Spoiler Alert – The Good Place
As the afterlife sitcom The Good Place comes to its culmination, the show’s two protagonists, Eleanor and Chidi, contemplate their future. Having lived thousands upon thousands of lifetimes together, and having experienced virtually everything this life has to offer, they are weary. It is time for it all to end. The show’s solution to this perpetual happiness-cum-weariness is extinction. When you have had enough, when you are utterly sated by love and joy and pleasure, you can walk through a passage to nothingness. And Chidi has had enough.
As they reflect on the meaning of this, Chidi, a philosopher, shares some Buddhist wisdom with Eleanor. A wave is a real thing, he explains. You can see it, measure it, understand it. But when it hits the shore, it ends. Whatever had made that wave to be the wave that it was is gone. And the water is reabsorbed into the ocean where it will continue to take on new forms. And so, even as an individual human life ends, life goes on. Eleanor considers this proposal and replies, impressed, “Not bad, Buddhists.”
It is a touching scene. And, as a Catholic theologian, I found myself in full agreement with Eleanor’s assessment. Given the premises of the show—The Good Life is, in one sense, an exploration of human destiny without God—the Buddhist answer is precisely that: not bad. If there is no God, if all we have is this world and its laws, then this seems the best we can hope for: the chance to live well and for things to come to a merciful end. Extending this dynamic over thousands of lifetimes does not fundamentally change anything. Extending it to infinity, on the other hand, would not create heaven, but hell.
It can be disorienting for a Christian seriously digging into the Old Testament for the first time to realize that Israel, too, had a very this-worldly approach to the afterlife. In fact, Israel’s total rejection of common human solutions to the problem of death, things like endlessly repeating cycles of history or reincarnation or afterlives that extend this life to infinity, can look to us like a rejection of resurrection as well. Sheol is much closer to nothingness than to eternity with God.
In Is This All There Is? German theologian Gerhard Lohfink argues that, before it could properly understand resurrection, Israel needed to look death in the face. It needed to realize that every other solution to the problem of death is not a real solution at all. According to Lohfink, it is only Israel’s rejection of the afterlife fantasies of its neighbors—consider the pyramids, the most famous graves in history!—that prepare it to perceive that God might, in fact, do something else.
The concept of resurrection emerges only very slowly in the Old Testament and we can see in the New Testament that the question is far from settled in Jesus’s own time. The Sadducees, who read only the Pentateuch, mock any belief in resurrection, whereas other Jews, like Lazarus’s sisters, clearly do believe in the resurrection. In fact, Jesus’s encounter with Martha in John 11 is very instructive. When Martha affirms her belief that Lazarus will rise “on the last day,” Jesus’s response is revolutionary: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Resurrection, in Old Testament books like Isaiah and Maccabees, emerges as a solution, not only to the basic problem of death, but also to the problem of injustice. God’s chosen ones were being held captive in Babylon (Isaiah) or killed by the Greek idolators who were desecrating the Temple (Maccabees). Resurrection was how some Jews had started to see the possibility of God’s justice being done, finally, at the end of history. The innocent, the just, the chosen, those who suffer for God’s truth and God’s name in history will be redeemed at the end of history. Evil will not have the last word. This is why Martha believes Lazarus will rise “on the last day”: for those Jews who believed in it, resurrection was not something that happened in the midst of history, but at its end.
Indeed, there were other categories available to those Jews who experienced what we have come to call Jesus’s resurrection. They knew about Enoch, who walked with God and was no more, and about Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. Indeed, early Christians did not have trouble applying this basic category, sometimes called “rapture,” to Jesus’s mother, Mary. We know where Peter and Paul died. The places of their deaths are marked to this day. In Peter’s case, at least, it is quite probable that we have his genuine remains below St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. That early Christians never claimed to have relics of Mary is highly suggestive. But the lack of human remains, in her case, was seen as analogous to what had happened to Enoch and Elijah. Jesus’s empty tomb, on the other hand, meant something else entirely.
The category of “resurrection” did not only imply a particular closeness to God, as rapture indicated for Enoch and Elijah and Mary. Rather, the choice to employ it meant that the early Church instinctively understood that, with this event, history had reached its culmination. This was not a matter of someone being pulled out of the flow of history and into the life of God, but just the reverse. This was the inbreaking of the life of God into history in a definitive and final way. Resurrection is the beginning of the end of the world.
We see the truth of this in the exchanges, so awkward from our perspective, between Paul and his congregation at Thessalonica. The Thessalonians were confused that people were dying and did not know how to interpret those deaths in light of the fact that Jesus might come back next Tuesday. The early Christian belief that the end of the world was just around the corner can embarrass us, 2000 years after the fact. It is instructive, then, to consider how John took up this matter in his own Gospel, written decades after Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. The question the Thessalonians put to Paul is, in John’s Gospel, incorporated into the exchange between Jesus and Martha. John (or his disciple and literary executor) wrote near the end of the first century, 60 or so years after the first Easter, when the Church was settling in for a longer wait than initially expected. And, in that context, John continuously claims that the eschatological events Christians are supposedly awaiting have happened and are happening. The resurrection on the last day? “I am the resurrection!” The judgment? “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world!” Christ’s glorification? “When I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself!” Christians are not awaiting the end times. We are living in them.
If the resurrection is the inauguration of eternity, then we begin to participate in eternity as soon as we begin to participate in Christ’s resurrection, that is to say, when we are baptized. For surely, Paul teaches us, if baptism unites us with Jesus in a death like his, it also joins us to his resurrection (see: Rom 6:5). There is an essential difference between resurrection and resuscitation. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. But Lazarus is not still with us. Resuscitation does not protect one from death. Resurrection, on the other hand, does not restore our natural life, but gives us a whole new life, a life on the other side of death, where death can no longer touch us. To be baptized is to live, already, in the freedom of knowing that death is in one’s past, and so cannot fundamentally control one’s future.
