Rediscovering the Power of Resurrection for a Time of Implicit Gnosticism

In a previous article, I shared my early assumption that resurrection was a short-hand way of referring to the immortality of the soul. Whatever heaven might involve, it never occurred to me that it could involve embodiment.

It wasn’t until my wife urged me to listen to a recorded lecture by Edith Schaeffer that I experienced what is often called a “paradigm shift.” In this lecture Mrs. Schaeffer showed from Scripture what might seem to be a tautology but for me was a new revelation: the resurrection of the body will be experienced bodily. Schaeffer explained that in heaven we will have physical bodies, though of course the body will be transformed through being delivered from corruption. I still remember walking among the English hedgerows as I listened to the lecture with an old-fashion Walkman and thinking “Wow!”

My experience raised a question. How was it that I had been to an evangelical Bible College and even wrote articles for Christian publications, yet I somehow missed the fundamental truth that resurrection is resurrection? The question is not unique to my own experience. In the years following my epiphany, I have had occasion to talk to many people about the resurrection of the body, and many times I find that practicing Christians have never even heard of the doctrine. Why is this?

It was not until I discovered the writings of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) that I began to fully understand the answer to this question. In 2011, I was working on a biography of Dorothy Sayers for my book Saints and Scoundrels. I had chosen to include Dorothy Sayers as one of the heroes in my book since I was a fan of her detective fiction and various essays. As I began to delve deeper into Sayers’ theological writings, I was intrigued to see her continually refer to something she called “Gnosticism.” Sayers was writing before the publication of the Nag Hammadi Library, and before studies of Gnosticism became trendy. Yet she knew enough about Gnosticism from the church fathers to note many similarities between the ancient heresy and the Christianity of her time. To put things bluntly (and Sayers’ was a master of bluntness), the reasons so many Christians are ignorant about resurrection was because of the influence of “gnostic” assumptions on English-speaking Christianity.

It is easy for Christians to use the label ‘Gnosticism’ as a kind of catch-all for everything we don’t like about contemporary culture. However, when Dorothy Sayers used the term, it had a very focused meaning and referenced the tendency to depreciate the physical world through positing a false antithesis between spirit and matter. Before considering Sayers’ critique of “Christian Gnosticism”, it will be helpful to pause and briefly recap some relevant historical background on Gnosticism.

Recap of Gnosticism’s Historical Context

Gnosticism is a fairly recent scholarly construct used to classify a broad network of second-century religious movements which developed independently of Christianity but which quickly morphed to take on a Christian hue. At its most basic level, these heretical movements taught that salvation could be achieved through the attainment of hidden, esoteric knowledge (‘gnosis’ in Greek). Significantly, this salvation did not involve release from sin and death, but liberation from the inherently bad material world to a realm of pure spirit.

The Gnostics saw Jesus as a messenger from the realm beyond who came to offer the chosen few the gnosis needed to awaken the divine spark within and liberate the real human being imprisoned in the body. Accordingly, the Christology of Gnosticism differed from the canonical tradition by asserting that both the humanity and materiality of Christ is a deceptive appearance: Jesus merely appeared to have a material body. Again, the basic idea is that the realm of spirit is at utter odds with the realm of matter; consequently, in order to live a spiritual life, one must reject the body.

There is much more to second-century Gnosticism than this simple discussion implies. However, for the purposes of understanding Dorothy Sayers’ use of the term, we need look no further than Gnosticism’s dualistic conception of the relationship between spirit and matter.

An “Intimate Unison”

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

In her writings in the 40’s, Sayers began identifying Gnostic tendencies within the Christian community of her day. In labelling certain tendencies as being “gnostic”, Sayers did not mean that Christians has explicitly embraced the entire Gnostic package, complete with their elaborate creation accounts and denials of Christ’s material body. Rather, the target of Sayers’ critique was an operational or implicit Gnosticism that often existed in tension with the explicit doctrinal formulations of the churches. (For more details about implicit theology, and its relationship to both explicit theology and history, see my earlier article about the Benedict Option.) That is, she believed that aspects of the Gnostic orientation were subtly tincturing the belief and practices of Christians without them even realizing it.

