Sunday, February 22, 2015

S9. The dead in Christ will rise.

This is the ninth post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
The dead in Christ will rise.

1. There are many senses in which we can speak of salvation. When Christ died and rose from the dead, he saved the world, even though perhaps most of those saved were not even born. In a sense, we are saved from the power of Sin the moment the Holy Spirit enters our lives. But we will be saved literally from the judgment of God, we will escape his rejection, on the Day when the judgment takes place.

When the Holy Spirit takes hold of our lives in response to our faith, we are sanctified, we are purified of our past sins and set apart as belonging to God, as God's property. Theologically, we say that God continues to "sanctify" any parts of our life that are not fully under his power. "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8), and we know that there are some who have been initially sanctified to God (1 Cor. 1:2) who still are fleshly (1 Cor. 3:1). [1]

So the Spirit continues to sanctify our lives until, ideally, we come to a place of full surrender. Then we can be entirely his, to the greatest degree we know. We cannot be as empowered as possible until we are as surrendered as possible. [2]

2. John Wesley never imagined that being entirely surrendered and sanctified by God (which he actually called "Christian perfection") would mean that a person stops growing in his or her relationship with God. Nor did he think that a Christian would be unable to sin after that point. There would continue to be what he called "growth in grace" for the rest of our lives on earth, and we would continue to grow for all eternity.

The key here is that there is an infinite amount to know. There is an infinite amount to grow. The person who is fully surrendered to God in every respect they know can still learn more about God. That person can still become better at implementing their love for others. So Wesley did not see Christian perfection as a sinless perfection. Nor did he see it as a return to the perfection that Adam enjoyed before he sinned. He saw it as a certain kind of maturity in faith that was fully surrendered to God and thus fully taken over by God.

3. It is possible that, to some extent, Wesley misread Paul because he was under the influence of Calvin, the Reformation, and ultimately Augustine. Paul did not see Sin as a nature within us. Paul saw Sin as a power over us. In Romans 8, Paul says that the whole creation is currently enslaved to corruption and decay (8:20). Since our human bodies are part of that creation, there is a real sense in which temptation will always be present in our lives.

Much of the Wesleyan tradition has filtered Wesley's teaching in the light of its experiences. We still understand the idea of entire sanctification as full surrender to God. Wesleyan ministers continue to preach full surrender to God with great fervor. We can also preach with great fervor that we will never experience as much of the power of God as he wants to give us if we do not surrender ourselves fully to him. And that final surrender usually takes place in a moment of decision. It is thus often an instantaneous event in which we are filled with the Spirit afresh.

However, as long as we are in our bodies, we will experience temptation. And since the power of sin over the creation is what Augustine took to be a sin nature, there is a metaphorical sense in which even Christians will have the power of Sin as a factor in their lives for as long as they live.

4. Paul does speak of an ultimate redemption from this slavery to corruption, decay, and sin. This is the redemption that will come with resurrection. The resurrection is when the dead in Christ will rise to eternal life. Whatever is left of their mortal bodies will be transformed into a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

Paul teaches that the entire creation will be redeemed. The entire creation will be saved. The entire creation will be transformed.

For those who are alive at Christ's return, their bodies will be transformed to be like Christ's resurrection body (Phil. 3:21). As we have borne the image of the earthly Adam, we will bear the image of the heavenly Adam, the second Adam, Christ (1 Cor. 15:49).

If we should die before Christ returns, then we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:51-52). In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will be transformed from the grave and will be glorified.

This classic, historical and biblical belief in resurrection is not exactly the same as the immortality of the soul. It is not incompatible with that Greek belief, but it is very distinct. In particular, Christian resurrection assumes that we will have a body in resurrection. Christians do not believe that the body of Jesus is still in a grave somewhere. We believe that Christ's body was transformed into a glorified body exactly the same as the kind of body we will have in our resurrection.

The Gospel resurrection accounts also speak of Jesus having a resurrection body. He eats in Luke 24:41-43 and shows that he is not a ghost. He offers his hands and feet to touch in both Luke 24:39 and John 20:27. We are resurrected not as spirits but as bodies. [4]

4. Glorification is a term that finds its origins in Romans 8 as well. The background is arguably Psalm 8, which originally pondered the prominence God has given humanity within the creation. However, some early Christians saw in this psalm a glory that God intended humanity to have but that we do not currently experience. "We do not yet see everything in subjection" to humanity (Heb. 2:5). Humanity "is lacking the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). [3] Once we are justified, "we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God" (Rom. 5:2).

This glorification is what Paul was specifically talking about in Romans 8 when he said that God would work everything together for good (8:28). God has a plan in which all those in Christ will eventually "be conformed to the image of his Son" (8:29), namely, when we are transformed either at Christ's return or when we rise from the dead.

5. What happens to us between death and resurrection? The Bible has little to say on this topic. The Bible does not have much to say about what happens to us between death and resurrection. The Old Testament, of course, has very little to say about the afterlife at all. Daniel 12:2-3 does say that those who "sleep" (i.e., the dead) will be raised either to everlasting life or everlasting contempt. Paul also uses the image of sleep (1 Thess. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:51), leading some traditions to think that we are in a "soul sleep" between death and resurrection in which we know nothing. [5]

However, few though they be, there are some clear hints in the New Testament that the dead will be conscious in the time between death and resurrection. And this is what most Christians have believed also throughout the centuries. In Luke, for example, Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in Paradise (Luke 23:43). Presumably, Jesus and the thief were not just going to be sleeping next to each other in Paradise! Similarly, Luke tells us a parable about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. They both wake up in the afterlife, while the brothers of the rich man are still alive. By contrast, Lazarus wakes up in pleasure, and the rich man wakes up in torment.

There are other hints. Paul in Philippians 1:23 speaks of dying and being with Christ (cf. also 2 Cor. 5:1). 1 Peter speaks of Christ visiting the dead after his death (e.g., 4:6; also 3:19-20). In Revelation 6:9-10, there seem to be martyred souls present in heaven who are able to communicate with God. So while there are some images of sleep in the New Testament, the position of common Christianity is that we will be conscious in some respect after death, even before the resurrection.

It is difficult for us to say exactly what the difference will be between the blessing of our state immediately after death and the blessing of our eternally transformed bodies. We are not in any position to know what a spirit might be, let alone a disembodied spirit. [6] What we do know, as I have heard my colleague Chris Bounds say, is that the dead are precisely that: dead. [7] They are not alive. They are not yet resurrected. Their bliss is not yet as great as it will be. There is a difference between the resurrection and whatever an immortal soul might be.

The dead in Christ will rise. They will be glorified. They will receive a transformed body. Those in Christ who are alive and remain at his coming will be transformed to have a body like Christ's glorious body.

Next Sunday, S10: Christ will come again to save his people and judge the world.

[1] Wesleyans call this point the moment of initial sanctification.

[2] Wesleyans call this possibility the moment of entire sanctification.

[3] My translation.

[4] Although they may not recognize some conflicting imagery in the Bible, two books that present the case that the Bible is overwhelmingly oriented toward bodily resurrection are Joel Green's Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) and N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008).

[5] E.g., Seventh Day Adventists.

[6] Some have proposed that we will have some sort of temporary body between death and resurrection.

[7] Chris Bounds is a theology professor at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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