Of course, since many of the readers of this blog are godless heathens, this is at best an intellectual exercise. But I am sure that many have wondered, at idle moments or when they were believers, how the idea of life after death will deal with the fact that we age and change on Earth. Do we take the form that we had at the end of life? If so, a lot of people in heaven will be old and decrepit or disfigured because they met a tragic end. This clearly will reduce the appeal of life after death and may even suggest that it may be best to die when one is in the prime of one’s life so that one looks buff for all of eternity. Evangelical preachers like Billy Graham, when asked this question, said that people will look their best in heaven but shy away from details. But if we don’t look like what we did when we died, then what?
It turns out that St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) thought deeply about these things and pretty much laid out how things would work. He had to do this because of the prophecy that the second coming of Christ would lead to the ‘resurrection of the dead’ and that was considered to be an imminent event. My colleague Timothy Beal, professor of religious studies at CWRU, explains in his new book The Book of Revelation: A Biography (p. 66-68) that came out a few months ago what Augustine came up with.
Second, in what form will the dead be resurrected? Key here is Augustine’s expectation that the resurrected body will be a perfection and completion of the formerly fallen body into an ideal one suited for the purified city of God. Thus, for example, those who died as infants will be resurrected to their fully matured, “perfect stature;’ which was theirs “potentially, though not in actual bulk;’ from birth. For “the child who is to be tall or short is already tall or short” in potential. Indeed, Augustine writes, even if that infant’s potential is to be taller than Jesus Christ himself, he will be resurrected to that height (22.14-15). Likewise, those who died young will be raised to the age they would have reached in their prime. Those who died past their prime, on the other hand, will not be restored to that younger age, but the frailties of their old age will be removed.
What about the sexes of the resurrected? Presuming, as Augustine does, based on his reading of Genesis 2., that the first woman was created from the first man’s rib and is therefore derivative, will women be raised as men? No, he explains, because it is not sexual difference but sexual desire that is the fallen state of humankind. Before the fall, they were “naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2.:25), that is, nonsexual but not nonsexed. “The sex of woman is not a vice;’ therefore, “but nature … He who created both sexes will restore both” (22.17).
We do not know if Augustine lost his hair at an early age, something that some men have to deal with, but he clearly felt that being bald in the afterlife was not desirable and he had good news for those who disliked being in that state.
And what about hair and nails-the stuff on bodies that grows and gets trimmed off in the course of life? After all, Jesus said, “Not a hair of your head shall perish” (Luke 21:18). Does this mean that all the trimmed parts will be restored to resurrected people, like bizarre extensions on their fingers and heads? No, Augustine says. We should think of hair and nails in terms of number, not length. If a person lost hair or nails in life, the original number of hairs and nails will be restored, at normal length. Bald people will get all their hair back, but not all its length. Likewise people who were obese or emaciated in life will be restored to their ideal proportions and, we can presume, body mass index. Also, blemishes, scars, and other marks on the body will be removed, restoring each person to her or his ideal form-with the singular exception of the wounds of martyrs, which Augustine says are not deformities but marks of honor that “will add lustre to their appearance, and a spiritual, if not a bodily beauty” (22.19).
Ok, so far, so good. But what about the fact that dead bodies decay and turn to dust that then gets scattered? How can those be reconstituted? Augustine says that is a piece of cake. He does not even shy away from the unique problems posed by cannibalism.
Finally, Augustine addresses the greatest challenge to his interpretation of the resurrection of the dead. That is, the fact that dead bodies decay, turn to dust, get eaten by animals, consumed by fire, or turned to liquid. How can a dead person’s “dissolved elements” be regathered to reconstitute her or his body? Even more consternating, what about a person who has been eaten by another person? How can an eaten body be restored, “for it has been converted into the flesh of the man who used it as his nutriment” (22.12)?
Augustine’s solution is something of a theological prototheory of the conservation of mass. Whatever was lost to decay or liquefaction will be restored to its original body. Even the flesh of the person that got eaten, he asserts, will be returned to its original body, “for it must be looked upon as borrowed by the other person, and, like a pecuniary loan, must be returned to the lender.” But where will this payback leave the cannibal, now short on flesh? The flesh that he lost to hunger went into the air through evaporation. So God will recall it from the atmosphere and restore it to its original owner, as well (22.20).
There was one problem that Augustine did not address because the science at that time did not know this, and that is that our bodies are being regenerated all the time as cells die and are replaced. If one lives a full life, then over that time one would have gone through many layers of skin and several kidneys, organs, hearts, and other organs. If all of those are restored then bodies would be unrecognizable. Clearly we need a new Augustine to keep up with recent developments in science
You have got to hand it to old Augie. He was really thorough. It is not clear how he knew all this. He probably just made stuff up to make believers like the idea of heaven but he did a pretty good job.