One key area where Sayers identified an operational Gnosticism was in the eclipse of what she called a “sacramental” view of matter. She articulated this idea in a letter to the Church Times on May 16, 1941. In this letter Sayers criticized the “perverse” and “unsacramental” theology which denied “the intimate unison between spirit and matter which is in fact a denial of the Incarnation.”[1] She believed that this “intimate unison” had cosmic implications which included how we should approach work, the world, cultural institutions, and life itself.

In Sayers’ 1940 BBC broadcast, “The Sacrament of Matter”, she had suggested that goodness of matter is the very foundation on which the church stands since it is central to a correct understanding of the Incarnation. Anticipating comments she would make in her aforementioned letter to the Church Times, she told the BBC that the Incarnation showed the intimate and unbreakable union of spirit with mind and matter.

…in affirming that God was made flesh, the Church affirms that matter and the material body are good and not evil. The fear and hatred of matter and the body are not orthodox Christianity; they belong to a very ancient and very tough and enduring heresy – the heresy of the Manichees. …the Christian religion works from within outward, drawing more and more of the world of matter within its own orbit…[2]

In the mid 50’s, Mrs. Sayers developed this point further, contrasting the Christian faith with what she termed the “Gnostic and NeoPlatonic” or “Oriental” approach. In her 1954 work Introductory Papers on Dante, she laid out this contrast between Christianity and Gnosticism as follows:

“…there is a fundamental error about the Church’s attitude to the Active Life – a persistent assumption that Catholic Christianity, like any Oriental Gnosticism, despises the flesh and enjoins a complete detachment from all secular activities. Such a view is altogether heretical. No religion that centres about a Divine Incarnation can take up such an attitude as that. What the Church enjoins is quite different: namely, that all the good things of this world are to be loved because God loves them, as God loves them, for the love of God, and for no other reason.”[3]

“Notice how entirely different [Christianity] is from the Gnostic and Neoplatonic thought which characterises the great Oriental religions and so often tried to infiltrate into Christianity. For the Gnostics, creation is evil, and the outflowing of the One into the Many is a disaster: the true end of the Many is to lose the derived self and be reabsorbed into the One. But for the Christian, it is not so. The derived self is the glory of the creature and the multiplicity and otherness of the universe is its joy. The true end of the creature is that it should reflect, each in its own way and to its capacity great or small, some tiny facet of the infinite variety comprised within the unity of the One….The higher the created being is, and the nearer to God, the more utterly it is itself and the more it differs from its fellow-creatures.”[4]

Sayers on the Resurrection

Sayers belief in the goodness of the body culminated in her teaching on physical resurrection. In her day, the widespread tendency to separate the physical from the spiritual had lead to an implicit theology which stressed that the fundamental Christian hope is the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body. This tendency was reinforced by the neo-Platonic bent of post-Victorian Christianity, in which the word “resurrection” had come to be employed as a short-hand for the soul’s immortality. Even Christ’s own resurrection, Sayers noted, was often spiritualized to mean something that had no relation to the physical body. As she put it in The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, “When I was a girl, G.K. Chesterton professed belief in the Resurrection, and was called whimsical. When I was at college, thoughtful people expressed belief in the Resurrection ‘in a spiritual sense’, and were called advanced.”[5]

The down-to earth Sayers had little time for this type of de-physicalized spirituality. Christ rose in the flesh, she taught, not simply to redeem man’s invisible soul, but to bring salvation to the whole person, including the body. Any ‘excessive spirituality’ which left the physical body out of the picture was not Christianity at all but but Gnosticism.

Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century ‘Christian Gnosticism’

In going to such lengths to establish what she termed “the intimate unison between spirit and matter”, Sayers was reacting against the disjunction between the material and the spiritual that had been a long-running motif in Anglo-American Protestantism. Over and against historic Christian theology which maintains that Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection make possible the marrying together of matter and spirit, much popular piety throughout the twentieth-century (both before and after Sayers’ career) seemed to urge a complete divorce between the physical and the spiritual.

