We have been trying to escape this world that God has created with us in mind since the garden of Eden. In Genesis, God forms Adam from the “dust of the ground,” the very earth beneath our feet. He is made from the soil, his name means soil, and he is made to live in harmony with the rest of God’s good creation. Even though God gives Adam a place as the overseer, the caretaker of God’s good earth and all that it contains, Adam and Eve desire to rise above that place. They want to be “like God.” So, they eat the fruit that they think will elevate them above their earthy status and make them gods. The result isn’t quite what they had hoped. Rather than ascending to the heavens with god-like status, they are cast out to the east with a new set of curses, including a curse on the very ground whose name Adam bears and a curse that sets them at odds with it. The ground (הָֽאֲדָמָה֙) is cursed because of Adam (הָֽאָדָ֛ם), and he will have to toil by the sweat of his face in order to eat food from the ground until the day he ultimately returns to the earth as dust himself. Adam and Eve are dust, even with the knowledge of good and evil, and they will ultimately return to the dust.
This desire to rise above the material world is still alive and well in Paul’s time. The Greeks imagined an escape through “the forms.” Their rational minds gave them access to a more perfect world that was free from the limitations of materiality. Behind everything that they saw in this world was a more perfect form. To use the standard Philosophy 101 example of the theory of the forms (made famous by Plato but present in a great deal of Greek Philosophy for centuries), there are millions of physical tables, each manifesting a little bit of “tabeleness.” Every physical table is limited by its physical properties, size, shape, color, substance, but the form of table is perfect and limitless. In has no physical limits, just pure “tabeleness,” unincumbered by the restrictions of materiality. As rational beings with minds that aren’t subject to the same physical limits as our bodies, we have access to the world of forms, and the hope in many expressions of Greek philosophy was to be set free from the prison of this material world, a prison that prevents us from fully accessing the purely rational, non-physical world of forms. Again, an escape from the good earth to a place beyond. These concepts, of course, were embraced by Gnosticism and Marcionism, some of the most popular early heresies in the church, and perhaps part of what Paul is addressing in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
Today many (most?) Christians continue to yearn for escape from God’s good earth. Whether through our spirits finally being set free from our bodies in death and floating off into heaven, or being raptured out of this place like Captain Kirk being zapped out of dangerous terrain on a strange planet, or learning to live and recognize the invisible “spiritual world” around us that is somehow different than the physical world we all share, there is a sense that our physical experiences are somehow bad or untrue. Our spirituality is meant to move us beyond our physicality to a more good, true, and beautiful reality that we can only know with our minds or spirits, currently held back by our physical senses, our flesh.
The problem with all of this for Christians, of course, is resurrection. If death is an escape to the purely rational world of the forms, or if it is an escape to the purely spiritual world of heaven, then why on earth would God raise our dead bodies in resurrection? Why would Jesus not abandon his broken, hole-filled, mutilated, prison of a body in that tomb and manifest in a more perfect way as a spirit? If we are bound for a non-physical paradise in an other-dimensional heaven where bodiless spirits reside, why would we want these smelly, achy, broken, dying, bodies to rise from the grave? Why not leave them behind with this god-forsaken world and never look back?
Resurrection makes no sense if the goal is to escape the world that God created and called good. The fact that God is revealed most perfectly in Jesus, crucified and resurrected, indicates that something is very wrong with our hope of escape. God has not abandoned this world, and neither should we.
Fellow preachers, it feels like an uphill battle to remind folks over and over again that we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come to earth, not that the faithful would leave the earth and go to a distant kingdom. It feels dangerous to risk confusing even long-time Christians by meddling with their dualistic understanding of spirituality and suggesting that our hope is to be resurrected into a world being redeemed rather than having our spirits float out of our bodies to be with God in a distant heaven. It may not feel worth it to create extra stress for congregants about the people they grieve and their own fear of death by undermining their imagined mansions in the sky. But the bodily resurrection of the dead is core to our theology as Christians, and its implications are deeply significant.
If we want people to love and care for this world as God does, we can’t feed that dark desire to escape and abandon the hard work of the kingdom here. If we want people to see the beauty of God’s creation and to hear God’s call to care for it, we can’t let them shrug off its well-being by assuming this is only a temporary home. If we want to lead people into a kind of discipleship that takes seriously the bodily needs of our neighbor – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned – then we have got to help them recognize that our bodies matter. Our neighbors aren’t just souls trapped inside of bodies; they are their bodies, and even their scars will be redeemed in the resurrection of the dead. If we want the church to engage seriously with the problems of the world around us – poverty, violence, injustice, climate change, and the other things we face as residents of this good earth – we have got to teach people what Paul and the gospel authors adamantly proclaim, that our hope is in bodily resurrection. We have got to teach people that God has done the very opposite of abandoning the world we know by joining us in this world, taking on flesh in the incarnation. God has not given this world up for dead but has come so that it (and we!) might have life.
The disembodied theology of popular Christian culture has devalued our worldly experiences, our neighbors, and the rest of the created world. It has led to an escapist, flat Christianity that claims to save souls while condemning bodies. This is not the gospel. God has joined our bodies in condemnation, promising to make holy even that which bears the curse of sin. God has come in Christ so that we would not be left to the curse of Adam – cursed and at odds with God, creation, and one another – but so that in Christ we would have life and life abundant. God has come to return us to a state of grace as dust gifted with the breath of God. God has promised us not escape, but resurrection. And it is our calling and our joy as those who proclaim the gospel week in and week out, to proclaim the fullness of salvation, the resurrection of the dead.