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by Daniel Meeter
We can be pretty sure that the Lord Jesus, in the thirty-three years of his life on the landscape, possessed a body that was no different than any of ours.
He was not immortal. He was not invulnerable. He did not have x-ray vision. He could not fly. But he could catch colds. If his body could somehow have been examined medically or biologically, the investigator would have been unable to find any signs of his divine uniqueness. This all assumes, as I am counting on, that Nicea and Chalcedon got it right.
Here’s the thing: I’m beginning to wonder whether this might still be the case, even of his resurrected body! If you could somehow capture our Lord’s resurrected body in time and space (which by definition you can’t), you would find that his body, per se, is not biologically different. It’s immortal, yes, but without a change in substance. The difference is eschatological, not substantial.
Can we talk about this? Could you join me in some mild theological consideration of the nature of Our Lord’s resurrected body? I hope I’m not counting angels doing pin-dancing, nor wasting time in useless speculation. I do this because I care about Christology and what my message to my congregation shall be during Eastertide.
Let’s first be clear that the New Testament does not itself appeal to Our Lord’s virgin birth as some sign or proof of his divinity. The New Testament treats the Incarnation of Jesus more as the extent that God goes to, rather than the exaltation of a human being or human nature. The Gospels are very clear that from his birth to his death no one, not even his closest associates, thought that he was anything other than a human being, however remarkable and singular a human being he might be. It was his resurrection that led Thomas to jump to the conclusion that his teacher was also God. It is Our Lord’s resurrection that St. Paul appeals to for his divinity (Romans 1:4).
Upon his resurrection, the body of Our Lord was both the same and different. It was the same in the sense that he looked like himself, that his body bore the telling scars, and that he could eat fish. And yet his body was inexplicably different. He could appear and disappear at will, pass through doors and walls, and ultimately ascend into heaven. To our mind, it seems his body became supernatural, though the category of “supernatural” is anachronistic to the Jewish mind of Jesus’s day. But a supernatural sort of body did not imply a divine body, because “divine body” is an impossible category to the Jewish mind of any day (and why Calvinists, with their implicit Jewish sympathies, are slow to call the Blessed Virgin Mary theotokos).
Was the difference in his body substantial? When St. Paul says that he was “raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43) does that mean his resurrection body gained some new powers, that it gained invulnerability, the power to fly, x-ray vision, etc.? But if he could still eat fish, then what about the necessary microbes in his gut? Did they become immortal too?
Or is this difference instead, eschatological? In other words, that it’s still a normal human body but now free from the constrictions of time and space? Whatever that means! For how shall a heart beat if there is no time, and how shall blood flow if there is no space? But whatever it means, his resurrected body is still in substance our dear old body, though now absolutely free from the suffering and death that come with time. (This interpretation fits with the Reformed repudiation of the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body. I suspect it also fits with the extra-Calvinisticum.)
When we read in the Gospels that on the afternoon of Easter, when the disciples were gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Judeans, Our Lord stood suddenly among them. He must have passed through the door. It’s a matter of relative density. If you’re overly influenced by Hellenistic thought, you assume that he passed through them like a disembodied spirit. I’ve long been of the opinion that the opposite is true, that compared to the robust solidity of his resurrected body, it was the door and the walls that were now comparatively ghostly, hardly there, less real. In other words, his flesh was more substantial than the door, which, as modern physics has taught us, at the sub-atomic level is mostly empty space anyway.
What accounts for this greater relative density? That the new heaven and new earth make our current ones look like vapor, gas, ether? Is his resurrected body the first inhabitant of that new heaven and earth? So then I’m saying that the location is the difference in his body. It isn’t any different in substance, but in location, a location is beyond our terms to reckon.
I don’t think this contradicts what St. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15. Or course the translations of verses 42-50 of that chapter are treacherous. To translate soma psychikon and soma pneumatikon as “physical body” and “spiritual body” is misleading at best. The issue is better the difference between nature and the power of the Holy Spirit. The point is eschatological (verse 50): what shall inherit the kingdom of God? But the question remains, what will the change be, if “we shall all be changed?” (verse 52).
We are not told. And I am raising speculations and asking questions that we are not told the answers to, no doubt for good reason. What I am doing is challenging the privilege of those answers that we’ve long assumed as likely.
Let me be clear. I am not at all denying the resurrection of Our Lord as the great fact and mystery of the Christian faith, nor am I denying that his flesh, once sown in weakness and raised in power, is now incorruptible, imperishable, and immortal.
I am only proposing that his flesh (and soul) remain, substantially, essentially, no other than that.