An example of the type of “Christian Gnosticism” that Sayers opposed was the British writer Clarence Rolt, who wrote in 1920 of that “glorious transcendent state in which all physical conditions shall be left far behind.”[6] James Campbell illustrated this same tendency in his 1924 publication Heaven Opened when he remarked, “When the material world perishes, we shall find ourselves in the spiritual world; when the dream of life ends, we shall awake in the world of reality; when our connection with this world comes to a close, we shall find ourselves in our eternal spirit home.”[7] Behind Campbell’s words lay the assumption that matter and spirit are not simply distinguishable, but utterly divisible and contradistinct. In this semi-gnostic retelling of the Christian story, Jesus came to rescue us from the material world rather than to renew and transform it.

Sayers may not have been familiar with authors like Clarence Rolt and James Campbell, but almost certainly she would have been aware of the popular death literature that had been around for at least a hundred years before she began her career. Much of this sentimental literature, which aimed to comfort those whose loved ones were dead or dying, followed the Gnostics in presenting death as a kind of salvation from matter. The central idea is that the goal of salvation is to flee from this world and those things associated with it—including , of course, materiality. The poet Caroline Howard Gilman (1794–1888) reflected these widely held views when she made salvation equivalent with the escape from the world enjoyed at death:

“How beautiful will brother be
When God shall give him wings,
Above this dying world to flee,
And live with heavenly things![8]

The attempt to disembody spiritual truth from its material integrity had been aptly illustrated by 1800 text called ‘The Spiritual Barometer.’ It first appeared in the Evangelical Magazine and was subsequently republished and widely disseminated. Subtitled “a Scale of the progress of Sin and Grace”, at the bottom of the scale (at a temperature of negative 70°) is “Death’ and Perdition” just below “Infidelity – jesting at religion”, “Profaneness, lewd songs,” and “Masquerades Drunkeness–Adultery.” Significantly, at the top of the scale (at positive 70°) under “Glory” was the category “Dismission from the body.”[9] As this suggests, by 1800s many Christians had come to believe that dismissing the body was the highest pinnacle of spiritual progress, the polar opposite of death.

Such ideas were not limited to England. When the United States was hit by the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, many revivalists had taught that the material world is of little value except as a waiting room for eternity. In reviewing the hymnography of the revival period for the journal Methodist History, Anne Wheeler identified a strong strain of matter-spirit dualism. She noted that many of the texts revolved around a salvation theme in which salvation was “characterized by a rejection of this world, the certainty of salvation for the converted, and descriptions of the glories awaiting the saints in heaven.” The theme of journeying away from the physical world expressed itself in motifs such as “travelling through this world, being a pilgrim, tarrying, crossing the river, moving through the storm, travelling to Canaan or to Zion.” Wheeler notes that “In keeping with this emphasis on individual salvation is a dualistic view of the world, contrasting the travails of life in this world with the visions of heavenly bliss in store for the saints.”[10]

Many of these choruses drew on a musical tradition influenced by the English dissenting minister Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Watt’s hymns expressed his belief that “the fewer the strong affections, and the less engagements of the heart you have to mortal creatures, the easier will it be to leave this world, and enter into the world of spirits…”[11] His book of hymns contains verses which suggest that salvation from sin as integrally connected with salvation from the physical earth:

My soul forsake her vain delight
And bids the world farewell,
Base as the dirt beneath my feet
And mischievous as hell.[12]

Or again:

I send the joys of earth away,
Away ye tempters of the mind.
False as the smooth deceitful sea,not
And empty as the whistling wind.[13]

Instead of understanding heaven as a place where the departed in Christ are awaiting their resurrected bodies, bodies that will be enjoyed in the new heavens and the new earth, this tradition of hymnography and devotional literature presented heaven as a dimension where the departed have already attained their final goal. Though language of resurrection was not explicitly repudiated, it tended to either be ignored or reinterpreted as synonymous with the doctrine of immortality. This wrong understanding of eschatology helped to fortify the dualism between matter and spirit that Dorothy Sayers labelled as “Gnosticism.”

In her 1957 work, Further Papers on Dante, Sayers combatted these trends by suggesting that the doctrine of the soul’s immortality is comparatively unimportant in Christianity, at least compared to the doctrine of the body’s resurrection.

