Luca Signorelli The Resurrection of the Flesh (c.1500)
Let us examine the order of the world, and see if all things do not tend to establish these two chief points of this religion: Jesus Christ is the end of all, and the centre to which all tends. Whoever knows Him knows the reason of everything. ~ Pascal, Pensées, #555.
For this reason, the Apostle (Paul in 1 Thessalonians) tries to make everyone understand all the effects and consequences that this unique and decisive event, namely, what the Resurrection of the Lord signifies for history and for the life of each one. In particular the community had difficulty not so much in recognizing the Resurrection of Jesus, everyone believed it, but in believing in the resurrection of the dead. ~ Pope Francis, General Audience, February 1, 2017.
In all the earliest teachings of the Church, we invariably find that the passion and death of Christ were followed by an account or affirmation of his resurrection and ascension. The passion was never spoken of apart from the resurrection, nor was the resurrection spoken of apart from the passion. The point was clear. The same person who died on the Cross was the same person who rose from the dead on the third day. The passion really happened. The resurrection really happened. The exact same person was involved in both affirmations.
Both affirmations were given by men and women who testified to what they saw. They were not initially interested in or prepared to give a more sophisticated account of how these things affirmed about the Christ could occur without contradiction. The first step was simply to attest to what happened, however difficult, at first sight, to comprehend.
So shocking, yet so strong, was this affirmation of the witnesses about Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that those who denied the facts had to develop elaborate theories about why the disciples could not have seen what they claimed that they saw. One common approach was to maintain that the witnesses were simple fishermen who were led astray by their own wishes. Another tack was to suggest that they were madmen, a bit loony.
They were certainly “unlearned” but that does not mean that they could not describe what they saw or heard. They did not have a tape-recorder to preserve Christ’s discourse at the Last Supper’s, his words on the Cross, or his post-resurrection greetings. This does not mean that what they recounted in speech and writing was not substantially accurate. The fact that they were not particularly leaned is, rather, a mark of their credibility. What was in it for them to lie about it? Most of them suffered death rather than deny it in exchange for their lives or for various rewards or honors.
Pascal asked us to “examine the order of the world”—something worth doing from time to time. This examination would be no mean feat by anybody’s standards. He goes on to indicate that Christ is the end and center of things. This affirmation would only make sense if it were true that Christ died and rose again, that He was both human and divine. In the history of theology, almost every effort conceivable has been devised to deny the possibility that the One God could come into the world as a man. For many, this is the great scandal and enigma. Pascal adds that “Whoever knows Him knows everything.” How could he say that? Only if this Christ who rose again was also the Word in which the world itself was created “in the beginning”, as John put it in his Prologue.
What does the resurrection mean to us?
Pope Francis asks: “What is the significance of the Resurrection to history and to our lives?” He points out that for many people the issue is not whether Christ rose from the dead, but whether each of us human beings will also rise. We can argue that the effect of the resurrection on history was so to refashion man’s understanding of what he was doing in this world that a new way of comprehending human life in this world came about.
By knowing that man’s ultimate destiny was not in this world, the politics and affairs of this world were free to be themselves; they were not also efforts to find out or imagine some other end for man. It can safely be said, with Eric Voegelin, that almost all modern politics have been efforts to achieve man’s transcendent destiny in this world—the famous “immanentization of the eschaton”. That is, locating the four last things as political or economic or ecological endeavors achievable by human efforts alone.
Knowledge of the resurrection and its implication also increased our understanding of the personal importance of each human life. Human beings were not just passing things, flickers on the horizon of history. They revealed dramas that had serious consequences as a result of the way men lived among their fellows during the years, however many or few, allotted to them in this life. Speaking about the dignity of each human life is thus more than rhetoric. The rhetoric follows each individual as he decides by his living and choosing what he shall be in eternity.
But to help us to think about the resurrection as something that concerns each person, and not just Christ, I would like to point out two significant reactions to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body of each human being.
Let us assume that the resurrection of each person, either to everlasting life or to the punishment indicated in Scripture, is a fact. The same issue appears in Plato. Is there any reason why this resurrection from the dead for each of us might make sense?
We tend to think, for instance, that the doctrine of hell is a myth. It is not possible for anyone to end up in such a place, whatever Scripture or Plato intimate. The doctrine of hell actually emphasizes the radical importance of each human life and its daily actions and thoughts. It implies, in effect, that each human being, however insignificant, is so important in the eyes of God that our freely abusing or harming another person, without repentance, merits damnation. That is a sober thought but perfectly logical and consistent with any real understanding of what a human being is.
