Monday 9 September 2019

Resurrection, not incarnation, is the most shocking and strange thing about Christianity

I have often heard it emphasised by Christians how remarkable, how shocking, it was that God was incarnated as a little baby, lived, suffered and died an ignominious and agonising death.

But is it really so shocking? All of these are familiar possibilities for a being that is an 'avatar' of a God - a spirit part of God that takes on human form and lives as a human, perhaps a super-powered human, maybe even breeds with humans etc.

(Jesus is not an avatar - but my point is that the general idea of a God taking on a human form is common enough.)

Neither is it all that shocking when the incarnated God comes back to life after being killed - since all societies seem to have believed in some kind of continuation of existence after biological death (so nothing really dies altogether), posited some kind of afterlife; and Gods in particular would be expected to be unkillable. 

What is really shocking that that when the divine Jesus came back to life it was not as a spirit. Instead God became a Man again, in a Man's body, and for eternity. Jesus was resurrected.

I think that this is so shocking that - as far as I can tell - most Christians still don't believe it, and have never really believed it; but instead have always tried to claim that Jesus's resurrected body was 'not really' what it seemed, but some kind-of embodied spirit.

I think it is very difficult for people to accept that a creator God could have a body like ours, eternally; and still be God. To most intellectuals, at any rate, this seems intrinsically ridiculous that something solid and unbounded might be superior to something unbounded of pure spirit; so they resort to various types of 'yes, but'... argument, that retain the appearance of an incarnate body while replacing its inner reality with spirit.

If this was so, the question is why? Why did Jesus bother with resurrection, if the body was merely a kind of illusion? Why didn't he make eternal life a thing of pure spirit?

Why go to all the trouble of making it 'look like' Jesus had an absolutely humanish body, why the emphasis on how normal his body seemed?

(An emphasis, but not not exclusive; after all Jesus was hard to recognise, could apparently appear and disappear etc; but certainly the primary point being made is that this was in some essential way the same human body that Jesus had inhabited before he died, with the same appearance, wounds etc; and it was certainly solid to touch, and he ate food.)

If we take the Fourth Gospel as primary (and the other Gospels as partial confirmations) it is evident that the resurrection was into a 'normal', solid, material human body - and that was the main thing about it.

We should not allow secondary explanations to remove that major - and shocking - fact.

The distinctive thing about Christianity is therefore not 'eternal life' in Heaven; but eternal life in some version of our actual solid human body. 

There Must Be something very important about The Body, if it is to become eternal for us, in Heaven.

Note: On further reflection, the fact of resurrection has very wide-ranging implications for the nature of ultimate reality; including the nature of life in Heaven. In a nutshell, resurrection implies that the life eternal promised by Jesus to those who follow him is A Resurrected Life - a life certainly including resurrected entities, beings, things from this mortal life. Not, therefore, a life of pure spirit or thought; but a life of everlasting solid beings and objects of many kinds - thought consisting-of/ interacting-with solid things. Perhaps CS Lewis intuited this, in his fantasy of The Great Divorce


Francis Berger said...

It is difficult to grasp the notion of resurrected bodies from a biological/physical level. That's one thing.

Do you think think part of the reluctance to accept this form of resurrection also has something to do with the way we view our bodies - as imperfect, flawed, fragile, limited, etc., to say nothing of "the flesh is weak" mentality - the body as a source of sin/suffering?

I imagine most people who believe in some sort of afterlife would be more than happy to surrender their bodies after death and exist purely in some spiritual form instead (this includes most Christians as well).

Lucinda said...

It is shocking. People are so used to thinking in terms of using up their limited time on earth, that they often make serious errors with this “calculation”. So lives are used up in the pursuit of the most ridiculous things because of the idea that we have certain things that need to be done before we die, primarily avoiding death and staying relevant in mortality. There are some things, but they have more to do with properly orienting toward our eternal life, rather than avoiding death or keeping up with the times.

For me personally, the temptation seems to be to keep up some kind of facade long enough to get me to the end of this life, when what I really need to think about is caring for and building relationships with eternal beings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - I think there are many reasons, including the pre-Christian philosophy ('Neo-Platonic) that seems to have been imported-into Christianity (permanently) by early theologians.

