By Louis A. Markos
Frank Capra’s holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life has consistently remained on my top ten list of best movies ever made. I never tire of watching it and have even had the chance to teach it several times to my college students. And yet, for all its cinematic brilliance, its enduring message of hope, and its keen insight into human desire, it has unwittingly helped to lead generations of American Christians astray.
Although the Nicene Creed, shared by all believing Christians, clearly teaches the resurrection of the dead—that is to say, the resurrection of the body—there are vast numbers of Christians who suppose, along with Capra’s film, that when we die we become angels. Nothing could be further from the truth.
God created three beings to dwell in his cosmos (at least three that we know about). First he created the angels, who are pure spirit. Then he created the beasts, which are pure body. And then he created us, the great amphibians of the universe. We are not half physical and half spiritual, nor are we souls trapped in bodies. We are enfleshed souls, incarnational beings who are fully physical and fully spiritual.
And it is our destiny to remain so for all eternity.
When the Second Person of the Trinity “agreed” to the Incarnation, he wasn’t agreeing for only thirty-three years. When Christ rose again on that first Easter morning , he did not go back to being pure spirit like God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. During his years on the earth, Jesus was fully God and fully Man, and he will remain so for all eternity. Indeed, in a way that we cannot understand, the pre-incarnate Christ was already 100% divine and 100% human, for it was through him that the whole physical world was made, and it is in his image that we were made incarnational beings.
Jesus still has a body, a Resurrection Body that is spiritual while still being physical. To borrow language from 1 Corinthians 15, the greatest chapter on the resurrection, the difference between Jesus’s body on earth and his Resurrection Body is like the difference between the hard dry acorn that is planted in the earth and the mighty oak tree that springs forth from it. According to the post- resurrection accounts recorded in the gospels, Jesus’s Resurrection Body could eat and drink and be touched, but it could also move through walls, disappear, and cloak its appearance.
The gospels record three miracles in which Jesus raises someone from the dead. I like to illustrate these miracles by using a paper bag to represent death. When Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21-43), the girl had only been dead for about an hour. I imagine that she fell into the lip of the bag; however, before she could fall any further, Jesus scooped her out and returned her to the land of the living.
When Jesus raised the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17), the boy had been dead for at least a day, for his body was being carried out of town on the funeral bier. Unlike Jairus’s daughter, he had fallen all the way to the middle of the bag. Still, Jesus was able to reach in and draw him back out.
And then there was Lazarus (John 11:1-44), dead and in his tomb for four days, his body already beginning to decay. But the long arm of Jesus reached all the way to the very bottom of the bag and pulled Lazarus back into the world of sun and water and air.
But if this is how we illustrate the raising of Lazarus from the dead, then how are we to illustrate the resurrection of Christ? There is only one way to do so: by punching a hole through the bottom of the bag. Jesus did not resurrect Jairus’s daughter or the widow’s son or even Lazarus. He resuscitated them, brought them back to life: but in such a state that they all eventually died again.
Such is not the case with the resurrection. Jesus was not brought back to life. Rather, he went through death and came out on the other side. His old life was killed and replaced with a new kind of life, even as his old body was replaced with a new one.
In Book IV, Chapter I of Mere Christianity,1 C. S. Lewis helps to explain the difference bet ween the old life and the new by using two different Greek words for “life.” For the creaturely life that we share in common with animals and even, to a lesser extent, with plants, Lewis uses the word bios (root of “ biology ”). It is nice to have bios life, but we must remember that bios life is such that it wears down, grows old, decays, and dies. When Jesus healed people during his earthly ministry, he simply injected them with a fresh supply of bios. That is why, though his healing touch restored and extended their lives, they all eventually died.
If we are truly to be saved and redeemed, if we are to dwell for eternity in heaven with the One who created us, then we need something different than bios; we need zoe (root of “zoology ”). By zoe (which is the Greek word for life used by Jesus in, for example, John 5:24-26 and 6:40), Lewis means the indestructible life that resides in God. Becoming a Christian, and eventually attaining heaven, does not mean becoming a better person. It means having our bios life killed and replaced with zoe life.
And how do we get that zoe life? We get it from the One who rose from the dead and who thus has zoe in himself. And not just has it, but is willing and able to share it with others. So Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 through a parallel he draws between Adam (the first man) and Christ, whom he calls the last Adam: “So it is written : ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (verse 45; NIV ).
Again, Jesus is not just alive; he has life (zoe life) in himself and can impart that life to we who, in our mortal state, possess only bios. It is because Jesus has the power and the desire to kill our bios and replace it with zoe that Paul can boldly proclaim the following promise to those who have died in the Lord:
Behold, I shew you a mystery ; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the t winkling of an e ye, at the last trump : for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victor y. O death, where is thy sting ? O g rave, where is thy victor y ? The sting of death is sin ; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57; KJV)
Beautiful film though it is, It’s a Wonderful Life is wrong to suggest that we will become angels when we die. God already has enough angels to fill the vast regions of heaven. His final goal for man is to redeem and perfect the incarnational creatures he created in the Garden so long ago. Our corruption will not simply give way to pure spirit; to the contrary, the corruption of our flesh will be swallowed up by the incorruption of our Resurrection Bodies. Death will be more than defeated; it will be transformed into victory. Like Jesus himself, whom Paul calls the first fruits, we too will pass through death and come out on the other side.
