The body matters. That God raised Jesus bodily from the dead says something powerful about the body. Jesus did not consist simply of spirit. What was important about Jesus was not simply spirit. Jesus was body, mind, and spirit. It all mattered, but without the body perhaps there was nothing worth keeping? Why else would God raise Jesus bodily from the dead?
The brothers in 2 Maccabees 7 who courageously faced execution at the cruel hands of Antiochus confidently asserted that the God whom they trusted would restore physicality to them post-post-mortem.
2Mac. 7:10 After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, 11 and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”
The physical body, our bodies, my body; these are integral to resurrection. Without the physicality of our bodies resurrection is nothing of the sort. Without the body resurrection becomes purely spiritual, ethereal, ghostly, transcendent, and unrelated to the corporeal physicality of the life as we know it.
I am my body and my body is me
I am my body. My body is me. And yet at this precise moment I find myself wanting to say, ‘no it isn’t!’ And yet, without my body there is no me. My body seems to be integral to who I am. Yes of course, if my heart was in danger of giving out, or my arteries became seriously blocked and it was deemed by medical professionals that my life was in danger they might suggest or advise, or insist that I have a heart transplant. Someone, somewhere might donate their heart in order that I continue living. I don’t think for a moment that having someone else’s donated heart inside my body, pumping my blood around my body, makes me any less me. Nor if I was have receive donations of any other part of a body. There’s no doubt that medicine and transplant techniques are rapidly advancing and evidence of this is that soon there will be an attempted body transplant. Yes! A surgeon in Turin, Italy is convinced that within a couple of years he will be able to graft a living person’s head on to a donor body! Wow! I have absolutely no doubt that ethicists will have a field day! But, if successful there remains the question as to whether the recipient, who apparently will only have contributed his head to the new person/body will still be the same person. Personally, I have absolutely no doubt that whichever lucky individual is deemed suitable for this extraordinary operation will still be the same person when she/he wakes up. But, and this is surely crucial, without a body that person will cease to be. The head requires a body, just as the heart requires a head.
Floating on clouds…?
Within Christianity there are all sorts of weird ideas floating around about life after death. Ethereal, disembodied persons floating around on clouds, strumming and stroking gilded harps; spirit beings gathered in an infinite choir forever singing solemn chants. Most prevalent is perhaps the idea that the believer rises instantaneously upon death to heaven – whatever heaven is pictured to be.
A recent bestseller and now massively profitable film ‘Heaven is For Real’, asserting that a boy had been to and returned from heaven, included claims that Jesus rode a rainbow coloured horse, and that the boy sat in the lap of Jesus whilst muscular angels sang to him. Once the money had been made the boy confessed that it was all untrue and no, he had never been to heaven. But, the success of the book and film shows the eagerness of folks to grasp a hold of images, pictures, ideas of heaven as a place that exists and is waiting for them once they die.
Jesus – the only evidence
What is it that awaits us after death and more to the point, what part does the body play in this afterlife? It seems to me that the only clue we have to life-after-death, life-after-life-after-death, and so on is the experience and witness of Jesus. I would contest that there is no one else who has even a clue as to the reality of post-mortem experience. Not even the Apostle Paul, for all his wisdom and insights, not the Old Testament prophets, no one else has been through death, come out the other side and has been presented to human beings as a witness to the reality of life on the other side.
