Tuesday, October 18, 2011

God Is God Of The Living

Many Christians are Platonists, at least in their view of the value of physicality and their understanding of the afterlife.  Platonism basically teaches that our physical bodies are simply shells that hold the divine Logos, and so, when we die, we are set free.  Naturally, as Christianity spread more and more into a non-Jewish world and culture, Platonism married itself to Christianity, becoming full-blown Gnosticism by the second century.  I'm fairly certain Christianity has never fully recovered.

Where we still see the effects of this in the present state of the Church is in how many Christians still define almost anything physical as bad and anything spiritual (usually defined as exclusively non-physical) as good.  Also, Christians heavily influenced by Platonism define the future life promised in Jesus as a non-physical existence.  Finally, such Christians tend to read Plato into Paul, and end up with rather warped views of all Paul's writings, especially regarding what Paul means by flesh, soul, and spirit (in the Greek sarx, psuche, and pneuma respectively).

Anyhow, here's  what got me thinking about this today.  In Mark chapter nine we read the story of the transfiguration.  Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up onto a mountain, and there Jesus is transformed before their eyes.  As icing on the cake, Moses and Elijah also appear.  Now, when I was taught this story as a child I just assumed that Moses and Elijah were phantoms of some sort, something more than a ghost but somehow less than physical.  I can't say why I thought this, per se, but none of my teachers (at least as far as I can remember now) ever actually said they were physically there.  I assume, in hind sight, that this was because no one else assumed there was such a thing as a physical afterlife.  With Moses, this didn't present a problem.  After all, we have the story of where he went to die, but Elijah was a bit more tricky.  Elijah was taken to God in a chariot of fire, so what happened to his body?  I remember some telling me that only he and Enoch still had bodies, but most seemed to assume that once he got to God, God replaced his physical body with something less physical and more spiritual.

Here's the thing...the story of the transfiguration doesn't say their ghosts appeared or that Jesus had Star Wars hologram technology that allowed him to communicate with them as if they were there.  The story says they were there.  Alive and well.  I can't help but think back to Matthew where the Sadducees attempted to corner Jesus with a trick question about resurrection, and Jesus's final response was,

'...Have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  He is God not of the dead, but of the living." -Matthew 22:31b-32

Ghosts aren't alive.  Phantoms aren't either.  If you cut through the clutter, people tend to have a rather narrow definition for what being "alive" means, and it's an exclusively physical reality.  Being alive, in the human sense, doesn't mean to exist.  It means to be alive, but with the exception of one, life has never been the final chapter of human existence.  Death always seems to win.

And that explains Peter, James, and John's confusion about what Jesus meant on the way down the mountain.  When he told them about resurrection, and seemed to be saying that he would physically return, it was understandably confusing to them.  If Platonism's continual presence in Christianity is any indication, it is still confusing to us.  But, Jesus was not a Platonist.  Neither were Peter, James, John, or Paul.  At the core of Christian hope is the expectant waiting for death to be done away with once and for all.  On that day, those who have died will come back to life, and those of us still alive will have our mortality replaced with immortality, and both of those will very much be a physical reality.

Is it any wonder the Gnostics had a hard time accepting what Jesus said at face value?  Is it any wonder why our present culture thinks the idea of resurrection is any less nuts?  But be that as it may, I am not a Platonist.  My hope is in the God of the living.  I will die, as we all do, but I will not stay dead forever.

Stopping point: Mark 9

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