Christianity Isn't 'Spiritual': What 'Resurrection' Means

By Garvey, John | Commonweal, May 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Christianity Isn't 'Spiritual': What 'Resurrection' Means


Garvey, John, Commonweal


There is a distance between what people think they believe, and what they actually believe. Most Christians might say they agree with every single word of the Nicene Creed, but I am not sure this would hold up under serious questioning. I'm not concerned here with the question of hypocrisy, that is, the question of how can we say that we believe these things and still live as badly as we do; I find that very easy to understand. Living up to what the words of the Creed mean would demand of us a transformation that involves great struggle, and a willingness to enter into a dangerous relationship with the Living God. Our hypocrisy is easy to understand, if tragic.

What I mean is that when we say, "I look for the resurrection of the dead, and life in the age to come," this does not square with what you often encounter when talking with many Christians about what they think of death, and life after death. I could be wrong, but the belief of most Christians seems to be much closer to Neoplatonism than to anything truly Christian, and it has no biblical basis. Or it involves a strange Cartesianism, in which the soul is a kind of "ghost in the machine," the machine being the cruder part of the duality, the body. Most people think of the soul as something that goes somewhere else when the body dies. This certainly squares with ancient pagan belief, where, in Hades, souls were "shadows of their former selves" and existed in a kind of half-life. The Neoplatonism comes in when the state of the liberated spirit is seen as superior to the poor embodied soul, trapped in mortal flesh.

This is important, because when a misunderstanding becomes pervasive, and when the misunderstanding involves something central to a religious tradition, the tradition itself is challenged: It isn't only "a part" of the teaching but the point of the teaching, that is called into question.

In the case of Jesus' Resurrection, what I believe is a common Christian misunderstanding is a challenge to what the Incarnation means, and moves the tradition from the Bible into a form of Neoplatonism. Although most Christians would be willing to say "Christ will come again," this is not a central part of their faith. They hope for a "life after death." This is not really a Christian phrase, or it is at least totally insufficient.

There is life--you have it or you don't--and there is death. A corpse is what it looks like. What you see is not a shell whose true but hidden tenant has gone somewhere else. It is the person you loved, dead.

When we say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead we confess a hope that the God who is the source of life will raise this loved person (who would never have existed without God's love) to a transformed life, one which will include the body, at the time when God heals and renews the obviously wounded universe we live in. …

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