Jesus lived; he died; and he was raised from the dead, not to live and die again, but somehow to live forever. And all this Jesus did in a body. If we then take Jesus as the paradigm for our investigation of the body in the life-after-death and life-after-life-after-death what do we have? First, we can assert confidently and without any fear of contradiction that Jesus lived in a body. And Jesus’ body was pretty much the same body that we are all familiar with. No sensible person would ever suggest that in his completely ordinary body Jesus didn’t experience precisely the same experiences that you and I experience. The gospels record that Jesus was hungry. And thirsty. Jesus slept and ate and drank. Jesus would have experienced itchy eyes when the wind swept the dust up into his face. He would have known that familiar ache of weary muscles after a long walk along a hard beaten road. He would have had all the same daily routines of washing, pooping, stretching, eating, sleeping that all humanity is familiar with – some of course to a greater extent than others. All this was accomplished in his body. Needless to say the DNA of Jesus would be absolutely recognisable as human DNA. Bearing a close resemblance to his mother, brothers, and sisters, nephews and nieces. We have no idea what Jesus’ body looked like. What colour his skin, or his eyes, or his hair. But the chances are skewed massively in the direction of Jesus being no different from a regular Palestinian Jew. Darker skinned, dark hair, brown eyes. Jesus lived as a regular, recognisable human being. And he died much like any other human being. Once Jesus had been pronounced dead a man by the name of Joseph, possibly aided by another named Nicodemus, carefully removed Jesus from the cross and took him to a nearby garden where there was a tomb carved out of the rock. Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped up his body in burial cloths, placed him in the tomb and rolled a stone in front of the entrance. This latter act was not to prevent Jesus from leaving the tomb – the tomb was not a jail where the dead were imprisoned – but rather to prevent hungry wild animals from entering the tomb and enjoying a juicy morsel or two.
Jesus, in toto, was buried
Now, this may be moronically obvious but it perhaps needs to be said that when Jesus died and was buried, he took all of this to his grave. His body was buried. Jesus was buried. The person who was Jesus, in his body died and was buried. There was nothing of Jesus that was left behind outside of the tomb. Jesus, the complete whole person suffered, and died, and was buried. There was nothing physical left outside. There was nothing spiritual left outside. Everything, in toto, that could be considered to be Jesus and was Jesus was buried. No loose ends. Once Jesus’ body was buried, everything that was Jesus was buried.
This is important because following the burial of Jesus there is silence. There is stillness. Nothing happens. For up to thirty-six hours following his death Jesus lies in the tomb. That is, Jesus, the complete physical, spiritual, emotional, but now deceased, human being, lies lifeless in his tomb.
Did He or didn’t he…?
Suggestions that can be gleaned from the New Testament as to the activity and whereabouts of Jesus while he lay in the tomb are scarce. The earliest reference comes in Ephesians 4:8 in a passage speaking about gifts that Jesus has given to his followers. ‘(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ We can take this to mean that the writer here is proposing that in his death it was believed that Jesus descended into the place of the dead – Hades. Likewise, the Apostle Peter, speaking at Pentecost quotes Psalm 16:10 and speaking of Jesus, affirms ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption’(Acts 2:31). A third and a fourth reference come in 1Peter. 1Peter 3:18-19 asserts, ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, and he ‘went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19). This is commonly taken to mean that in-between the death and resurrection of Jesus he was busy preaching to all those who had died previous to his own death. Indeed, even the Apostles’ Creed asserts, ‘he descended into hell.’ First asserted by Clement of Alexandria towards the end of the second century C.E. this view then grew in popularity up to the time of Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century. A final reference comes in 1 Peter 4:6, ‘the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.’
But, other than these there is nothing in the witness of the apostles or the gospel writers to suggest that Jesus did anything after his death except lie very still.
One thing is clear: between his death and resurrection Jesus’ body did not leave his tomb. What is contested however, is whether Jesus was already experiencing life post-mortem, but pre-resurrection in a spiritual sense. The idea of Hades, place of the dead is something that NT Wright discusses in The Resurrection of the Son of God. ‘Death itself was sad, and tinged with evil. It was not seen, in the canonical Old Testament, as a happy release, an escape of the soul from the prison-house of the body.’ But, as far as the New Testament writers were concerned Jesus died, and went spiritually into Hades, whilst his body remained in the tomb. All of this is difficult. We cannot know for sure what happened to Jesus when he was lying in the tomb. Physically yes, Jesus stayed where he had been placed. Spiritually, we cannot truly say. However, if we conclude that Jesus was present and alive spiritually in Hades, then we need to ask about the situation of others who had died; what of their spiritual whereabouts? Was Jesus welcomed into Hades by Abraham and Sarah, and by Isaiah and Jeremiah, and by David and Solomon? If so, then can we speak of the immortality of the soul? Can we affirm with Plato that within the physical body there resides immortality waiting to be released? I don’t think so. The bible otherwise seems to be clear that the soul is not inherently immortal. After all, the Apostle Paul talks about the mortal body putting on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:54). Hopefulness is all very well, but hopefulness does not equate to reality.
