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Sacro Monte di Crea; The finding of the empty tomb of Christ, statues by Antonio Brilla, 1889. Photo by Stefano Bistolfi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Stefano Bistolfi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The finding of the Empty Tomb of Christ, 'Sacro Monte di Crea.' Statues by Antonio Brilla, 1889.

‘We shall be raised!’


Cecile S. Holmes
March-April 2012

"I believe in ... the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

For centuries, Christians have repeated the words of the Apostles' Creed, affirming their belief in doctrines central to their faith.

But what is it we affirm in that final phrase? What is it the hope that surrounds the grief we acknowledge in the "Service of Death and Resurrection"?

The death and resurrection of Jesus laid the groundwork for current Christian beliefs about what happens to the body after death, say United Methodist scholars and theologians.

"Scripturally, we have only a very few clues, images, texts to draw on. This is why we have always referred to our bodily resurrection as one of the mysteries of faith," said the Rev. Heather Murray Elkins, professor of worship, preaching and the arts at Drew University. "The way it stays present in our mind is the letters of Paul and the way in which the Apostles' Creed is used in worship."

Famous hymns by Charles Wesley link "our resurrection and Christ's resurrection," she said. "You have Charles Wesley's Easter hymn, 'Made like him, like him, we rise. Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.' ("Christ the Lord Is Risen Today")" So Christ's resurrection and humans' bodily resurrection become linked in people's minds through preaching, hymns, worship and Scripture."

Promise of embodiment

"In my own belief, Jesus' bodily resurrection is a model of what we mean by resurrection," said the Rev. Henry "Hal" H. Knight III, professor of Wesleyan studies at Saint Paul School of Theology.

"I'm not so much thinking of an empty tomb because that was within three days,'' he said. " We know that our bodies decompose.

"I take this to be a promise of God our creator that we will have an embodied existence somewhat like Jesus and in line with what St. Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians."

The key word here is embodied, said the Rev. M. Douglas Meeks, professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The idea of bodily resurrection for human beings became a significant issue in Christian history.

"This is a major theological question in the whole tradition," he said. "The theological choices boil down to the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul on one hand and the Old Testament understanding of the resurrection of the body.

"My own view is that it is very important for Christians to hold to the resurrection of the body. The (concept of) immortality of the soul is that the body dies and the soul goes to heaven. That's a very non-Jewish way of thinking. I think the New Testament has a Jewish horizon obviously. Jesus was a Jew and so were most of the first Christians including St. Paul." The verses of 1 Corinthians illustrate the doctrine, he said.

Knight also points to ancient Jewish teachings, saying the idea of the resurrection of the body precedes Jesus.

"For Christians, it is rooted in Jesus' resurrection," he said. "But when you read the New Testament, you will read about Jesus and the disciples talking about the resurrection of the body in Jewish tradition. This was taught by the Pharisees but not by the Sadducees."

Take death seriously

The problem with the Greek view of the soul's immortality, Meeks said, is that it doesn't take death seriously enough and it denigrates the body.

"Wherever you have the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, you also have slavery and the denigration of women. For example, the slavemasters before the Civil War said it doesn't matter what you do to people's bodies because what matters is the soul," he said.

"The doctrine of the Resurrection says it does matter because we are an in-spirited body or an embodied spirit. We view the human being as not separate entities but as a whole being.

"So this means that the Scriptures take death very seriously," Meeks continued. "According to Scripture, death is the last and greatest enemy of God. When we die, all of us dies. When we die, we expect God to recreate us in resurrection as he did Jesus. The only power stronger than death is God."

United Methodists use both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. The first speaks of the "resurrection of the body," while the second expresses belief in the "resurrection of the dead."

The historical context for any difference in wording reflects a "difference of community and a difference of time frame," Elkins said. "Resurrection of the dead means the importance of those who came before Christ (and) what happens to them. And the Apostles' Creed is pushing back against Gnostic or Greek thought. Both of them in some ways are trying to answer the question of, ‘Those we love have died and those who love Christ have died, what happens to them?'"

What is needed?

Theological issues surrounding understanding of bodily resurrection may emerge when people make funeral plans. Younger generations seem more comfortable with cremation than older ones.

The United Methodist Church is "generally open to cremation as a viable alternative" to burial or entombment of earthly remains, writes the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards in an article on Burton-Edwards is director of worship resources for the General Board of Discipleship.

Still, "sometimes people think that, 'If I'm cremated, then I can't be bodily raised,'" said Knight. "That is not true. God is the creator. Creation is not going to prevent a bodily resurrection. Organ donation. Same thing. These are not obstacles for God. In fact, I can't think of an obstacle for God."

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church both encourage and support organ donation.

Imminent or immediate

Elkins outlined two principle themes from Scripture regarding bodily resurrection. The first, affirming the Hebrew Scriptures in their proclaiming of the goodness of creation, refutes Greek dualism about the body and the soul and affirms the Incarnation as a time when God came and dwelt with humanity.

Then in the Apostle Paul's understanding "of what happens at death, we go into a period of waiting, we sleep, we rest and then comes resurrection, so that's a very strong understanding of what happens to us," she said.

"We don't immediately in a very Pauline approach move into the presence of God. We shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, but we shall be resurrected in the final judgment and then be fully integrated."

Another tradition of understanding what happens at death, when resurrection occurs, is based upon the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, she said. At the cross, the good thief asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

"And Jesus looks at him and says, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise,'" Elkins said. "That means there are at least two different biblical streams of understanding what happens to us after death when we die in Christ. Both of them are faithful. There are those who argue one over the other. But both are there."

"The creeds were the anchor and point to the mystery of what we believe," she continued. "Can we define what we believe? No. Can we say this we believe and trust? Yes. That gets expressed often in the hymns.

"This is an affirmation of faith that we will live by even when we know we cannot prove it, but we're going to live by it."

Cecile S. Holmes, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications, is a veteran religion writer and the author of Four Women, Three Faiths. Her web site is


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