“…the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, though Christians do in fact believe it, is not particularly characteristic of Christianity, nor even vital to it. No Christian creed so much as mentions it, and theoretically, it would be quite compatible with Christian belief if soul as well as body had to undergo the experience of death. The characteristic belief of Christendom is in the Resurrection of the Body and the life everlasting of the completely body-soul complex. Excessive spirituality is the mark, not of the Christian, but of the Gnostic.”[14]

Sacraments of Divine Glory

As an antidote to the Gnosticism around her, Sayers spoke of the “holy and glorious flesh” that Christ had purchased with his blood on the cross. A consequence of this sacrifice, she suggested, is that we should honor material things as very sacraments of the divine glory:

“The visible universe is not an illusion, nor a mere aspect of Divinity, nor identical with god (as in Pantheism), still less a ‘fall into matter’ and an evil delusion (as in the various Gnostic or Manichee cults). It is made by God, as an artist makes a work of art, and given a genuine, though contingent, real existence of its own, so that it can stand over against Him and know Him as its real Other. …From the Incarnation springs the whole doctrine of sacraments – the indwelling of the moral buy the immortal, of the material by the spiritual, the phenomenal by the real. After an analogous manner, we all bear about with us not only the immortal soul but also the glorified body in which we shall be known at the Resurrection, though now it is known only to God, or to those to whom love may reveal it. It is this that lies at the bottom of Dante’s whole Beatrician Vision: because he loved the mortal Florentine girl, it was given to him to behold her, as it were, walking the earth in her body of glory. And this is why, in the Commedia, a stress so disconcerting to the minds of those who like their religion to be very “spiritual” is laid continually upon her bodily beauty. A sure mark of Catholic Christianity is the honouring of the “holy and glorious flesh”, and indeed of all material things, because they are sacraments and symbols of the Divine glory.”[15]

By rejecting the notion that the physical body is sub-spiritual because it is physical, Sayers was able to assert the purposefulness of our bodily experiences, even those experiences that may not seem particularly ‘spiritual’, such as the secular vocations. Our day to day jobs can be a type of sacrament of divine glory, and can be offered up to God in worship. As she put it in an address delivered at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on February 6, 1942, “Christianity demands that all work should be done in a Christian way – Christianity proclaims that all work, all that is well done, does reveal God and may be offered to God in worship.”[16]

Sayers believed that a casualty of body-spirit dualism was the church’s inability properly to integrate labor with the spiritual life. As she lamented in Creed or Chaos?, “the Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”[17]

Exactly how is God glorified when we do our jobs well? That is a question that we will explore in future articles. At the moment, it will be worthwhile to bring the problem of implicit Gnosticism up to date. Have Sayers’ warnings been heeded, or does Anglo-American Protestantism still suffer from the Gnostic malaise?

Widespread Notions

A lot has changed since Dorothy Sayers wrote. With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, Gnosticism has become a household word. Moreover, a growing body of works are now alerting Christians to the dangers of operational Gnosticism. Yet I have remained concerned that for many Christians, particularly Anglo-American Protestants, little may have changed since the time of Dorothy Sayers warned about Gnostic influences.

Consider a few facts. At the close of last century, Time Magazine reported that two thirds of Americans who say they believe in a resurrection of the dead do not believe they will have bodies after the resurrection.[18] It would be nice to think that these sub-Christian notions are limited to merely nominal or liberal branches of Christendom, but such is not the case. In 2006, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll found that among those who consider themselves to be ‘born again’, only 59% answered yes to the question: ‘Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?’[19] Reflecting on the poll, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, commented, “I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this [the doctrine of bodily resurrection] taught in their local congregations.”[20]

Mohler is not alone. Many pastors are reporting that their congregations are illiterate when it comes to the doctrine of future bodily resurrection, assuming that salvation means liberation from the realm of matter. Although the doctrine of Christ’s physical resurrection is affirmed and celebrated every Easter, and even every week in churches that recite the Creed, when it comes to the resurrection of believers it is often assumed that this is simply synonymous for salvation—a salvation that does not culminate in the renewal of the body, but involves eternal disembodiment. Many who consider it a sign of theological liberalism to spiritualize Christ’s resurrection into something non-physical are quite comfortable doing just that when it comes to their own. The growing consensus was expressed by Arthur Travis from Houston Baptist University when he declared, “The fact is, we shall not live in physical bodies after death. …we shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess physical bodies in heaven.” [21]

