Josh Billings and the Resurrection of the Body

“People often get upset when you teach them what is in the Bible rather than what they presume is in the Bible.” – NT Wright

I think of Josh Billings when I read NT Wright. Billings famously said that the trouble ain’t with what people know, but with what they know that ain’t so.

As Wright points out elsewhere, one of the wrong things that people “know” is that the Bible teaches us to believe in life after death.

It doesn’t. Rather, it teaches us to believe in life after life after death.

The apostles, like most room temperature ancients c. 1 AD believed in life after death long before they ever met Jesus. The announcement that ghosts were real would not have been good news to anybody. Indeed, it would not have been news. Everybody already thought that. Ancient Jews had their tales of Samuel coming back from the Beyond to warn Saul of his impending death. The Greeks believed in Hades. Romans had their stories of Caesar’s ghost telling Brutus he would be with him at Philippi. Belief in life after death was (and remains) a run of the mill idea long predating anything the apostles had to say.

Indeed, it was so normal that when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, their immediate assumption was that they were looking at a ghost. It’s what Jesus did next that both shocked the disciples and added a layer of complexity to the gospel that is the strangest thing in the world: he demanded they touch his risen flesh and then asked for a piece of fish to eat, thereby demonstrating to them that he was no ghost but a fully human man, body and all.

Those who call the story a lie need to account for this strange and seemingly needless complexification of the tale. It adds nothing to the basic assertion that “We saw Jesus alive after death”. It would be much easier, in fact, had they been just making stuff up, to tell the expected ghost story and then just have Jesus fade into the ether after he had bequeathed all power and authority on them like a good fictional god should do. That way there would be no need for an Ascension and all the bother of an empty tomb. Jesus could lie moldering in his grave and they would still be able to assert the typical tale of how his ghost showed itself to them and they all agree they saw it and a community dedicated to following his Spirit could have gotten going just as easily.

But that’s not what happened. From the get-go the apostles insisted on a bodily resurrection, with all the extreme awkwardness that entailed. And there appears to be only one reason they did so: because that was what they had in fact experienced.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us. (1 Jn 1:1–2).

The Church hits the ground running, not with stories of Jesus the wise rabbi, nor with tales of Jesus the martyred revolutionary, nor with accounts of Jesus the reformer, nor with stories about the Jesus the Ghost. They start, instantly and without wavering for the rest of their lives, with the proclamation:

Christ… was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. (Ac 2:31–32).

That–the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the coming resurrection to similarly divinized human life for all who have obedient faith in Him–is the Good News. All the rest of the stuff in the gospels–all his sayings and signs and so forth is simply (as one uncharacteristically puckish German theologian put it) the “long introduction” to the Passion narratives that are at the heart of each gospel. Everything Jesus says and does in the chapters leading up to the Passion and Resurrection narratives is there to explain the meaning and effects of the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. That–and that alone–is the Good News.

Belief in the resurrection of the body is a far more radical thing, with vastly more radical implications, than belief in merely floating around in a bodiless, spiritual, blissed out void. Ultimately, it means a New Heaven and New Earth–an entirely new universe, which broke into this one in seed form with the risen Christ and has been quietly infecting this one like a good virus every single time a sacrament is celebrated. Someday, this entire universe is going to have its whole DNA overwritten by the God-Man and all its current machinery retooled to serve Him.


14 Responses

  1. I agree with the history lesson here, that belief in bodily resurrection was a novel idea back in the day. I’m just not convinced it was a smart idea. Belief in bodily resurrection can lead to certain sillinesses, such as the fact that it was only in 1963 that the Magisterium lifted their ban on cremation of the dead. Most Eastern Orthodox communions still ban it, as do quite a few Pentecostal denominations.
    Also, my driver’s license has a check mark in the “Organ Donor” box, something that I am free to do because I don’t belong to one of the many Christian groups that forbids it.

    1. The problem with that assertion is that it would imply the only people who will get to be resurrected are those whose dead bodies did not decay. And all the fleshy bits are going to be gone within the first few months after being buried until only bones remain, and under the right conditions, those will decay, too.
      My mother in law died a month ago of covid. Disease control precautions required that she would either be buried before the Mass or that her coffin, wrapped in foil, would not be put in the church, it would remain outside. And she would be interred by men in PPE suits in a new grave.
      On the flip side, cremation meant that her ashes would be put in the church for mass and she would be interred with her parents, since the urn with her remains wouldn’t require digging up a deep grave.
      My wife was comfortable with cremation since we were teenagers, while I was wary and I only grew more wary as years passed and my wife started sharing the same concerns. A quick call to a priest completely cleared this up.
      I have no idea where this belief came from, other than it’s THE TRADITION, duh, but I feel like it’s yet another example of pride and vainglory, believing that our bodies are as good as they get and that we need to preserve them somehow, disbelieving that God has something even better for us.