This evolved into the 'medieval' world view that saw this material world on earth as one of time, decay, change, death - while the celestial world was of changeless spirit outside of time.

We have no direct experience of solid material things that are also eternal - it is easier to imagine something immaterial being eternal (because there is no-thing to change).

I have seen this 'from both sides'. As an early Christian I remember, quite suddenly, while listening to a sermon, realising that I had 'forgotten' about resurrection and was unconsciously assuming that I would be a spirit in Heaven. This was a bit of a shock.

On the other side, that both Jesus and God the Father are embodied is a significant feature of Mormonism; and having a body is regarded as essential for the highest levels of exaltation (for example, demons are not allowed/ able to have bodies) - and this made me think much more about the issue of incarnation and embodiment.

For Mormonism (and me) 'getting a body' is the main reason why we incarnate - which fits with the fact that most people in history have never emerged from the womb, or died very soon after: they nevertheless accomplish the main purpose of life, by being incarnate (and dying and resurrecting), no matter what does or does not happen while incarnate.

(People - ie. most people in the world - who don't know Mormon theology are missing A Lot!)

But just in the past day, I realised that I still had not taken this fact fully into account, for example in my 'model' of primary thinking derived from Steiner. And this is because Steiner did not really acknowledge the significance of incarnation (I would say this is a fault of most people who believe in a system of reincarnation - including Arkle).

Steiner (and Arkle) despite being Christian, regarded Man's final state as Not resurrected but in a return to the spirit, like a large U-shape incarnationally decending into matter and returning to spirit.

What I had missed is that resurrection implies that Universal Reality should not just be a realm of thinking; but must also include incarnate, solid, beings - so that thinking is not merely of spirit but also of 'matter' (dense, bounded spirit).

This is actually very helpful in understanding why primary thinking can be the ultimate and universal reality - because primary thinking is not just a matter of immaterial spiritual activity; but at its highest level also making solid things, moving them around etc.

Final Participation therefore shares more with ordinary eathly creating - making stuff, writing, dancing etc. FP is more a matter of 'resurrecting' to eternal (self-regenerating) forms these earthly (and temporary) 'things'.

For some reason, this wasn't clear to me before - but now I need to think more about it.

Francis Berger said...

@ BC - I appreciate your detailed and thorough response to my comment. This post and your subsequent comment has struck the epiphany level once again.

I must confess, my own conception of resurrection has mirrored the conventional understanding - the one Arkle and Steiner seem to have believed: spirit, body, and back to spirit.

It is only in the past few months that I have begun to consider the deeper implications of what resurrection actually means (it is strange that it took so long because it's all quite clear what the resurrection entailed, especially in the Fourth Gospel). Jesus does not ascend as spirit only! This completely contradicts classical interpretations that regarded the body as little more than a fleshy prison.

The point you make about demons being unable to incarnate is a also good one. Demons cannot incarnate, but they can possess. But why would pure spirits feel motivated to do even that unless there was something inherently valuable in becoming embodied, even if only vicariously?

You've given me much to think about here.

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

The vast majority of "Trinitarians" I've talked to are crypto-doceticists; the argue fervently that Jesus is God while denying categorically that God could be a man. For example I read an introduction to the Eastern Orthodox catechism that states God is without gender; this is nonsensical enough when speaking of God the Father, even if one attempts to conceptualize him as a spirit, but this same document identifies Jesus as God. Was Jesus not really male? Catholics and Protestants are the same, their starting premise is always how utterly without human qualities God is, not that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. One would think the good news of the resurrection of Jesus as God's personal manifestation to the world would the core of the Christian message, rather than some exceedingly minor technicality.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter. Well said. It's as if the purpose of theo!ogy is to provide enough wriggle room to allow philosophers to retain their non-Christian assumptions concerning the nature of deity.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I've mentioned before how odd it is that a declaration that God is "without body, parts, or passions" should have found its way into the creeds of a religion whose key doctrines include the Incarnation and the Passion.

Chip said...

