Celebrating at Easter the glorious resurrection of Jesus inevitably causes us to think about our own resurrection. What will our risen existence be like?
One obvious danger is to fill the void with science fiction fantasies or worse. In The History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Julian Barnes warns his readers against this excess through an amusing parody of a heavenly existence that consists in indulging in unlimited sex, meeting celebrities and enjoying unprecedented success in sport.
None of us has directly experienced resurrection for ourselves, and that conditions the way we might imagine and conceptualize risen life. Still, we can look beyond the limitations and evils of our present existence and cautiously suggest something about the new, bodily existence we hope for.
Matter and Spirit
As human beings we are bodies. Our bodies insert us into the material world. Each of us becomes a tiny part of the cosmos and the cosmos part of us. People once naïvely assumed that the human body enjoyed far-reaching autonomy and stability; scientists had not yet discovered that our physical life forms a dynamic process of continual circulation between our bodies and the material environment. To adapt a line from the poet John Donne, no body is an island. Through our bodies we constantly share in and relate to the universe.
Modern thinkers stress the spiritual and bodily unity of the human person, our psychosomatic unity. At the same time, a dualism remains between matter and spirit. Such dualistic thinking about our present existence should not steer us, however, toward a Platonic conclusion in which we (as soul or spirit) are “in” a body or “have” a body. Speaking of matter and spirit, we need not suppose that these are disparate realities that, like oil and water, will not mix. All matter has something spiritual about it. A pure materiality that would be totally unspiritual seems impossible. On the other hand, all the material in our universe is at least potentially human matter. The spiritualizing of matter takes place continually through breathing, eating and drinking. By being taken into a human body, matter becomes vitally associated with the functions of a spiritual being.
The world of art exhibits a similar phenomenon. Paintings, pieces of sculpture and stained glass windows are material objects. Through being organized and spiritualized in the hands of their makers, works of art can embody a rich cargo of meaning. Christian believers acknowledge a similar process in the life of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. A piece of bread and a cup of wine are spiritualized and personalized through the power of the Holy Spirit to become the most intensely real presence of the risen Christ. The use of material substances, like water and oil, in the sacraments visibly connects the bodies of the worshipers with the material universe. But the rites aim higher: to link worshipers with highly personal realities, the body of the church and the body of Christ himself.
Matter can be understood and interpreted in many ways. Physicists know it as mainly empty space, the field of several basic forces. Subatomic particles appear as either mass or energy. Nevertheless, breathing, eating, drinking, painting, celebrating the sacraments and other human activities disclose another face of matter: its potentiality to be spiritualized and personalized.
Resurrection from the dead will mean the full and final personalizing and spiritualizing of our matter, not its abolition. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the human spirit will “dominate” matter, in the sense that the body will clearly express and serve the glorified spirit of human beings. Accepting this requires a leap of imagination. We can be helped to make this leap by reflecting on one aspect of risen life: our transformed capacity to communicate.
Here and now our material bodiliness creates the possibility for us to be communicators. With and through our bodies we act, express ourselves, relate to and communicate with others. Without our bodies there would be no language, no art, no literature, no religion, no industry, no political life, no social and economic relations and none of the married love in which verbal and nonverbal communication reaches a supreme intensity. In short, without our bodies we could not make and enjoy any human history. Through our bodies we build up a vast web of relationships with other human beings, with the material universe and with God. Our bodies enable us to communicate, play the human game and compose our individual, personal stories.
At the same time, our bodies place limits on our communication. Being subject to the constraints of space and time, our bodies set us apart and restrict our chances of relating and communicating. People talk, hug, kiss, make phone calls, send e-mail and text messages, write letters and in other ways try to make up quantitatively for what they lack qualitatively. Through sickness, old age, imprisonment or exile our bodies can bring us radical solitude and terrifying loneliness. Bodily loneliness and breakdown in communication find their final expression when the tomb contains a newly buried corpse or the crematorium someone’s fresh ashes.
Few modern writers have described that irreversible break more poignantly than John McGahern in All Will Be Well. He wrote of his mother, who died at the age of 42: “She was gone. She would never answer to her name again. She was gone for ever…gone where I could not follow.”
Our bodies do not merely separate and alienate us from one another, from the world and from God. Through weariness, physical weakness, sickness, sleep and death, they also alienate us from ourselves. Our embodied condition can make us feel not fully free to be ourselves and be with others.
We may usefully imagine the resurrection as maximizing our capacity to relate and communicate. The supreme example here is Jesus himself. As raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit, he now relates to the Father, human beings and the whole cosmos in a manner that has shed the constraints of his earthly existence. Wherever two or three gather in his name, they experience the risen Lord in their midst (Mt 18:20). Nothing reveals more powerfully the new communicative power of Jesus than the Eucharist. It brings his worldwide presence and his offer to share a life that will never end.
To expect resurrection involves hoping that we will be set free to go far beyond the limitations and triviality of so much that passes for communication in this world. We will be liberated to be truly ourselves and to be with others in an enhanced and loving way.
Bodily Continuity and Our History
Jesus’ empty tomb pointed to a transformation of his dead body into a new, risen mode of existence, but it was a transformation that brought no loss of personal identity. The Easter narratives of the Gospels make it credible that when Jesus appeared to individuals or to groups of disciples they could—at times with initial difficulty—recognize him as the same Jesus they had known. Some (transformed) material continuity enabled them to identify the risen one as the Jesus they had known and followed. But the preservation of our individual, personal identity in a risen existence seems more problematic. This requires explanation.
