The Literal Resurrection

March 26, 2005

I don’t begrudge people around the Bloggernacle lamenting that Latter-day Saints don’t follow the liturgical calendar. I myself would love to follow it–because I think it would be fun and it would help some of us to be more reverent or invite some solemnity into our completely deconstructed lives. But the fact that the Church lacks the liturgical calendar is a testimony to the Church’s effort to focus on doctrine rather than tradition for tradition’s sake. Instead, Latter-day Saints focus on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and Christ’s Resurrection as an unconditional aspect of that Atonement for its own sake and not by virtue of the liturgical calendar. This brings some of Hugh Nibley’s words to mind:

We have suggested that Latter-day Saints might be said to accept certain traditions common to the whole Christian world more wholeheartedly and with less reservation than most Christians do inasmuch as they take as literal what the rest of the world accepts in a rather vague, symbolic, or sentimental sense. Easter furnishes as good an illustration as any of what we mean by this. (Hugh Nibley, “Easter and the Prophets,” in The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987) (1954), p. 154.)

Indeed, the Resurrection qua Resurrection, on the one hand an indescribable miracle in its physics (at least to our finite minds), is on the other hand an integral part in the Plan of Salvation–a generous gift of the Lord to his children, but a gift with strings attached. True, the Resurrection is in itself salvation to the posterity of Adam and Eve. Latter-day Saints believe the true doctrine of the Resurrection: that all people, whether good or evil, will be resurrected. Alma the Younger explains why:

But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.

This bolded portion illustrates the dual nature of the Resurrection: salvation of a kind to all but also a very functional gift–we are resurrected so that we can be brought to justice in the flesh for our works, whether they be good or evil, during mortality. Jesus himself taught this truth when he visited his followers in the Americas after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem to show them his resurrected body and teach them this aspect of the Gospel. All people are resurrected to stand before the judgment seat of Christ to be judged according to their works:

If they be good, to the resurrection of everlasting life; and if they be evil, to the resurrection of damnation; being on a parallel, the one on the one hand and the other on the other hand, according to the mercy, and the justice, and the holiness which is in Christ, who was before the world began.

So Christ literally resurrected in the flesh. It wasn’t symbolic or merely a “spiritual resurrection.” We know this not only from the scriptures, but also, and more importantly, because Joseph Smith saw the resurrected Savior and Heavenly Father, two separate beings with physical bodies. In that one moment, Joseph Smith gained more knowledge about the nature of God and Jesus Christ, and the Resurrection, than eighteen hundred years of philosophy and theology had been able to figure out.

It was not only Joseph Smith’s testimony that he saw and spoke with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ that provoked and still provokes such animosity from the rest of Christianity; rather, what Joseph Smith learned about the Resurrection itself also greatly dismays Christianity, because it runs contrary to the neo-platonic philosophy on which Christian “theology” is founded. Hugh Nibley again comes to mind here:

The only real justification for the Christian Easter is teh proposition that the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually took place–not as a symbol, a myth, a hope, a tradition, or a dream, but as a real event. The Lord himself after the resurrection took the greatest care to impress the literalness of the event on the minds of all his followers. Having risen from the dead, Christ came to his disciples and found them confused, perplexed, incredulous. He “upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen” (Mark 16:14), and showed them in detail how the ancient prophets had actually predicted what had happened. He ordered them to feel him and see for themselves that he was not a spirit, but that the flesh had been resurrected; he ordered food to be brought and ate it in their presence, inviting them to dine with him. He told them that whenever they met after his departure they should continue to eat real bread and drink real wine to remind them that he had been with them in the flesh.
There was need to make this lesson perfectly clear, for men have always been relunctant to believe it. . . . The Apostles had to rebuke members of the church who simply would not believe in the resurrection, and John noted with alarm that “many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (2 John 7). “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead,” writes Paul to the Corinthians, “how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:12).
(“Easter and the Prophets,” 156-57.)

Hugh Nibley proceeds to analyze the shift after the death of the Apostles in the Christian church and the “sway of philosophy” over the doctrines of the Church. Thus, “the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the oldest texts to survive after the time of the Apostles, show the spreadening and deepening of the anti-resurrection trend in the church” (Ibid, 157). Ignatius, for example, one of the early Apostolic Fathers, writes passsionately in defense of a physical resurrection (Ibid.). But this phase of apologetics in defense of a literal, physical resurrection would soon cease as well:

The sorrows and alarsm of the Apostolic Fathers were followed by the perplexities of the doctors. Most of the early doctors of the church were ardent Hellenists or Neoplatonists, and there was no place in such schools of thought for a God who contaminates himself by contact with the physical or limts himself by taking the form of a man.

