is the soul that safeguards the identity of the person in the resurrection. He argued that since the soul is immortal, it will post-exist our earthly bodies. But because the soul is also the essence of the human being, it is in control in some sense of the body. When a person dies, his body will decompose and its elements dissipate into the environment. But the soul is able to keep track of the dispersed atoms, and at the resurrection, the soul will summon these atoms from some kind of inventory and reassemble the body once again. It is therefore the soul which maintains and ensures the identity of the person in the resurrection.

In modern times, the concept of soul has come under much suspicion and criticism. With advances in neuroscience, the brain has taken the place of the soul. What was traditionally described as soul, modern thinkers describe as “consciousness”. And consciousness is seen to be the most superior form of brain activity. Drawing from this, and also from modern computer technology, philosophers like Frank Tipler have forwarded the concept of “cybernetic immortality”. The mind will create a virtual version of our physical body – without its current attending weaknesses of course – and this will be the resurrected body.

To many readers, such speculations may appear bizarre and, in the final analysis, quite futile. Paul speaks in the most enigmatic terms when discussing the nature of the resurrected body. For him, the resurrection is so wonderfully new that the human mind fails to fully comprehend it and language itself, even when stretched to its fullest, will not be able to describe it.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul used a carefully chosen set of anti-theses to describe the resurrected body, and was quite contented to leave it at that. “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 Cor 15:42b-44). This description, enigmatic though it is, emphasises that the resurrection does involve a body, and that this body is radically different our present physical body. The radical nature of this body is again emphasised in the description that the resurrected body is a “spiritual body”, in contradistinction from that body which we now possess, which Paul describes as “natural” (1 Cor 15:44).

While such descriptions resoundingly point to the fact that the nature of the new body is radically different, they do not provide a clear sketch of its nature. Not much further help is available in the Gospel accounts of the resurrected Christ, who at times was recognised and at other times was not, and who can be handled and yet can walk through walls.

It would be a grievous mistake to treat the resurrection as a metaphysical theory that invites idle speculation or as an archaic concept that should be rejected in our modern scientific age. Both Paul and the Creed make it very clear that faith in the resurrection is not an option, but constitutes the essence of Christianity: the resurrection stands at the very heart of the Christian Gospel. Let me end with the words of my late teacher and friend, Professor Colin Gunton, whose sudden death in May this year make them all the more poignant. These words are taken from a sermon which Prof Gunton preached on Easter Sunday at the Brentwood United Reformed Church in England:

“The message of our text (1 Cor 15) is that because he is risen, the first-born from the dead, whatever life throws at us – failure, sickness, bereavement, the manner of our death – there stands over our lives the promise of their transformation into the conditions of the life to come. God will make of our human project something that is pleasing to him. Nothing, not the greatest disaster, will thwart God’s project. That is why we can say, ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord’ (Revelation 14.13) … The resurrection is the guarantee of that transformation, a transformation that already through the Spirit begins to take shape as we share in the life of the people of God. No wonder that in another of his letters, Paul breaks out into those famous words: ‘For I am sure that neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come … nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ ” (Romans 8:38-39).

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he now worships at the new Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


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