How we treat the bodies of the dead says a lot about what we believe. But do our beliefs square with Scripture?
I told "BreakPoint" listeners about a series of exhibitions entitled "Body Worlds." Perhaps you've heard of it. Through a technique he calls "plastination," a German doctor named Gunther Von Hagens, is able to pose corpses in whatever way suits him.
At the time I pointed out the connection between Von Hagens' atheism and the blatant disregard for human dignity on display in his ghoulish exhibits.
According to Wired magazine, Von Hagens, for reasons of health, is no longer involved in the plastination process, and the future of the company he founded, Plastinarium, is also uncertain.
But we're still left with the erroneous ideas about the human body that his art represents in his ghoulish exhibit called "Body Worlds."
As you pay attention to what is being said both outside and inside the church, you will see that, despite their protests and squeamishness, most people hold a similar view of our bodies.
Many of our contemporaries, like the fictional Klingons of Star Trek fame, view the body as nothing more than an empty shell. Now, unlike the Klingons, they don't look into the deceased's eyes and howl, but they sometimes do leave teddy-bears and flowers and listen to sappy Elton John songs. But in both instances, the respect paid to the dead is for their memory and not for the bodies they once "occupied."
To put it simply, this is the antithesis of Christian teaching. As N. T. Wright has pointed out, two of the things that most distinguished Christians from their pagan neighbors were their sexual restraint and their respect for the dead.
As the historian Robert Louis Wilken has written, the Romans saw the early Christians as a kind of burial society. The famed catacombs were not places where Christians hid from persecution, but tunnels they dug to bury and care for their dead. Christian excavators known as fossors dug nearly two miles of tunnels so that Christians could do right by the bodies of the faithful departed.
This extraordinary care was rooted in their belief in the resurrection of the body. As Wright has often pointed out, early Christians rarely spoke about "going to heaven," although they believed that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. What they spoke about was our bodily resurrection. They believed that just as God raised Jesus's body from the dead, He will someday raise our bodies, too.
In the end, death will be defeated and the goodness of God's creation will be fully realized. How this will work is a mystery. Wright uses the term "transphysical" to characterize Jesus' resurrected body, which shared both continuities and discontinuities with His pre-resurrection body. His disciples could recognize Him, but He could also walk through closed doors! Something similar will be true of us, as well. As Paul says, the "perishable [will put] on the imperishable, and the mortal [will put] on immortality."
This belief meant, and still means, that how we treat our bodies, both in life and in death, matters. It's why, until relatively recently, Christians were buried facing east toward Jerusalem. God's purposes for our bodies don't end with our final breath. On the contrary, something infinitely more glorious awaits us.
Von Hagens and our contemporaries don't understand this. And unfortunately, many Christians don't, either.
Please come to BreakPoint.org, and we'll point you to some great resources on the Christian understanding of the resurrection of the body.