The Perfected Body? Disability and the Resurrection

September 26, 2022

The Perfected Body? Disability and the Resurrection

Both the good and the wicked shall rise with all soundness of body which is natural to man. He will not be blind or deaf or bear any kind of physical defect. ‘The dead shall rise again incorruptible’ [1 Cor 15:52], this to mean, wholly free from the defects of the present life.

Thomas Aquinas, Sermons on the Apostles Creed

How do you imagine the resurrected body?

For most Christians, Aquinas' words are easy to agree with. They may eagerly anticipate a day when they are freed from the defects of this life. A time when all physical infirmity will be done away with. The great theologian Augustine envisioned not just perfect health but also a return to the prime of life (Augustine, City of God, XXII.13-15, XXII.19). In his vision, the young would be aged up and the elderly aged down so that all bodies were in peak physical condition. 

But some disability theologians and writers argue that these words and attitudes promote a harmful vision of the resurrection life, for they imply that bodies that 'bear a defect' are less desirable, exalted and valued than those who enjoy 'all soundness of body which is natural to man'. Academic and author Candida Moss argues that Aquinas and Augustine inadvertently tie sickness and disability to sin and link the divine image to the perfect body.[1] The bodies of people with disabilities are therefore figured negatively and characterised by what they lack.

For Amos Yong, a disability theologian, this understanding of the eschatological body devalues the disabled body and positions it as abnormal.[2] The body of the person without a disability is, then, the 'normal' standard against which we judge the body. Accordingly, people with disabilities are then judged as being lesser or other. Whether intentionally or not, we are encouraged to think of the disabled body as in need of treatment—of which the resurrection is the ultimate cure. The danger is that we fail to regard people with disabilities as people in their own right; seeing them only as a disability awaiting wholeness.

Practical theologian John Swinton offers an alternate view of the resurrection. In his introduction to Living Gently in a Violent World, he relates the story of a deaf woman who mentioned a dream where she had communicated with Jesus in heaven, not by having her deafness cured but by Jesus being perfectly able to sign.[3] In her imagination, it is not her deafness that needs to be cured but the social barriers to communication caused by those who are unable to sign. Swinton elsewhere suggests that his friend being cured of Down syndrome in the eschaton would do away with an essential part of his friend's identity. In such instances, Swinton suggests that disability is intrinsic to the person and that disability is largely social in nature. That is, the medical impairments that we label as disability need not be done away with to make a person whole—instead, it is the societal attitudes that need to be replaced.

Yet the resurrection body envisioned by disability theologians can be equally problematic. Both visions of the resurrection body—one being free from all earthly defects, one whose 'defects' are no longer disabling since the afterlife is the very epitome of the accessible community—share a common feature, though they arrive at it from opposite ends of the spectrum: they understand the resurrection body as essentially the same as the body we have now. In this they both seek to emphasise the continuity that exists in the resurrection. That while we will be changed we will yet in some sense remain ourselves.

So again, how do you imagine the resurrection body? Does it reveal more about your ideas of the 'perfect' body than about anything else? We need to think carefully about what exactly it is that we can say about the resurrection body. While we believe that we will be raised, in what state will the body be? Can we agree with those who suggest that what we perceive as disability is actually an essential part of a person?

For many disability theologians the resurrection appearances of Jesus are very important. This is because when Jesus is raised he continues to bear the marks of his crucifixion. Jesus, for instance, can invite Thomas to touch the nail-marks or the wound in his side (John 20:27). For Nancy Eiesland, it is in this experience that Jesus reveals himself as 'the disabled God', and if God welcomes the experience of disability then so should we.[4]

Jenny Weiss Block suggests that the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet would have made his hands hard to use and it would have been difficult for him to stand for long periods of time.[5] For Block, this reveals Jesus’ ongoing humanity and points to disability as a normal part of the resurrection experience. This is speculation on Block’s part but it reveals the paucity of our eschatological imagination as we tend to assume that the resurrection body will be like our societal understanding of the ‘normal’ body. That is, we think that we know what 'perfect' is, yet Jesus’ perfect body remains marked. The marks are used by Jesus to show to his disciples that it is still him (John 20:24-29, Luke 24:36-43). For some, this challenges any notion that the resurrected body will be one freed—or, rather, one that needs to be freed—from disability.

Block is correct that Jesus is clearly physical and remains in the condition in which he died. We should, however, also note that Jesus is able to enter locked rooms and is at times unrecognisable to his disciples (Luke 24:13-32, John 20:19). While his resurrection is bodily, there still remains some mystery as to the exact nature of his body. We cannot simply look at the body now and insist that this is how the body will be in the new creation. For in reality we are not given a large amount of detail about what the resurrection body will be like.

