Sunday, July 10, 2011

Imperishability (First Corinthians 15:50-58)

When we say we believe in an afterlife, it prompts several questions. What will we do? Where will it be? What will it be like?

And what are we going to look like in it? On the one hand, that may sound really superficial -- we're getting eternal life and we're going to wonder about how we look? Sure, I'd like to be a little taller and have a tuck here and there, but if I show up and that hasn't happened it's not like I'm going to turn down eternal life because of it: "What? I'm still five-nine? That's it, Lord, I'm walkin'!"

But on the other hand, there is a real question there for people who might suffer from different conditions that limit their movement, or illnesses that cause them problems. A person who passes away from emphysema probably wouldn't think much of eternal life if they're raised with the same hardened lung tissue that killed them.

There's also a real question in there that connects with an important Christian understanding of the afterlife and the life eternal that follows Christ's return. We will have bodies. We won't be disembodied spirits and lack all physical presence. We won't be merged-together souls all crammed up somehow or fused into some sort of combo spirit like a Power Ranger Mega Zord. We may not know what those bodies will look like -- who would guess that an oak tree is just the grown-up version of the acorn, after all -- and we may not even be able to conceive some of the ways life in that state will be different from life in this one, but if Paul's words are true we know we will have bodies of some kind.

That's important because it tells us we can't be who we really are if we don't have some kind of physical existence. We make a mistake if we teach that we have bodies and we have spirits, and our spirits or souls -- which are the real us -- survive the death of our physical bodies -- which are not the real us. This philosophy of "dualism" was popular in Greek thinking, but the Jewish roots of Christianity taught that God made our physical bodies and we didn't become living beings until God combined that body with his spirit of life. We combine body and spirit, and we're not the real us without both of them.

We might wonder why it's a big deal whether we have bodies of some kind in the life to come. Well, if we believe that only our spirits survive our deaths, then we might start believing what we do with our bodies doesn't matter. We can do whatever we want to this flesh we're wearing because it won't change our immortal spirits. Some ancient philosophies taught this, and said that satisfying the body's physical desires was the most important goal of life. Some others taught that since the flesh we're wearing is evil, it has to suffer in order to keep us in line. This idea also entered Christianity, and you might read about people who injure themselves in order to help purify their spirits and punish their flesh for its evil desires. Neither way sounds good to me. Both treat the body as unimportant, which doesn't match with what we know of the church's early teachings or its Jewish roots.

It also doesn't seem to match with the work of Jesus. After all, one of the reasons he was our Savior was that he came to live among us like one of us. "The Word was made flesh," John tells us. God's desire was to heal the broken relationship between himself and creation, and in order to do so Jesus became part of creation. God wanted creation restored, not wiped out and replaced with some kind of ghost or spirit world, and by entering creation Jesus made that possible.

Why did God want creation restored? Well, if the Jewish and early Christian teaching was true and our true selves are combinations of body and spirit, then God wanted them both restored in order to have our real selves restored and dwelling with him. When Jesus entered creation as a human being, it's like he grabbed hold of creation so he could take it with him through his death and resurrection, bringing it salvation as well.

He healed us. All of us, and through his life, death and resurrection these flawed perishable bodies will put on imperishability, to dwell with him and with God for all eternity.

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