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What do we mean by resurrection?

Metaphors for resurrection are often found in nature. Image by zhugher, courtesy of Pixabay.
Metaphors for resurrection are often found in nature. Image by zhugher, courtesy of Pixabay.

United Methodists affirm the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. Our doctrinal statements express this directly.

We affirm the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 

"Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature" (Article III, Articles of Religion).

We affirm the resurrection of all people who have ever died. 

"We believe all men stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day. We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation" (Article XII, Confession of Faith).

What exactly do we believe about resurrection? Or, put more directly, what is resurrection?

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It is important to begin with what resurrection is not. Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a person who had previously died. Resurrection is not like zombies pushing their way out of graves and tombs and roaming the streets in hordes. Resurrection does not make people or bodies "undead." 

Resurrection makes people truly, fully, and completely alive. 

In I Corinthians 15, the most extensive discussion of the traits of resurrection in the New Testament, Paul indicates resurrection does not result in the mere reviving of the physical body that was buried, but rather a spiritual body. While this newly created spiritual body is still "us" in some way, ultimately it is very different and full of far greater potential than what came before.

"What is sown is perishable,
what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor,
it is raised in glory.
It is sown a physical body,
it is raised a spiritual body"
(I Corinthians 15:42b-44, NRSV).

What is also important to keep in mind is the meaning of the term resurrection within Christian theology, and especially Christian eschatology (understanding of the last or ultimate things). Resurrection describes a form of life that is not of this present age, but rather of the age to come. The spiritual body is a new creation just as is the "new heaven and new earth" described in Revelation 21:1:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more." (NRSV).

This newly created spiritual body is created for thriving on the new earth in the new creation.

So, what does all of this mean for us now?

We can take comfort that no matter what time and decay do to our physical bodies, it is not in their physical condition that we have hope. Our hope is in the One who raised Jesus from the dead, and whose resurrection body is the first example of what ours will be, when we, too, are raised at the last day.

We can understand that neither efforts to preserve flesh destined to decay nor cremation or organ donation hinders what God will do in resurrection. Understanding the nature of resurrection helps us put any unfounded fears aside when making choices that honor our beloved dead.

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At the same time, it gives us opportunity to think carefully about what it means that even these bodies are called "a temple of the Holy Spirit" in this life (I Corinthians 6:19. NRSV). The body to come is spiritual through and through. But even now, as we await the promise of resurrection, this flesh is capable of housing the divine. So while we live, we are called to treat our bodies with reverence — our own and that of every neighbor.

"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." (I Corinthians 15:22, Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

Even now, in Christ we are new creations. We experience the promise of life beyond death, as well as the promise of new beginnings in our present life. And we experience a foretaste here and now of the fullness of resurrection in the age to come when God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4, CEB)

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