The extent of these notions can be seen in the fact that the secular community now routinely assumes that eternal disembodiment is the orthodox Christian hope. For example, in his compendium of information about what happens after death, Biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed that “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.”[22]

The shift towards more Gnostic ideas has been reflected in changing funeral liturgies. Christian funeral services have traditionally focused on the fact that the dead are in heaven waiting for their resurrection bodies. Although this is still widely referred to in Christian funerals, this often runs parallel with emerging notions in which going to heaven, not resurrection, comes to be the primary locus of the Christian hope. In his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, Thomas Long shows that a “disembodied, quasi-gnostic cluster of customs and ceremonies” now surround the Christian funeral. This network of “quasi-gnostic” customs exists in tension to the more traditional elements that have been retained:

“Often today two rival theological understandings battle it out for the soul of the funeral. To put it starkly, on the one hand, there is the gospel. The one who has died is an embodied person, a saint “travelling on” to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God’s promise to make all things new. On the other hand, there is a more “spiritualized,” perhaps even gnostic, understanding of death. The body is “just a shell,” and the immortal soul of the deceased has now been released to become a spiritual presence among us, available through inspiration and active memory. In this view, the body, no longer of any use, is disposed of, but the “real person” is now a disembodied spirit. It is therefore not the deceased who is travelling, but the mourners, on an intrapsychic journey from sorrow to stability.[23]

The semi-Gnostic assumptions embodied in these changing funeral rites often orient us towards the notion that it is not sin that separates humankind from God but the physical body.

The “Spiritual Body” is Physical

Even though the gospel account portray Christ as having been raised bodily (after all, He ate and drank, people could touch Him, and he explicitly said “I am not a ghost”), and even though the apostle Paul affirmed Christ’s bodily resurrection on numerous occasions (Rom. 8:11, 1 Cor. 15, Phil. 3:21), it has become commonplace for many Christians to believe that resurrection means something other than the resurrection of the body. Part of the problem has hinged on a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Paul opened chapter 15 with a defense of our Lord’s resurrection against those who were denying it (1 Cor. 15:1-19; 29-34). But Paul’s mind moved naturally from Christ’s resurrection to the resurrection of all believers (15:20-28; 50-58). Thus, the chapter ends with the famous promise that we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet (15:52).

In the middle of this discussion about resurrection, the apostle applied himself to a question that some people had apparently been asking, namely what will the resurrection body be like? His answer to this question occupied the middle section of the chapter from verses 35-49. The tricky words occur in verse 44 when Paul is contrasting our present body with our future resurrection body. Paul writes, “It is sown a natural [psychikos] body; it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikos] body.” Given the associations we have with the term “spiritual”, it has been easy for many people to assume that the antithesis Paul is making here is between a physical body and a non-physical body. The RSV even makes this false assumption explicit when it translates verse 44 to read “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

The problem can be solved by delving into the original Greek. I have already referred to N.T. Wright’s excellent book Surprised by Hope. In this book Wright explains how the original audience at Corinth would have understood 1 Corinthians 15:44:

He speaks of two sorts of body, the present one and the future one. He uses two key adjectives to describe these two bodies. Unfortunately, many translations get him radically wrong at this point, leading to the widespread supposition that for Paul the new body would be a spiritual body in the sense of a nonmaterial body, a body that in Jesus’s case wouldn’t have left an empty tomb behind it…. The contrast he is making is not between what we would mean by a present physical body and what we would mean by a future spiritual one, but between a present body animated by the normal human soul and a future body animated by God’s spirit…. Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble post-mortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death…

The first word, psychikos, does not in any case mean anything like ‘physical’ in our sense. For Greek speakers of Paul’s day, the psyché, from which the word derives, means the soul, not the body.

