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.