An excerpt from my book Adventures in Orthodoxy–Twenty Short Chapters on the Apostles’ Creed.
Any school child that thinks about the resurrection of the body soon starts asking delightfully gruesome questions. After all, if they’ve ever seen a cat hit by a car, then been to a funeral and seen Uncle Mitch in the casket, and watched the coffin being lowered into the ground they have a pretty good idea what happens. It doesn’t take long to figure out that dead bodies decay and that Uncle Mitch, who sat them on his knee for a story and gave them huge bowls of ice cream now lies very still in a box going all gooey like the cat by the roadside.
Therefore the difficulty of believing in the resurrection of the body soon hits home. To put it bluntly, how can the body be resurrected if worms have eaten it and turned it back into topsoil? The questions continue. What about Aunty Hazel who loved doing crosswords and amateur dramatics? She was cremated and her ashes can be seen in an urn on Uncle Bert’s mantelpiece. Will those ashes be magically put back together again into an all singing, all dancing, puzzle solving Aunty Hazel? Or what about people who were blown to bits by a bomb or were eaten by sharks or crocodiles or lions and tigers and bears; Oh my!
We don’t want to insult God’s accounting practices. We know he keeps track of every hair on our head, and know when every sparrow falls, but is he really going to keep track of every molecule of Grandpa and Aunty Hazel and the missionaries who were eaten by cannibals? Will he track them all down and summon them all up to be put back together again like some vast cosmic jigsaw puzzle?
The question is a good one, and ought to interest everyone because we all have a morbid curiosity about the gruesome details. That’s why we slow down at road accidents. There are really only three ways around it. First, faced with the poetic foolishness of such an idea we may simply opt for the atheist’s solution and say there is no such thing as life after death. This would put us in a minuscule minority when faced with the huge number of human beings who do believe in life after death, but nevertheless, the atheist solution, although it takes great faith and courage to adhere to, is one solution.
The second solution is that there is no such thing as the resurrection of the body, and instead we continue to exist in a merely spiritual state. But when you stop to imagine such a state it is impossible to do so. At least, it is impossible to do so while still retaining any sense in which a particular person continues to exist as the same particular person. As soon as we start imagining Aunty Hazel existing on the other side, but without a body, she ceases to be Aunty Hazel and becomes an ectoplasm or an amoeba—just an amorphous something. We might try to imagine Aunty Hazel as just her personality or spirit, but as soon as we do, her smiling face appears, and we remember her belting out “There’s no business like show business.” In other words, Aunty Hazel can’t exist as just personality or spirit because Aunty Hazel was always more than just a personality. She was a person. So if we believe in life after death, but not the resurrection of the body, then we can’t say a particular person continues to exist as that particular person. That’s why some religions say that in the after life we get rid of bodies altogether and are simply absorbed back into the cosmic Spirit.
The third option, is that we continue to exist as the people we are here and now, and to do that we have to have bodies of some sort. We have to have bodies to be who we are, because from day one who we are has always included a body. Therefore, if we say we believe in life after death, then somehow or other, no matter how ridiculous it seems, we also have to believe in the resurrection body.
But maybe when we considered the problem of corpses that had turned to dust and ashes or been eaten by crocodiles and cannibals we were taking the physical solidity of our bodies a bit too seriously. This is easy to do because we are used to thinking of our bodies of this “too too solid flesh.” We imagine that this hairy, smelly, frustrating and funny body which we occupy right here and right now is the one we have always had, and that it is really quite a permanent fixture of the universe. But of course it isn’t. Not only will it turn to dust and ashes one day, but the body we have now isn’t the same one we’ve always had. In fact, every seven years or so, all the cells of our body are renewed, so in a very real sense, the body I have now is a completely different body than the one I had seven years ago. By looking at old photographs I can see that the body I have now has grown from that other one, but it is clearly a different body. Furthermore, the body I have today is a different one from the one I had yesterday. It hasn’t changed totally since yesterday, but it has changed a bit. Therefore, what we think of as a solid and permanent body is, in fact, quite a changeable thing. We are all shapeshifters. Our bodies are far more fluid and temporary than we think, and we mustn’t be mislead simply because the shapeshifting takes place over a relatively long period of time.
I make this point to introduce the idea that although my physical body of cells and molecules totally changes every seven years or so, there is nevertheless, another “body” which doesn’t change. There is a physical part of me that is always me despite the changes. That photograph of me as a child does not picture the same body, but it does picture the same person. This brings us to the meaning of the word “body”, In the Latin form of the creed, we do not profess belief in the Corporis Resurrectionem, but in CARNIS Resurrectionem. In other words, we don’t profess belief in the resurrection of the body, but the resurrection of the flesh. The theological definition of the word “flesh” comes from the Hebrews, who blessed the whole human race with a wonderfully sophisticated religious idea. They rejected the obvious idea that our bodies are shells or vehicles for our souls. Instead they thought that the flesh and the soul were permanently integrated and united. For them “flesh” means much more than just the physical body. It means the whole person with all the gifts of body, mind and spirit fused into one physico-spiritual being.
If this is so, then rather than the soul living in the body as a person lives in a house; we should think of the soul dwelling in every cell of the body. Increasingly the biologists understand the mind in this way. So the mind does not seem to be limited only to the brain, but it is spread by the nervous system throughout the whole body. The soul, then, does not exist in one part of the body, but infuses the entire body down to the tiniest cell and molecule. Evidence of this is in the weird things which sometimes happen with organ transplants. The recipients of new organs are known to inexplicably assume character traits and tastes which they never had before, but which their donor had when they were alive.
So if the mind dwells in every cell, then maybe the soul does too. This is easy enough to suggest as a theory, but let us stand it on its head and say that if the soul dwells in every cell of the body, then maybe a bit of the body dwells in every part of the soul as well. After all, if we are a totally fused body and soul creation, then this would follow. We have all heard of the old soldier who still feels pain in his amputated leg even when it isn’t there. Sometimes he even reaches to scratch empty air because his absent leg itches so much. That indicates that just as the mind and soul inhabit the body, so the body (even when part of it has been cut off) inhabits the mind and the soul. If that is so, then there exists a kind of “soul body” which we could call the resurrection body. It has continuity with our mortal physical body, (like my boyhood body has continuity with the present fat and bald one) and it is derived from that body, but it is the soul version, and is not subject to decay and change.
This shouldn’t be so hard to imagine, because, as I’ve already pointed out, our bodies are changing all the time anyway. What if this “soul body” or resurrection body simply blossoms at the point of death? After all, our physical bodies have gone through lots of changes throughout the course of our lives. This may simply be the final one. As a seed falls into the ground and dies, in order to bring forth the flower, so our bodies fall into the ground and die to bring forth the resurrection body. And as the flower grows from the seed, but looks nothing like it, so it may be with our resurrection bodies. They are derived from these mortal bodies, but thrive and are alive with a new kind of life that has grown out of the old.
If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is anything to go by, then this seems to be precisely what does happen. He rose from the dead, but they didn’t recognize him at first. In a way it was like seeing a boy at his college graduation who you haven’t seen for ten or twelve years. You scarcely recognise him, and yet you know the handsome, proud twenty one-year-old is the same person as the gawky, buck-toothed nine year old with a snotty nose. So it will be in our own resurrection. We will have blossomed. We will have grown up to the full maturity of our years. We will be in our prime, and will have reached that potential for which we were created.