Thursday, October 25, 2007

Athenagoras & The Bodily Resurrection

In his defense ‘On the Resurrection of the Dead’, Athenagoras argues against the sensibilities of his time for a bodily resurrection. The objections then are not far from the objections we would still expect to encounter today – such a thing seems to be a physical impossibility. At this point, a brief clarification on the difference between a bodily resurrection and merely a ‘resurrection’ is in order.

The difficulty we have is when we end up making too great a distinction between the soul and the body. Indeed, they are two different entities but as Athenagoras points out, they are inseparable in the resurrection. (We will return to this later.) There is a tendency today, especially in Protestant circles, to view the soul-body relationship as a spirit trapped inside of a robot. We go too far when reiterating “it’s only a shell” at a funeral to reassure ourselves of the apparent uselessness of the body. But the sanctity of the body is derived from the fact that it was created in God’s image, and indeed when talking of ourselves we instinctively (and rightly so) refer to ourselves whether we mean the body or soul. I am thirsty (my body thirsts) I love you (my soul loves you) my hair is too long (not the hair of my body by my hair).

The Gnostic heresy of Docetism is not far from our error when we try to distinguish too sharply between our soul and our body. The Docetists viewed Christ as having a human body but merely inhabiting it or possessing it – it was not truly His. It merely appeared to be His. If there were two ends, one believing in the inseparability of the body and soul at least in so far as I’ve described here and the other end being the ‘ghost in a shell’ theory, I think Athenagoras would prove to be a little closer to the ‘ghost in a shell’ theory than he ought to be. He at least does not admit a sexual distinction: “the difference of male and female does not exist in them [souls]” but I think he errs on this point. I do not believe that the resurrection (even if not in the body) would leave us with of a pool of neutered souls. Part of a person’s identity is inseparably linked with their masculinity or femininity.

It would be necessary for us to remind ourselves now that God is masculine and to say that Scripture refers to Him as such out of cultural bias and petty-worldly reasons would be nothing short of blasphemy. Indeed, the very nature of the cosmos is only adequately symbolized and actualized through the concept of male and female or more properly – masculinity and femininity. Therefore souls, being the essence of a person, are also either masculine or feminine. You don’t cease being masculine or feminine in heaven – these aren’t merely questions of sexual organs. So on that point I take disagreement with Athenagoras.

His defense begins engaging in the question of how a body could actually be raised from the dead if they had been scattered by wild animals for example. This shows us the nature of the resurrection which we are dealing with. This isn’t merely an intangible idea but a real – indeed … bodily resurrection. The creeds do not say it lightly. The original and truest resurrection is of course Christ’s. We must never forget that His was a bodily one – His body is no longer here on earth. Earlier in the second century, some of the Churches in France had seen terrible persecution. After the Christians were martyred, their aggressors were reported to have burned the bodies in order to prove that they could never be resurrected – their hopes were in vain. This shows us what their hopes were – not merely for an invisible, spiritual sort of resurrection of the mind and will but also of the body. It comes as no surprise then that the early Christians continued to hold the body as sacred even after death – believing that it would one day live again. This is all to say that the resurrection is not merely your soul appearing in heaven but the body disappearing from earth.

Athenagoras argues as much; in order for divine justice to be fulfilled, the body and soul must be reunited on judgment day. For it would not be right to judge the soul alone for what the body had influenced. The weakness of the flesh must be taken into account. It would likewise be unjust to judge the body alone for what the soul was responsible for. I think his separation here of the two concepts shows the incoherency in the very concept that they are completely separable.

He also argues that man’s very nature was intended to be eternal – not merely the soul but also the body. The resurrection is a restoration to how things ought to have been in the first place. In the garden, it was not merely Adam and Eve’s souls which were meant to be immortal, but their bodies as well. To restore only the soul to immortality by resurrection would have to be called a ‘rip off’. This would lessen the effect of Christ’s sacrifice and its power to restore nature to her proper order.


Phil Snider said...

Good series of posts. Perhaps hosting the Patristics Carnival is spurring you to greater and greater efforts :).

Just a comment or two. Semi-docetic views aren't necessarily the preserve only of Protestants (quite clearly, many Protestants do hold such views, don't get me wrong), but can be found among some Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. There is a tendency implicit in all Christian groups to want to spiritualize the resurrection and that crosses all denominational boundries.

Second, I do challenge your 'God is masculine' argument. I don't think we can talk about assigning any human characteristic in a hard and fast way. That would imply that we know God completely and I don't think we get to say that. A healthy dose of apophaticism here is required, I think. Besides, this we do see, at times, feminine imagry for God, so we can't always dismiss that.



TheGodFearinFiddler said...

You're right about the Carnival - it's giving me some incentive to post a little more.

I agree that semi-Docetic views are present in lots of Catholics as well. I have just noticed a much more proper understanding of the body & soul in the Catholic Church than when I was a Protestant.

In fact, the first time I ever questioned my world view on it was on talking to an ex-Roman Catholic who was chastising other Presbyterians for their views which amounted to this semi-Docetism we're talking about. (He has since reverted back to the Catholic Church.. shortly before I converted).

Now about God being masculine - that isn't my label - thats the Scriptures label for Him. I didnt say He was a man or even that He was male. I just said He is masculine which He is.

While masculine may not be adequate to define Him as He truly is, it is how He has divinely revealed Himself to us and therefore we are bound to consider Him as such. He could have every bit as easily referred to Himself as "it" and Jesus could have even incarnated into a body without sexual organs.

There is a cosmic order at work here. The big picture is masculinity and femininity being mere shadows of a greater truth we cannot comprehend yet so fundamental to the cosmos God created.

I can understand the concept very well, I just can't quite get it into words. Peter Kreeft can. I suggest you listen to his audio on women in the priesthood I linked to earlier or read this article:.

In it, he quotes CS Lewis who is obviously of the same opinion on the issue. It's a very important part of Christianity - God - the exclusively male priests of Judaism and their Father-God flourished in a world of mother-goddesses and priestesses. It wasn't a mistake and certainly not mere cultural prejudice of the ancient Jews.

This is not for a second to dismiss the motherly imagery used for God in the OT, NT and even on the lips of Christ Himself. Pope Benedict remarked in his recent book that the OT word for God's compassion often came from a derivative of the word for womb - the ultimate picture word for compassion. But at the end of the day - He is God our Father not God our Mother and it couldn't be any other way.