The Resurrection of the Dead
(Excerpted from the book "Life After Death")
Closely connected with the Second Coming of Christ is the resurrection of the dead, which is a very firm belief of the Church, and that is why in the Creed we confess: "I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come".
When we speak of the resurrection of the dead, we mean the resurrection of their bodies, that indeed their souls will again enter the dead bodies and they will be made alive and so the whole man will come together again. This is very natural and justified because souls never die ontologically, because the immortality of the soul is a gift given by God from the beginning. The bodies die, and so when we say resurrection of the dead we always mean the resurrection of the body.
At this point too we can see the difference in the approaches of philosophy and orthodoxy to the resurrection of the body. Classical philosophy can never accept the view that the bodies will be raised, simply because it believes in the naturally immortal soul and naturally mortal body. According to the ancient philosophical view, the naturally immortal soul, which was previously in the world of ideas, was enclosed in the body as in a prison, and therefore the salvation and redemption of the soul means its liberaton from the body. In this sense the body is bad and the imprisonment of the soul in it constitutes and expresses its fall.
This explains the fact that the Athenians reacted when the Apostle Paul spoke about the resurrection of the dead on Mars Hill. The Apostle Paul was speaking about Christ who would come to judge the world. Among other things he said: "He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all, by raising him from the dead". At this point the Athenians interrupted him, as the Acts of the Apostles point out: "And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, `We will hear you again on this matter'” (Acts 17, 31-32). This reaction was not unrelated to the conception, incomprehensible to them, of the resurrection of dead bodies.
However, in the whole biblico-patristic tradition it appears clearly nevertheless that there will be bodily resurrection in order for the whole man to be put together. For not even the separation of his soul from his body caused man to lose his hypostasis, his personhood.
In what follows we shall attempt to look very briefly at what Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition say about the resurrection of our bodies, but also about what the bodies will be like in the life after the Second Coming of Christ. It will be seen that this constitutes a firm faith and a basic mark of the Orthodox Tradition. Besides, the assumption of human nature by Christ, and its deification, the fact that the flesh which Christ assumed from His All-holy Mother is identically God, as well as the fact that in Christ the divine is always united with human nature, shows the value of the body. The body was not evil from the beginning, it is not the prison of the soul, it is a positive creation of God.
First we must refer to some passages from Holy Scripture which speak of the resurrection of the body.
The prophet Isaiah acknowledges: "The dead shall rise, and those in the tomb shall be raised, and those in the earth shall rejoice” (Is. 27, 19). The book of the prophet Ezekiel presents an astonishing event of resurrection of bodies, where it appears that at the word of God the dry bones acquired nerves, flesh, and skin, and then the spirit, that is, the soul, was given (Ez. 37, 1-14). This supreme miraculous event shows how the resurrection of bodies will be at the Second Coming of Christ, and therefore the Church reads this passage at the burial service, even when we go back into the church after the procession. The resurrection of Christ is the prelude to our own resurrection, because Christ, by His death and Resurrection, conquered the power of death and gave to all men the gift of the resurrection to come.
The Jews had an unshakeable faith in the future resurrection of the dead. It is characteristic that at Christ's meeting with Lazarus' sister Martha after Lazarus' death, Christ assured her that her brother whould rise again. Martha then answered: "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn. 11, 22-23).
The three resurrections which Christ performed, that of the daughter of Jairus, that of the son of the widow of Nain, and that of Lazarus, as well as His own resurrection which came about through His divinity, are assurances and prefaces to the resurrection of all men at the Second Coming of Christ.
In Christ's teaching we find many passages which refer to the resurrection of the dead. In one of His talks Christ said: "the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice” (Jn. 5, 28). At another time He said: "I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11, 25).
The holy Apostles accepted this teaching, and it was spread widely in their letters. Especially the Apostle Paul many times spoke of the resurrection of the body in the letters that he sent to the Churches which he created. Because they were in idolatrous surroundings, where the concept was widespread that the body is evil, the Church had felt that influence. We shall cite some characteristic passages.
To the Romans he refers to the redemption of the body, clearly touching on the theme of the resurrection of the body: "even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8, 23). To the Thessalonians he says that the resurrection will come about by the power of Christ, at His Second Coming. "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4, 16).
In the texts of Holy Scripture we see not only the faith of the Church in the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Christ, but also how these bodies will be. We know from the whole Orthodox Tradition that the bodies will be spiritual.
Christ declares that in the future life men will not have the elements of carnality. It is known that after the fall man was clothed in corruptibility and mortality, and consequently the way of his conception, pregnancy, suckling, belongs to the fallen life which, to be sure, God blessed for the increase of mankind. But after the resurrection all these states will be abolished and men will live as angels. Christ says: "But those who are counted worthy to attain that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die any more, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20, 35-36).
While the bodies of the saints are now having a foretaste of the glory of God, since they have the uncreated grace of Christ, at that time they will be transformed and become bodies of glory. The Apostle Paul says that Christ "will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body...” (Philip. 3, 21). As the body of Christ shines with divinity, so will also the bodies of the righteous shine in heaven. There will of course be a great difference between the body of Christ and the bodies of the saints. For the divine-human body was a source of the uncreated grace of God, while the bodies of the saints are made holy by the grace of God. Besides, we know very well from our tradition that man receives theosis, while Christ makes theosis.
The place where the Apostle Paul develops the teaching about the resurrection of the dead is his first letter to the Corinthians. It seems that some of the Corinthians were influenced by philosophical ideas about the human body. The Apostle Paul writes that if there is no resurrection of bodies, then Christ is not risen (1 Cor. 12-16).
Then He answers a question, probably put by the Corinthians, about how the dead will rise and what bodies they will have (1 Cor. 15, 35-41). In answering this question He takes an example from the world of the senses. Man sows a small grain and God gives to this grain a different body. The argument is that man does not plant wheat, but a seed, and out of the seed itself there comes a different body according to the origin. This happens also at the resurrection of the dead. There will be the resurrection of the body, by the power of Christ, and naturally the bodies, while they will be themselves, will have a different way of functioning. The dead will rise incorruptible, because, as he says characteristically, "this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15, 53).
It is very significant that the Apostle Paul presents in greatest detail the state of the body at the resurrection of the dead, He writes to the Corinthians: "It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15, 43-44). Here we see the difference between a person's body before and after death and his body after the resurrection, at the Second Coming of Christ.
In this apostolic passage we see the four characteristic features which the body will have after the resurrection. One, that it will be incorruptible, as opposed to the corruptible body of the biological life. The second feature, that it will be glorified in contrast to dishonour. The third, that it will be strong, in contrast to weakness, and the fourth feature, that it will be spiritual, as opposed to the former state, which was natural. This means that while the body of the biological life is corruptible, in dishonour, weak and natural, that is to say, governed by the natural functions, the body of the resurrection will be incorruptible, glorified, powerful and spiritual.
If we interpret the teaching of the Apostle Paul on the basis of the patristic teaching, we can say that people's bodies after their resurrection will be incorruptible, they will not need nourishment and sleep, they will not be subject to change. The Fathers say that they will be like the body of Christ, which came out of the tomb without anyone perceiving it, went in and out of the upper storey when the doors were closed, had no need, of food, covered great distances, and so forth. True, Christ ate after His resurrection, but not because of need, but to make the disciples understand that He was not a ghost. That food was burnt up by His divinity, since there was no digestive system, nor other workings which are features of corruptibility and mortality.
Also the bodies of sinners will cast off corruptibility and mortality, but they will not be spiritual and glorified, as the saints will. And naturally, the bodies of the saints will have glory corresponding to the condition of their souls. The Apostle Paul would say: "One star differs from another star in glory” (1 Cor. 15, 41). Just as the light of the sun is different from the light of the moon and different from that of the stars, the same will be true of the glory of the saints. According to the purity, illumination and deification which the person has acquired in this life, so his radiance will be in the eternal life. It is not a question of any partiality on the part of God, but a person will receive grace according to his capacity. God will send His grace to all, and each will shine and be radiant according to his spiritual condition.
It is within this framework that we must also see that all men will then acquire the age of a mature person. Even the baby which died at an early age, but also the person who died at a great age will have the same age which, as is said, will be that of Christ. In any case it is natural that they should attain the age of a mature person, which is about thirty years.
In one of his poems St. Symeon the New Theologian writes that people's souls which will be reunited with their bodies, "each according to its merit, will find its dwelling full of light or of darkness". Those who have lit their lamps in this life will be in light that never sets, and all those who were impure and the eyes of whose hearts were blind will not see the divine light. And the bodies of the saints will be holy shadows of the Holy Spirit. Just as they were very pure here, so also they will rise glorified "shining, flashing like the divine light"8.
I would like to present the teaching of many saints both as to their assurance of the resurrection of the body and as to eternal life, as well as how the resurrection will take place. However, I shall content myself with setting out the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa about the resurrection of our bodies. We shall look at some aspects of his teaching. I believe that it is sufficiently enlightening and characteristic.
At first St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches that when we speak of resurrection or coming back to life or renewal of the world, and when we use many other names, we are speaking about the body which is subject to decay and not the soul, which, as being incorruptible, indestructible and immortal, is not going to be resurrected, because it does not die9.
The resurrection of the body includes also the resurrection of all the limbs which for various reasons have been destroyed. On the day of resurrection even the part of a human body which thousands of years ago was eaten by carnivorous birds will be found "with nothing missing". But even the limbs which the whales and sharks and all the sea creatures have eaten will be resurrected with the person. The bodies which have been burnt by fire and eaten by worms in the tombs, and in general all the bodies which decay has destroyed, "will be yielded up by the earth whole and complete"10. So all the missing limbs will be filled in and the person will be presented whole. This means that we shall have our own body, which, however, will not be subject to decay and death.
This will happen in any case because it is connected with the creation of man by God. God did not form man for him to die, but death is the result and fruit of sin. And if the shepherd wants his flock to be healthy and almost immortal, if the cowherd wants to use various cures to increase his oxen, if the goatherd prays that his she-goats may bring forth twins, and all are aiming at something beneficial, God too has the same desire. It is plain from these examples that God wishes to reform "the ruined creature"11.
In this homily of his which he delivered on Easter Day, referring to the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of bodies at the Second Coming of Christ, St. Gregory of Nyssa affirms that at any rate there will be resurrection of the dead, that it is not impossible for God, and in addition he analyses the way in which it will happen. The things which St. Gregory says are very important, and we shall set them out briefly.
The resurrection of the body is not an impossibility. For many reasons.
First. The God who will raise the bodies is the same One who created man out of earth. We regard the creation as given, says St. Gregory, but if we think better we will see that it is something marvellous. Really, how the fine dust was concentrated and became flesh, and from the same material bones, skin, fat and hair came into being, that is to say, how, while it is one flesh, there appeared different members. He describes the different structure of each member of the body, since the lung is soft, the liver coarse and red, the heart a compact organ, and so forth.
Yet it is very strange that Eve came from a small part of Adam's rib. How did the rib become a head, feet, hands, and so forth? The God who created man in this way has the power to re-create him and to repair the limb of a decayed body. Moreover God Himself is the creator of both the first creation and of the second reordering. So it is a mark of the grateful and wise to trust in the things that God says and not to examine the ways and causes which go beyond their powers12.
Second. The different examples which exist in nature show that God is all-powerful and that nothing is impossible and perplexing for Him. God's omnipotence appears in the variety and complexity of nature. The whole of nature loudly proclaims God's grandeur and His power. The resurrections which Christ performed, such as that of Lazarus after four days, the son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus, show that it is also possible for all men to rise in the same way when He so wills. The sculptor who constructs one statue can construct others as well. Thus Christ too, who raised three people, can also do it to many others. Therefore the question of how the dead are restored to life is answered interrogatively: "How was Lazarus raised after four days?"13.
Not only the first creation but also what followed, what takes place in nature, displays the power and omnipotence of God. We know that a person's birth is a fruit of God's action. By the grace of God a person is conceived, held in the womb, born and grows. St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the resurrection of the dead can be in the manner in which a person is born. It is strange enough, according to human logic, how the sperm, which is formless at first, then acquires form, and the members of the human body are gradually created. If a person comes into being from the formless sperm, it is not at all inconsistent for the matter which is in the tombs, and which had a form, to be at once renewed in the old form and for the earth to become a man again, as happened at the first creation14.
Some people consider it improbable that bodies should rise again and that a person should be reconstituted after death, and they consider very natural the formation of the embryo and the development of the person through natural birth. But if the second can happen, so can the first, since it is the Same God who created each of them.
He also takes the case of the potter who, when he has made beautiful objects out of clay, after a ceremony, someone enters his workshop and destroys it. But if the good potter wants to, he can correct what happened, making the same objects again, not inferior to what they were before. It is foolish for us to believe that the potter, who is such a small creature of God's power, can do such a thing and not to believe that God can restore the dead.
The Apostle Paul uses the image of the grain of wheat which falls to the earth and dies and from it sprouts a great wheat plant. St. Gregory adapts this image wonderfully. After thorougly analysing what comes of this little grain of wheat and how many mysteries are hidden in it, he says that it is wonderful how a dry grain of wheat, when it rots performs a miracle, because it falls to the ground alone and sprouts a great number. The renewal of man is easier than the renewal of the wheat. Through his resurrection man does not receive anything more than what he had15.
The holy Fathers use many images from nature and present them to their flocks. We see this in many of their homilies, and in the homily of St. Gregory which we are examining at this point. In order to show that it is possible to rise from the dead, he analyses very beautifully, realistically and representatively, with vivid colours and literary talent, how throughout the winter the trees are dry and at the beginning of spring they bear flowers and become a place where the birds gather and people enjoy them. And the reptiles and the snakes too are hiding in the earth during the winter hibernation, and as soon as the suitable season comes and a stirring is heard echoing a sign of life, they leap up and start their activities. Just as the snakes wake up from their hibernation at the sound of this stirring of life, so also the dead bodies of men will receive their souls and be raised up when God's trumpet is heard.
He gives a wonderful description of man from birth to death. He observes that man's life is like that of the animals, it undergoes change and variation. A man, after his birth, successively grows, acquires various functions, and as he grows and reaches the end of his life he becomes a baby again who lisps, is silly and crawls on his hands and knees, as at the beginning of his life. All these things show that also before death man receives changes upon changes, fadings and renewals16. This will naturally take place also during the resurrection. Inasmuch as the perishable perishes by the law of decay, much more will it be renewed by the power and action of God.
But sleep too, which is necessary for our daily refreshing, and likewise our rising from sleep, point to the mystery of the resurrection of the dead. Moreover, sleep is an image of death and being awake is an image of resurrection. Many have characterised sleep as a brother of death, for in sleep man is like dead, unconscious. He does not recognise friends and enemies, he does not notice those who are around him, and that is why one can easily injure those who have been lulled to sleep. When a man wakes up, he gradually recovers his powers and it seems as if he has come to life. If there are changes and ecstases in man during day and night, it is very foolish and contentious of us not to believe in the God who promises "the final renewal"17.
It appears from all these examples that the resurrection of the body is a very natural event. Just as we regard as a natural fact the birth of a man, the alternations in nature, the growth of plants and, in general, just as we regard as natural all the things that happen in nature, we should regard as another just as natural thing the renewal and re-creation of man, the resurrection of bodies. For the God who did the former can do the latter.
Third. The body is not completely destroyed after the soul leaves it. It is dissolved into "the things of which it was composed", for it consists of four elements, water, air, fire and earth, but it does not vanish. In another chapter we saw the views of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that although the soul is separated from the body, it remembers the elements and limbs of its body, is in touch with them and at the suitable time, by the power of God, will bring them together and the spiritual body will be composed. This shows that in spite of the separation of the soul from the body, the person is not abolished.
In this homily which we are studying, St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the body does not disappear completely, but it is dissolved into the elements of which it was composed "and is in water and air and earth and fire". The fact that the original elements stay and join with those things which come from them, after the body dissolves, shows that the things which are partial also remain within the general. And when these four elements of which man is composed approach their prototypes, again too, while the prototypes remain, the particulars, the parts, also remain.
We know very well that the whole world was made from nothing, from non-existent matter. If it is easy for God to re-create something from nothing, it is easier to create from existing elements. Thus, since these prototypes exist, it is possible for God to form man again18.
Fourth. St. Gregory of Nyssa takes examples for the resurrection of bodies from the views of the men of his time. Many people considered and still consider it very natural for the features of bodies which have decomposed to go to their descendants and for features of bodies of those not related to be transmitted to other bodies, but they do not believe that it is possible for the same features to be renewed in those who once had them as their own. I shall quote what St. Gregory of Nyssa said, because it is worth noting. He says that it is inconceivable "...not to acknowledge that the same and exceptional things about those things once possessed are renewed and brought back to life"19.
Observing this passage, we can verify that at the resurrection of the body people will receive their own body with its special features, but nevertheless transformed. Since the body will be raised "in power and incorruption” it means that it will not have on it the marks of decay, mortality and illness. Naturally, we do not know more details about this subject, but I think that what has been cited is very expressive.
Fifth. St. Gregory of Nyssa, however, insists strongly that the resurrection of bodies is necessary also for men to live a good life. For if death is the end of life, then the murderer, the adulterer, the perjurer, the liar, will increase in their evil. If there is no resurrection there is no judgement. If there is no judgement, then even the fear of God is lost and naturally where fear does not chastise, "there the devil dances with the sinner"20.
Thus when the Church speaks of the coming life and the tribunal, it increases the fear of God in men. This fear has a humanising effect on life. So the teaching about the death and resurrection of bodies provides man with a socialising factor. Whoever banishes fear becomes subject to the demons, a prey to all the passions.
The conclusion is that there will be a resurrection of the dead. God's word bears witness to this, God revealed it to us, the saints confirm it by their lives and teaching, and human experience bears witness to it. This is why we stand with reverence before the human body. We revere it, we love it, we struggle to purify ourselves of sins, so that it too may be glorified. It is very characteristic that the hesychasm of the so-called neptic Fathers also turned to the body, which we honour greatly. We note this in the works of St. Gregory Palamas.
Reverence for the human body is also shown in its burial. In the Orthodox Church the burning or cremation of bodies is not accepted, but they are buried. To be sure, as we said before, about the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the bodies which have been burned will also be raised, but if a person of his own will desires his body to be burnt, he indicates that he does not believe in his resurrection. It is not at all strange that where the burning of bodies prevailed, notions prevailed that the body is a prison of the soul which must be discarded in order for the soul to be liberated. We reverence the body, we bury it and we await its resurrection. The saints are sleeping with nostalgia for the resurrection. They confess "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come".