Recovering the Resurrection (part 4)

Losing the Resurrection

The loss of the importance of a bodily resurrection is something that permeates Christian culture. It is found in everything ranging from our hymns to our popular funeral liturgies to our popular music. With the increasing rationalism and dependence on science to explain everything in the world that became popular in the 19th century, Christians began to lose sight of a physical, bodily resurrection. This can be seen both in the literature and the songs from the period. Christians instead began to focus on an obscure idea of heaven and being forever removed from this world and the bodies that inhabit the world. Popular and Christian ideas about the afterlife began to merge, and it was Christian theology that suffered the most.

A brief glance through a hymnal illustrates what many Christians think about life after death as much of Christian theology is encapsulated in the songs that are sung by the church. The powerful hymn, “How Great Thou Art” closes with a look at what Stuart Hine believed awaited Christians:

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,

And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

For Hine the ultimate rest for a Christian after death was somewhere beyond this earth that Jesus would come and take believers to. The final hope was not in a future return of Christ to the earth where Christians would experience a bodily resurrection and then live with Christ eternally on a new and perfected earth.

This idea is also reflected in a poem by Emily Dickinson, a popular nineteenth century poet whose poems on death continue to be popular at funerals today and reflect our cultures skewed ideas about the afterlife. She wrote in a poem entitled “Joy in Death” that the future of those who die is that of a disembodied soul in heaven:

If tolling bell I ask the cause.
‘A soul has gone to God,’
I’m answered in a lonesome tone;
Is heaven then so sad?

That bells should joyful ring to tell
A soul had gone to heaven,
Would seem to me the proper way
A good news should be given.

Even today, in an increasingly secular world, references to heaven abound. Popular music artists such as Eric Clapton,[1] Bob Dylan,[2] and U2[3] all have songs talking about heaven as the place where people go after they die. Neither Emily Dickinson nor Bono of U2 have any concept of a future hope in the bodily resurrection. The ideas about heaven put forth in music, literature, and fiction have become so ingrained in Christian culture that many Christians automatically think they will spend eternity as a soul in a heaven that is beyond this world after they die.

The loss of the bodily resurrection and emphasis on heaven has become so prevalent that many Christian funerals today speak only of a soul gone on to heaven and rarely, if ever mention the bodily resurrection of the believer which is the true eternal hope of believers. While this may not seem important, it illustrates that at the time when Christians should be most readily thinking about their ultimate victory over death in the future bodily resurrection and return of Christ to remake heaven and earth, they are instead focused on the soul of the person who died spending a disembodied eternity in heaven.

Many Christians would be shocked to discover that the popular ideas about heaven that exist in most Christian circles are not, in fact, found in the Bible. The assumption that many Christians grow up with, that when Jesus refers to heaven it is only referring to the place with golden streets and pearly gates that Christians go after death, is simply not true. The “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus refers to is not a place where disembodied souls go after death, but in fact refers to a time when God’s rule will come to earth like it exists now in heaven.[4] However, the idea of spending eternity in a disembodied state in heaven has become such a part of the Christian mindset that many automatically assume that when the word “heaven” is stated in Scripture it means the place souls go after death. What is most startling is that the popular Christian view of souls and heaven bears more resemblance to the Platonic view of life after death than it does to the Biblical view of the bodily resurrection.

The Impact of the Loss

The loss of influence that the doctrine of bodily resurrection has faced recently has found its way into every part of Christian society. As illustrated earlier, it is in everything from songs to poems about death. It is not just in the Christian realm, but also the secular. If you were to seek out a Christian book about the afterlife to help a child deal with the loss of a grandparent, the odds are you would find a book detailing things like how beautiful heaven is with its streets of gold and pearly gates and what a wondrous place it is to go after death and spend eternity. For example, take this quote from a children’s book by Beverly Lewis entitled, What is Heaven Like?: “After school I ran to catch up with the ice cream truck. ‘Is there yummy food in heaven?” I asked the driver. Tyler grinned at me, ‘The best ever.’”[5]

While such a statement can assuage the grief of grieving child and even many adults, it simply is not a biblical idea of heaven. This loss has at least three far reaching consequences.

  1. The hope of a bodily resurrection has long set Christianity apart from other religions in terms of what happens after death. The loss of this uniqueness allows people to lump Christianity in with other faiths on the issue of the afterlife instead of allowing Christianity to stand out from other religious views. While this might make Christianity more appealing to the general population which already has certain ideas about what happens after death, it effectively downplays one of Christianity’s most important doctrines because it does not fit with current cultural mores.
  2. The loss of emphasis on the bodily resurrection seems to have happened with very little in terms of resistance from Christian leaders. While some books and papers have been written about the bodily resurrection, very little has been done to specifically address the problem. The language of disembodied souls going to heaven has become so prevalent that it is something not only rampant among laity, but also among the clergy. Scholars, if they have recognized the issue, have done very little to start combating it from the top down.
  3. Most importantly, the loss of the bodily resurrection is the loss of a vital Christian doctrine that has been replaced by a view reminiscent of Platonic heresy. Were the Apostle Paul alive today, it is likely that the loss of a theological belief on the magnitude of the bodily resurrection would warrant a lengthy letter of rebuke and theological guidance to restore the thinking of the church to sound theological footing. The doctrine of the bodily resurrection has slipped away so quietly that many Christians seem to have forgotten about its existence. Such a foundational part of Christian theology cannot disappear without adverse effects cropping up elsewhere in Christian theology.

[1] “Tears in Heaven”

[2] “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

[3] “Where the Streets Have no Name”

[4] Wright, Hope, 18

[5] Beverly Lewis, What is Heaven Like? (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2006), 7.

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