The European Enlightenment(s) posed as world-expanding, mind-expanding movements. They promised to free us from the shackles of a benighted, narrow view of the world. Ironically, however, the Enlightenments did just the opposite. Whether through rationalism (what the human intellect cannot comprehend cannot be true) or through empiricism (what cannot be reproduced in a laboratory cannot be true) or, later, through the radical subjectivist reaction (the world is what I say it is) to them, the world actually became much smaller than it had been. The rationalists and empiricists banished Christian mystery (e.g., the catholic doctrines of the Trinity and Christology) and the subjectivists re-interpreted them as metaphors for human experience. Each of them, in their own ways, put human existence in, as it were, a sort of plastic wrap or perhaps tin foil. The world became closed and, ultimately, depressing. If the Enlightenments are right then perhaps Sartre or even Nietzsche were correct. Either we should drink coffee and learn to value every moment for what it is, despite the futility of it all or we should exercise the will to power.
Of course the Enlightenments were proposing substitute religions for Christianity. The god of the Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) religions is man. He is the measure of all things. He is the arbiter of all that is right and good and of what good is. He says what heaven is or isn’t or whether heaven can be. The existentialist cannot even prove absolutely, from a god’s-eye point of view, that he exists. Neither can the rationalist (he simply assumes his existence and his autonomy) or the empiricist. The radical subjectivist does not really care. In the end, he is irrational and that makes conversation exceeding difficult.
There is an alternative to the crypt of modernity and to its rotting corpse. It is the biblical and catholic Christian eschatology. Just as they laid Jesus’ body in the grave fully expecting him to stay put only to find—much to the dismay of the Roman soldiers and the Jewish authorities!—that he had rebelled against their wills and expectations. That’s the way Jesus is. He is that sort of Savior. Few expected that God the Son would take on true humanity, that his humanity would be conceived by God the Spirit in the womb of a virgin (θεοτοκος; Definition of Chalcedon) but there he was healing the sick, raising the dead, and walking on water. The Apostle Paul calls the incarnation a mystery (μυστήριον; see Eph 3:3; Rom 16:25; Col 2:2). To the truly rational the stark reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection should empirical evidence enough. After all, he was seen and touched by the disciples and later he was seen by 500 before his ascension. The Jewish authorities knew him to be raised. The guards were silenced. Conspiracy theories usually fail but that does not mean that there are no conspiracies to silence the truth.
According to Paul, there are other mysteries. One of the greatest is the bodily resurrection from the dead.
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:50–57; ESV).
The nature of the resurrection body is challenging but not impossible when we remember the relation between Christ’s humanity and ours. We confess that Jesus is “true man” and “true God.”1 Scripture repeatedly teaches by narrative and explicitly that Jesus was and remains true man. People (e.g., Mary and Thomas) touched our Lord’s human body after the resurrection. Our Lord ate fish after the resurrection. Against those antichrists who denied Christ’s true humanity, the Apostle John testified:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ ( 1 John 1:1–3; ESV).
Notice how, against the tendency of some, under the influence of a spirit-matter dualism, he emphasized the reality of Christ’s true humanity and the general reliability of sense experience. The world was made to be known and you were made to know it. Contra the apparently growing, Gnostic spirit of the age (Zeitgeist) Christians say that our sense experience is not an illusion. As it happens, in between the time I began this essay and the time I returned to finish it, I encountered a real live Gnostic who is convinced that the 114 (Gnostic) Sayings of Thomas, i.e., the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is true that Scripture is wrong. He (Tom) is convinced that he (Tom) is divine but he doubts Jesus’ humanity—as he fills very earthy customer orders at work, which he performs to earn earthy money to buy material food for his material but allegedly illusory body. The very same sorts of ideas which Tom was articulating today had not yet coalesced into what became Gnosticism. That did not happen until the 2nd century. Gnosticism was a heresy of Christianity, a reaction to the orthodox Christian doctrine of the two natures of Christ. The seeds of that movement, however, clearly existed by the 70s, when the Apostle John confronted them in Asia Minor.
Just as Jesus’ very real body was raised by the Holy Spirit so too will our very real bodies.
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8:11; ESV).
Real bodies, because of sin, are mortal. They are not illusions. Mary Baker Eddy was wrong. Her denial of our humanity (and Christ’s) is heresy. The Gnostics were wrong. The spirit-matter dualists are wrong. The human body is real now and will really be raised, just as Jesus’ body was.
Thus Heidelberg Catechism 57 says:
57. What comfort does the “resurrection of the body” afford you?
That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head; but also, that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ.
We are complex, i.e., we have parts. We are body and soul. Should we die before the Lord Jesus returns bodily—what a shock that will be to the Gnostics—then our bodies shall go to the grave just as Jesus’ body was buried. Our soul, that part of us that can be separated from the body, which is essential to our person, our spirit (the biblical synonym for soul), shall go immediately to be with the Lord. Our Lord Jesus told the believing thief, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” There is a proper, biblical, Christian body-soul dualism or distinction. Ordinarily soul and body belong together. Their separation is not the natural or desired state of things. Thus, the Apostle Paul characterized being present before the Lord without our bodies as being naked.
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor 5:1–5; ESV).
The Lord, however, has promised to allow us to remain in this intermediate state. Body and soul shall be reunited. It is better to be with the Lord than to be absent but it is best for the Lord Jesus to return. Nevertheless, that decision belongs to him, does it not? So he has given us his Holy Spirit as a promise that things shall be made right.
The promise of our bodily resurrection, to which Paul devoted an entire chapter of Scripture (1 Cor 15) is essential to our faith. If the dead be not raised, then our faith is empty because it rests on the resurrection of Christ and if there is no resurrection then Christ has not been raised and the object of our confidence is false—but he has been raised. He reigns now and he shall return in his glorified humanity and those of our brothers and sisters who have gone ahead of us shall return with him and we shall meet him in the air to escort him, as it were, as waiting city escorts a conquering king (1 Thess 4:13–18).
As your truly real body suffers the effects (and affects) of the fall, remember the empty tomb. It is an objective fact. It is not a metaphor. It is not story. It is a fact and on it you may rest your confidence. Death could not hold Jesus and even though it may take you it will not hold you. Your Savior is receiving your brothers and sisters from across the world right now and, should he delay (from our point of view) his return, he will receive you and me and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Even then, ironically, the rationalists will not fully comprehend his glorious return. The empiricists will have the evidence they claim to want. The existentialists will find meaning and the nihilists will be sorry they denied the suffering Savior in favor of the Übermensch but it will be too late for all of them. Do not be as foolish as they.
1. Note that neither Scripture, nor the catholic creeds, nor the Reformed confessions speak in quantitative terms about Christ’s humanity and deity. They always speak in qualitative terms. We should resist the temptation of faux science (scientism) by saying that Christ is, e.g., “100% man and 100% God.” This language suggests that his humanity and deity can be quantified or measured and that is certainly false with respect to his deity and unhelpful regarding his humanity. What is in question is whether he is truly human and consubstantial with us and with the other members of the holy Trinity.