Here and now our bodies ensure our individual continuity and our recognizability as the same person. To be and to be recognized as the same person, we must remain “the same body.” Despite continual and massive bodily changes, our personal continuity and identity are somehow bound up with our bodily identity and continuity. We are and have the same body and therefore remain the same person. Bodily continuity points to the persistence of personal identity.
Some question the link between bodily continuity and the continuity of personal identity, interpreting the latter in terms of a continuity in mental states—in particular, the continuity of our consciousness and memories. Chains of conscious memories surely have a role in maintaining our sense of personal identity. The memory of what I have personally experienced constitutes the evidence within me of my persisting identity. Yet one’s enduring personhood cannot depend simply upon one’s memory; otherwise loss of memory would entail loss of personal identity. The case of amnesia rebuts attempts to promote memory as the means for constituting and preserving personal continuity in the one, unique life story that is “me.”
Although we may agree that personal identity and continuity remain somehow bound up with bodily continuity, we have to ask: in what sense will we rise with the same body? What counts here as bodily sameness?
Even in this earthly life the enormous and continuous interchange of matter with our environment can make us wonder how correct it is to speak of someone being or having the same body six months before birth and then again at 6, 16 and 60 years of age. As old matter is discarded and new matter is absorbed into a living body, there is a steady replacement of the matter constituting that body. How do we keep the same, numerically identical body all through our lifetime?
We might suggest that our unique genetic structure, which our DNA molecules carry, maintains our body through this life. But at death, with our physical remains dispersed into the environment through the decay or burning of our corpse, how can we speak of any bodily continuity between earthly existence and our risen life?
One answer could be found by noting the connection between saying “I am my body” and “I am my history.” Through our bodiliness we grow in relation to other persons, to God and to the world. Our individual history is unimaginable without our body constantly being “in relationship.” Our personal history expands by all that we do and suffer with our bodies. It is through our bodies that our particular histories are shaped—from conception through to death.
Thinking this way creates some credibility for understanding resurrection as the raising from the dead of our particular, embodied history. In resurrection, the particular, bodily history that has made up the unique story of each person will be brought to new life. In a mysterious, transformed fashion, their risen existence will express what/who they as embodied persons were and became in their earthly life. Given the intimate link between our bodiliness and our history, we can say: the same resurrected body means the same resurrected history, and vice versa.
This proposal needs defense. First, if I ask what has made me what I am as a unique individual, it has surely been my embodied history, not the millions of molecules that in a passing parade have at different moments constituted my particular physical existence. Second, my whole bodily history is much more “me” than the physical body that breathes its last, say at 80 years of age. It makes sense to imagine the resurrection as God bringing into a transformed, personal life the total embodied history of dead individuals and so ensuring their genuine personal identity.
This approach also makes very good sense of what happened to Jesus, the prototype of our resurrection. When he rose from the dead, his whole life rose with him. In his risen state Jesus possesses fully his whole human story. His resurrection and glorification have made his entire life and history irrevocably present. Even if they never thought explicitly in terms of the irrevocable presence of Jesus’ earthly history, the four Evangelists wrote their Gospels out of a sense that the earthly life of Jesus had risen with him and remains indispensably significant for his followers through the ages.
This proposal about our continuity being preserved through the resurrection of our embodied history leads to the question: How can the temporal history of individuals, fashioned over a stretch of time, be raised up by God to an existence that is not temporal but eternal?
We might develop here a comparison between the incarnation and the resurrection. Where the incarnation involved the timeless Son of God taking on a temporal existence, resurrection from the dead involves temporal beings (that have been embodied in their unique history) becoming eternal, to the extent that created beings can participate in the divine attribute of eternity. On the one hand, the timeless Son of God, by becoming embodied, could develop his own unique human history. In a similar but not identical way, on the other hand, the embodied historical existence of human beings can, through the power of God to raise them up, become eternalized.
Something of this sharing in eternity shows up in the earthly history of human beings. Time involves not only a succession of earlier and later events, but also has something cumulative about it. More than a mere stream of fleeting moments that disappear, time entails many things coming together and being preserved: memories in the mind, marks on our bodies, webs of persisting relationships with relatives, friends and colleagues at work, etc. Likewise, and much more so, resurrected life will be a gathering up and coming together of a whole, accumulated past. In resurrection, by the power of God our time and history will be summed up and completed.
My proposal about our embodied history being raised up finds support in what Caroline Walker Bynum documented in her classic study, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336. She illustrated extensively the persistent conviction of many Christians that resurrection would preserve for all eternity their gender, family experiences and the other characteristics and events that identified them as unique human persons and constituted their individual history. In thinking about the resurrection of Jesus and their own resurrection, these rank-and-file Christians were, in effect, insisting that the whole of our history rises with us.
Here then are two, complementary but not mutually exclusive ways of thinking imaginatively about our future resurrection. We must remain cautious when reflecting on something we have not yet experienced. Nevertheless, not knowing everything is not the same as knowing nothing at all. What we do know through faith and reason can make sense of the resurrection for which we hope: God spiritualizing (but not destroying) our material existence and bringing the whole of our earthly history into a new, transfigured life.