Resurrection, the Creator and the Creature

The act of resurrection can be considered with reference to both God the Creator and the human creature.

On the part of God the Creator, the act of resurrection is the Creator’s final judgment in the positive, his vindication of the creature over against the curse of death. Resurrection is also, in this way, the victory of the Creator over the power of sin and death in his human creatures in that it is the final restoring and perfecting of human creaturely life. God’s subsequent continual, beatifying presence to the creature is, in his economy, his act of preserving resurrected humanity against any relapse into sin, evil and a renewed death. Resurrection, thus, is the Creator’s definitive refusal to abandon his creature and his decisive affirmation of the human life he has made.

On the part of human creaturely life, resurrection is recomposition, restitution and perfection. The resurrected life is the soul restored to the body, and thus the human being rendered once again whole and entire, as God first created and intended it. This state, however, is not simply a reconstitution of created human being as in Eden, but also its restitution and perfection: a final restitution from a fallen state of spiritual sinfulness and bodily decomposition and a perfecting of its physical, moral and spiritual capacities in ways that are now only partially visible to us.

In this way, the theology of resurrection bears importance for both the doctrine of God, divine goodness and power, and Christian teaching regarding human being, its final state and end.

On Three Kinds of Resurrection

There are three kinds of resurrection. These are: resurrection in this age, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and resurrection in the age to come. Each can be distinguished by (i) the presence or absence of human mediation, (ii) the decomposition, or relative lack thereof, of the resurrected body, and (iii) the susceptibility or insusceptibility of the resurrected person to future death.

(1) Resurrection in this age. Into this category fall all the resurrections which have taken place so far, save the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, which is a foretaste and pledge of resurrection in the age to come. These raisings are typically characterized by three things.

First, they usually take place by human mediation of God’s life-giving power (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:17-24; 2 Kgs. 4:8-37), even where the mediator of divine power is no longer alive (see the unusual case of Elisha’s bones in 2 Kgs. 13:20-21). The miraculous raisings from the dead performed by Jesus in his earthly ministry also fall into this category (e.g., Mt. 9:18-26; Lk. 7:11-17; Jn. 11:1-45), as do those performed by the apostles (e.g., Acts 9:36-42, 20:9-12) and the contemporary Church. However, the mediation of these raisings by human persons is not the defining mark of this kind of resurrection. Some resurrections have taken place without any human mediation, as we see in Mt. 27:51-53.

Second, resurrections in this age are of those who are recently deceased. For this reason, they can be termed resipiscentia (‘coming back to one’s senses’) as much as resurrectio (‘standing up again’). Those raised in this age have not suffered severe or total decomposition of their bodies. Yet, there is nothing that prevents God from exercising his power to raise someone severely or totally decomposed back to life in this age, though we see no example of it in Scripture (cf. the vision of Ez. 37:1-14), or, as far as I am aware, in the history of the Church.

Rather, third, resurrections in this age are defined by the fact that the one raised will die again. This kind of resurrection is temporary. Those who are brought back from death in this age are raised again into a world where death still has power.

(2) The resurrection of Jesus Christ. The distinctive mark of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by contrast, is that “death no longer has dominion over him (αὐτοῦ οὐκέτι κυριεύει)” (Rom. 6:9b). The raising of Jesus, unlike all the resurrections that preceded or have yet followed, was a resurrection to eternal life. “Christ, raised from the dead, will die no more” (Rom. 6:9a). He lives and reigns in victory over death. “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18).

It is also distinguished from the great majority of resurrections in this age in that it was not accomplished by any human mediation; no disciple was sent to raise Christ from the dead. Rather, Scripture tells us that each of the Trinity raised Christ. With equal truth, one can say that the Father raised Christ (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1), Christ took up his own life again (Jn. 10:17-18), and the Spirit raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a singular divine action of the triune God, unmediated by human activity.

Again, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was similar to resurrections in this age in that Christ was raised as one recently deceased, after only three days. (Lazarus, note, was dead for four days before his resurrection: Jn. 11:17, 39.) Thus, his body was not subject to severe decomposition. This, along with their insusceptibility to future death, is the distinctive mark of all those resurrected in the age to come.

(3) Resurrection in the age to come. This is the great hope of Christian faith, enshrined as an article of faith in the Apostle’s Creed. It is this final victory of Christ that we await with longing: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26). When Christ returns, death will be finally vanquished and all humanity will be raised to life: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:13). I hold it an open question whether this is a resurrection that will take place by human mediation; Christ will raise us, but whether this is in virtue of his humanity or his divinity is difficult to discern. It will certainly not take place through any human person other than Jesus Christ.

