Resurrection and Docetism

People sometimes argue against “spiritual” interpretations of the Resurrection of Jesus on the grounds that they are “Docetic”–that is, they deny the full reality of the Incarnation after the fashion of the ancient heresy of Docetism, which said that Jesus only appeared to be fully human. Specifically, it held that Jesus’ body was an illusion and he was not really crucified.

Interestingly, however, in a dialogue on the Resurrection between British theologians Geoffrey Lampe and Donald MacKinnon published in the 60s, Lampe makes precisely the reverse argument:

He shared our human death; and I remain convinced that his entry into life beyond death was not dissimilar in its mode from ours. What may await us on the other side of death must not, if the Incarnation is real and Christ is the second Adam, be a room into which his presence has not preceded us. Unless we take an impossibly ‘spiritualist’ view of our human make-up, we cannot lightly contemplate the dissolution of the body without which we are unable, since we are physical beings, to conceive of a personality. Yet the dissolution of the body is most certainly part of the universal lot of man. I do not find it possible to believe that bodily corruption, that ultimate negation, as it seems, of all human endeavor, aspiration and hope, can be something from which the manhood of Christ was exempt. If God will raise us from death to a new life of fuller communion with himself then this will be sheer miracle: God’s re-creative Word affirming us in the moment of our utter nothingness. And if Christ is the firstfruits of the dead, his Resurrection cannot be of a different order from this. A Resurrection of his physical body, such as is implied by the empty tomb and by some of the stories in the Gospels of his appearances, would point towards a docetic Christ who does not fully share the lot of men; unless, indeed, bodily corruption were to be regarded as being bound up with the sinfulness of man which Christ did not share (but, unless we accept an impossibly literalistic interpretation of Genesis 3 as factual history, it is impossible to hold that physical dissolution is not part of the Creator’s original and constant intention for his creatures in this world). Such a Resurrection, moreover, would offer in itself no promise of risen life beyond death for those who have to face both death and corruption. The miracle which we need would never yet have taken place.

Lampe’s argument seems to boil down to this:

1. For Jesus’ Resurrection to be meaningful to us, it must be similar in kind to the resurrection we hope for for ourselves.

2. But we cannot hope for a “fleshly” resurrection (Lampe writes that “we clearly cannot expect to be raised in our fleshly bodies”).

3. Therefore, Jesus’ Resurrection must not have been “fleshly.”

I think Lampe is at least partly right about this. Christians sometimes gloss over what it means to talk about the “resurrection of the body”, but whatever it means it presumably can’t be that we will be raised in the very same bodies we have now. This is because human bodies decay, get eaten, get blown to bits, etc., and the particles they comprise end up in other material objects (including other people’s bodies). So it’s hard, if not impossible, to conceive how we could all be raised in our selfsame physical bodies.

What we have to suppose instead, I think, is that we will be raised in new bodies–“spiritual” bodies, to use St. Paul’s phrase. These will be bodies that are fitted to whatever environment in which we will exist (“heaven” or the “new heaven and new earth” or whatever one’s preferred symbol is). In short, Christian hope is that we will, after death, enjoy fellowship with God and the blessed company of heaven. This requires, presumably, some medium of self-expression and interaction–which is what the “spiritual body” provides.

Now, I’m not as convinced that it follows from this that Jesus’ Resurrection didn’t include the raising of his physical body or that his tomb wasn’t empty. Certainly the appearance stories in the gospels suggest that the form taken by the risen Jesus transcended the usual limitations of physicality. But could it be that his physical body was transmuted into the substance of his “spiritual body”? Maybe this indicates–as John Polkinghorne and others have suggested–that the new heavens and new earth will be, in some mysterious way, composed of the “stuff” of this universe, but “transposed” into a spiritual key. On that view, we could still speak of a degree of continuity between this physical world and the world to come, even if there isn’t a direct continuity between our fleshly bodies and our spiritual ones.

Addendum: This isn’t directly relevant to the main point of the post, but I also like Lampe’s way of describing how judgment and mercy are united on the Cross:

I cannot set acceptance over against judgement as though there were any incompatibility between them. The Cross is a place of judgement and condemnation. Not of any judgement or condemnation of Jesus by God the Father. The judge is Jesus. Calvary is a place of execution, the execution of the Son of God by sinners, but by becoming this it is made to be Christ’s judgement seat. Man’s sin is disclosed there in its fullest odiousness. It is shown up and condemned by its encounter with steadfast love. Christ’s acceptance of sinners is no easy tolerance. He offers no sanction for that artificial, blindly uncritical, ‘Christian goodwill’ which sometimes does duty for true charity. The Cross itself is the measure of the cost of acceptance. The width of the gulf between heaven and hell is revealed there, where the greatest act of human sin is wrought out in a darkness that covered all the land. Acceptance at the hands of the victim of that sin is itself the judgement and condemnation of sin; for it is only when the sinner is accepted that the judgement of his sin becomes effective, and only divine love is able to condemn sin by accepting the sinner. It makes no compromise with sin, nor does it need to be safeguarded from contamination by sinners, for it has sovereign power to reclaim them in the act of accepting them. Acceptance and judgement do not have to be balanced against each other. At the Cross the divine mercy, justice and truth are united, for they are inseparable aspects of that definitive declaration of the ways of God to man. [Emphasis added–L.M.]


3 thoughts on “Resurrection and Docetism

  1. I read it the way I think you do. A resurrection body is (as Paul says) “changed”. It is shifted to a higher key. If we lean strictly on the word of Scripture, then resurrection bodies are capable of both walking through locked doors, eating fish, and ascending beyond the sight of men. The other key point is that the resurrection body still contained the nail and spear holes that could be handled and touched as Jesus invites Thomas to do. The take-away for us on this side of the veil is that the resurrection is *not* non-material, and is inherently connected to our incarnate physicality, but that the matter involved is qualitatively different from the matter of our quotidian experience.

  2. Yeah, I also like C.S. Lewis’s image of spirit as more solid than matter, not less (cf. The Great Divorce). Spirit is not our selves minus our bodies, but a richer, more inclusive (more “real”?) reality.

  3. C

    Remember that C.S. Lewis wrote in the preface to “The Great Divorce” that the book is pure supposition, and not intended to accurately depict reality. (The phenomenon of the spiritual realm being more solid than the earthly came from a science fiction magazine Lewis read.)

    His is an excellent point that heaven can be said to be “more real” than earth, in that it is our “real” home and all the good things we experience here will be so much fuller, more meaningful, and richer in heaven. (Paul agrees in I Cor. 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”)

    Keep in mind, however, that everything that occurs, whether in the physical or spiritual realm, is completely real and under the control of God. He engineers events and things in the physical realm just as he does in the spiritual. Neither, therefore, is more real than the other; in fact, the whole basis of salvation depends upon Christ being made man in physical flesh and pain. It is just that the GOOD THINGS of life are dim and faded compared to the real thing where God is.

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