Immediately following the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope came the predictable speculation. From the United States and other wealthy nations, folks wondered what the new Pope would say about issues related to gender and human sexuality. What about birth control, homosexuality, and women’s leadership in the church? Did the new Pope really support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Argentina, as some reported? Others, including many from Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia responded to Pope Francis’ commitment to a simple lifestyle and his commitment to economic justice. While some fretted about his relationship with the Argentinian military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, most have been impressed with his social witness. In one of his first public acts, Pope Francis entered a youth detention center in Rome and washed the feet of young offenders.
Lots of observers might wonder, “Why is the church expending so much energy on controversial social issues? Shouldn’t the church focus on spiritual matters rather than concerns of the flesh? Why does the church need to meddle in matters that lie beyond its purview?”
The Easter stories offer a direct answer. Whether we agree with the Pope or not, Christians care about human bodies. The resurrection story implies that bodies matter. Jesus’ resurrection is not merely a spiritual thing – the apparition of his ghost, or his ongoing spiritual influence. The Gospels all insist that the resurrection includes Jesus’ body.
“Doubting Thomas” and Jesus’ Body
Our particular story, John 20:19-31, is famous for “Doubting Thomas.” Like the rest of the fourth Gospel, John’s Easter account dwells upon the mysterious relationship between seeing and believing. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. She sees the stone rolled away but doesn’t know what to make of the scene. She certainly does not believe: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2; NRSV). So Mary reports the empty tomb and two disciples, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, run to the tomb together. Peter sees Jesus’ abandoned grave-clothes, and so does the “other disciple,” but only the Beloved Disciple believes. Later, Mary does see the risen Jesus – but without recognizing him at first. When she recognizes Jesus, Mary announces to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
Now we come to our Bible passage. That very first evening, Jesus somehow appears among the disciples despite the fact that they are hiding behind locked doors. He shows them his wounded hands and side – the disciples see Jesus’ body – and the disciples rejoice at the sight.
Unfortunately, Thomas is absent for this Easter evening appearance. We do not know why he misses this event. In any case, Thomas does not see Jesus, and he is therefore determined not to believe: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25).
It’s unfair that we belittle Thomas for his failure to believe. No one else in John’s Easter account has believed without seeing. The Beloved Disciple comes close. He believes when he sees just the empty tomb and Jesus’ grave-clothes.
Resurrection and Bodies
We know how it turns out. Jesus returns – again passing through shut doors – and invites Thomas to inspect his wounded body. We must go without knowing whether Thomas actually inspects Jesus’ wounds. The story simply doesn’t tell. Upon seeing Jesus, Thomas believes – “My Lord and my God” (20:28). Jesus notes Thomas’ sensory-based belief and says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29).
We overhear ourselves in Jesus’ pronouncement. If we believe, we do so without encountering Jesus’ risen body. Indeed, the author of John goes on to share the Gospel’s purpose. It is written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). Not everyone gets a direct encounter with the risen Jesus.
John’s resurrection story pushes the boundaries of self-contradiction. It insists that Jesus’ body is there to be touched. The risen Jesus has a body that bears the wounds of his crucifixion. (It’s hardly a pretty scene.) Yet Jesus also somehow passes through closed doors to surprise the disciples. What sort of body does this risen Jesus possess?
Without being too technical about things, it may help to know that ancient Jews and Christians devoted quite a bit of energy to the question of resurrection and bodies. Suppose someone dies at sea and misses a proper burial: will that person miss out on the resurrection? No, says Revelation 20:13: in the resurrection even the sea will return its dead. We see the Apostle Paul grappling with such questions in 1 Corinthians 15. His explanation may not satisfy our linear logic, but Paul insists that risen bodies have passed through a transformation. “Sown,” or buried, as physical bodies, they are raised as “spiritual” bodies. How that happens, Paul does not speculate.
Whatever we believe about the nature of resurrection – how it works, whether the language is metaphorical – early Christians insisted that the resurrection involves bodies.
Very early in Christian history, some believers argued that the Savior could not have inhabited a real human body. Bodies, they argued, come with problems. We all get sick, experience limitations, decay, and eventually die. Therefore, what matters is not the body but the spirit. These “docetists” believed Jesus only appeared to be human and to die.
The larger church rejected the docetic view. Bodies are important, the church testifies. When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we do not say, “I believe in the immortality of the soul;” we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” To put it simply, we believe that God redeems all of creation. The resurrection embraces all of who we are, body and soul. Indeed, it’s probably a mistake to think of body and soul as separate categories. Bodies matter.
Thus Christians do care what happens to our bodies. This is why Christians establish hospitals, and it’s also why we argue over difficult ethical questions like abortion, sexuality, gender, and poverty. It’s not easy, but it is faithful, because bodies matter.
Greg Carey, is the Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, Pa. His most recent book, Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, pursues the role of transgression in early Christian identity. Carey's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Image: Composition of the human body, malinx / Shutterstock.com