But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the different between asking, on the one hand, ‘Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?’ (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, ‘Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?’ (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyché (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation.

This is why, in a further phrase that became controversial as early as the mid-second century, Paul declares that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s Kingdom.’ He doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. ‘Flesh and blood’ is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we can nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.”

The early church, which spoke Greek as its native tongue, understood these distinctions. Many of the church fathers (including Irenaeus, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the writers of the Didache, Justin Martyr, Tertullian) went to great lengths to make clear that the bodies of departed Christians will be raised in a way comparative to the resurrection of Christ. While the resurrection body will be many things we cannot presently imagine (1 Cor. 2:9, 15:35-38, 1 John 3:2), we can be sure it will be physical.

Reverend Farley on the Power of Resurrection

Reverend Jason Farley talked to me this summer about why the doctrine of resurrection is important, and what happens when it is lost.

Does affirming the doctrine of bodily resurrection make a practical difference in the life of an individual, or in the life of a parish? Conversely, what are the spiritual ramification for churches when we collude with Gnostic assumptions?

To help me wrestle with these questions, I decided to speak with Reverend Jason Farley. Rev. Farley is a Protestant pastor, teacher, and screen-writer, and has spent his career mixing with all types of Christians throughout America, both at the parish level and in academia. If anyone could help me understand the practical side of the doctrine of resurrection, I knew Rev. Farley could.

I met Rev. Farley at the Whitworth library in summer 2019, and kicked off our discussion by asking him if he had encountered ignorance about this important Biblical doctrine.

“In your experience as both a pastor and teacher for a number of years, have you noticed widespread illiteracy when it comes to the doctrine of future resurrection?”

“Yes, yes,” Farley replied, as I fumbled with my smartphone to make sure it was recording. “In fact, I’ve noticed something deeper than illiteracy. I’ve noticed that people tend to have a completely alternative notion of what happens after death—something much more akin to an ancient Greek view—where you are separated from the body and experience the final relief of returning to a spiritual form. I run into that quite a bit.”

“Interesting,” I said. “I’m curious if you think this is a liberal vs. conservative problem we’re dealing with here?”

“No, definitely not. Early on I taught in a liberal church where there was a pastor who literally denied the resurrection of Jesus, as well as denying the possibility of resurrection. But in conservative Bible-believing contexts, where they believe Jesus rose from the dead and would go to the stake for that belief, I often find people have never heard that they will be raised from the dead one day. Often they have never heard of the coming resurrection of the body, or the resurrection of the just and the unjust. Usually the idea is that as soon as you die there is an immediate judgment, followed by the person either going to heaven for eternity or hell for eternity. What is usually referred to as the intermediate state is considered the final state.”

“Obviously people read the Bible and see references to our future resurrections,” I put in. “Is there an assumption that this is just a short-hand way of referring to the immortality of the soul?”

“Usually. Or they’ve read those passages and think of it in terms of the second coming. Or maybe something like the Left Behind series becomes the water they’re floating in. So they hear about the last trumpet and they think more in terms of our spirits going up, even though the text says something very different. They reinterpret it through their understanding.”

After a short pause, Rev. Farley continued. “You know, Robin, it’s interesting, because I did a lot of evangelism among Rastafarians down in California, and they are a technically a Gnostic religion. But I always found myself amazed at the number of similarities between their view of the body and life after death, and how average Christians viewed it. A lot of the time there was not a lot of difference between the Gnostic approach and the ordinary Christian approach.”

“Interesting,” I said. Then I deciding to steer the conversation in a practical direction. “So it’s good to have correct theology, and correct eschatological ideas. But what difference does all of this make? If we believe that God will resurrect our physical bodies, does that make a difference in how we live our lives here and now?”

“The kingdoms of this world come and go, but our fingernails last forever.”

“Well, I think faith brings what we believe about the future into the present,” he replied. “Faith lives right now in light of what we believe God will do in the future. So when you look at your hands and say, ‘These hands are going to exist for eternity,’ then you know that the way you are use them now will point them in one direction or another. The kingdoms of this world come and go, but our fingernails last forever. It’s just a different way of thinking about yourself and your neighbor, and it really does end up making a difference.”