If that’s the case, then what does that suggest of our own human souls and bodies in the new heaven and new earth? I haven’t begun to think through that one yet. I hope I’m not the only one who thinks about these things.
Daniel Meeter pastors Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Thanks, Daniel. I find the resurrection body you describe very appealing. It that which which I hope. It would be okay with me were you to write a bit more often in The Twelve.
Very thoughtful. Excellently written. Thank you.
I love that you’ve written this, Daniel. Thank you! I’ve preached on this for a couple recent Eastertides, done some reading in the (strange) scholarship on it, and think it’s important. Would love to see you write more on it. What do you do with I Cor. 15:35-36 for example?
I feel like it’s important too. But can you do me a favor and say why you think it’s important?
Good Q. For me it has to do with what Tom mentioned: the Docetism problem and the extremely hard and crucial questions of our operative cosmologies. It’s those Qs that got me into the wild worlds of Pannenberg and Whitehead and Welker once upon a time. Also there’s importance to our eschatology and the “go to heaven when I die” stuff, which sort of funds a docetic ethics. Paradoxically, on the other side of the same coin, I think neglect of the questions about resurrection reality fund a flat-footed orders-of-creation protological myopia, with all its problems having to do with exegeting the books of nature and scripture (just ask the RCA’s General Synod about the impact of those problems in the real life of the church). Resurrection brings in a needed apocalyptic counter-point to that myopia, humbling our attempts to read God’s mind and also radicalizing our ethics (in my opinion). I also see neglect of the body and of resurrection as a practitioner, for example in the practice of Christian funerals (turning into memorial services). Not to mention the Calvinist contribution to eucharistic practice. Stuff like that. And you know how Rowan Williams’s book on the Resurrection, for example, shows how we can’t understand things like Christian forgiveness or encountering the stranger without a the weird body of the risen Christ in view. I think often of the deep perceptions of Paul who said things like if there is no resurrection then go do another religion because this whole one is fake, and because of the resurrection our labor is not in vain (still scratching my head over that one. . . .). If all we had were those two things of Paul, it would be an important enough topic. What do you see?
“Challenging the privilege of those answers that we’ve long assumed” seems both necessary and enormously refreshing. I imagine that the true answers will be as unexpected and unimaginable to us as the nature of the Messiah was at the first coming. But I love the idea of extra-solidity – reminds me of Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Thank you for this, as always.
Thanks Josh. Well, what else could St. Paul do? He couldn’t propose that it was “free from the space-time continuum!” But even with his analogy, the seed sprouts not a different species than the parent, right?
Jessica, I thought of Lewis’ description when I read Daniel’s, too! And, of course, Lewis speaks of the New Creation as being more solid, more substantial, because it is more REAL . . . which, I think, is consistent with where Daniel is going, yes? That being said, we are not always that far ahead of Paul when describing the things of God. For some things, we must still rely on metaphor.
Thank you for your call to begin a conversation on the topic of Jesus’ body and for reminding us that Jesus had microbes in his gut that helped him digest the fish he ate post-resurrection. I have found that we are reluctant to take what we have learned from the sciences about life in the body (microbes in the gut et al.) and apply it to our theological categories. We seem to want to “spiritualize” our conversation not “physicalize” it—Docetism seems to be our default theological program.
But we are also reluctant to take the biblical cosmology seriously. Let me try to explain.
If we want to understand how Paul understood Jesus’ body, both earthly and resurrection, we have to try to understand how he viewed angels and their bodies. In other words, we have to understand Paul’s cosmology– how he saw everything in the created order hanging together.
Paul went to school on Psalm 8, which expresses the biblical chain of being: God—angels—humans–animals:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars [stars are angels in the biblical cosmology, cf. John’s Revelation] that you have established;
what is “man” that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
In this great chain of being, Paul saw the various “links” in the chain as being distinct, but also connected. He saw the angels as “sons of God.” He saw Jesus as a “son of God”. And he saw human beings through the Spirit of Jesus becoming the adopted “sons of God.” All of these, angels, Jesus, and humans, have bodies, but these bodies are also glorified in some way, and thus they are all connected in some way.
This has gone on too long for a comment to a post in the Twelve, but I am suggesting that any discussion of Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ body will make more sense when we consider Paul’s understanding of angels and the nature of their bodies (as well as the bodies of the principalities, powers, and thrones).
Very cool, Tom, I love it.
I think we fail to realize that science is still pondering and theorizing that there is more than the four dimensions in the universe we know of and experience today and that our Lord Jesus created all those dimensions (Col. 1:16-17) and chose to freely embody them in the flesh (1 Jn1:14).
Scientist speculate and theorize that there are anywhere from 9-12 other dimensions in the universe!