Some heresies never seem to die, but have a disconcerting tendency to pop up in every generation, rather like the emerging heads of the whack-a-mole in the children’s game one sees in Chuck E. Cheese: whack them down as hard and often as you like, but they will pop up again someplace else.
The Gnostic view of matter is like that. Drawing upon Platonic dichotomies of the difference between spirit and matter, it posits that the heavenly world of spirit is incompatible with the world of matter. In its classic Gnostic form, it means that the highest Deity would never soil or degrade itself by creating the ucky world of physical matter with all its dirt, sex, grime, and death. The heavenly Fullness of divinity must therefore consist of a series of emanations, with each emanated deity emitting a somewhat lesser deity until at length a deity is produced tawdry and low class enough to actually create the world.
One result of this jaundiced view of matter is that bodily existence is something of a tragedy, a prison to be escaped from as soon as possible. Origen, having drunk deeply from the Platonic well, thought that bodily existence was somewhat tragic. Being committed to the Church’s rule of faith, he could scarcely deny that God created the heaven and the earth. But he asserted that our bodily existence and the creation of matter was the result of a primordial fall, and that the bodiless spirits who sinned before the world was made were punished by having bodily existence imposed on them. Obviously, for Origen, final salvation consisted of being liberated from such bodily existence, and returning to our pre-created bodiless state.
Lately I heard one scholar in an interview echoing at least part of Origen’s teaching, in that he asserted that “the body of the resurrection is entirely devoid of flesh and blood” so that the Gospel consists of our being finally saved from a flesh and blood existence. The proof-text offered was St. Paul’s assertion that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). By this the scholar in question thought that Paul, a second Temple Jew, was insisting that the future resurrection body would be non-physical, and that we would escape physical existence and become non-physical, just like the angels. Admittedly that is certainly how Origen (the scholar’s favourite author) read the passage, but it is not what St. Paul meant.
The term “flesh and blood” means “merely human”. When Christ said to Simon that flesh and blood had not revealed to Simon that He was the Christ (Matthew 16:17), He meant that Simon’s confession was not the result of merely human insight, but came as a supernatural revelation from the Father. When Paul said that our wrestling was not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), he meant that our foes were not human beings, but the demonic spirits in the heavenlies. And in 1 Corinthians 15:50, when Paul said that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, he meant that our human nature, in all its weakness and limitation, cannot inherit the eternal weight of glory that will descend upon it (compare 2 Corinthians 4:17). To inherit such imperishable and immortal joy, our natures must be changed from the perishable and mortal to the imperishable and immortal. There is not a whisper here of our nature transcending physicality, but only of transcending our current weaknesses and limitations.
This is clear from St. Paul’s previous discussion in the chapter. In this chapter Paul was confronting the Corinthians’ naïve and unsophisticated view of the final resurrection. Like good Platonists, they were rather appalled at the idea of physical resurrection (as were the people of Athens when Paul first broached the topic; see Acts 17:32). For them the notion seemed to involve a mere re-animation, a return to our limited, weak, and carnal existence, as if those raised from the dead were to be like the walking Zombies of our modern science-fiction stories, only with a faster gait and better hair and makeup. Since this was obviously nonsensical, they concluded that the whole notion of resurrection was nonsensical.
Paul confronted this straw man and said that it wasn’t so. The new resurrected bodies will surpass our present bodies as the harvest wheat surpasses the small grain of wheat that was first sown (verse 37). Just as an oak tree surpasses an acorn, so the resurrected bodies of the saints will surpass their present flesh and blood existence. Though sown in dishonour; our bodies will be raised in glory; though sown in weakness, they will be raised in power (verse 43). The body is sown a σῶμα ψυχικόν/ soma psychikon, it is raised a σῶμα πνευματικόν/ soma pneumatikon (verse 44).
These terms (translated quite misleadingly “physical body” and “spiritual body” by the RSV) admittedly defy easy translation into English. They refer to the realms in which the two kinds of bodies find their life principle and limitation, not what the bodies are made of. To quote N. T. Wright: “The distinction Paul makes between soma psychikon and soma pneumatikon is specifically not a distinction between what the two ‘bodies’ are composed of—psyche on the one hand, pneuma on the other. It is a distinction between what the two ‘bodies’ are animated by: either psyche or pneuma. The vital distinction between composition and animation has been badly obscured in the popular mind by translations in the RSV tradition…thus strongly evoking a Platonic duality between a ‘material’ body and a ‘non-material’ body, feeding a widespread misconception that Paul did not believe in bodily resurrection”.
This is also apparent from philology. “As grammarians have pointed out, Greek adjectives ending in -ikos tend to refer to ethical or functional meanings. If you want adjectives that refer to the stuff of which something is made, they tend to be the ones that end in -inos…” Thus, for example, “the first century B.C. writer Vitruvius speaks of a machine that is ‘moved by wind’ a pneumatikon organon, and we do not imagine that he took the machines to be made of wind” (from Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1400-1401).
This means that the scholar who used this verse as a proof-text that the resurrected body will be non-physical is simply misreading Paul and misunderstanding the meaning of the Greek words psychikon and pneumatikon, importing alien Gnostic views of matter into a first century Jewish writer.
The bodily nature of the resurrection is confirmed by the Gospels, since Christ’s resurrection is the first example of the final resurrection and its source, not a kind of one-off exception. Christ’s resurrected body is not limited as our bodies presently are. He could enter a room through locked doors, vanish from sight, and appear to others at a distance (John 20:19; Luke 24:31, 34). Yet even though His σῶμα πνευματικόν could do all this, He still had a physical body of flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). The author referred to above acknowledged that Luke 24:39 spoke of Christ’s physical resurrected body, but said that he felt that Luke was confused and “did not have a consistent notion of what he understood the resurrection to be”, presumably attributing the words to Luke, and not to Christ.
Luke was not confused, nor was he an incompetent reporter of historical reminiscence. Christ’s resurrected body is still physical, and in all its glorified physicality, is the source for our resurrection as well. Despite Origen’s costly flirtation with Greek philosophy, the Church has retained the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures. It affirms that in our final resurrected state we will retain a bodily existence.
Our destiny is not to escape from matter, but to enter into glory. God likes matter. He made it. The world to come will not be the non-physical fantasy of Origen and his modern fans. It will be a physical world set free, made immortal, freed from the entropy of corruption and death, and open to the eternal and increasing joy which God always intended for it. This is the reality we confess every time we say the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Time to whack down the Gnostic mole one more time.