“A little example,” he continued, “is something that happened when my daughter was about three and her goldfish died. As we flushed the fish down the toilet, she asked, ‘in the resurrection will the goldfish swim back up the toilet?’ You know, resurrection affects our imagination pretty significantly in terms of possibilities. And I think that a lot of failures of faith begin as  failures of imagination. So when you really have that resurrection-informed imagination, it really changes what you think is possible about the transformation of the world. It also changes what you realize is possible with our own sanctification. I think it makes a difference in a lot of areas.”

A resurrection-informed imagination really changes what you think is possible about the transformation of the world.

“I totally agree,” I said. “And a lot of the questions that the church fathers wrestled with about resurrection—like what happens if somebody’s bones are no longer around, or if someone is buried in two places—those types of questions seem kind of arcane to us, and maybe in some sense they are. But they only arose out of a context in which they took seriously the resurrection of the body.”

“That right,” Rev. Farley put in. “I think it’s because they wrestled with those questions that we can have the comfort we do. They answered those questions. Now we say, ‘Oh, God’s power takes care of that. He remembers where everything goes and He knows how to put everything back together.’ That seems obvious to us, but only because they wrestled with those types of questions. They had to wrestle with those questions because of how earthy and material the Bible is. In fact, I think the Bible is more material than the materialists.”

“You’re right, the Bible is very earthy,” I put in.

“It’s very earthy, even in a way that you don’t run into even among materialists. There’s a reason that if you let materialism go long enough then you get spiritualism.”

See Also

I spent a few seconds thinking about what Rev. Farley had just said, then asked, “Would that be an example of the sort of thing we’re seeing in Silicon Valley now, where materialism is morphing into a weird sort of crypto transcendence?”

“Yeah. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy turns out to basically be prophecy. Quite often I find myself saying, ‘Wow, they actually are trying to build an electronic version of the tower of Babel.’”

After a pause, Rev. Farley switched gears. “Now that I’m a teacher and not actively pastoring, I find myself missing funerals more than anything. One of the reasons I miss funerals is precisely because of the opportunities they afford for talking about the resurrection. You have people at their most honest because they are facing death and grief. But you have the hope of resurrection. That’s what Paul talks about when he says we do not mourn like those who have no hope; we mourn like people who know the resurrection is coming. Even just calling the resurrection of Jesus ‘the firstfruits, the beginning of harvest,’ reveals such a different mindset. ‘Oh yeah,’ we think, ‘the resurrection broke in a little early because that is what’s coming at the end. It’s like being able to smell thanksgiving coming because the turkey is in the oven. It may still be a hundred thousand years distant, but thanksgiving is coming.”

“I love it!” I put in, hardly able to contain my enthusiasm. “God’s future comes rushing into the present as a foretaste of creation’s future liberation!”

“Exactly Robin. I teach 10th grade doctrine and 12th grade apologetics, and one of the most interesting things for me is when I ask my students to define faith. And most of them will say, ‘Well, faith is the evidence of things unseen.’ That is something that faith is, to be sure, but it isn’t a definition. Hebrews is not giving us a definition but telling us something about faith. The students find it difficult to define faith because their theology never looks to the future—it’s always so present-focused. But faith is believing that God will do what He promises. The substance of our faith is the character of God and the promises He has made. But so many of those promises are future. That’s what a promise is – it’s a future oriented thing. My students have a hard time defining what it means to live by faith because they don’t have that future-looking vision. They’ll say that faith means to trust God, and that’s good, but there isn’t a lot of content to that. Or they’ll say ‘God is on my side, so things will work out,’ and while that is vaguely true, it isn’t what the Bible means when it talks about living by faith. I think it’s because we lack the theology of the end, the theology of the resurrection of all things, that the content of our faith is vague. These promises about the future are actually at the center of what it means to live by faith in the present.”

“You’re so right,” I said. “Because, you know, if we don’t have an horizon beyond the present, and if we don’t have a vision of what is coming, then faith is just one more thing we carry with us in the present to make us more comfortable and more happy.”

