"If the spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead
dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken
your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you." (Romans 8.1
The seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles tells us the story
of St. Paul's troubles in Thessolonica and Berea, and of his escape to
Athens, where he waited for Silas and Timothy, before going on to Corinth.
But his time in Athens was not wasted:
His spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given
to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue. and in the market
daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans
and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, what will this babbler
say? Others said, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because
he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection." (Acts 17.16-18)
There were many aspects of Christian preaching which were readily accepted
in the ancient world, by both Jews and Greeks. Convictions about the Fatherhood
of God and the brotherhood of man were by no means peculiar to the Christians.
The notion of the immortality of the soul was commonplace. Christian moral
teachings, though certainly not very fully practiced in the pagan world,
seemed to contain nothing very new or startling. On such matters, St. Paul
could quote the greek poets: "in God we live and move and have our being."
The apostolic witness was to something further: it was witness to the
resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; and that was troublesome. It
seemed absurd. The ancient Hellenistic world cried out for a "spiritual"
salvation, hereby immortal souls might escape from the prison of the body
to a realm from which all physical, transitory things would be excluded.
But the prospect of that salvation was not altogether hopeful. In the greatest
literary work of Roman antiquity, the Aeneid of Virgil, there is a wonderful
scene in which Aeneas, the hero, journeys through the underworld, and meets
the spirit of his father. In the fields of Elysium, his father points out
to him the souls preparing to return to earth, and Aeneas cries out in
'But, O my father, is it thinkable
That souls would leave this blessedness, be willing
A second time to bear the sluggish body.
Trade paradise for earth?
Alas, poor wretches,
Why such a mad desire for light?' (Aeneid VI, 719)
And his father explains that only after drinking the waters of the River
Lethe, where memory is annulled, are they willing to enter once more into
mortal bodies. And so the conflict of soul and body, of spirit and matter,
goes on, in endless and hopeless cycles. Only in forgetfulness can it be
The resurrection of Christ was not a return to mortal body. It was not
resuscitation, as with Lazarus; nor was it the escape of immortal soul.
It was the transformation of body, the reconciliation of flesh and spirit.
The Risen Lord was not a ghost: "A spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye
see me have." (Luke 24.39) The disciples were incredulous. Clearly, in
spite of what Jesus had said, they expected no such thing. They hoped to
embalm his body, and preserve it as a sacred relic. Their immediate reaction
to the resurrection was fear and dismay. They knew the limits of the possible.
"Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger
into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not
believe," said Thomas. (John 20.25) But they saw, and they believed, and
their lives became a witness to the resurrection.
But what does that witness really mean? I think that for many modern
people, as for the Ancient world, the resurrection story seems not quite
credible. We would accept more readily a more "spiritual" salvation. Men
die, but their ideals live on. The flesh decays, but the human spirit is
unbeatable, and triumphs over the ravages of time. We live on in our descendants,
and find in that a kind of spiritual immortality.
But that supposedly "spiritual" salvation has a terrible emptiness about
it, an incompleteness and inconclusiveness. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians, "If
after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth
it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
(1 Corinthians 15.32) And we all know, all too well, the truth of those
famous lines of Isaac Watts:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream / Bears all its sons away; /
They fly, forgotten as a dream / Dies at the opening day.
The doctrine of the Resurrection attests to the wholeness of man's salvation
in Christ, which must include the redemption of the body. It must involve
a redemption in which nothing can finally be lost except for sin. Our longing
is "not to be unclothed, but to be clothed upon." (2 Corinthians 5.4) "if
Christ be in you," says St. Paul, "the body is dead because of sin: but
the spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that
raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from
the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth
The manner of that quickening transformation is beyond all explanation,
and "we know not what we shall be, but we shall be like him." (1 John 3.2)
God has established resurrection in Christ, and what is Christ's belongs
to those who are his. "For our citizenship is in heaven, from whence we
look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile
body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to
the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself."