On my youthful eschatological fear of Crocodiles: Some thoughts on the Resurrection of the Dead
And then one day the unthinkable happened. Our pastor was called as a missionary to South Africa, which meant that his two children – my friends – would be moving to a land where there actually were crocodiles. This led to two things: 1) excitement that they would be able to send me a postcard of a crocodile from South Africa (which they duly did), and 2) the great fear that my friends could possibly be eaten by a crocodile (a fear which, however, was not great enough to cancel out the importance of the postcard request).
At that age I had no real concept of violence and suffering. Yet, I did have a real concept of something else, something which made my being-eaten-by-a-crocodile fear very important for me. And what was this? It was the resurrection of the dead. For you see this was my crocodile fear: if you got eaten by a crocodile, how would you get out of the crocodile at the resurrection. (As I’ve said, I was very young, so the intervening death of the crocodile, never mind any other unpleasant consequences of being eaten, didn’t feature at all in my thinking: for me it was all a question of how you would get out of the crocodile’s tummy.) So perturbed was I about the possible fate of my friends – missing out on the resurrection because of getting eaten by a crocodile – that I had no other choice but to ask my father about this dilemma.
I don’t remember exactly what my father said. However, he evidently gave me a good gospel answer which removed my crocodile fears and gave me a much better understanding of the resurrection of the dead. (My father was good at that: he could simply have told me not to be silly thinking my friends were going to be eaten by a crocodile, but instead he pointed me to the gospel and to what the Bible says. It wasn’t all that often as a young child that I had great theological dilemmas to ask my father about, but in each of the instances I can remember he always pointed me to the gospel and to the Bible. Perhaps that explains something about my approach to theology today!)
So, anyway, as a result, my eschatological fear of crocodiles is gone. But I was thinking about it, as a question was raised yesterday about cremation or the loss of limbs in relation to the resurrection of the dead. Although those are, in all likelihood, much more normal issues than my crocodile fear, they all really boil down to the same question: if our bodies, in whole or in part, are lost or destroyed before the resurrection, how will they be raised?
In part, this question is raised by the historic preference of the Christian church for burial over cremation. Historically that was the case: when the gospel reached places like Britain, burial replaced cremation along with the spread of the gospel. Why? Because burial was a witness to our sure and certain hope of the resurrection. By burying the body, rather than destroying it, the first British Christians were saying that the body still mattered; that Christ hadn’t abandoned it, but that one day they would see the full redemption of the body at the resurrection when Jesus returns. Burial was a testimony to the fact that the Christian hope is not merely life after death for our souls in heaven, but rather we look forward to the day when we will dwell with Christ in our resurrected bodies – as fully saved persons – here on the new earth, in the restored and glorified creation. That’s why Christians have always preferred burial to cremation.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that all Christians are buried. Some are cremated. But that doesn’t put an end to their resurrection hope. For if it did, then suddenly salvation would be down to human works: our resurrection life would depend on what provision we had made for our funerals, or on what someone else decided to do with our bodies. But salvation isn’t down to human works: salvation is of the Lord. Salvation relies only on God’s grace to us in Jesus. So what happens to our bodies after we die isn’t going to affect that in any way. Whether we are buried, cremated, or eaten by a crocodile, we will still be raised bodily on that last day. Whether we are buried, cremated, or eaten by a crocodile, our bodies are still united to Christ as the await the day of resurrection.
What can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand? Nothing. Not even the destruction of our body. Not even a crocodile! So yes, I hope to be buried – and if anyone in my flock were to ask for my advice that’s what I’d recommend – but not because it will make my resurrection any more secure: simply because it speaks of faith in the resurrection of the dead.
But whether our bodies decay in the ground or are destroyed in the flames, the God who spoke the world into being from nothing will have no trouble in raising them on the last day. He doesn’t abandon us (and we include our bodies). We will still be united to Christ. And Christ will have no trouble putting us back together.
Yet, not only do the omnipotent power of Almighty God, the efficacy of His Word, and our union with Christ guarantee to us that God can and will raise our bodies, no matter their condition, but the Scriptures also explicitly state this truth. Job confesses his trust in Christ his Redeemer saying:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,He explicitly says that this seeing Jesus with his eyes will be ‘after [his] skin is destroyed.’ So, after his body is no more, God will bring it back together in raising Job from the dead, so that he will see his Saviour in his own flesh, with his own eyes. It really will be Job who will see Jesus, ‘not another.’
And He shall stand at last on the earth;
And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
That in my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
Another Scripture that points in the same direction is in Hebrews 11:17-19 where we're told that Abraham was willing to offer Isaac on Mount Moriah, trusting that 'God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.' Yet in Genesis 22:2, the LORD had told Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. So that means that Abraham was trusting God to raise Isaac from the dead, despite the destruction of the body.
Finally, God in addition to His power and His Word, God gives us a pledge here and now of this truth. What pledge is this you ask? Well, if you look in the treatments of the resurrection of the dead by the older theologians you’ll see that they like to discuss how the sacraments are a pledge to us now of our bodily resurrection.
We do tend to link the Lord’s Supper with Christ’s return (for we ‘do this until He comes’), but yet it also speaks of our physical, bodily resurrection with Him. How? Because we see the visible sign of our union with Christ in baptism and we are fed with the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. How will Christ abandon the body which He has fed with His own flesh and blood? Jesus explicitly makes the connection between the sacrament and our resurrection in John 6:54: ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ Turretin puts it like this:
Since our bodies were made temples of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19) and have already begun to be glorified by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, it cannot be that they should perish and vanish into thin air, but they must forever remain the sanctuaries of the Holy Ghost. To this also they are consecrated by the use of the sacraments, when in baptism the symbol of burial and resurrection with Christ is given and in the Supper we are fed with heavenly food, which perishes not, but abides unto everlasting life. (Turretin, Institutes, Vol. 3, p.567 – and there’s more on this theme on p.573)So, there we go. No need to fear crocodiles, for because of the omnipotent power of Almighty God, the efficacy of His Word, our union with Christ, the express statement of Scripture, and the pledge given to us now in the sacraments, we can rest assured that, no matter what happens to our bodies, Christ will raise us bodily from the dead at His return. This is the sure and certain hope of the resurrection: Christ has risen, and therefore we who belong to Him will be raised with Him to dwell with Him forever.