One part of mainstream Christianity that I have a problem with is the belief that our souls go straight to their eternal destination at death (outside of time as it were) and then later at the "end of time", our bodies are resurrected to join them and back they go to heaven or whatever.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - My assumption is that it was imported from pre-Christian philosophy; and stayed because it is necessary if God is to be omni (and intellectuals can only 'respect' an omni God, apparently - rather as intellectuals worship totalitarian dictators).

This kind of detail has become more important to traditionalist Christians than almost anything else about their faith, apparently anything else may be sacrificed - but not this...

@Chip - I agree, this (and the like) also strikes me as absolute nonsense (and extremely offputting to potential or recent converts, for no good reeason). I *think* it derives from a Protestant way of reading the Bible (especially the New Testament) through the lens of Paul's Epistles; more generally from the proof-texting way of assembling theology from a compilation of verses, each taken in isolation and as factual.

TheDividualist said...

That's because the Classical and Medieval Western philosophy knows no such thing as humans living as some kind of a spiritual being. Aquinas is very clearly saying as the essence, soul of a thing is what makes it what it is, most of the human essence - soul - is in the body and perishes with the body. Emotions, memories, all that. No such thing as meeting one's spouse in Heaven. The human soul has only one immaterial aspect, that of abstract thinking. That survives, but that cannot remember one's spouse, cannot feel love etc. This is why the resurrection of the body matters.

Living as a pure spiritual being is either a modern idea or a non-Western import, I am not sure which one. But Medieval Christian thinking and Classical philosophy was surprisingly "materialist". That is not a very accurate way to put it, but I think it is illustrative. They thought the body really matters, most of our important "features" come from the body and can only function with a body.

While a modern (Descartes?) or non-Western set of ideas made many Christians think the body is just a hindrance and spiritual living is the thing to aim at, many atheists are simply unaware of these "materialistic" aspects of old Christianity and think the soul must mean some kind of a ghost, a person with full memories, emotions etc. as either an invisible ghost or as sometimes visible hologram-like thing. And of course they disbelieve that. They are right to disbelieve that. Aquinas would have disbelieved that, too. You are not going to feel emotions without "humors", I would put it this way: hormones. You are not going to have memories without a brain to store them in.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - I don't suppose many people ever understood Aquinas enough either to agree or disagree, but he certainly does posit something very different; a completely different set of metaphysical assumptions.

However, the first millenium, and the Eastern Orthodox, had a more Platonic view, as I understand - and that is what I suppose to be something like the usual idea/ ideal of a spiritual (not resurrected) afterlife.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

As some of His disciples said of another teaching, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? (John 6:60)
Not in the sense that resurrection is a bleak or hopeless teaching. Quite the contrary. But that it is a stumbling block to many, as we find it very difficult to imagine and impossible to understand.
Thanks to you, Bruce, and through you William Arkle and some of the Mormon ideas you discuss, I now believe that eternal life in one's resurrected body - a perfection of the body we have had in mortal life, not a new or different body - makes great sense and accords best with God's mercy and what limited idea we can have of His desires for us.
The ability to create in cooperation with God, once one accepts that as the ideal goal for mankind, would appear to require physical bodies in excellent working order.
If eternal life were entirely immaterial, what would be the point of incarnate mortal life in preparation for it? And if mortal life is a preparation for life eternal, what would be the point of jettisoning entirely the material manifestation of that presumably essential mortal life when a soul proceeds, through death, to the life eternal?
But the stumbling blocks remain. We all know that our mortal bodies will decay and decompose after we die; right down to the skeleton and often less than that. We also know our bodies wear out gradually over the course of our lives, and are subject to disease and wounds.
Against those, we do have the evidence of Scripture that Jesus resurrected - physically - and ascended - in his physical body; that Our Lady was assumed into Heaven - in the body; and there's also the open question of Lazarus, whom Jesus resurrected and who may yet be amongst us - in the body.
How to reconcile our lived experience of the physical consequences of death with the idea that we will live eternally with a physical body, and that body the same one we know is doomed to rot and decomposition after we die? What about those whose bodies have been cremated or otherwise completely unmade? And what if, over the millennia of mankind's mortal career, several bodies have shared atoms over time? How will the Lord reconstitute us all in resurrection bodies at the last day if (I don't think this is an entirely flippant question; I've heard people quite serious in their faith ask it) the most basic elements of many bodies may have been shared through the ages? Perhaps those who default to the idea of an immaterial eternity would simply prefer not to wrestle with such messy questions.
Finally, what is the nature of our eternal life in the interval between our deaths and the general resurrection? Will we all experience an interlude of immateriality between earthly death and heavenly resurrection? And how is that interval affected by one's date of death? If I were to die tomorrow and the general resurrection to happen the day after, does that mean I should only be in that state for one day, whilst a God-fearing Old Kingdom Egyptian might have had to mark time, so to speak, for almost 5,000 years? What relation does post-mortem time have, if any, to time in mortal life?
Those last questions bedevil me somewhat, although I find my faith that we can rise to eternal life, in our resurrection bodies in the presence of the Lord and the company of those we've loved in this life (and presumably a great many other souls), as promised by Jesus Christ to those will accept God's gift, grows stronger as I get older.
Where can one find more insight about these specific theological questions? I haven't studied Mormon theology as you have; does it offer specific teaching about the nature of the interval between death and the general resurrection?
Howard Sutherland

