Why do we believe?
By Cameron Harder
Editor’s note: April 22, 2014, marks the 44th anniversary of Earth Day, a special time to consider the care of creation.
Why do Lutherans believe in the resurrection of the body?
Well, let’s back up and ask “Should they?” Each Sunday we confess belief in “Jesus Christ who … rose again from the dead” and “in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.” But we live in a pragmatic, science-focused world where resurrection can seem like a superstitious relic or a fantasy element like the phoenix rising from its own ashes in Dumbledore’s office.
So let’s ask the hard question: Can 21st-century people, with integrity, believe in the resurrection of the dead? Can we support Paul’s conviction that what is “sown a physical body, … is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44)?
Yes! Scientists, in fact, tell us that such transformation is the heart of creation’s story: vast clouds of hydrogen erupted from the Big Bang. Collapsing, they gave birth to stars, galaxies, rocky planets like our earth. On earth, ancient seas spawned life, simple cells that burped out a breathable atmosphere that could support more complex species like pterodactyls, baboons and great blue whales. And from that extravagant diversity, we humans emerged, not only conscious, but self-conscious and God-conscious. Christians, of course, believe that this was no accident — that the extraordinary history of the universe has been the work of God, constantly coaxing the new and unimaginable into existence.
Surely, then, billions of years of evidence give us reason to hope that such a Creator has another level of existence yet ahead of us, a “new creation.” After all, we have seen “the first fruits” of it, Paul says, in Christ.
A second question: Why does it matter that we believe in the resurrection of the body? Paul regards it as crucial: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” and “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19). Without resurrection what would our future hold? Applied to the present ecological crisis, Paul’s words imply, “If there is no new humanity possible, our species is doomed to destruction by its sinful excesses.” If the future holds nothing more than the mass extinction we see happening around us, then like atheist Bertrand Russell we might well give up in despair: “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark” (1918).
But what if there is real hope — not in ourselves, but in God who raises the body, who transforms humanity and all creation? Such a hope allows us to persist in cleaning up our planetary home, making room for other creatures, knowing that our work is not in vain but is truly a “foretaste of the feast to come,” a preview of God’s “peaceful kingdom” (Isaiah 11).
And the resurrection of Christ matters because it reminds us that there is continuity between the old and new. Jesus’ risen body did not replace his old one; the risen Christ still bore the scars of his former life. But neither was the old body simply restored, as when Lazarus returned to life. Instead Jesus was transformed. His scars remind us that the crucifixion we inflict on this creation will have an impact on the next. Even as it is renewed, the earth remembers its traumas in craters and bones. Our world is not a piece of trash, to be used and thrown away; though it comes through great suffering, the new creation will be a transformation of the one we live in now.
Believing in the resurrection of the body, Lutherans cannot simply focus on saving souls for a spiritual heaven. We can’t ignore the earth and our earthborn bodies. We don’t turn our faces away from illness, violence, degradation or environmental harm. Hoping, trusting in God, we work and we wait for a new creation (Revelation 21:1).
Cameron Harder is a professor of theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.