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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Do Souls Really "Fly Away"?

Maria Shriver's children's book called What's Heaven describes it as "a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk... If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go [there]... When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you heaven to be with him." What wonderful, comforting words for any child first contemplating the reality of death. But, most Christians believe the Biblical truth is very different.

Then, as we grew older, we began reading the real text of the Bible ourselves. We found that Christianity teaches that the soul is separated from the body and continues to exist forever.The term resurrection of the dead is generally used to refer to the idea that the dead bodies of all or some of humanity will be reformed and reanimated at the End Times, and ascension will commence as resurrection of the dead to face God on Judgment Day. It seems the qualities of the resurrected body will be different from those of the body laid in the grave, but its identity will nevertheless be preserved; it will still be the same body which rises again. Is it no wonder that clouds of confusion began to test our beliefs? To grasp this meaning requires critical reading and thoughtful contemplation.

What Does a Christian Believe About Resurrection?

The centrality of the resurrection is seen clearly by two references to it in the Nicene Creed, which contains two resurrection clauses within its short length:

*  Jesus "was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father"

*  believers "look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

So, naturally, we wondered just what was to be the end state of the resurrected person at sometime after the death of an earthly body. This point of contemplation led to these possibilities:
  • only spiritual, a body adapted to the use of the soul in its glorified state, and to all the conditions of the heavenly state
  • physical and spiritual resurrection
  • glorious, incorruptible, and powerful
  • like unto the glorified body of Jesus, based on the power and gift of His atonement 
Then, we turned to the most famous work of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), the Summa Theologica. It was intended as a manual for beginners as a compilation of all of the main theological teachings of the time. It summarizes the reasoning for almost all points of Christian theology in the West, which, before the Protestant Reformation, subsisted solely in the Roman Catholic Church. Here, we found that spiritual beings that have been restored to glorified bodies will have the following basic qualities: 

*Impassibility (immortal / painless) — immunity from death and pain
*Subtility (permeability) — freedom from restraint by matter 
*Agility — obedience to spirit with relation to movement and space (the ability to move through space and time with the speed of thought) 
*Clarity — resplendent beauty of the soul manifested in the body (as when Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor) (Father John A. Hardon, The Catholic Catechism)

And, soon what began in our lives as "soft cloud conversation" became the greatest mystery of all time. Heaven and souls and afterlife and infinity? Many seek to jolt us into believing in a new existence with threats of hellfire. Others choose to ignore the parts disliked and calmly reassure us that God has prepared "our mansion in the sky." As Christians, we all realize the importance of accepting Jesus as our savior, yet we would still like an idea of who we will be and where we will dwell eternally. Not all Biblical scholars agree on those subjects.

 Heaven In an Earthly View

One of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought is N.T. "Tom" Wright. The Senior Anglican bishop and theologian spoke of “the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their ‘souls going to Heaven,'" adding: “I've often heard people say, ‘I'm going to heaven soon, and I won't need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That's a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.” Instead, Wright explains: “In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state." This is "conscious," but "compared to being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep." This will be followed by the resurrrection into new bodies, he says. (David Van Biema, Time, February 7 2008)

Wright related that Paul speaks of "the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:23). He is convinced there is no reason to doubt what Paul means: God's people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of the present bodily life. He is confident that the rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this. Again, redemption of "our bodies."

According to Wright, "Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say 'Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.' They all say, 'Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do... ' What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfill the plan, you won't be going up there to him, he'll be coming down here." (David Van Biema, Time, February 7 2008)

The Future Body

The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian's future body and the means by which it comes. Wright stated, "The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you." (N.T. Wright, "Heaven Is Not Our Home," Christianity Today, March 24, 2008)

Addressing Jesus' words in the scripture "there are many dwelling places in My Father's house," Wright contended the word for "dwelling places" in the verse, monai, is regularly used in ancient Greek not for a final resting place, but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.

Resurrection itself then appears as what the word always meant in the ancient world. Wright said, "It wasn't a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death."

And Science Co-exists Naturally In the "Hands of God"

John Polkinghorne, believed to be one of the greatest living writers and thinkers concerning science and religion and a truly world-class scientist turned priest, stated, “Is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore.” In short, “the activity of science is recognized to be an aspect of the imago Dei. (image of God)” He has described the process this way: "God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves."

Polkinghorne's views covered two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom. (John Polkinghorne, "How the Resurrection Makes Sense," March 4 1999)

Wright agrees and contended that The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says "the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God," and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

Polkinghorne agreed that "the real me is certainly not the matter of my body. That is changing all the time, through eating and drinking, wear and tear. We have very few atoms in our bodies that were there five years ago. What provides the continuity is the almost infinitely complex pattern in which matter is organized. That pattern is the soul, the real me." The soul is piece of the Holy Spirit that completes existence.

An Incorruptible New World

God's future inheritance is the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world.The deceased are already kept safe, waiting, so that they can be brought to birth in the new heavens and new earth.

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