One of the best Easter Songs ever written is “He’s Alive,” by Don Francisco. Here’s Dolly Parton’s live cover:
Pay special attention to the chorus, which — in a unique song-writing twist — doesn’t show up till the end of the song. The lyrics are as follows:
He’s alive / He’s alive / He’s alive and I’m forgiven / Heaven’s gates are open wide
That is, the importance of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter Sunday is that you and I can (a) have our sins forgiven by God, and thus (b) will be able to enter heaven when we die (as opposed to going to hell).
But what’s the connection? Why should Jesus’s being restored to life in his physical body indicate either that God would now forgive sinners and allow them into heaven?
Why the Resurrection Might Matter
The usual story told in the congregations I grew up in is that the resurrection signaled God’s acceptance of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. If God had not raised Jesus from the dead, that would have told us that God had not accepted Jesus’s death as a substitute for our own deaths — which we deserve because of our sin.
The story is is not an easy one to follow. All us Evangelicals agreed — because St. Paul says so — that physical death is a consequence of sin. However, none of us believed that Jesus’s death saves us from physical death. They believe Christians will die physically, just like everyone else.
Instead the death that Jesus’s physical demise saves us from — if God accepts it as a substitute — is the “spiritual death” of spending eternity after our physical deaths in hell.
So, when God restores Jesus to physical life, undoing his death, that told Don Francisco (and me, and my fellow congregants) that God had decided to take Jesus’s temporary physical death as a substitute for the eternal spiritual damnation that all sinners deserve. And that means that you and I will now be allowed into heaven when we die. After being separated from our bodies, our souls will get to spend eternity with God.
Jesus, in contrast, will not get to spend forever as a soul with God. He had to be given a physical body back, and only then was he allowed to return to heaven. So, what every Evangelical looks forward to — the ultimate goal toward which their faith directs them — is life in a spiritual realm whose only physical inhabitant is Jesus.
Some Confusion Arises
Ask me or one of my fellow Evangelicals whether this is, in fact, the point of Christianity, and we would recall that the rest of us are supposed to be resurrected too. That is, every disembodied soul currently in heaven will have to return to earth to be reunited with its body. But then everyone will get to go back to heaven and spend forever with God.
But why? If the souls of the departed forgiven are already in heaven, and the point of Christianity is to get to heaven, why leave heaven to be given their bodies back? What’s so important about having a body?
And what happens to earth while we’re all living as physical beings in spiritual heaven (after the general resurrection)? Any good Evangelical will be able to tell you that God is going to make a “new creation” — a “new heavens and earth.”
If I understand correctly, “heaven and earth” is just the ancient Hebrew way of saying, “the whole universe.” (Think of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”) But why? If the whole point of Christianity is to get to heaven, why should God create a new physical universe?
The answer, as far as I can tell, is that we humans messed up the first universe with all our sin. So, God is going to have to erase it and start over. But why things should go better the second time around is unclear. And why God couldn’t just have done whatever God is going to do the second time around the first time, and thus avoided the whole tragedy of our current state is also unclear.
The metaphysics and eschatology of Evangelical Christianity, in other words, is an incoherent mess. I know. I was raised in it. It still structures the way I think about everything.
But in my studies, I have also encountered other ways of thinking about the resurrection. The Evangelical view of things depends on a Platonic view of the human self. For Plato, to be human was to be a soul that gets temporarily attached to a physical object called a “body.” After death, however, the soul is released from that attachment and gets to live fully and freely as its true self.
Contrast that view with the Aristotelian Catholic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aristotelians, the human person is a whole consisting of two parts: the physical material of their body, and the rational form into which that material (and its activities, abilities, behaviors, etc.) is arranged. That form is the soul.
In other words, if you follow Aristotle — as St. Thomas did — rather than Plato — as most Evangelical Protestants do — you believe that to be a human being you have to have both a soul and a body. One cannot exist without the other. To be a thing of any type, you need to be made out of some stuff, and that stuff needs to have a particular shape or structure.
Motivation for Resurrection
This means the existence of disembodied souls, on the Aristotelian point of view, is a paradox. If your soul goes to heaven (or hell) after death, you haven’t gone to heaven (or hell). Just a part of you has. And it’s a part of you that can’t exist without the other part — the decaying body (the body has lost its form/structure, after all!) left behind on earth.
Would it make sense to ask God to maintain these half-beings (these forms-without-matter-to-form) in existence in heaven for eternity? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the disembodied state to be a temporary one, at the end of which God brings souls and bodies back together to be whole once again?
For Platonist Evangelical Protestants, disembodied existence in heaven seems to be the natural state of humanity. Resurrection and the remaking of the physical universe make no sense.
For Aristotelian Catholicism, disembodied existence in heaven seems to be an unnatural state for humanity. But resurrection and the remaking of the physical universe make perfect sense.
What About the New Creation?
The resurrection and the new creation — the remaking of humans and the remaking of the physical universe — seem to me to be two parts of the same process. I think resurrection and recreation are related modes of redemption.
Jesus wasn’t given a different body back, even if it was new and improved. It still carried the scars of the Cross. Why not expect the same of the universe?
That is, if the ultimate state of human beings is to be restored to wholeness — even if it be a higher, improved, wholeness — rather than completely scrapping what went before . . . why not expect the ultimate state of the universe to be the same?
Shouldn’t the point of Christianity, in other words, be the work of redemption — the work to redeem what we are and what we have — rather than the drive to escape?
And if that’s how you see the mission of Christianity relative to human beings, their bodies, and their world, how would you think, act, and vote?