Ancient Christianity and ‘Heaven’

Earlier this year, Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell appeared on Tony Jones’ panel show QandA for something vaguely resembling a debate. Unfortunately, the whole episode seems to have been designed as a nauseatingly sensational ‘showdown’ between the apparently conflicting ‘viewpoints’ of ‘science’ and ‘faith’ (see Stephens’ article below). As a result, most of the discussion was painfully awkward and unproductive, but at one point, Dawkins said something incredibly interesting. Pell had just referred to the Christian belief in a physical resurrection, to which Dawkins replied:

“I’m intrigued by the Cardinal’s saying that the Christians believe you’re going to be resurrected in the body. I mean, that’s an astonishing idea. […] you must mean ‘body’ in some rather special sense.”

What’s interesting about this is how surprised Dawkins is that Pell believes in a physical resurrection. Presumably, he’s more used to thinking that Christians believe in an entirely ‘spiritual heaven’; what the host described elsewhere in the episode as ‘a collection of individual souls … existing in some galactic space’. Many people nowadays (including, sadly, some Christians) seem to believe that Christianity preaches that the physical world, including and especially our human bodies, are only temporary ‘cages’ for immaterial spirits. The belief seems to be that  the ‘real you’ is the non-physical spirit floating around in your head, while your body, and the whole physical world are merely ‘optional extras’, tacked onto the Creation by God, who is ultimately only concerned with our ‘immortal souls’. As a consequence, ‘Heaven’ is conceived of as a ‘spiritual place’; a sort of immaterial realm where the bodiless spirits of the righteous dead float around like angels.

Medieval plaque depicting saints joyously rising from their tombs.

But this has never been the Christian belief. As early as the second century, we have St. Clement of Rome responding to this very controversy:

“Let none of you say that this flesh is not judged and does not rise again. Just think: In what state were you saved, and in what state did you recover your [spiritual] sight, if not in the flesh? In the same manner, as you were called in the flesh, so you shall come in the flesh. If Christ, the Lord who saved us, though he was originally spirit, became flesh and in this state called us, so also shall we receive our reward in the flesh.” ~ St. Clement of Rome (II Clement 9:1-6)

This is one of the rare areas where there is a stunning level of patristic consensus (unlike, for example, the nature of Hell or Scripture). Here’s a quick sample of some fairly unequivocal comments from Church Fathers:

“God will raise up your flesh immortal with your soul …” ~ St. Theophilus of Antioch

“Therefore, the flesh shall rise again: certainly of every man, certainly the same flesh, and certainly in its entirety.” ~ Tertullian

“This body shall be raised, not remaining weak as it is now, but this same body shall be raised.” ~ St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“At the resurrection, all the members of the body are raised; not a hair perishes.” ~ St. Macarius of Egypt

“Raise up their bodies also, on the day which You have appointed according to Your true promises which are without lie.” ~ The Coptic Litany for the Dead

St. Gregory even insists that the very atoms which form our physical bodies will be called back by Christ and re-assembled into their bodily form, no matter how far they have been spread out from one another (On the Making of Man, Ch. 27).

This insistence is born from the fact that the Christian understanding of a human being was never that we are merely ‘spirits’ trapped in ‘fleshy prisons’. As St. Justin Martyr said : “Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man.” (On the Resurrection, Ch. 8)

Of course, while it is the same body which rises, it does not rise in the same state. St. Cyril of Jerusalem puts it best:

“It is this selfsame body that is raised, although not in its present state of weakness; for it will ‘put on incorruption’ [1 Cor 15:53] and so be transformed … it will no longer need the goods which we now eat to keep it alive, nor stairs for its ascent; for it will be made spiritual and will become something marvellous, such as we cannot properly describe.”

While insisting that the same body rises, St. Cyril affirms that it will have a new ‘spiritual’ character, as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44. It would be a mistake to assume though, that this means necessarily that the world will cast off its physicality. The resurrection body will still be a body; it will certainly not be a pure spirit, as Christ Himself went to great pains to prove in Luke 24:39 (“Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”).