The logic of the resurrection of the body; transhumanism
From this background, I would like to make two points, both having something to do with contemporary thought. The first concerns two famous Marxist philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Pope Benedict commented on their sagas in his profound encyclical, Spe Salvi. The issue involved the resurrection of each individual person, the very thing the Thessalonians had a difficult time accepting at the beginning of Christianity.
Plato, in the last book of the Republic, argued for the immortality of the soul (not resurrection of body) as a solution to the problem that those who did unjust deeds in this life were not punished in actual cities, which made it look like no difference existed between right and wrong. Plato proposed that after death a judgment would be passed on each life. The punishment for evil deeds and the reward for good ones would only be complete if this position about immortality were true.
Adorno and Horkheimer were not satisfied with this answer. Even though they were both atheists, they understood the logic of the argument. Since the sins we commit are put into reality by our whole being, body and soul, punishment of the soul alone was not sufficient to meet the standards of justice about which Plato was concerned. Therefore, they argued, the resurrection of the body was indeed a reasonable necessity if full justice were to be served. Even though neither held that the resurrection of the body was a fact, they did acknowledge that it had to be the case if the world is created in justice. From this angle, the resurrection of the body for each of us makes considerable sense and cannot be rejected as if it were somehow completely irrational.
A second issue comes up over what has come to be called “transhumanism”. Modern philosophy, as I mentioned, is largely an effort to achieve Christian ends within this world. Not only is there the problem of reward and punishment, but the problem of who is to finally enjoy man’s setting up a perfect kingdom in this world. Most modern ideologies, led by Marxism and ecology, but including various others in their own ways, conceive the history of man on earth as a progression from disorder to order, or from the primitive to the mature. History is the record of man’s striving to achieve a perfect city. Once we have the right ideology or science, we will be able to achieve this for those few who are finally alive down the ages to enjoy this new Eden.
The only trouble with this thesis, aside from its unlikelihood, is that it makes all previous ages of mankind and their inhabitants mere instruments for the good of others. Their own sufferings and living in imperfect kingdoms have no meaning for the individuals who suffer them. In this light, in recent years, we have seen scientists proposing projects to get rid of death. The Christian view, when spelled out, holds that God did not will death from the beginning for this human race. Death came as a result of the Fall, as both a punishment and as a relief from living on and on in this world with no purpose and no health. Eternal life, including the resurrection of the body, is only achieved through death, something Christ Himself had to undergo.
We do want to live forever, body and soul
The recent proposals to engage seriously in a scientific research movement to rid ourselves not only of aging but of death itself are, in a curious way, recognitions of the futility of the ideological projections of an inner-worldly happiness for those alive when we finally arrive at the Kingdom in this world. Not unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, the transhumanist project sees that what is really at stake is the individual life of an individual person.
The individual life, in this hypothesis, includes body and soul in a continuing and undying condition. It is considered hateful that anyone should die. Death must be remedied. But if we deny any transcendent purpose to our lives after death, including our actual lives, body and soul, this transhuman “logic” makes perfect sense. The refusal to permit death and to keep this now existing person alive in this world down the ages is a recognition that, from each person’s point of view, his is the only life that ultimately falls fully within his responsibility.
Of course, one might wonder about just what happens in a world in which nobody dies. We would have no more need of births. Indeed, births would be looked on, as they are now in many ecological utopias, as dangerous to the well-being of existing men who do not die. This view presumes that elderly, scientifically non-dying humans will not themselves need any help in their increasingly lengthy old age. This concern may be one of the reasons given for cloning.
In this light, however, the on-going cycles of limited life-spans, which see one generation of mortals replacing another, make sense. As individual persons, we were never intended to live on and on in this world in its present state. We were intended to be a race that continually renewed itself by births, and lose many of its members by death.
The truth the transhumanists have grasped is that we do wish to live forever as the unique persons we are. The truth that the Marxist philosophers grasp is that, even in our sins, we are not complete as human beings without the unity of body and soul.
In the end, when we examine Pascal’s “the order of the world”, the Thessalonians had it right: we do rightly want our own resurrection from the dead to occur, not just that of Christ. Pascal was also right about Christ, the Word, being the end of all things, the centre to which all things tend. This realization is why the early witnesses always insisted that we keep Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection together as one coherent explanation of what the world and its history are really about.
Verbum caro factum est. This Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us in a known time and in a known place. He died on a Cross when he was about thirty-three years of age. He did not live on and on in this world. And he will come again to judge both the living and the dead.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.