      1. I recall hearing that the ban on cremation came about because those who practiced it specifically denied the resurrection of the body, so cremation was seen as a clear statement that one did not believe in it. However, taking great pains to preserve the body didn’t really become popular in the west (and United States in particular) until the 19th Century. For most of history the body was wrapped in a shroud or placed in a wood box or tomb, and allowed decay naturally (with the remains probably needing to be pushed aside to make way for more later).

    2. The important thing, of course, is not whether it is a novel idea or a smart idea, but whether it is a true idea.

    1. Depends on what you think the Kingdom of God is. If you think it is the news that God became man in Christ Jesus, died, and rose and won for us the blessings of the life he proclaimed to us during his earthly ministry, then yes.

  2. It seems belief in the resurrection of the body is declining among Christians. I think this betrays a woeful lack of imagination. It takes little imagination to believe in an eternity spent as spirits floating in an impersonal state of dull corporate bliss. But imagine a Heaven so real, in the physical sense, that from the perspective of it’s inhabitants we’re the ones who seem like ghosts. Imagine a physical world in which time, space and matter are playthings. Imagine being in a body that’s been totally transformed by the spirit, capable of doing the things Jesus did in his resurrected body–walking through objects, appearing and disappearing at will, shapeshifting, being at any number of places at once. Imagine a universe like that. Doesn’t it sound like fun?
    As for the question of how God will resurrect bodies that have decayed, been cremated, been devoured by wolves, or what have you, well, either we believe in a God who transcends the limitations of time, space and the physical laws, or we don’t.
    Really, we Christians should have the wildest imaginations out there.

  3. I’ve always wondered if Jesus was better looking after his resurrection. He clearly looked *different*. Neko once tried to rain on my parade when I said I admired the big Jesus mosaic at the Sacre Coeur. She said, “nah, he was ugly” and quoted the OT. I will go on telling myself that we will all turn into super models post mortem.

    Anyway, if we live to 70 or beyond, we have to remember that the earth holds at least 10 bodies that belonged to us as we shed our cells and have a completely new body every seven or so years. Yes? No? (Why do tattoos stick around?)

    I’d rather not even think about *anybody* who has been artificially injected with chemicals to stop the rotting. It’s horrible. Cremation is just so much tidier. I’d rather that my loved ones not rot at all. Ugh.

    1. My family has strict instructions to give me the simplest burial possible – natural fiber clothes on a clean body in a plain wood box. I find the idea of my body composting and becoming nutrients for the earth really comforting, actually. My mom, on the other hand, is with you on team “rather not rot” and wants to be cremated.

      As for tattoos, the ink is encased in scar tissue (caused by the abrasion of the ‘needles’) in the dermis. The semi-deep scar tissue holds the pigment in place for life, but since any scar will usually fade or soften or distort over time, the tattoo will fade and soften with it, as pigment gradually gets carried out and away. This is also why certain styles of tattooing are better suited to the medium – those pretty washy watercolor tattoos will look like a whole lot of nothing much quicker than a traditional-style tattoo with firmly defined, dark outlines to build sturdy “walls” to hold everything in. The more you know!

      1. Hmmmmm. Yes, the thought of decomposition and feeding the earth *is* comforting, but the nitty gritty of the actual pile of filth and worms–not so much. A skull with the head thrown back and the jaws gaping open like a permanent halloween installation is not something I’d like to consider. When I clip my nails, or watch a hair from my head that has fallen to the ground or the pew in front of me, I give myself a little pep talk reminding myself that this (my indifference) is how I must regard my soul-less body.

        Also, I’m a little bit fascinated with the idea that the Eucharist–given to us for the obvious reasons–also has something to do with the fact that a *risen*Jesus never had to endure that most ignominious fate of decomposition. It was a way in which Jesus, who promised that he would take on every suffering that we have been reduced to would partake of decomposition in a real and visceral way.

        I dunno, maybe I’m venturing out into hereticsville.

  4. I highly recommend the LORE podcast if you want to hear some spooky stories about people being immortal/coming back from the dead. It’s mostly just fun folklore.

    The last story in that group is a fun Catholic one, that involves a guy who came back to life after being hung. He’d been dead for quite a while, (his eyeballs had popped out, and were resting on his face.) lol

    His last words on the scaffolding were a prayer to a local saint who had just died, begging him to save his life. The formerly dead guy went on to testify to being raised from the dead and was one of the miracles accepted for the saints canonization. 🙂

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