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God and the Body at Newsweek

April 8th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Lisa Miller has a new book out on heaven, and while I haven't read it yet, the excerpt at Newsweek is intriguing.

Miller highlights the paradox of believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which she claims "has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer."  And while Douthat is right that rationally the belief is "a pretty small leap" from the notion that God created the world ex nihilo, I suspect those who challenge the resurrection of the dead are similarly suspicious about the ability of God to speak matter into being.  The freedom of God to create and organize matter as he wills is, in a theological environment eager to bow to science, always in danger of eroding.

But that's beside the point of my post, which is to say that Miller's excerpt misses the real paradox.

On the one hand, our conceptions of heaven are inextricably embodied.  "In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things...  If you don't have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?"

On the other hand, our belief in the bodily resurrection is declining and being replaced by an emphasis on the immortality of the soul.  Miller points out that only 26% of Americans believe they'll have bodies in heaven.

The question, then, is what to make of the disconnect between our deeply embodied visions of heaven and our nonchalance about whether we will, in fact, have bodies.

I'm not particularly satisfied with Douthat's explanation of the increasing skepticism about the resurrection of the dead, as it fails to explain why our conceptions of the 'immortality of the soul' are inextricably embodied.  Specifically, while we talk about the immortality of the soul, what we envision is not "pure spirits frolicking on a completely alien plane" but rather meeting Aunt Suzie again and tasting her delicious apple pie.

That's an interesting disjunct, and one in need of further explanation.  To hazard a guess on my way to bed, I suspect that the pervasive and implicit scientific materialism of most Americans that has driven God to the edges has also dis-established the body from its proper ordering in the creation and allowed us to fantasize heaven as a place for any pleasure to occur--not those that are properly ordered by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit.

In short, when our vision of heaven and the afterlife is not shaped by revelation, that curious human phenomenon known as projection takes over.  And rather than an embodied life that is ordered around the knowledge and praise of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we order it around apple pie and golf courses.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.