But baptism is only the beginning of our participation in eternity. In the final chapter of Is This All There Is? Lohfink writes:
In baptism Christians have died with Christ and been raised to the communion of the saints. The real “location” of present eschatology is in the sacraments. Every baptism immerses someone in the fate of Christ and the communion of believers. Every reception of the sacrament of reconciliation means placing oneself even now before the Last Judgment, and in that judgment, through the mercy of God, being set free. Every reception of the Eucharist is participation in Jesus’s Last Supper, and the bread that is broken and eaten is a participation in his death, the breaking of his life, his self-surrender. At the same time, the eucharistic meal is the beginning of the eternal wedding feast with God (253).
All of the sacraments are a participation, here and now, in eternity. And sacraments are nothing if not bodily. They are bodily in that they are physical—matter and symbols, actions and gestures. And they are bodily in their meaning. In baptism, we become members of Christ’s risen body. In the Eucharist we become what we consume, growing in Christ as he feeds us with his body. In the sacrament of reconciliation, Christ heals his body.
This meaning is not merely metaphorical. Christians believe we really do become members of Christ’s body and that he really does feed us with it in the Eucharist, just as much as we believe he really does forgive our sins in reconciliation. Moreover, it is precisely the resurrection of Christ’s body that makes it possible for us to affirm these things. Language about being a member in someone else’s body, which can seem metaphorical at best and nonsensical at worst, becomes more comprehensible when we consider what the resurrection of the body means.
The resurrection appearances in the New Testament give us some clues. Christ’s resurrected body, while still recognizably a body—eating broiled fish and guiding Thomas’s hand into its side—was not limited in many of the ways we experience the limits of our own bodies. He shows up in locked rooms, apparently unhindered by gaping wounds. Perhaps even more interestingly, he is unrecognizable until he chooses to disclose his identity through some deeply personal, symbolic action—calling Mary Magdalene by name, or breaking bread in Emmaus, or telling Peter, again, where the fish are hiding.
What kind of body is this? In God Is Near Us, Joseph Ratzinger asks us to consider our experience of our own bodies. “On the one hand,” he writes,
The body is the boundary that separates us from others. Where this body is, no other body can be. When I am in this place, I am not at the same time elsewhere. Thus the body is the boundary that separates us from each other; and it thus involves our somehow being strangers to each other . . . But there is a second thing: the body is also a bridge. For we meet each other through the body; through it we communicate in the common material of creation; through it we can see ourselves, feel ourselves, come close to one another. In the gestures of the body are revealed who and what the other person is. We see ourselves in the way the body sees, looks, acts, offers itself; it leads us to each other: it is both boundary and means of communion in one (79-80).
This is true of our bodies as they exist in history. In light of this, Ratzinger argues that:
Resurrection means quite simply that the body ceases to be a limit and that its capacity for communion remains . . . To have risen from the dead means to be communicable; it signifies being the one who is open, who gives himself . . . Receiving communion means entering into communion with Jesus Christ; it signifies moving into the open through him who alone could overcome the limits and thus, with him and on the basis of his existence, becoming capable of resurrection oneself. (81)
The physical limits Jesus’s risen body transcends in the resurrection appearances hint at how he is now free to be present and to give himself to his bride, the Church. In his resurrected body, eternity breaks into history unfettered by time and space.
All this bodily-ness did not sit well with the ambient culture. An interesting argument for the truth of the resurrection is precisely that it was not what was expected according to the cultural categories available at the time. Whatever happened 2000 years ago was startling enough to upend the expectations of Jews and Greeks. We have already seen that the Jewish expectation of resurrection at the end of time had to be radically recast in light of what happened to Jesus, even though another category, “rapture,” was ready to hand. Most Greeks, for their part, had long considered the body to be precisely what would be left behind at death. The most influential Greek philosophers had concluded that the immaterial soul was immortal, but the material body would certainly perish. Indeed, within their operative anthropology, that was most desirable. Matter was not itself part of a good creation, as in Judaism, but rather a lower order of reality that spirit longed to escape. To affirm the resurrection of the body was, like proclaiming a crucified savior, “foolishness to Greeks.”
That ancient Greek sensibility has shown itself to be remarkably stubborn. Indeed, one might be tempted to conclude that it is a universal human temptation to denigrate the body and to consider spirit good and matter at least relatively bad. Even at funerals in Christian churches, it is not uncommon to hear that, while our bodies will decompose in the ground, our souls will be with God in heaven. But this is not the Gospel!
Such a conception leads to the thoroughly unbiblical notion that we are saved from history, which is itself beyond redemption. Now consider the wounds Jesus shows his disciples in the upper room. The resurrection of the body says that we will be raised with our histories—including, yes, even our scars. Our bodies are our connection with time and space, with the flow of cause and effect, even with one another. To be saved without them is to be abstracted from what makes us who we are. This is why the theological tradition has considered that the soul is as incomplete without the body as the body is without the soul.
The resurrection of the body is not a series of individual rescues—God pulling a select few from the water as a great ship founders. It is a participation in the resurrection. Christ is risen, alleluia! And it is his resurrection in which we are caught up through the sacraments of the Church. Moreover, all creation is caught up in the dynamism of this movement. As Paul teaches in Romans 8: 22-23, “the whole creation has been groaning; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” What is redeemed when our bodies, with all their immeasurable and incalculable entanglements with nature and with history, are raised in Christ is nothing less than everything. It is through the resurrection, and the resurrection of the body specifically, that Christ will be all in all.