The nature of the resurrection body
1. The God who raises the dead
For Calvin, there are two basic grounds for believing in the resurrection of the body: the historical resurrection of Christ and the power of God. (Institutes III:XXV:3). In Part 3, we looked at Calvin's teaching on Christ as the model and dynamic of the resurrection. See Part 4 for Calvin on the historicity of the empty tomb. Now we turn to what Calvin had to say on resurrection and the power of God and the nature of the resurrection body.
"We have said that in proving the resurrection our thoughts must be directed to the immense power of God." (III:XXV:4, and so for all quotes in this section). Interestingly, the first instance that Calvin gives of God's power to raise the dead is attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ. He quotes Paul's words about Jesus that he, "shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working of that mighty power whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself" (Philippians 3:21).
The resurrection of the body is not something that happens within the normal natural order. It is "an inestimable miracle, which by its magnitude absorbs our senses." There are analogies of the resurrection in nature. Paul makes the comparison with a "dead" seed that when sown in the ground produces a living crop (1 Corinthians 15:36). If we were attentive enough to see them, the wonders of the created order make belief in the resurrection of the body seem less unlikely. But they are not sufficient in themselves to convince us that our dead bodies will rise again, "let us remember that none is truly persuaded of the future resurrection save he who, carried away with admiration, gives God the glory."
Calvin cites several Old Testament texts that demonstrate the conviction that God raises the dead: "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, ye who dwell in the dust" (Isaiah 26:19). In God's hands are "the issues from death" (Psalm 73:20). The famous text in Job 19:25-27 is quoted as an example of the afflicted man's trust in the resurrection power of God. Calvin alludes to Ezekiel 37, which promises national restoration for the Jews using the metaphor of resurrection. He comments, "Though under that figure [of the enfleshment of the dry bones] he encourages the people to hope for return, yet the ground of hope is taken from the resurrection, as it is the special type of all deliverances which believers experience in the world."
In the New Testament, the Reformer refers us to the words of Jesus who said, "marvel not at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the grave shall hear his voice and shall come forth" (John 5:28 & 29). We are encouraged amid all our conflicts and trials to "exult after" the example of Paul's resurrection hope that Jesus shall "come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe" (2 Thessalonians 1:10).
So, although belief in the resurrection is not inherently unlikely given the wonders of creation, this hope is based on the power of God revealed in the Gospel. Natural theology has its limits.
2. This mortal shall put on immortality
Calvin addresses "the monstrous error of those who imagine that the soul, instead of resuming the body with which it is now clothed, will obtain a new and different body." (III:XXV:7, and so for all quotes in this section unless otherwise stated). He especially had the Manichees in his sights. They held that it is impossible that impure flesh should rise again. Calvin objected that the soul is also tainted by impurity, but this does not exclude it from the hope of heavenly life. The Manichees were dualists. They held to the "delirious dream" that the flesh is naturally impure, having been created by the devil. Calvin however saw that God created human beings with bodies as well as souls (see Part 2). For all his belief in the total depravity of fallen humanity, the reformer taught that human beings are redeemable,
"I only maintain, that nothing in us at present, which is unworthy of heaven, is any obstacle to the resurrection".
This is how Calvin responds to the idea that the resurrection body will be different from the present body:
First, Calvin argues that salvation includes the body. That is why believers are exhorted to purify themselves from "all filthiness of the flesh and spirit" (2 Corinthians 7:1). According to Paul, the life of Jesus is manifest in our body. The body as well as the soul is subject to the sanctifying work of God (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Calvin comments,
"He says 'body' as well as 'spirit and soul', and no wonder; for it were most absurd that bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples should fall into corruption without hope of resurrection. What? are they not also the members of Christ?"
These apostolic injunctions to a holy life in the body stand against Manichean flesh/spirit dualism. The body as well as the soul of the believer is united to Christ. The complete human being is saved by grace.
Second, the idea that we are given new bodies at the resurrection is contradicted by Scripture. Calvin appeals to Paul's teaching that "This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:53). This suggests that our present bodies will put on incorruption and immortality. Calvin asks, "If God formed new bodies, where would be this change of quality?" In addition, according to the Scriptures, we have sinned in the body and we must give an account of ourselves to God in the body. This would be a fiction if new bodies were given at the resurrection.
Third, if entirely new bodies were given, this would undermine the believer's conformity to Christ's own resurrection. For Calvin with his strong grasp of the central importance of union with Christ, this is inconceivable,
"if we are to receive new bodies, where will the conformity to the Head and the members? Christ rose again. Was it by forming a new body? Nay, he had foretold, "Destroy this body and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19) The mortal body which he had formerly carried he again received; for it would not have availed us much if a new body had been substituted, and that which had been offered in expiatory sacrifice been destroyed. We must, therefore, attend to that connection which the Apostle celebrates, that we rise because Christ rose (1 Corinthians 15:12); nothing being less probable than that the flesh in which we bear about the dying of Christ, shall have no share in the resurrection of Christ".
Fourth, believers suffer for Christ in the body. It is unthinkable that their bodies which are united to Christ should miss out on the glories of everlasting life, "As it is true, 'That we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,' (Acts 14:22); so it were unreasonable that this entrance should be denied to the bodies which God exercises under the banner of the cross and adorns with the palm of victory." (III:XXV:8 and for quote below).
Finally, Calvin returns to the power of God. We should not baulk at the hope of the resurrection of the dead because all things are possible with the Lord,
"The corruptible body, therefore, in order that we may be raised, will not perish or vanish away, but, divested of corruption, will be clothed with incorruption. Since God has all the elements at his disposal, no difficulty can prevent him from commanding the earth, the fire, and the water, to give up what they seem to have destroyed".
3. The redemption of the body Calvin has made some helpful points here. God does not abandon what he has made. He saves us from sin without destroying what we are. Our bodies are not inherently evil. God is able to rescue the body as well as the soul from sin and its devastating effects. Our lowly, fallen, mortal bodies will be raised up and transformed into the image of Christ's glorious resurrection body. In the light of this resurrection hope, we are to devote the whole of our being to holiness in the Lord. Unlike Manichean dualism, the Bible's resurrection hope is fundamentally life affirming. We do not long to be rid of the flesh, but to have our bodies renewed perfected in Christ-like splendour.
In the next post in this series, I hope to look at Calvin on the intermediate state.