Sometimes when I ask people what it is they are looking forward to in heaven, they have surprisingly little to say. “It’s gonna be great!” and “I’m not going to be in pain anymore” are about as specific as it gets. When I ask, “Are we going to eat, play, make art, or make love?” it sounds scandalous. I now think that we have such trouble imagining heaven, because we have made heaven a place exclusively for disembodied souls. Since none of us knows what a disembodied life looks like, we can’t really anticipate or work toward heaven. What could we possibly do in heaven if our bodies are dead in the ground?
…we have made heaven a place exclusively for disembodied souls.
The idea that heaven is a place for disembodied souls is not a Christian teaching. Christians affirm the “resurrection of the body” rather than the “immortality of the soul,” because the soul’s immortality represents a rejection of the logic of love, whereas the body’s resurrection represents love’s strongest affirmation. To be confused about the difference between resurrection and immortality is to fail to understand the radical nature of love’s way of life.
The idea that human beings have immortal souls runs deep in ancient thought, but its most influential expression comes from Socrates. Socrates taught that a human being is a duality: a material body and an immaterial soul. Bodies are places of imperfection, suffering, transience, decay, sickness, and death. Though we may relish youthful bodies for their strength, beauty, and endurance, the fact is that everyone’s body falls apart and becomes a growing source of misery as it gets old. We only need to visit a nursing facility for the elderly to appreciate how miserable embodied life can become. But even when people are young, they spend a lot of time and resources worrying about whether they look good. Thinking oneself unattractive or ugly is the source of so much personal pain.
Moreover, bodies are the cause of far too much trouble as people seek to fulfill their desires for sex, wealth, power, comfort, or fame. How many women daily undergo the degradations of pornographic desires? How much conflict and how many wars are the result of people seeking to get more for themselves? Will we go so far as to destroy our lands and waters, so that we can enjoy cheap, convenient food? On so many fronts we can see that the quest to satisfy a body’s desires is an invitation to turmoil and destruction. Bodies are, in the end, evil.
It isn’t that hard, therefore, to appreciate why Socrates taught that we should give no attention or devotion to a body’s appetites. Instead, we should focus our minds on philosophical pursuits that train us away from this world and toward an eternal realm of unchanging truth, goodness, and beauty. Death is actually a happy thing, provided one has been a good philosopher, because death is the moment when the soul is finally freed from its wearisome body and released to enter an ethereal realm of spiritual bliss.
Socrates lived his message. While waiting in prison to die, knowing that his death was imminent, he was calmly composing poetry. Though his friends and disciples wept and wailed, he was happy anticipating his future life. Socrates could not wait to leave this material world and its life, because they are only a vale of trouble and tears. The best life couldn’t really begin until death freed the soul to live its immortal life. It is little wonder that, facing death calmly as he did, Socrates has been an inspiration to so many people.
Body-soul dualism is a profoundly anti-Christian teaching, because it pronounces evil and despicable what God has made good. No Christian should denounce bodies, because each body is God’s love made visible, tactile, audible, fragrant, and nutritious. Divine love does not ever abandon material reality, because matter is itself the embodiment of love. Clearly, bodies do become the source of pain and frustration, decay and death, but the response should not be one of Socratic despising and abandonment.
Body-soul dualism is a profoundly anti-Christian teaching, because it pronounces evil and despicable what God has made good.
As the life and ministry of Jesus show, the appropriate and most faithful response to a hurt body is to heal it, to a lonely body to touch it, to a hungry body to feed it, to a demon-possessed body to exorcise it and fill it with a life-giving, love-promoting spirit. If Christians were supposed to despise embodiment and all the mess and complication that embodiment necessarily entails, then they would also have to reject the claim that God fully entered into and identified with the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth. But this they cannot do, because as John’s gospel famously puts it, Jesus the eternal Word “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). God does not despise flesh. Instead, God inhabits it so as to heal it from within and lead it into fullness of life.
Jesus’s approach to material bodies is the mirror opposite of Socrates’s. This is why Jesus does not welcome death (or sickness or hunger or defilement or loneliness). Any power that attacks or degrades bodily life is an attack on the love of God. God’s response to the violent attack on a body is not to free the soul from it, leaving the body behind to waste away. Instead, it is to resurrect Christ’s tortured and crucified body to new life, the sort of life in which death and degradation no longer have dominating roles, and then to present that new embodied life to the world as the physical evidence and promise of the life it has yet to receive and enjoy.
Material bodies are not incidental to faith, nor are they to be excluded from heaven. They are the medium through which faith is worked out and love is realized. Nothing God has made is beside the point or to be despised. Instead, creatures are to be gratefully received and enjoyed, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Nothing will be forgotten either, which is why, in the end, all things in heaven and on earth will be gathered up in Christ and then reconciled, so that God’s love can be “all in all” (Ephesians 1:23; 4:6).
This is another way of saying that the ultimate goal of the whole creation is for every creature to be so suffused and empowered by Jesus’s love that its life is an unending witness to the ways of peace and joy. When God’s love is “all in all,” life is pure enjoyment and delight, because every relationship is one of nurture and care. Try to imagine what life would be like if everything and everyone who touched you sought only your good. That would be something like the life of heaven.
Norman Wirzba is a professor of theology and ecology at Duke University Divinity School and a pioneer of scholarly work on religion, philosophy, ecology, and agrarianism. He is also the author of five books, his latest of which is Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity, from which this article was excerpted (© 2016 by Norman Wirzba). Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.