Resurrected Love: The Death and Life of the Body

by Kyle A. Pasewark

Kyle A. Pasewark teaches religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is the author of A Theology of Power: Being Beyond Domination (Fortress).

This article appeared in The Christian Century April 10, l996, pp. 404-407. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy


The author provides an extended review of a book that describes how patristic and medieval thinkers dealt with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The reviewer calls it “a jewel among current intellectual endeavors.”

The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336.. By Caroline Walker Bynum. Columbia University Press, 368 pp., $29.95.


Caroline Walker Bynum concludes The Resurrection of the Body with this judgment on a millennium of Christian theologians: "We may not find their solutions plausible, but it is hard to. feel that they got the problem wrong." In this remarkable study, Bynum explores literary images, artistic depictions, doctrines and social contexts in which Christians affirmed bodily resurrection. She focuses on the period from 200 to 1336, the year Pope Benedict XII declared that souls experience beatific vision with the resurrection yet to come.

Bynum, who teaches at Columbia University, conducts her detailed, sympathetic treatment of patristic and medieval understandings according to the most honorable canons of historical research. But her interest is also personal. She dedicates this book to her father and daughter "because my love. for them lies at the heart of my confidence that there is, in some sense, survival and even resurrection." Bynum does not claim to know exactly what earlier understandings of bodily resurrection say to us, but she intuits that they tell us something if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Part of Bynum's aim, then, is to reawaken our senses. Current notions resurrection are maddeningly insubstantial affirmations proffered with"acute embarrassment":

Thoughts of "life after death" still conjure up for most people some notion of a disembodied soul flying, rather forlornly through pearly gates and golden streets. Preachers and theologians (especially Protestants) pride themselves on avoiding body-soul dualism, but pious talk at funerals is usually of the departed person surviving as a vague, benign spirit or as a thought in the memories of others.

The conventional wisdom about the early church is that it was dualistic, that it denied, even hated, the body. Why then, Bynum asks, did the early church -- and not we who supposedly have discovered the significance of the body and renounced all dualism -- reflect so intently on the resurrection of the body? Her conclusion is refreshing and painstakingly demonstrated: "Despite its suspicion of flesh and lust, Western Christianity did not hate or discount the body. Indeed, person was not person without the body." In addition, we, more than the early church, regard the body as significant primarily as a "locus of sexuality," whereas "for most of Western history the body was understood primarily as the locus of biological process."

What was it about "biological process" that stimulated concern for the resurrected body? Change. By the end of the second century, particularly in the context of martyrdom, the issue of resurrection centered on the question of the identity of the earthly body and the resurrected body to come. In what way were these the same body?

The problem was particularly pressing because the earthly body was subject to decay -- indeed it was decay. The decaying corpse was the paradigmatic biological process and the telos of all change. Christian thinkers of the late second century followed in the path of those ancient philosophers for whom "change was the ontological scandal." Their concern was to assure the identity of the resurrected and the earthly body so as to overcome the body's mutability. Resurrection's victory over death had to be a triumph over putrefaction, the scattering of the martyred body, consumption of the dead body by other animals, and even the dread of cannibalism. By the end of the second century, the resurrection of the body meant the resurrection of the flesh.

"Body" and "flesh" are not necessarily the same. Focus on the body's material identity highlights two themes. First, the interest in bodily resurrection demonstrates that Christians understood the person as composed of soul and body, not primarily as soul. If the personality were located in the soul the wasting body would present no special problem; one could even view bodily degeneration as the condition for the soul's freedom. Bynum contends that this was never the position of Western catholic or Eastern patristic theology.

During this millennium the fundamental significance of the body remains constant. Resurrection is never reduced to a question of the soul. Bynum maintains that even the beatific vision of the soul (separated from the body), affirmed by Benedict, occurs only after the soul is endowed with the specificity and particularity that had previously been associated with body. It is possible to think about the beatified soul partly because (especially in the work of women mystics and Bonaventure, and in light of the practice of dismemberment of the saints for dispersion into reliquaries) "a new use of synecdoche throbs with enthusiasm for body and for all that to which body gives us access. Bodily part becomes body; body and soul become each other; body manifests self." The moment of apparent triumph for the disembodied soul is almost the reverse: the soul becomes bodylike.

