There’ll be fun in heaven – but no cuddling
by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Summer 1998
WHENEVER we recite the Creed we solemnly reaffirm our belief in ‘the resurrection of the body’. But what does that mean? How much of a body will we have in heaven? One elderly gentleman once asked me with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Will I be able to cuddle my wife again when I’m on the other side?’
There will be little cuddling in heaven, I am afraid, at least in a physical sense. The new reality which God creates after death will not be a replica of the material world we inhabit now. Do not expect to visit a crystal palace in which you will stroll around, wearing a satin gown and sipping nectar from a golden chalice. At the resurrection, Christ tells us, ‘men and women do not marry; they will be like the angels of God’ (Matthew 22:30).
How then do we speak of the resurrection of the body? What do we mean with ‘body’ if there will be no eating or drinking, no walking around, no physical activities we normally associate with the body?
Our confusion arises in part from the fact that we tend to think of body and soul as a duality. It is true, body and soul are different aspects of being human which are contrasted in the Gospel. Jesus said that we should not fear those who can kill the body but not kill the soul (Matthew 10:28). But the contrast has at times led to a very unchristian dualism.
Misinterpreting the opposition between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ described by Paul (Galatians 5:16-24), the body was considered our material, impure and animal nature, our soul a spiritual and pure spark from God. With the Greek philosopher Plato, we were made to believe that our angelic soul languishes imprisoned in an ugly and sinful body and that at our death it flies back to God who is pure spirit, leaving a rotting carcass behind. But this is not the way Scripture looks on our body.
The Jewish concept of the body is different, and this was the concept Jesus and the apostles built on. In the Jewish way of thinking, body and soul are not separate. We do not have a body; we are body. Even for our intellectual and spiritual activities we use our body as much as our soul. In the New Testament, the body usually stands for the whole person, including our physical identity.
When Paul warns against the danger of prostitution, for example, he speaks of the sanctity of our body (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). But ‘body’ does not just refer to our physical limbs; it refers to our whole person, body and soul. ‘Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit’ is parallel to ‘the Holy Spirit is in you’. Joining our body to Christ is parallel to being one spirit with Christ. In other words, the sanctity of our ‘body’ means the sanctity of our whole ‘personality’.
When Paul speaks about a person’s ‘body’, we should understand that he often refers to his whole person. In English we would then normally translate ‘body’ by ‘self’. A man can pummel or subdue himself (1 Corinthians 9:27); he can give himself to be burned (1 Corinthians 13:3); he can yield himself to the service of God or sin (Romans 6:12-19; 12:1); he can glorify Christ in himself (Philippians 1:20). Our ‘body of sin’ (Romans 6:6) is our sinful self. Our ‘body of humiliation’ (Philippians 3:21) is our humiliated self. Our ‘body’ stands for our self.
So now we know what Paul means with ‘the resurrection of the body’. Counteracting the Greek idea of a depersonalised departure of the soul, Paul stresses that we shall rise with our bodies in the sense that God will not erase our human personalities. Rather, God will assume into his love our whole ‘self’, everything that is part of us, that is — our whole historical personality.
The ‘body’ we will rise with is, therefore, not the complex of atoms and molecules that give us our physical form (1 Corinthians 15:35-44). Our risen ‘body’ will be the reality of everything we have experienced, our sufferings and our triumphs, the decisions we have made, the relationships we have lived, the thoughts we have thought and the emotions we have felt. Everything that has made us what we are will be part of our risen body.
By clasping our personality and lifting it up into his infinite love, God will put his final seal on us. When God created us, God made us in his own image — as individuals somehow reflecting his own uniqueness. By embracing the body of our personality, transforming us into a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44), God will give us a lasting and unique place in the infinite home of his love.
Will that take the fun out of heaven? Far from it! The things that really matter — our insight, our relationships, our love — will endure. But the way we experience them will be entirely different. Just as well, I am sure!