Perhaps you don’t know what early Christians thought about resurrection, but the question of what distinguishes the resurrected from the undead can lead to very interesting reflections about the way we think about the world.
I often hear Christians talk about the “afterlife” as a supernatural state in which our immaterial “spirits” simply go on living forever and ever. According to our contemporary understanding of Christianity (and other Abrahamic religions), the soul is supposed to exist without a body and move on to a “higher” realm (often called heaven) that is putatively beyond our daily material world. Yet most are unaware that this wasn’t the view that the early Christians, the original disciples of the Christ, and Jesus himself held!
In fact, the idea of the body-soul duality and the proclamation that what transcends is an immortal immaterial spirit comes from the pagan tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, most famously from Plato. Indeed, the real Christian account of resurrection is not the same as the idea of the immortality of the soul.
Plato And The Early Christians
Plato thought that we are all souls trapped in a physical body. According to him, the body is a prison, a confine that stops the soul from ascending into the realm of pure forms, where plain immutable truth is to be found. Our current ever-changing world of senses and impressions is but an illusion, an imperfect copy of a higher world. This idea seemed attractive to many, and Plato was enormously influential in the ancient world, so some later Christians, most notably Augustine of Hippo (354 AD), took Plato’s ideas and “baptized them” into Christianity centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, what the early Christians actually believed wasn’t that upon resurrection a non-bodily substance would rise to the heavens, but that the whole body (flesh, bones and all) would be reconstituted after death. To quote directly from the Bible:
Thus says the Lord GOD to the bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 37:5-6).
Jesus of Nazareth as an Undead
Surely, our contemporary idea of the undead seems, by these standards, closer to the original view of resurrection that the early Christians held than the notion of the rise of the soul. Their view applied to the material body, its flesh and bones actually rising from the grave or being reassembled by God. Of course, there’s more to say about resurrection, for when all that remains from us is dust, not even the bones are there to be revived. Resurrection ultimately involves the transformation of the body, but there is a body nonetheless (rather than a bodiless substance). Such a body is supposed to be everlasting, so the kind of mechanism it involves is unclear.
If we define “undead” as a being (fictional or otherwise) once deceased whose body behaves as living, then that means Jesus of Nazareth would be history’s most influential undead. A funny thought, for sure, but there’s more behind the analogy. In fact, I raise this issue not so much to declare Jesus a zombie, but rather to put forward an important question. Indeed, there are several ways in which Christian apologists could refine the definitions so as to avoid embarrassment, but that’s not the point at all.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Instead, my intention is to go back to Plato through a reformulation of a dilemma. In his famous dialogue Euthyphro, while Socrates and the title character are discussing the definition of piety and justice, Socrates asks a question that has echoed for centuries up to our day regarding morality. He inquires, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This has been called the Euthyphro Dilemma, and is supposed to put into question the idea that God is needed for there to be morality.
You see, if the moral is only moral because it is favored by God, then God doesn’t favor what’s intrinsically moral, but only afterwards makes moral that which She favors. Thus, there are other reasons for God’s favor which have nothing to do with morality. On the other hand, if God loves what is moral because it is moral, then whether something is good has nothing to do with God. So, either morality has nothing to do with God, or morality is stipulated for non-moral reasons. Both conclusions are somewhat repulsive for people of faith.
The Blur Between the Monstrous and the Divine
There is an analogous dilemma to question where the line is drawn between monstrosity and divinity. Concretely, are the resurrected “natural” because God wills it so, or does God wills it so because they are natural? If it’s the latter, then there must be a reason, independent from God’s will, why our typical undead (think of zombies, mummies, vampires and so on) are monstrous and Jesus isn’t.
If it’s the former, then there’s no principle, beyond God’s unknowable whims, by which we could reliably distinguish the monstrous from the divine: for all we know, everything we consider to be monstrous could in fact be divine and vice versa, and there’s no clear way in which we could ever separate the two. In short, we have no good reason for believing our resurrection would be divine rather than monstrous, or that, if we see a zombie on the streets (or on TV fiction), we should deem it a monster rather than a miracle.
The Confusion Between the Natural and the Unnatural
It’s a good thing there’s (likely) no divinity or monstrosity as such in reality. But that doesn’t mean this question couldn’t possibly be relevant. Since many people do argue about what should or shouldn’t be allowed in terms of what is or isn’t “natural,” to actually posses a principled way in which we could know what qualifies as natural would be important. I know of no such way. Certainly, God’s will cannot possibly be our criterion, since even if there were a God, we simply don’t have a principled way of knowing Her will.
It’s an interesting idea on which to reflect whenever you hear someone argue against certain behaviors by calling them “unnatural,” especially when they talk about religion and believe in the existence of supernatural beings (such as angels and gods). How could we possibly know what distinguishes them from the “monstrous” acts they condemn?
Regardless of the answer, the idea of Jesus as an undead gives us a good excuse to combine Christmas and Halloween far more intimately than we ever realized. So, happy Hallomas!
(I’m sure there’s a better fusion of these terms. Think about it and leave it on the comments!)