Saturday, March 26, 2016

Resurrection: The Matter of Matter and Why it Matters

The resurrection of Jesus, (resurrected—fully and physically alive, empty tomb and all) is essential to Christian faith. One of the reasons this matters is that it affects how we understand matter to matter and what hope we have for the material reality of this world and our material bodies and histories.

Classically, there are two options for addressing matter. Christianity promises a third.

1. Matter is all that matters – the materialist, atheist option. The material world is all there is and there is no meaning beyond what can be weighed or measured. The universe and all it contains, including human beings, is merely the product of impersonal, purposeless processes. In that case, the best we can do is try to avoid as much suffering as possible and "enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can," as The Misfit says in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find. You can also try to avoid inflicting any more pain than necessary. You can even seek to alleviate and prevent it if that's how you want to spend your minutes. Or, like The Misfit, you can enjoy "No pleasure but meanness." But, which you choose is just a matter of taste. The most we can hope for is that sooner or later, one way or another, each of us will be put out of her or his misery by the oblivion of death.

If matter is all that matters, in the end it doesn’t matter all that much. And it does not matter if it is cared for or destroyed, cherished or exploited. And that is true of all material beings, including human beings. Even those who have aimed at improving the material well-being of humanity while committed to an ideology based on materialism have justified horrific things being done to the actual physical, material bodies of human beings.

Most atheists and materialists try to avoid these conclusions. But none successfully.

2. Matter doesn’t really matter – the option of one or another version of Idealism, Spiritualism, or Gnosticism. The material world and its tragic history is at most an insignificant backdrop to a more real spiritual drama. Or it is a bad and yucky thing. Or it is an illusion. This is true of the world at large and it is true of our material bodies. The hope then is that we can escape the material world with all its challenges and suffering through one or another system of spiritual liberation. Or we can hope that whatever is eternal, e.g., our soul or spirit, will finally shuffle off the mortal coil of material, bodily existence and move on to some realm of spiritual bliss.

As with option 1, if this is true, it doesn’t matter much how matter is treated. It is a matter of indifference.

Christians have sometimes tended to adopt some version of this. To disastrous effect. There has been a tendency to treat material reality as merely "stuff" to be used and exploited rather than a gift to be received with reverence and gratitude. And horrific things have been done to the material, physical bodies of human beings for the sake of their immaterial souls or some larger, spiritual ideal. 

But, orthodox Christianity has not taught that matter does not matter.

3. Christianity affirms something different – matter matters, but it is not all that matters and it matters in a direction. The material world is created by God and God declares it good – very good. It has been further blessed by being assumed by divinity in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the resurrection of Jesus we are assured that, in spite of its tragic history, the material creation is destined for transfiguration and New Creation. Matter matters.

If one assumes either 1 or 2, any talk of "resurrection" must be understood as metaphorical with, at best, only tangential connection with physical and material reality. If it has any meaning at all it is only a spiritual meaning. And there are some who talk of resurrection as if that is all it means – while the stories of resurrection have metaphorical meaning, Jesus did not actually, physically rise from the dead.

But, the hope of Christianity is based on a real, physical, material resurrection. First of all, the resurrection of Jesus in the 1st century. But, we also affirm in the Creeds that we believe in (and base our hope on) "the resurrection of the body". And what we hope for matters.

While the evil we humans commit, collaborate with, and suffer under always has a spiritual dimension, fundamentally, it is real, physical, and historical. The trauma, tragedy, torture, and terror are in real space, in real time. The contradictions we live under are historical, not metaphorical or merely spiritual. The Christian hope is not that we will somehow merely escape from the trauma, tragedy, and terror of evil, sin, and death – either that of our personal stories or of the story of human history. Our hope is that it has been addressed and redressed in the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that it will all be transfigured in resurrection.

I wonder if, when we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, what we are saying is about more than only the resurrection of individual bodies. It certainly is that. But, it it is also about the whole Human body stretched out on the rack of history. It is that body that was incorporated in the Incarnation. When Jesus Christ rose again on the third day, so did the promise of the resurrection/transfiguration of all the very material, historical sin and suffering of humanity and all creation – not metaphorically, but really and physically.

A real, physical resurrection matters. With that there is hope that the very real, physical torture and suffering of history (and the persons caught in it as victims, perpetrators, and collaborators) does not get the last word. Death and its servants do not win. Because we believe material reality matters and matters in a particular direction, we believe it matters how we care for the material creation. And it matters how we treat and care for the actual physical bodies of other human beings and their real material needs. While our meaning and purpose is found in more than our physical, material needs; the affirmation of the resurrection of the body insists that bodies cannot be separated from that meaning and purpose.

The Christian themes of creation and resurrection affirm that matter matters and it matters in a direction with a purpose and meaning. Rejoicing in the power of the resurrection, we live in the hope that material reality – including us God-breathed, material, embodied creatures – will be transfigured in resurrection glory. In the meantime we are obliged to cherish and care for it all and for the physical bodies and material needs of every human being.  


  1. Saint Paul teaches that the resurrection body is not simply a reanimated corpse, but something new and imperishable. Matter is by definition perishable (all protons will one day decay!) The risen body is spiritual, not merely physical. That doesn't mean it isn't "real" or "merely" spiritual, since spirit is eternal. At the resurrection, we are promised a share in this eternal reality, not simply bodies of dust, recollected and reanimated.

  2. Thank you, Tonbias.

    Not simply a reanimated corpse any more than the resurrection body of our Lord was simply a reanimated corpse. But, there is continuity as well as discontinuity. The risen body, and presumably the New Earth, will not by merely physical. But, it does seem to be the witness of the Church that materiality will not be escaped or done away with.

    I attempted to address this in a series of posts on my old blog:

    I might transport and revise that here at some point.