Second, the emphasis on identity tends to conflict with the original Christian expression of resurrection in 1 Corinthians: Paul's image of the earthly body as the seed of the heavenly body. This image does not emphasize identity or the continuity or sameness of the fleshy material. Although, or even because, the natural body decays, the "spiritual" body, which is not "flesh and blood," rises "in incorruption." Change is not excluded but presupposed. The Pauline image stresses the transformation of a living, changing organism. By the late second century, a mounting fear of deteriorative change and a corresponding stress on material continuity led the church to mute Paul's language. The transformative possibilities of Paul's imagery are canceled in favor of images of the resurrected body as a mended pot, a rebuilt temple or clothing donned anew. Fear of organic process produces preference for inorganic pictures of the resurrected body which are grafted uneasily onto Paul's organic imagery. This conflict between organic and inorganic resurrection plays through the next millennium. Bynum allows us to see that doctrinal confusions, indecisions and oppositions are grounded in a clash of images.

In the patristic and medieval churches generally, restorative inorganic versions of resurrection consistently win out over transformational, organic ones. By the early fifth century, resurrection is understood in increasingly literal ways. By the 12th century, Bynum maintains, Western thought reached its materialistic and literalistic apogee. Pauline language about what was sown in corruption being raised incorruptible is generally understood to mean that the material bits of this body are replaced and rendered incorruptible in the resurrected body.

Eucharistic theology provides part of the support for this position as early as the late second century, and continues to do so through the 12th century. Eucharistic eating reverses the usual process of nutrition. Normally, digestion transforms consumed food into the property and being of the consumer; in contrast, the body of Christ begins to change its consumer into Christ's incorruption.

Images of transformation do not disappear. Although the dominant mode of conception of the resurrection body is in terms of material continuity and reassembly, differing views abound. Bynum does not impose uniformity where she does not find it, and generally she does not find it. Bynum refuses to lead us on a unilinear path toward a conclusion that we can either laud or decry. Instead, she presents a tangle of positions, hesitations and inconsistencies that helps us feel the darkness through which theology, art and society found uneven, uncertain paths.

Thinkers not only disagreed with one another but apparently were unable to make up their own minds about the resurrected body. In their desire to remain faithful to all facets of the problem and to scriptural and traditional texts, theologians from Tertullian to Lombard sought to incorporate images of transformation even as they struggled to show that the earthly body and the resurrected body were in some sense the same. Moreover, although it is true that materialistic representations dominated the theological and artistic landscape, some theologians attempted to keep transformative conceptions at the forefront of Christian thought by emphasizing the continuing potentiality of the body. Origen, for example, prefers seed imagery to the common metaphor of the statue; Dante and Aquinas stress growth and development of body and soul. Tradition spoke with many voices.

Advocates of the reassembly of particles spoke forcefully, though their assertions took many forms, ranging from claims that bits of matter are replaced precisely as they were in life, to Augustine's hypothesis that although matter need not serve the same function or be placed identically in the resurrected body, the matter itself is nonetheless identical. Concern with material continuity also fed theological and artistic speculation about the fate of cut fingernails and hair, the condition and presence of genitals, the age and stature of the resurrected body, the bodies of the saints, the fate of relics, whether bodies in hell are reassembled as completely as those given eternal life and how and whether digested body parts are regurgitated at the resurrection.

Attention to such matters strikes the modem reader as bizarre. Yet Bynum adeptly draws us into the universe of early and medieval thought so that by the end of her book we question less why earlier figures considered these issues seriously than why we do not. She makes the problem of bodily resurrection increasingly vital --emotionally, cognitively and ethically.

Our emotional attachment to this flesh is easy to understand. Whatever pains, agonies and violations we experience, however our bodies betray us, our bodies are still the ones we love and which we hope can be perfected despite decay and infidelity. Our bodies and the bodies of others are, after all, the only bodies we know.

Theologically, the demise of the body poses a basic challenge to God's omnipotence. If God cannot redeem the body that is so central to personal integrity, then God's victory over death is partial and relatively feeble. Resurrection and divine power are indissolubly linked. God must vanquish not only death but the ontological structures of change and time that make death inevitable. For Augustine, for example, spiritual rebirth is possible here and now -- one does not need resurrection for that. One does need resurrection to overcome the ontology of destruction that is so obviously presented in the body. We can conceive of moral and spiritual improvement throughout our lietime, but after a point we cannot rationally believe that our bodies will improve. God saves bodily rebirth for the end of time, as the final triumphal stake through death's heart. It was early Christians' refusal of dualism, their demand that God redeem the whole person, that forced on them the question of bodily resurrection.

Ethically, because the body was the center of personal particularity and difference, it was vital for early Christians that this flesh, which bears the marks of persecution, suffering, sainthood and merit in general, be preserved and perfected in the resurrection. Bynum claims not only that the church was not dualistic about body and soul, but that it stressed the importance of human difference and particularity. Far from being an "otherworldly" concern, concentration on the resurrected body insisted that what mattered on earth mattered in heaven, that "a rose cannot be a lily even in paradise." The beauty of earthly merit was preserved eternally. Heaven and earth kissed.

