Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Bodily Resurrection: Part 3 (Theological Significance)

Things have finally settled down enough for me to get to the next installment in the series. In the previous posts, I have attempted to show that both the Old Testament and New Testament clearly teach a physical bodily resurrection. I think there are perhaps better theological arguments against full preterism (that I may explore in future posts) but I have focused on physical resurrection because I think it is the clearest and most straightforward exegetical argument. Even so, physical resurrection is theologically significant in its own right. My goal in this post is to highlight several elements of the theological significance of physical bodily resurrection.

In my view, the most significant theological implication of denying the physical resurrection is that it undermines the role of Christ as redeemer. If the work of Christ merely creates an escape for righteous souls, then sin and death have succeeded in eternally undermining the work of God in physical creation. In preterism, rather than redeeming the fallen creation, Christ simply evacuates His people. It turns the physical and fully human incarnation of Christ into a theological oddity rather than a logically necessary part of the redemptive plan of God. Why become human in the full sense if the mission is merely to provide escape for the soul?

The preterist theology is far less comprehensive with regard to God’s glory in creation than is orthodox theology. In the end, it is much more aligned with a Platonic or Gnostic worldview than the holistic redemptive flow involved in the promises to Adam, Eve, and the prophets. If all prophesy was fulfilled in 70 A.D. and physical bodily resurrection is denied, there is no vindication of God in creation. The notion of redeeming the creative work is essentially discarded. In contrast, notice that in Paul’s theology the restoration of the physical world is part of the broader redemptive work and is closely connected with the glorification of our physical bodies.

"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:19-23)

Unless there is physical salvation as well as spiritual salvation, Christ is not a redeemer of the fallen creation and Christ's role as a second Adam is severely truncated.

Connected to this distortion of Christ’s redemptive role resulting from a denial of physical resurrection is the particular problem of the scope of Christ’s atoning work in relation to the believers as whole persons. Although it is common for people to speak about Christ’s blood being the price paid for our souls, the Bible extends the blood bought purchase and subsequent union with Christ to the whole person, including the body. In 1 Corinthians, while discussing the importance of holiness with regard to our bodies, Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15) He explains further “… your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)

This is tremendously significant. Since our bodies are members of Christ and have been purchased with Christ’s blood it would be most strange that something bought with such a high price and sanctified to the glory of God be discarded to rot in the ground. Even more profoundly, since our bodies are members of Christ, to deny physical resurrection is to assert that sin, death, and the grave retain power over the members of Christ! The implication is that the conquest of Christ over these enemies is either a spiritualization or is incomplete. It is only by recognizing the future fulfillment of the fullness of redemption, including physical resurrection, that we find any meaning or hope in the statements of Paul that “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26). The hope of the faith is fixed upon that day when the graves are opened and “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:53, 54)

This obviously raises several questions, not the least of which is the implications it has for the restoration of human beings as image bearers. People were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and as image bearers were designed to reflect the glory of God. As a result of sin, all now fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and thus fail to properly fulfill one of the purposes for which we were created. Christ, however, who is the second Adam is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). As believers are conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) through the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 3:18) we are being restored to the fullness of humanity which is a reflection of the glory of the Creator. The biblical promise of physical resurrection in glorified bodies involves the full restoration of humanity as image bearers. Christ, who is the perfection of humanity now has a glorified body (Luke 24:39). It was in this body that He ascended to Heaven (Acts 1:9). At the Last Day when believers are changed into their glorified state our restoration as perfect image bearers will be complete (1 John 3:2).

All of these things connect to a major biblical theme that is directly connected to the hope of the resurrection. Throughout the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, the resurrection is connected to an insistence on holiness and purity. The physical body is important in orthodox theology and is a vessel that God is redeeming and setting apart for His glory. Time and again the apostles conclude from their references to resurrection the importance of living well in this body. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit and are the means through which we glorify God both now and more perfectly in the future.

Both the rewards and punishments of our life in the body will be justly given in the body. As the early Christian writer Athenagoras pointed out over 1,800 years ago,

“… if faults are judged, is the soul dealt fairly with, supposing it alone to pay the penalty for the faults it committed through being solicited by the body and drawn away by it to its own appetites and motions, at one time being seized upon and carried off, at another attracted in some very violent manner, and sometimes concurring with it by way of kindness and attention to its preservation. How can it possibly be other than unjust for the soul to be judged by itself in respect of things towards which in its own nature it feels no appetite, no motion, no impulse, such as licentiousness, violence, covetousness, injustice, and the unjust acts arising out of these?” [1]

We might forgive Athenagoras as being a bit simplistic in his theology if it were not for the very physical emphasis in the teaching of our Lord Himself regarding judgment. Consider the following warnings of Christ,

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:8-9 ESV)

“In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13)

Biblical theology is not merely spiritual. Historically, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Christianity from other religions is a dual emphasis on both the spiritual and the physical. It fends off epicurean and hedonistic tendencies with a profoundly developed spiritual metaphysic, but it likewise pushes back against escapist worldviews that view the physical world as unimportant or illusory. 

Biblical Christianity places a strong emphasis on the goodness of creation and the final redemption of it by God. This is why it is so significant that God does not work out the plan of salvation from the outside-in. Rather than a transcendent salvation, we have an immanent salvation. Amazingly, God determined to redeem His creation from within it!

The doctrine of physical resurrection has profound theological importance on many levels. Although we have only been able to touch on a couple of the more obvious ones in this post I pray it will be food for thought for those who are interested in the topic.

[1] Athenagoras, “On the Resurrection of the Dead,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. B. P. Pratten, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 160.