I chose last Sunday’s Easter text, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, from the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical list of scripture passages for each Sunday of the Christian year. Because I focused on the Adam/Christ analogy and the meaning of Christ’s victory over death, I purposely did not deal with this passage’s most intriguing verse: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
My Christian ethics professor in seminary respectfully disagreed with Paul on this point—out of an ethical concern: Eternal life means a new quality of life now, versus simply a quantity of life in an everlasting future. Obeying the law of Christ and loving God and neighbor with agape-love is its own reward. Whether or not we get heaven when we die is irrelevant. In fact, from his perspective, heaven-as-a-reward goes against the spirit of Christ-like love.
He didn’t disbelieve in heaven, or resurrection—he held it out as a “blessed hope.” He just thought we shouldn’t focus on it.
I agree with him to a point. Paul of all people spoke emphatically about eternal life as something that we experience in the here and now; not something we wait for. Throughout his letters he uses resurrection as a metaphor for this present quality of life. (See Romans 6:1-4, for instance.) Paul would say, however, that we only experience eternal life now in light of our future resurrection, guaranteed by Christ’s own resurrection. Our life now only makes sense in light of future resurrection.
If you heard my sermon, you can tell that I think it’s time to emphasize heaven more.
Bodily resurrection is the main point of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s lengthiest discourse on the subject. Paul is addressing these words to some in the Corinthian church who deny not Jesus’ bodily resurrection (they likely accept that) but the necessity of our bodily resurrection at the end of history—as opposed to simply “heaven when we die.” From Paul’s perspective, Christ’s resurrection implies our own future resurrection. What Christ is in resurrection, we will be in our resurrection. We affirm the reality of bodily resurrection in the Apostles’ Creed with the clause, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.”
In my experience, however, many Christians—not just my Christian ethics prof—have trouble with this doctrine for a variety of reasons. (I discussed the resurrection of the dead in general in an earlier post. See here.) I think it’s important to keep the following points in mind: Our bodies will be at least physical. We will not simply be like angels floating on clouds. Our future existence in heaven—or resurrection in God’s kingdom—will be embodied. In my view it must be this way if we understand salvation in the fullest sense: With apologies to Sting, we are not “spirits in the material world.” We are spirits within bodies in a good physical world that God intends to redeem. God wants to save us, body and soul.
This answers one question I’m sometimes asked: “Will we recognize our loved ones in heaven?” Yes! Our future selves are in continuity with our present selves. Paul writes elsewhere in chapter 15 that we are like “bare seeds” of what we will be. This also means that there’s no reason to believe that the good things human beings do with their bodies in this world won’t also be a part of the world to come: productive and creative work, making love, laughing, playing—the list goes on. I’m still haunted by childhood memories of heaven depicted as a somewhat dreary place where you stand around in a choir robe all day singing hymns. (Of course, for some of you that might be heaven, in which case please disregard these words!)
Exactly how much will our future selves be like our present selves? We can’t really say. We can speculate based on the disciples’ experience with the resurrected Lord. On the one hand, the disciples had difficulty recognizing Jesus at first: His appearance was changed. Jesus could appear and disappear seemingly at will. He could walk through locked doors. On the other hand, he still had scars to show to Thomas. He ate and drank with disciples. He was embraced by loved ones.
We also have trouble with the doctrine of resurrection because our bodies often get in our way—through frailty or disease. Understandably, we don’t want bodily resurrection to simply be a sequel to a life with these often painful limitations. At the same time we don’t want to offend disabled, or “differently abled,” persons who have thrived in this life by saying that they will be made “whole” on the other side of eternity. They may be perfectly whole right now, thank you very much, in spite of what we perceive as handicaps. Our bodies with their unique physical characteristics help to define us. In some sense, God will save this uniqueness as well.
I think we can trust God with our difficult questions about resurrection while at the same time affirming it. Whatever heaven or resurrection means, as I implied in my sermon, it will be exactly what we most desire.