“Yes, or faith becomes one more work that we think makes God happy—something we do to try to earn more points with God. And if we think our faith is to make God happy, or that the purpose of faith is to make ourselves more comfortable psychologically, then it becomes a burden rather than a freedom. When I was in liberal churches, you heard a type of salvation by psychology, even though the churches tended to act according to salvation by sociology. Both of these problems arise when we forget the resurrection. The cure for both of those errors is that all things will be put right by God.”

Not quite following what Rev. Farley meant, I asked, “How is the resurrection a cure for ‘salvation by sociology’?”

“Well, a good example would be an unnamed church in an unnamed town near where I ministered. This church used to put out a survey. They would pay a sociology group to conduct a survey in the neighborhood to find out the felt needs of the people. And then they would put out their sermon series on the placard to address those needs. The idea is that if we just have more data then we can preach the gospel better. If we can just convince these people that we have what they want, then they’ll come in. The problem is that the people in the neighborhood didn’t believe in the resurrection either, and that is what they needed. You see throughout history that when the church declares the resurrection then the world is transformed. It is evident throughout all of church history that there is power in proclaiming that the God who created everything by His word will recreate everything through resurrection. But we ignore that and think instead, ‘we just need to find out what they want and then we’ll tell them the answers to what they want.’ Speaking for myself, I know that I needed to be recreated before I even realized I needed resurrection. I didn’t know what my problem was, and I didn’t know that I was living in death. I didn’t know that until I met someone who was alive.”

“Yes,” I put in, “Christ doesn’t just give us the solution to what we think are our problems. In some sense tells us the questions we need to be asking, and He tells us the problems we have that maybe we haven’t even identified. And then He comes with the answer.”

“That’s right, Robin. Our basic problem is that we are under the curse of death. We need a curse-breaker. That is why I love how T.S. Eliot talks about Christ the tiger. ‘In the juvescence of the year came Christ the tiger.’ I think most of the church would be afraid if Jesus showed up because He would show up like a tiger. But I think it’s because we don’t realize that we actually need something stronger than death. Spurgeon talks about Jesus being like a lion: we want to pile our commentaries up around Him to build a cage so that we can be safe from Him. Then we can admire him, and we can look at Jesus the lion. But when you really preach the resurrection, you are opening that cage. I think when you look around, the evidence points to the reality that when you preach the resurrection it is dangerous in a good way.”

“Dangerous to the status quo, dangerous to our complacency,” I put in.

Further Reading


[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, “Letter,” Church Times, May 16, 1941.

[2]    Dorothy Sayers, The Christ of the Creeds & Other Broadcast Messages to the British People during World War II (the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 2008), pp. 37 & 39.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante (Barnes & Noble, 1969), 113.

[4] Sayers, 48.

[5] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement: And Other Posthumous Essays on Literature, Religion, and Language (Gollancz, 1963), 69.

[6] C.E. Rolt, The Spiritual Body (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920), 12.

[7] James Campbell, Heaven Opened (New York: Revell, 1924), 114–15.

[8] “What is Death” in Caroline Howard Gilman, The Little Wreath of Stories and Poems for Children (Boston, MA: C.S. Francis & Co., 1847), 153.

[9] Dominic Erdozain, The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2010), 74.

[10] Anne P Wheeler, “The Music of the Early Nineteenth-Century Camp Meeting: Song in Service to Evangelistic Revival,” Methodist History 48:1 (October 2009).

[11] Isaac Watts, cited in William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 273.

[12] Isaac Watts, cited in Dyrness, 274.

[13] Isaac Watts, cited in Dyrness, 274.

[14] Dorothy L. Sayers, Further Papers on Dante (London: Taylor & Francis, 1973), 93.

[15] Sayers, Further Papers on Dante, 187.

[16] Cited in Simmons, Creed without Chaos, 118.

[17] Sayers, Creed or Chaos?, 106.

[18] Time (March 31, 1997), cited in Marshall, Heaven Is Not My Home, 234.

[19] Stempel and Hargrove, “Most Americans Don’t Believe in The Resurrection.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Travis, Where on Earth Is Heaven?, 16.

[22] Brian Innes, Death and the Afterlife (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

[23] Ibid., 96–97.

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