This kind of resurrection is unique in that involves all humanity, including many millions who have long since died, their bodies being severely or totally decomposed–even reduced to ash. It is an essential tenet of Christian faith that this poses no obstacle to divine power. As Augustine writes, “The earthly material, then, from which the flesh of mortals is created does not perish to God, but into whatever dust or ash it is released, into whatever vapours or breezes it is dispersed, into whatever substance of other bodies, or the elements themselves, it is turned, even into whatever flesh of animals or, it may be, human food it is changed–in an instant of time it returns to that human soul which at first animated it, that it may become, may grow, may live as a human being” (Enchiridion 23.88).

The great joy of this resurrection in the age to come is its finality. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Those resurrected to life, unlike those resurrected to judgment (Jn. 5:28-29), will then share in the eternal life of Christ. Like the Son of God, death will no longer have any dominion over them and they will die no more. Instead, they will share in the life of the Living One forever, their resurrection a mirror and image of Christ’s glorious resurrection and an incontrovertible, powerful work of God the Saviour.

Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body

I’ve run across a couple interesting sets of comments from Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, regarding the resurrection of the body in Paul’s letter. In the first, Aquinas denies that the resurrection is in any way a natural occurrence; in the second, he discusses the kinds of perfections the resurrected body will experience.

This is the first set, on 1 Cor. 15:37-38, “And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body”:

Here it appears the apostle makes a comparison: when the human body is laid to rest in the ground, there is a kind of going to seed; but when it rises again, there is a coming to life. Because of this some are of the opinion that the resurrection of the dead is natural, since the apostle compares the resurrection to the sprouting of a seed, which is a natural occurrence. For they think that there are active seminal powers for the resurrection in the dispersed dust into which the human body is dissolved. But this does not seem to be true. For the dissolving of the human body into its elements takes place just as with other composite bodies, and so the dust into which human bodies are dissolved has no more active power than any other dust, where it is clear that there is no active power to compose a human body other than what is in human seed; rather, the dust into which human bodies are dissolved differs from other dust only according to God’s arrangement, as though these dust particles are arranged by the divine wisdom, in order that human bodies may once again be reconstituted out of them. Thus, the sole active cause of the resurrection will be God, though to this end he employs the work of angels to gather the dust… To conclude, the apostle does not here mean to prove that the resurrection is natural because a seed naturally sprouts, but he means to show, by way of a certain example, that the quality of the bodies of the risen and of the dying are not the same, and he does so because, in the first place, the quality of a seed and of its sprout are different. (Super I ad Corinthios 15.5.969)

And the second, on 1 Cor. 15:44, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body”, on the meaning of a “spiritual body”:

We see four things that proceed from the soul to the body, and they are more perfect to the degree that the soul is more virtuous. First indeed, it gives the body its being (dat esse); thus, when it arrives at the height of its perfection, it will cause the body to be spiritual (dabit esse spirituale). Second, it preserves the body from corruption; thus, we find that the stronger people are, the less they suffer from heat and cold. Therefore, when the soul becomes as complete as it can be (perfectissima), it will preserve the body totally impervious to external influences (omnino impassibile). Third, it provides beauty and brightness; for the sickly and deceased become discoloured on account of a failing in the soul’s working in the body, and when the soul arrives at the height of its perfection, it will make the body bright and glowing. Fourth, it gives the body movement, and this the more easily as the power of the soul gains strength over the body. And so when it arrives at the peak of its perfection, it will provide the body with agility. (Super I ad Corinthios 15.6.988)

This last paragraph is quite interesting: Aquinas believes the resurrected body will be unable to suffer any harmful influence or be affected from outside; it will quite literally glow with health; and it will be quicker than our bodies presently are. He even believes that two bodies could exist in the same space if God allows it, just as the resurrected body of Jesus could pass through closed doors (John 20:26), although this won’t be automatically possible (Super I ad Corinthios 15.6.983). This is of course so much speculation, but one imagines that our resurrected bodies will have breathtaking qualities something like these.

Augustine on the Resurrection

The earthly material, then, from which mortal flesh is created does not die for God; but in whatever dust or ash it is scattered, in whichever vapour and wind it is dispersed, into whatever other substantial body or the elements themselves it is changed, into whatever animal and also human food it may pass and flesh it may be changed, to this human soul it returns, in an instant of time, as that which it was originally, in order that the person may come forth living, being revived. (Enchiridion 23.88)

Non autem perit Deo terrena materies de qua mortalium creatur caro; sed in quemlibet pulverem cineremve solvatur, in quoslibet halitus aurasque diffugiat, in quamcumque aliorum corporum substantiam vel in ipsa elementa vertatur, in quorumcumque animalium etiam hominum cibum cedat carnemque mutetur, illi animae humanae puncto temporis redit quae illam primitus, ut homo fieret cresceret viveret, animavit.