This neo-platonic view might seem eminently reasonable even to a Christian philosopher or theologian reading this right now; in fact, such a person would likely use the categorical rejection of such philosophy by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is Jesus Christ’s restored Church on earth today, as evidence that the Church cannot be Christ’s true church. But that is exactly the point: these philosophers took a truth of God and because it didn’t make sense to them rationally, they rejected it sua sponte (i.e. absent guiding revelation) on the basis of the influence of the philosophies of men and, mingling such philosophy with New Testament scripture, fundamentally altered the doctrine to which the liturgical calendar now looks emptily. Hugh Nibley focuses on Origen and St. Augustine for this scepticism towards the physical resurrection.

Nibly describes the musings of Origen, “perhaps the most influential of all Christian philosophers next to Augustine himself” (Ibid., 158):

“We are stunned with the greatest amazement that this the most eminent of all natures, putting off its state of majesty, should become a man. . . . It is utterly beyond human comprehension that the Word of the Father . . should be thought of as confined within that man who appeared in Judea. But that the Wisdom of God should have netered the womb of a woman, and been born a baby, and cried and wailed just like other crying babies, and then suffered death and said that his soul was sorrowful unto death, and been led off to the most undignified of all deaths . . seeing such things the human intellect is stopped in its tracks, so stunned with amazement that it knows not where to turn. . . . It is far beyond our powers to explain. I suppose it even goes beyond the capacity of the Holy Apostles; nay, it is quite possible that the explanation of this sacrament is beyond the powers of all the celestial beings.” Not only does Origen not know what to think about the Lord’s physical presence on earth; he does not even know what to believe about it, and in his explanations is careful to specify that he is presenting only his “suspicions rather than any manifest affirmations.” (Ibid., 158 (quoting Origen, Peri Archon II, 6, 2, in J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus . . . Series Graeca (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1857-1866), 11:210)).

Nibley provides the following commentary on Origen’s musings: “Note the vanity of the schoolmen in Origen’s remarks: What he cannot conceive of because of his limited experience must necessarily be beyond the grasp of Apostles, angels, and all celestial beings! It is this sublime confidence in the adequacy of one’s own knowledge and the finality of one’s own experience that makes the resurrection of the flesh the principal thorn in the incorporeal minds of the schoolmen (Ibid., 159). This is a cogent and useful observation, and it reminds us of the limits of our knowledge when we base it on our experience, or when we claim that we can only know things from our experience.
Moving on to St. Augustine, Nibley emphasizes that belief in the resurrection is the core of being Christian, and, through Augustine’s own observations, throws the deep irony of a Christian rejection of the physical resurrection into stark relief.

According to St. Augustine, the resurrection of the flesh is the one thing that the pagans cannot take, it is the one thing with which the philosophers have no patience, and is above all the one thing that distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian. Since it is the one doctrine that makes Christians Christians, it is alarming to learn from St. Augustine that in his day “in nothing is there so much conflict and controversy among Christians themselves as on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh.” “On no other matter,” he writes, “do they disagree so vehemently, so obstinately, so resolutely, or so contentiously as on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh. For as fas as the immortality of the soul is concerned many a pagan philosopher too has argued about that and bequeathed us vast heaps of writings to the effect that the soul is immortal. But when it comes to the resurrection of the flesh they won’t argue, but dismiss it out of hand as impossible, and that on the grounds that it is impossible for this earthly flesh to aspite to heaven.” (Ibid.)

At this point, Hugh Nibley makes one of his most useful observations about the posture of Latter-day Saints towards the literal resurrection of the flesh as compared with the posture of much of the rest of Christianity, as inherited by such philosophers, on this doctrine: “I cannot resist noting here,” states Nibley “that the objection of the pagans to the resurrection is not a physical or a biological but a philosophical one, and it is the very same objection which the Christian world today makes against the Latter-day Saint conception of God: that there can be nothing of a bodily nature in the celestial. Yet the resurrected Christ was God. Is it any wonder that the Christians could never agree among themselves on this, the central doctrine of their religion? (Ibid.) But the Apostles themselves did not dispute the literal resurrection, or the resurrection of the flesh. The doubting Thomas’s own scepticism was put to rest when he saw the Lord and felt his resurrected flesh with his own mortal flesh. Thus, concludes Nibley very powerfully:

No matter how wildly improbable or paradoxical or utterly impossible a thing may seem to the cleverest people on earth, only by witness and not by reason, theory, or speculation may its truth be ultimately established, whether the truth be scientific or religious. “This is the testimony . . . which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him . . . and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (D&C 76:22-23). Compare this testimony of modern prophets with that of the ancients: “That which was from the beginning, which he have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; . . . That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.” (1 John 1:1, 3.) After all, it is the testimony of the prophets that gives us the real Easter. (Ibid., 162).

I am grateful for the testimony of the true prophets of the literal resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I add my testimony to Hugh Nibley’s that the words of these prophets give us the real Easter, and not, I would add, any liturgical calendar or mere tradition that serves as cultural myth, symbol, or sentimental fallback.