Nathan Hitchcock, associate professor of church history and theology, Sioux Falls Seminary
Note: This article is part of a series that considers various ways our work anticipates, in the present, the future reality of the consummated Kingdom. The entire series was originally published at Die Evangelischen Theologen, from which this version was adapted.
When Christians go to work, they do so to lift up human bodies. They perform medical tasks, as in the nurse who provides rehabilitative care to a post-op patient. They study the physical body and its environmental conditions, as in the home inspector monitoring radon levels. They labor for the best distribution of services, as with the entrepreneur seeking to establish a network of hardware stores on reservations. In all their actions Christians emulate the God of the future, whose final work consists of raising the dead to everlasting bodily health.
The Church’s profession of hope for the resurrection of the dead is an extension of the belief that their Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. The Church hopes for resurrection because it hopes in God. Who is God? “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” (Robert W. Jenson, “Systematic Theology I,” 63). That is, Christians know God’s character and essence through His work, in part by the raising of the Israelites from physical and political bondage, in full with the raising of the Son from death. The complete healing displayed in Jesus’ resurrection affirms God’s intention to reconstitute and transform the human body. Truly, God is a physician. His vocation is healing.
Disciples of the resurrection-God contend that what happened to Christ on Easter morning will happen to them too (1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14). God’s final work has not yet extended to the many as to the One; as of this time, no one but Jesus is resurrected. The general resurrection of the dead will only transpire at the cosmic return of Christ (Matt. 24:30-31; 1 Thes. 5:1-11) and therefore cannot be understood as a past event for anyone either in this life or in death (2 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 11:39). As it is, the living and the dead alike wait for “adoption,” namely, “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Yet the day will surely come. The future resurrection will be corporate and corporeal, establishing a civic body through many individual bodies (Eze. 37; Heb. 11:40; Rev. 20-21). At the parousia the Lord Jesus will work the total corporeal healing, rescuing the saints from death, raising them to unending life with Him.
The Bible sometimes emphasizes discontinuity between the present body and the body to come, stressing elements of transformation. Risen bodies will be deathless (Luke 20:36), glorious (Phil. 3:21), even capable of superhuman transportation (John 20:19, 26). Such bodies will “shine like the stars” (Dan. 12:3). That is, the eschatological self will enjoy new qualities and superadded capacities. The “spiritual body” of which Paul speaks (1 Cor. 15:44) will be the human body fully dynamic in divine participation, fully glorified by supernatural help. Instead of life through natural, ordinary means, the resurrection body will be “a body animated by the Spirit of the living God” (N.T. Wright, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” 354). It will be changed.
Scripture is equally insistent on continuity between this body and the future one. Judging by the appearances of Jesus, the resurrected body will be tangible (John 20:24-29), have the same basic physical features, and will be capable of eating and drinking (Luke 24:42). The risen human will not be ghost but “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). Let the philosophers puzzle! Resurrected bodies are the exact same former bodies healed. The confession of the subapostolic period captured in the Apostles Creed expresses the continuationist aspect more forcefully than the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” In other words, the coming resurrection means the preservation of the selfsame body even in its glorification. It will be retained.
How then shall Christians work? By imitating the healing God in their own creaturely way. They cannot raise the dead, but they join in the anticipatory work of elevating bodies. By the Spirit of resurrection, in anticipation of the final day, Christians work to see thriving bodies.
The Church receives its primary practice in the context of the ecclesial body. In the congregations there are myriad acts of mercy (Acts 6:1-7; Rom. 12:3-21) championed by appointed deacons. Women and men exercise spiritual gifts of healing (Acts 19:11-12; 1 Cor. 12:28); elders anoint the sick with oil (Jam. 5:14-15). Denominations and parachurch agencies conduct a battery of relief efforts. All are called upon to exercise hospitality to their brothers and sisters, prioritizing the needs of others above their own.
But how shall Christians work in the world? In accordance with the eschatological principles of bodily transformation and bodily preservation, Christians labor to transform bodies and preserve them.
Transformative acts of healing happen all the time in the medical profession, of course. Believing doctors and nurses and technicians administer care to improve bodily well-being. Some work with international organizations to innoculate against measles or perform cleft palate surgeries in remote areas. Many other Christian vocations advance bodily health. Athletic coaches train minds as well as muscles. Psychotherapists move sufferers of sexual trauma toward new identity. Christ’s disciples joyfully work with the disabled, walking with them in therapeutic ways and championing their access to the community.
Even the new products developed by Christian researchers gesture at the resurrection-future. If one grants Marshall McLuhan’s premise that technologies extend physiological capacities, then businesspersons selling hang gliders or handicapped-accessible doors, GPS units or eye glasses, bullet-proof vests or belt sanders are also enhancing bodies in their own way. In fact, nearly every occupation involves some sort of service that improves, either directly or indirectly, bodily welfare. Christians seize and utilize and maximize opportunities to elevate the psychosomatic whole.
Sanctified workers also pursue the tasks of bodily preservation. In emulating the God who heals, Christians take their stand against death. After all, the resurrection of the dead corresponds to the eradication of death in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-14). Redeemed humans play their part in opposing the forces of disease and decay in this age, standing strong against the grinding forces of death. Therefore public health officials address water purity, nutrition in schools, and mold prevention. Others are called to serve as administrators who optimize the shipment of fresh foods or work with pharmaceutical companies to distribute antiretroviral drugs. Christians enter the marketplace to offer quality services and products that support healthy living. Likewise they pursue legislation that defends bodily dignity, whether by limiting factory work-weeks or securing critical medical services among the poor or militating against the exploitation of bodies, including and especially exploitation of the most vulnerable bodies – those of the unborn.
Because this age is not the age to come, Christians must grapple with difficult options. Is a nutritional guideline for elementary schools warranted, or does it unnecessarily take away culinary pleasures and personal agency? When does plastic surgery become a distortion of the body rather than an advancement of it? How does one steward antibiotics so as to prevent the rise of “superbugs”? Is the expansion of a certain clothing franchise providing worthwhile services, or just promoting vanity? The raising of human bodies cannot always be quantified easily, and other values may need to be considered when making decisions both personally and civically.
Still, Christians labor for physical healing, whether by transformation or preservation. They know the One who raises the dead and they tailor their occupations after the great Physician. By the Spirit they stretch forth their hands to care for the sick and needy, anticipating their revival. By their work bodies rise.