Indeed, the suspicion that less material imagery could not guarantee the exhibition of this merit throughout eternity helped generate opposition to transformative, organic conceptions. William of La Mare and others objected to Aquinas's approach largely because of "a suspicion that his view of the soul as a single, substantial, intellective form limits soul's ability to know, and to suffer, and to contain (so to speak) our individuality." Throughout the period Bynum considers, greater stress on materiality brought attention to difference in its wake.

Of course, making eternal differences correspond to earthly ones has its drawbacks, and Bynum is not blind to them. Although she does not argue that all thought is but clever ideological cover for oppressing one or another social group, she is aware that the belief that earthly hierarchical differences are perpetuated in eternity legitimizes those earthly distinctions, both just and unjust. But there is reason to be meek in our criticism of the early and medieval worlds. They too sought to avoid dualism; they too appreciated difference. Even our treasured understanding of the "individual as unique -- valued yet opaque and unknowable because (in the currently fashionable term) 'other'. . . is informed by hundreds of years of puzzlement over embodiment."

Nevertheless, the world Bynum so lovingly presents is, for the most part, lost to us. We cannot adopt patristic and medieval solutions as they stand. The contemporary inclination to do away with all differences in eternity in favor of egalitarian conceptions of external life (an outcome of 16th-century Protestant understandings of the spiritual body) has encouraged us to abandon serious reflection on the notion of bodily resurrection. Most important, we no longer view change as the ontological scandal. Change is now presumed to be good until proven otherwise. Stasis, tradition and the past now need defense. Our paradigm of human change is not the decaying corpse but the vital, growing, beautiful, perfect televised body.

Yet in our most private recesses, and despite our culture's efforts to deny it, we know that decay, death and putrefaction await our bodies and the bodies of all those we love. The benefits of change cannot obscure this elementary fact. Thus, the question of resurrection has not disappeared entirely. Films such as Ghost and Dead Again are efforts to remove the sting from even the most violent terminations of the body, assuring us that we shall be again what we once were. Like medieval representations, these images are materialistic, literalistic promises of perfection. In both films, moreover, evil's fate is exactly what it was in medieval art -- dismemberment of the body.

The themes that Bynum identifies continue to shape not only the conceptions of resurrection but our own broader religious and cultural life. Bynum points to at least two continuing difficulties in our culture. First, we have dissociated our earthly lives from our final destinies. The close marriage of heaven and earth that Bynum describes meant that religion was as much a matter of earthly life as heavenly joy. For good or ill, what one did and experienced would be preserved in the resurrected body. We, however, often view religion as helpful only in answering (often quite arbitrarily) questions of how we can reach eternal blessedness, not how we might live better while we are here. What the patristic and medieval worlds joined, we have torn asunder.

On the other hand, we unite what they did not. Difference is significant to us as it was for earlier Christians; but unlike them, we try to yoke difference with egalitarian conceptions of heaven and earth. It is worth asking whether our contemporary social egalitarianism is derived from the Protestant denial of differences in the intensity of the eternal vision of God. In any event, we have departed from medievals, but only partway. This half-leave has put us in a peculiar position; in our political and social life we seem to swing wildly between desires for full egalitarianism and rigidly hierarchical authority. Moreover, we tend to spiritualize both hierarchy and egalitarianism. We fail to connect these concepts to bodies wounded by hierarchy, or to the material differences between people regarded formally as equals. Whether our quandary is soluble remains to be seen. For their part, the patristics and medievals, justly and unjustly, and despite their juggling of other contradictions, resolutely refused to detach questions of difference, hierarchy, destiny and change from the body. They got the problem, right.

Resurrection of the Body is a jewel among current intellectual endeavors. Bynum takes the histories of thought and society (and their relation) seriously and on their own terms. In addition, she asks us if we have the courage to face this strangest of all Christian doctrines. We have hardly begun to make sense of it. To begin, we will have to think seriously about the value of change, the nature of the body and the significance of difference.

Bynum has provided indispensable aid to any investigation of bodily resurrection, whether historical or theological. She has made the task both easier and more difficult. If the luminaries of the past are not sufficient for us, if they too are internally inconsistent and perplexed, we must still use their lights to make our way. At the same time, Bynum has opened our ears to tones of beauty long unheard, opened our eyes to a more expansive and lovely vision of the body, and opened our hearts to the desire for body and the hope that the body -- despite decay and death-might remain integral to the beauty of the person.