The question then seems to be, what sort of world does this body rise into? Will the planet earth remain here for us to walk on, complete with trees, rivers, animals and all the rest? There is slightly more ambiguity here, because while Christ provides us with the perfect example of a risen human body, we have no Scriptural example of a redeemed part of Creation. We haven’t been given a good description what the ‘delivered’ physical world will look or be like, but I don’t think there’s any question that, on the Christian view, it will have a renewed state. In fact, the Second Council of Constantinople made the following declaration:

“If anyone shall say that the future judgment signifies the destruction of the body and that the end of the story will be an immaterial ‘psysis’, and that thereafter there will no longer be any matter, but only spirit: let him be anathema.” (Eleventh Anathema against Origen, 2nd Council of Constantinople)

And St. Irenaeus says:

“Neither the structure nor the substance of Creation is destroyed. It is only the outward form of this world which passes away – that is to say, the conditions produced by the fall … There will be ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, and in this new heaven and new earth man shall abide, forever new and forever conversing with God.” (Against Heresies V.36.1)

AND Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says:

“In the ‘new earth’ of the Age to come there is surely a place not only for man but for the animals: in and through man, they too will share in immortality, and so will rocks, trees and plants, fire and water.” (The Orthodox Way, pg. 137)

There’s an old, respected and venerable Christian tradition, still mainstream in the Orthodox Church, which argues that Christ’s salvation of mankind is also a salvation of the whole physical creation from the futility of death. Arguably, this is the New Testament’s view as well:

“For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.” (Colossians 1:19,20)

“… the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

Early Christianity never espoused a belief in an ‘immaterial heaven’, or a total destruction of the physical universe. Which is why Dawkin’s reaction above is so surprising (see ‘Further Reading’ for some good, philosophical defences of the Christian doctrine of resurrection, as an antidote to Dawkins’ arrogant dismissal of the idea as ‘astonishing’.) There’s a clear disconnect between what people seem to think Christianity says, and what it actually says.

This isn’t just theological nitpicking; it’s more important than it might sound. There’s a reason why atheists (and some of the more insightful Christians out there) find the popular idea of ‘Heaven’ as a spiritual afterlife just a little bit insulting. There’s a subtle, yet important difference between Heaven as an afterlife and Heaven as a resurrection. On an ‘afterlife’ view, God’s response to the darkness and tragedy of this world is simply to make ‘another’ world, entirely different from the first, and take us from this one to that one. But if this sounds trite, that’s because it is. It feels to me, rather like the situation of a child who has lost her family, and been sent to a foster home. She should of course be grateful for her new home, but no-one should have the audacity or heartlessness to suggest that the provision of this ‘second’ home in any way undoes the unimaginable tragedy that was the loss of her first one. That remains a fact which no amount of ‘new’ families could render comprehensible or acceptable. The evil in this world is not the sort that can be compensated for, it must be undone. A resurrection is not an ‘afterlife’, a mere ‘continuation’ of this life; it is an undoing of evil and a renewing of life itself. To say that we will be given new life in the Resurrection does not mean we will be given another life, it means we will live life anew; it will be as though all the darkness and pain of this life had never happened.

I don’t see how we, or God, could be content with anything less.

“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the coming age. Amen”
(‘Coming age’ has often been mistranslated ‘world to come’ – in Greek, it is ‘tou mellontos aionos’, and in Coptic, ‘pi-eon eth-neyou’. Like the English word, ‘eon/aion’ means AGE, not world.)

Further Reading:

Dawkins would find these beliefs surprising and thoroughly ridiculous, but his incredulity has more to do with his intellectual prejudices than genuine philosophical objections. In defending this ancient Christian view, the ancient writings are still quite relevant: here’s St. Gregory’s (Ch’s 21-30), St. Justin Martyr’sAthenagoras’ and Tertullian’s. Some modern Christian philosophers who have provided defences are Trenton Merricks (University of Virginia), Richard Swinburne (Oxford) and Peter van Inwagen (Notre Dame) – a good summary of modern philosophical discussion on Christian resurrection can be found here.

Also, Scott Stephen’s cuttingly critical review of the Pell-Dawkins episode of QandA. It’s a great read:


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