Bruce Charlton said...

@Howard - wrt how to envisage resurrection; it isn't a problem if you understand identity 'defined' in terms of Beings with lineal histories through time.

I am who I am by virtue of having continuous (and eternal) existence - and therefore Not by virtue of any specific molecules.

I remain who I am, throughout whatever transformations occured in the past and will occur in the future - including birth, death and resurrection.

I don't think resurrection is 'general', that seems a false notion. There isn't anything about a general resurrection in the Fourth Gospel. On the contrary, we see Lazarus resurrected during Jesus's lifetime, and Jesus resurrected two days after he died.

I presume we will each - potentially - be resurrected soon after we die; although I would suppose that for some individuals it could be delayed for whatever reason. Maybe it is entirely an individual matter? We are, after all, unique invidivuals from eternity - and there is no reason why there Must be a standard process or sequence that applies to all indifferently...

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Bruce: Thank you for your comments.
Here is a traditional Catholic discussion of General Resurrection (from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911, so predates the distortions that have followed Vatican II):
It includes a discussion of the characteristics of the risen body, but is unclear about just when resurrection will occur and whether or not it will happen at the same time for all people. To me, though, it leaves the impression that it will be shortly before the Last Judgment. But the Lord has the power to make exceptions, as He has for Himself as the Risen Christ, and for His ministry in resurrecting Lazarus.
So Catholic doctrine, which we might call the majority view among Christians in the aggregate, is "firmiter" on the point of our individual physical resurrection, in the very bodies we began our mortal lives with.
What is the best overview of the Mormon belief about resurrection? HRS

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Howard, I understand that the usual Mormon doctrine is that the particles of the mortal body are regathered and reassembled.I'm not sure if this is common or a majority belief.

My own view derives primarily from metaphysics, not scripture.

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

"What is the best overview of the Mormon belief about resurrection?"
This is a good introduction.

Alma chapter 40 and Doctrine and Covenants section 74 are important texts that should be considered individually. Doctrine and Covenants section 138 contains the most important teachings on the Mormon view of the world of spirits and their state prior to resurrection, describing in most detail the process of salvation for the dead.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks Carter - I was hoping you would 'chip in'.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Carter: Thank you very much. I'll look at all of those sources.
In my earlier life as a fighter pilot I knew several Mormon brother-officers in the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force, among them one who was my apartment-mate for a year. At the time, though, I was less interested in spiritual and metaphysical matters than today (un-churched Anglican then, basically), so didn't avail myself of the opportunity to learn from them about Mormon teachings.
I did hear some good stories, though, about their mission years. My apartment-mate had done his in Buenos Aires, while another friend did his in, of all places, Rome.
When I asked whether he had converted any Romans, he said he hadn't but it was an unforgettable year all the same.
Now I'm a Catholic of traditional inclination, so more interested in these matters. Today, though, I'm not (as far as I'm aware) in direct contact with any Mormons. My loss, I suspect. HRS