I would suggest that once Jesus had been laid in the tomb he did not move physically or spiritually. I would submit that in our mysterious creation God has wonderfully and beautifully tied our spiritual selves to our physical selves. One depends upon the other. Without our bodies we are not complete. Likewise, in the absence of our spirit we are incomplete. Thus, when Jesus is raised from the dead, he is raised bodily. A new body nonetheless, a ‘transphysical’ body to be sure, but a body all the same. ‘Christians envisaged a body which was still robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one.’ In addition Wright also makes clear that the early Christians, ‘were not talking about a non-bodily, ‘spiritual’ survival. had they wanted to do so, they had plenty of other language available to them.’
Death as sleep
What does this then mean for our own deaths? Is there a life after death but pre-resurrection? I’m not so sure. It seems to be that we can affirm the description that was given when many of the kings of Israel died – they slept with their ancestors. ‘Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David’ (1Kings 2:10). The notion of sleeping has so much going for it. Sleep is not a permanent state. Death as sleep speaks hopefully of awakening. Sleep is a state of restfulness, recuperation, of preparation. Sleep is a place of safety, and peace. Death as sleep anticipates a future that is active, and purposeful. Just as I think Jesus rested/slept for something like thirty-six hours, so too I don’t think we can say anything about our immediate and longer-term death state other than that we sleep.
Wait, trust and wait.
And we wait. We enter death trusting in the love that is God. We rest in that love. We do so just as Jesus rested, and waited. Waiting for his Father to affirm his love for his son and to bring him through death into newness of life, embodied with newness, radiating with vitality.
When Jesus was raised from the dead and was encountered by Mary, and Peter, and John, and Thomas and the others, he was encountered as a physical being. Pointedly, when Jesus gently and wonderfully confronted Thomas he says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). It is clear that the scars inflicted on Jesus in the last hours of his life still remain. His body in resurrection is the same body as in life. But what of those who are crippled? What of those who have dreamed and longed for wholeness in their bodies? Who have longed to be able to walk, and run; or to clench, and stroke; to see, and hear, but have been unable in life to do so? Jesus in resurrection is no longer tormented by the injuries so brutally inflicted upon him as he approached death. It is as if he had not been beaten and incapacitated, and yet he has the scars to prove it. So too, for those crippled in life, either by injury or by birth. Wholeness awaits in resurrection. Yet, we will still have the scars that we will carry with us.
No body, no resurrection.
Resurrection involves the body. The body is a gift of God. The body is God’s unique gift of wonder and beauty. And this means that we are honour our body in whatever form we experience it. And we are to honour the bodies of others. We are called to love our bodies. Jesus is explicit in asserting that what is required of the disciple is to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. It is clearly difficult to love one’s neighbour – to give one’s neighbour the care and attention we should unless one also pays good care and attention to oneself and in particular to one’s own body. The body is not a dustbin prepared to take the garbage of life, or to be discarded. The body is not to be abused; it is a gift of God. We care for our bodies in anticipation of resurrection.
The body will be renewed but it will still be recognizable as our body. We will carry our bodies as we carry ourselves into death and beyond. The body will become more and not less.
(The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio)
 J. Dalton. Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits : a Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. Analecta Biblica 23. 2nd, fully rev. ed Roma : Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico. 1989. [1st ed., 1965.]
 N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God p.126.
 But then of course, when we speak of our ‘spirit’ what are we speaking about !!!??
 Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God p.601.
 Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God p.601.