Thursday, December 21, 2006

Paul and the Spiritual Body

Don, a professor of Old Testament literature is in his home, having a discussion with Paul the apostle, who—somehow—is visiting from the first century.

Don: One thing that has always confused me, Paul, is the phrase “spiritual body.” What could that possibly mean?

Paul: (Pulling out his New Testament in Greek) Ummm, where is that?

Don: I Corinthians 15… verse 44.

Paul: (Thumbing through pages) Your English is so confusing. What is “First Corinthians”? Of course, I understand, it is supposed to be the first letter I wrote to the Corinthians. What the scholars wouldn’t give to obtain the Real first letter I wrote to the Corinthians. It said, “Stephanos, tell Timothy to come to me as soon as he is able.” That was all. I don’t know which letter this is, but it certainly isn’t the first. Ah, here we are. Oh, yes. (Paul shakes his head.) Those Corinthians. Mind you, it wasn’t all of them. Most of them were simple Christians—as if anything was simple in those days! Every correction I made had to be corrected three more times before a balance was reached! So, anyhow, a group of the Corinthians believed that once we die, it was simply a life in the realm of the spirit. Nothing else.

Don: You mean, they believed that when they die, they went to heaven?

Paul: Not just that. They believed that living in “heaven,” as you say, is all that there was. I couldn’t really blame them. Most people in the world believed the same thing in that day.

Don: Most people believed that when they died they went to heaven?

Paul: Well, they might define “heaven” differently from one another, but that’s pretty much correct. Most would have called it “hades” and it was the home that the souls of all people went to after they died. While there were descriptions of hades as a place with flame and torture, that was only one section of it reserved for the most evil of society. Most people certainly assumed that they would go to the other side of hades, “paradise” or, as you say, “heaven.”

Don: But isn’t heaven where God lives?

Paul: That’s how I used the language—heaven is the abode of God and the powers under God’s control, angels. I note, however, in the books you gave me that heaven is sometimes seen as a good place where the dead go. In our ancient idea, we called that place “hades” and God didn’t live there.

Don: So, you Christians didn’t believe that the good go to live with God after death.

Paul: Well, in a way. The souls of those attached to Jesus abide with Jesus, and we pray to him. But we never considered that “living”. That’s death. That certainly wasn’t our hope. Again, that group of Corinthians were content with that—souls living with God. But that’s like going before Caesar with no clothes on! (Paul shivers) Oh, I could just imagine facing down Nero like that!

Don: You met Nero?

Paul: Briefly. Just before my head was taken off.

Don: What was he like?

Paul: Imperial. Magnificent. He put on a brilliant show of power. He certainly had his court eating out of his hand. But his core was rotten.

Don: I’m really getting off the subject. I wanted to know about the phrase “spiritual body”?

Paul: Oh, yes, of course. I wrote “soma pneumatikon”. Same thing in the translation, but it’s that word “spirit” that I have so much trouble with.

Don: Why? You used it so much.

Paul: No, I used “pneuma” so much. Your English word “spirit” really means something different. You mean by a “spirit” something ethereal, not physical, like a gas, which is sometimes invisible. But for us, a “spirit” is something physical, just otherworldly.

Don: A “spirit” is physical?

Paul: Yes. For instance, you certainly know the story of Elisha and the army of Aram, yes? He could see the army of angels surrounding them, but they could not. So they were invisible. But when they blinded all of those soldiers, they were physical, in some sense, were they not? They were physical in some way, but their physicalness operated in a different way than ours does. Otherworldly, but still physical. And in my day, we called the angels “spirits”—otherworldly beings.

Don: I still don’t understand how “spiritual” could be “physical.”

Paul: It would be much better, in this context, if “spiritual” could be translated “otherworldly” or “cosmological” rather than “spiritual.” There was a group in the ancient world who used the term “pneuma” or “spirit” as you do today. They were called Platonists—followers of Plato, the lover of wisdom. Very small minority in the ancient world. He had so many crazy ideas, you know. Anyway, Plato and his followers divided reality between the spiritual and the physical, and the two ideas, to them, were completely inseparable. The realm of the spirit could not exist with the realm of the physical. But for most of us—whether Greek or Jew—we accepted the constant interrelationship of the spiritual and physical.

Don: But didn’t you say that the spirit could not co-exist with the flesh?

Paul: The flesh? Do you think that means the physical? Of course not. Jesus was completely caught up with the Spirit, but he was all physical, all human. The Spirit is that which comes from the other world by God to lead us in His way, so we can be completely spiritual. To live in the flesh is to live caught up in the structure and livelihoods of this world, with no real regard to the other world, where God reigns without limit. So the two ways of living I was contrasting in my letter to Rome was a life focused on the world of Jesus—the spirit, or a life focused on the world we currently live in—the flesh. Being physical or not physical has nothing to do with it. Giving your last food to the poor is very physical, but very otherworldly.

Don: So a “spiritual body” is just an otherworldly body?

Paul: Right. The resurrection works like this: Our this-world body is taken and it is transformed into an other-worldly body, operating on the physical rules of the spirit world.

Don: And Jesus had a spiritual body like this?

Paul: Yep. (Is that right? Yep is used for “yes” sometimes, right?)  This is why you can read that Jesus could just appear or disappear in rooms filled with people. When I saw Jesus…

Don: Well, didn’t you just have a vision of Jesus?

Paul: No, it wasn’t a vision! This is why I was the last of the initial group of apostles, because I was the last to see Jesus face to face and be sent by him. I saw the real, physical Jesus on my way to Damascus. I could hear his breath and he moved the ground beneath him. Anyway, when I saw him, he was bright, like one of your electric lights, but my companions couldn’t see him at all. Completely otherworldly. A truly spiritual experience.

Don: So what was wrong with the Corinthian idea? Didn’t they believe in a spiritual existence?

Paul: Not spiritual, non-physical. They believed that the Christian hope was sufficient without having otherworldly bodies. Completely untrue! The Christian hope is not just living in heaven! If that is all it was, then I wouldn’t want it. I suppose if that’s all God gave me after death, that would be alright, but I would be gravely disappointed.

Don: Nice pun.

Paul: An ancient form of poetry, you know.

Don: Yep. So, anyway, Paul, what is the basis of the Christian hope?

Paul: Resurrection! Being raised in new, otherworldly bodies like Jesus was. Also, living to rule this world so we can create a world of justice and love, just like Jesus rules in heaven beside Abba Pater right now. That would make this world a part of the spirit world, but now it is all carnal, in rebellion against God’s ways. But we Christians don’t want just this half-life, some non-physical existence. That isn’t any real life. Real life is physical and spiritual. And God promises us this, for all the next age. But only if we are in King Jesus.

Related to this post is another blog, A Platonic Christian Worldview

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