Earthly Passions and Celestial Parts

Earthly Passions and Celestial Parts May 26, 2016

“How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?”

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul dismissed skeptics of the bodily resurrection as fools, but the topic remained thorny among Christians for centuries. What was the difference between what Paul termed “celestial bodies” and “bodies terrestrial?” Paul made some clear distinctions. The earthly body was perishable. The resurrected body was imperishable. It would be a major transformation: “the corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Paul’s words suggested that there would be both continuity and change as earthly bodies became heavenly bodies. Indeed, a great deal of change, as Paul wrote that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”

Most thinkers in the age of Hellenistic philosophy regarded Paul, not his opponents, as the fool. Immortality was the soul’s ascent away from the material world, away from flesh that led to base desires. Christianity was foolishness for its assertion that the eternal God had assumed flesh and for its assertion that human souls would eventually be reunited with their bodies.

As Taylor Petrey demonstrates in his concise and fascinating book Resurrecting Parts, intra-Christian debates on the nature of the resurrected body were, to say the least, complex. It was not simply the case that “those who held to the resurrection of the flesh emphasized the goodness of human flesh,” whereas advocates of a spiritual resurrection “eschewed the flesh as a problematic, negative substance.” Instead, advocates of bodily resurrection articulated a wide variety of ideas about how “celestial bodies” would differ from their earthly counterparts. How could the resurrected body be the same as its earthly counterpart, while also different enough to be worthy of heaven?

Petrey analyzes treatises on the resurrection from the late second and early third centuries: Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and two unknown authors. Focusing on those treatises but weaving in commentary from other writings, Petrey concludes that matters of sexuality were central to the way that Christians thought about the resurrection. Would humans be male and female in heaven? If so, would resurrected humans have all of the “parts” they had on earth? If so, would those parts have the same functions as on earth? Would sexual desire persist? Sexual intercourse? Marriage? Petrey’s collection of thinkers answered “yes” to some of those questions,” especially the first two. No primal androgyny for these thinkers.

The author of On the Resurrection (traditionally, Justin Martyr) argued that Christians would be resurrected with all bodily parts (and thus with sexual differentiation), but without sexual desire or intercourse. Celestial humans would in this respect resemble mules. Yes, “Pseudo-Justin” made that not entirely flattering analogy, noting noting that mules — like virgins, in some respects at least — retained sexual parts, but without sexual intercourse. Ideally, men and women on earth would achieve this sort of resurrected body in advance of immortality, by embracing virginity.

By contrast, the unknown author of the Treatise on the Resurrection believed in a “spiritual” resurrection that included bodily parts (of spirit, rather than flesh). Because of its temporality, flesh for this writer was antithetical to immortality. Other early Christians, including Origen, also believed in the resurrection of a spiritual body.

Athenagoras approached the matter of the resurrection eschatologically. The body has to be resurrected in order for a person to be fairly judged by God. It would be unfair for God to judge a soul decoupled from its body, which Athenagoras believed would continue in all of its parts, including those used on earth for the purpose of reproduction. Athenagoras did not see earthly sexual desire (and monogamous, married intercourse) as incompatible with mortal virtue, but he believed that they would not persist in the resurrection.

Finally, we come to the views of Irenaeus (in Against Heresies) and Tertullian (in several treatises). According to Petrey, For Irenaeus sexuality is the single “thing that most clearly distinguishes mortality from immortality.” In order to make sense of Paul’s comment about “flesh and blood,” Irenaeus argued — in Petrey’s summary — that the resurrection purged “all that is fleshly from the flesh, including sexual desire.” Thus, flesh that was no longer fleshly would be redeemed. Just as a bridegroom desired a virginal bride, so God desired flesh that was made pure.

Tertullian argued that bodily parts persist, but freed from the power of sin and death. Tertullian even believed that spouses would be married in the resurrection, but without intercourse.

Along the way, Petrey argues that the way that Christians thought about the resurrection reflected their understanding of earthly hierarchies and ideals. For some, such as Tertullian, the flesh itself represented femaleness, the soul maleness. For some, the virginal resurrected body should inspire men and women to restrain passions and abstain from sex and marriage on earth.

In the end, most Christians who anticipated a bodily resurrection were deeply uncomfortable about the flesh. Tertullian, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, and Pseudo-Justin all affirmed the bodily resurrection. In some sense, the body would persist. Humans would receive heavenly, immutable, immortal flesh. But they insisted that those resurrected bodies would not experience desire, intercourse, or reproduction. Thus, they stripped much that was fleshly from their understanding of heavenly flesh. “In this sense,” Petrey concludes, “the advocates of the resurrection of the flesh were much more ambivalent about the flesh than their defense suggests.”

Paul scoffed at those who mocked his belief in the resurrection by asking “with what body do they come?” Yet that very question animated Christians who lived a century later, prompting many to conclude that resurrected men and would possess parts but not passions.

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