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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.