1 Corinthians 15, however, does provide some clues.

Firstly, the resurrection body is in the image of Jesus (1 Cor 15:47-49). Secondly, there is a discontinuity between our current body and the resurrection body. We no longer have a perishable body but will receive one that is imperishable (1 Cor 15:51-53). Yet there is also continuity, as the body continues to be a body. That is, embodied experience continues in the eschaton. New Testament scholars Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa note the importance of Paul’s use of the image of the seed in verses 36-38.[6] To claim that we can know what the resurrection body will look like is, on one level, a foolish claim because we cannot tell from a seed what the plant will look like. Yet the plant comes from the seed. So while the imperishable body will be completely superior to the perishable, it still comes from each person's perishable body.

The fact that there is continuity means that our bodies matter, and what we do with them now counts. When Paul writes to the Corinthians of the resurrection body it is at the end of a letter in which he has repeatedly stressed the significance of what they do and how they live. This is true of the body also. Our embodied existence now matters.  This means that we need to have real humility when we consider what the resurrection body will be like. Those who believe that conditions such as Down syndrome will continue into the eschaton do so because they believe that this condition is constitutive of the person.[7] We should not be quick to dismiss this as untrue, because we cannot know exactly what the eschatological body will be.[8] What we know is that it is different from the body we have now and its glory is contrasted with the dishonour of the natural body (1 Cor 15:42-43).

The contrasts of 1 Corinthians 15 are key. What the body was is not what it will be. From corruption and mortality to incorruption and immortality. What was weak will now be powerful. Yong asks whether we need to understand such changes as meaning that weakness will be eliminated.[9] He suggests that we will instead be able to better see the world through God's eyes. The bodies that we now regard as disabled will be redeemed as they are and they will be glorious and imperishable, but without losing what we now regard as blemished and defective.[10] So rather than disability being done away with, it is our perceptions that will change.

The best evidence for Yong's ideas is Jesus in the Gospels, where he is recognisably himself but also has a different mode of existence. He still has the marks of his crucifixion, yet those marks which would have been shameful are now the marks of his glorious victory over sin and death. What we know of the new body is that it is free from the decay of this life and suitable for new life in the new creation. If this is so, then when people with disabilities are raised they may still have what we would presently call an 'impairment' but in heaven it will no longer be a disabling condition. This is a beautiful idea but it may not be of comfort to those who long for an end to their 'impairment'. Our vision of the resurrection body should, therefore, not be locked down to either a body 'free from the defects of the present life' nor one that is exactly the same. There is discontinuity in the resurrection experience as well as continuity.

C.S Lewis writes in Mere Christianity of those who are in Christ being like tin soldiers who are being turned into real people as they are made more like Jesus.[11] The soldiers may not understand some of the changes and resist them because they do not know what is best for them. This image may also help our thinking around the resurrection. In the resurrection we shed the last of our tin and are fully remade. What that body is may still be a mystery but what we can know is that it is what we are ultimately made for: to become like Christ and to bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Cor 15:49). All those who are Christ's will receive a new body that is in his image. The one who perfectly imaged God has become the firstfruits of the resurrection. All of us will leave our perishable bodies behind.

We should be free to understand the resurrection body as an end to the impairments we all have. But we must be clear that each Christian will receive a new and perfected body that is not only beyond our present bodies but beyond any of our present ideas of what such a body will be. In our right desire to ensure that our focus on the resurrection body does not exclude or devalue people with disabilities, we can't speak authoritatively about what such a body will be. It is ultimately mysterious. There is an entirely new type of bodily existence for those who are God’s people.[12] We will all be changed. Perhaps we need also to look at the 'normal' body—the one we do not regard as being 'disabled'—and question whether we need to see it with new eyes.

We need to remember that when Paul writes of the weak, perishable, corruptible body he is not highlighting one sort of body but all human bodies. This is not to say that we should embrace a trite 'we are all disabled' slogan, as this minimises the lived experience of people with disabilities. Instead we should recognise that all bodies will be changed.

We can affirm, however, that the condition of disability will not continue. Regardless of what the resurrection body is like—and we can trust that it will be immeasurably greater than we can imagine—all social discrimination that marks impairment as disability will be done away with. Instead, all of God's people, recreated in Jesus' image, will interact in a community of perfect love. While we await that day, let us seek to ensure that our churches are not places that make people with disabilities feel lesser or unwanted, but instead welcome them as equal fellow members of the body of Christ.

[1] C. R. Moss, ‘Heavenly Healing: Eschatological Cleansing and the Resurrection of the Dead in the Early Church’. J. Am. Acad. Relig. 79/4, 2011, p1008.

[2] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (W.B. Eerdmans, 2011), pp119–120.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Resources for reconciliation; IVP Books, 2008), p13.

[4] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Abingdon Press, 1994), pp100–01.

[5] Jennie Weiss Block, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities (Continuum, 2002), p109.

[6] Roy E Ciampa and Brian S Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (W.B. Eerdmans; Apollos, 2010), p801–02.

[7] John Swinton, ‘Building a Church for Strangers’, Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 4/4, 2001, p48.

[8] Anthony A Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Paternoster Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1994), p93.

[9] Yong, Op. cit., p124.

[10] Ibid., pp129–30.

[11] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1984), p162

[12] Ciampa and Rosner, Op. cit., p821.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.