Monday, April 1, 2013

Countering the Gnostic Dismissal of the Fleshly Resurrection of the Dead

Over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic, Joe Rawls shares an excerpt from Kevin J. Madigan and Jon Douglas Levenson's Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews.  By way of introducing the passage, Rawls cites the "resurgence in popularity of Gnostic writings over the past several decades," noting that while this resurgence celebrates "self-absorption" and "thumbing the nose at institutional religion," it also tends to conveniently ignore Gnosticism's contempt for the body, sexuality, and physical creation.  (For a brief critical look at one popular promoter of such "Gnostic-lite," see my blog posting on Elaine Pagels' book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.)

As Madigan and Levenson rightly note in the following passage, the antidote to Gnostic contempt for the body lies in the orthodox Christian understanding of salvation as including "the fleshly resurrection of the dead."



Tertullian makes the important observation that most doubts about the resurrection begin with complaints about the flesh itself. Of the Gnostics, he writes: "Their great burden is ... everywhere an invective against the flesh: against its origins, its substance, against the casualties and the invariable end which awaits it; unclean from its first formation from the dregs of the ground, uncleaner afterwards from the mire of its own seminal transmission; worthless, weak, covered with guilt, laden with misery, full of trouble, and after all this record of its degradation dropping into its original earth and the appellation of a corpse and destined to dwindle away even from this loathsome name." 

Tertullian's response arises from the intuition that the flesh derives its dignity not from its intrinsic properties but from being the work of God. It is God's molding and selection of the flesh that makes it worthy. Thus it is both the dignity and the skill of the maker that give the flesh nobility and splendor. So artistically is humankind created that it becomes impossible to distinguish flesh and spirit. Drawing on Christological language about the relation of the divine and human in the incarnate Christ, Tertullian observes of humanity: "so intimate is the union, that it may be deemed to be uncertain whether the flesh bears about the soul, or the soul the flesh; whether the flesh acts as servant to the soul or the soul to the flesh." Besides, had not both testaments of the scriptures magnified the flesh? Had not Isaiah declared, "all flesh, as one, shall behold [the Presence of the Lord]" (Isa 40:5)? Had not Paul called our bodies temples of the Lord, members of Christ (1 Cor 6:19)? In their argument that the material creation cannot be redeemed, the Gnostics typically use Paul's point that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50), as Irenaeus points out. But Tertullian argues, it is not the substance of the flesh that Paul railed against, but its actions. What is more, if flesh were not raised, would not death have preserved victory over that which God had created and hallowed? Soul and body had acted coordinately in sinning and in doing good, and for justice to prevail, they must be judged together at the end of time, as both Jews (excepting the Sadducees, Tertullian notes) and Christians believe. At the end of time, the body will be changed; it will be incorruptible. But it will be a fleshly body that will rise. For Irenaeus the proof of this is in the raising of Jesus with the body that preserved the nail wounds, proof that we, too, would be raised in our bodies. 

For orthodox writers like Tertullian and Irenaeus, it is the Gnostics and not the gospel of Jesus Christ that is negative regarding the body. The Gnostic dismissal of the fleshly resurrection of the dead is but one symptom, though perhaps the most important one, of their inability to appreciate God's handiwork. 

These second-century Christian writers are well aware that some of the scriptures, such as Colossians and parts of the letters of John, speak of the resurrection as a present reality, rather than an event of the end time. These were particularly popular texts among the Gnostics. But both Tertullian and Irenaeus use the same texts against the Gnostics in order to emphasize that there is a future, and bodily, dimension to resurrection. Thus Tertullian quotes 1 John 3:2: "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed." He quotes other texts to the same effect. John and Paul also speak of a future bodily resurrection. Does not Paul say, "He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil 3:21)? Although our flesh will undergo change, in other words, its substance will be preserved. The notion that resurrection would be purely spiritual was wrongheaded and based on a misunderstanding of the scriptures, particularly Paul. When Paul spoke of the human as a temple of the spirit, he was not referring to soul only but simply to the notion that it was an integral human being, body and soul, who became such a dwelling place for God.

Both Tertullian and Irenaeus go to some pains to argue against a view of salvation that is understood strictly in terms of the survival or salvation of the soul. Again, the Gnostic message is in the background. Both the Gnostics and the orthodox agreed that the soul would be "safe" after death, that is, that by virtue of its intrinsic immortality, it would survive and be saved. What was at issue was whether that which was subject to decay and destruction--the flesh--would similarly be saved. The Gnostics denied it would. But the orthodox Christian view of God's creation, of human nature, and of justice could not allow for this partial understanding of salvation. As the orthodox saw it, the texture of humanity was a seamless, invisible work of art, composed of flesh and soul--very much like the view of the rabbis we examined in the previous chapter. God will reward the blessed, body and soul. "How could we be blessed", Tertullian asks, "if any part of us were to perish?" Only if the whole person, both elements of which were created by God, were raised could humanity be redeemed and justice achieved. Also crucial, again, is the presumption of God's stupendous power. As Irenaeus sums up the case, "For if He does not vivify what is mortal, and does not bring back the corruptible to incorruption, He is not a God of power." Had the Gnostics not read Paul? God would, in the end, clothe our perishable bodies in imperishability, our mortal bodies in immortality, and death would be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54). 

~ Kevin J. Madigan & Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection: 

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