Now, over the last two millennia, there has been some debate as to what exactly happens when a believer dies. There are three basic options : 1) he immediately goes to heaven and gets his Resurrection Body; 2) he waits in paradise in a temporary, non-incarnate state until the Second Coming of Christ, at which time he receives his Resurrection Body; 3) his soul sleeps until the Second Coming , at which time his soul rises to meet up with its Resurrection body in the air.
Since the Bible seems to be quite clear that the resurrection of the dead will be a corporate event and that it will not occur until the last trumpet sounds and Christ returns, option one is most likely not correct. Of course, given the fact that God lies outside time in eternity, it is possible that all three options are, in fact, the same option. The moment of our death is an eternal moment, so it is altogether possible that the moment of each of our deaths takes us collectively to the end of the world when Christ returns and the final resurrection takes place. Once we step into eternity, it may, in eternity, already be over.
But such thinking may be a bit too fanciful. It is more likely that we, unless our death takes place simultaneous with the Second Coming and we are caught up in the air with Christ, will spend an indefinite period of time in a disembodied state. That state may very well be the paradise that Christ promises the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). Paul seems to speak of this state when he writes:
“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-5; NASB).
This view of things seems to be most prevalent today. In earlier centuries, however, it was held by many Christians that our soul slept for a space in anticipation of the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, many of the poems of the seventeenth-century Anglican poet (and Dean of Saint Paul’s, London) John Donne speak with reference to this soul sleep. Thus, one of his Holy Sonnets begins with a powerful description of that moment when our sleeping souls (cemetery means “sleeping place”) are awakened by the sound of Gabriel’s trumpet (to which Paul alludes in the passage quoted above from 1 Corinthians 15):
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, anels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter ’d bodies go.
On that most busy of days, our souls will actually seek out the parts of our body that we might rise together with them to our new life. Whether those parts reside in coffins, in earth, in ash, or in water, they will rise up with us and be reassembled in the air.
Indeed, in one of his strangest poems, “The Relic,” Donne says he is going to be buried with a bracelet made from the hair of a woman whose love he was unable to win. His reason for doing so rests on his faith that both of their souls will sleep only to awake on the last day. When that day comes, and the woman’s soul goes in search of her scattered body, she will have to visit his grave to retrieve her hair. When that happens, he will be granted a moment of intimacy with her before they rise to their eternal state of glory.
To our more cynical age, Donne’s poem will sound like the confessions of a post-mortem stalker; still, it offers keen insight into the prevalence, in the seventeenth century, of the belief that our soul will sleep for a season until the end of the world arrives. I am aware that many will be frightened by the idea of their being asleep in the grave for an indefinite period before the resurrection; the thought, I must confess, frightens me quite a bit. Nevertheless, we can all be assured that if our soul does in fact sleep —it if goes into what we today would call a state of suspended animation—the time between our burial and our final wakening will seem to us to be but a moment. Which takes us back to the possibility that all three options listed above are really the same option.
But let us return now to Book IV, Chapter I of Mere Christianity and to the distinction it makes between bios life and zoe life. If we read to the end of the chapter, we will find that Lewis not only sets the parameters for the change from one type of life to the other, but provides a powerful metaphor for understanding the nature of that change: “A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.”2
The change from bios to zoe is not quantitative but qualitative. The change does not merely provide us with a better life but with a different kind of life: one that is beyond death, decay, and dissolution. In Part One, Chapter II of The Everlasting Man, G. K . Chesterton argues that the shift from ape to man is not evolutionary but revolutionary; it takes place outside of time and, as such, transcends the physical laws of nature. Even so, the shift from bios to zoe is not carried out by a natural process of moral reformation; rather, it is the result of a supernatural transformation. Christ’s eternal zoe life replaces our mortal bios life, converting us into creatures over whom death no longer has a hold.
Among those parallels is a scene that dramatizes Lewis’s argument that a man who changed from bios to zoe would be like a statue that came to life. Though most readers quickly discern the link between the death and resurrection of Aslan and the death and resurrection of Christ, fewer know what to make of the strange event that follows Aslan’s return from the dead. With Lucy and Susan on his back, the resurrected Lion races to the castle of the White Witch. There, in the court yard, Aslan and the girls find statues of talking animals, dwarfs, centaurs, and giants that the White Witch had turned to stone with her magic wand. Without a moment’s pause, Aslan proceeds to blow on each of the statues. As he does so, they thaw, grow warm, and come to life.
Though Lewis does not say so directly, it seems clear from the rest of the novel that Aslan did not previously have the power to breathe on statues and bring them to life. Now, however, that he has experienced death and been raised to a new and greater life, he is able to do just that. The reason for this seems clear: like Christ (the last Adam), Aslan now has zoe life within himself and can share it with whomever he wishes.
When Jesus rose again, he not only defeated Satan and Sin, but Death itself. That is why we can trust Jesus’s promise that he will never leave us nor forsake us. It is also why we can boldly proclaim in the Nicene Creed our firm faith in the resurrection of the dead.
About the Author
LOUIS MARKOS, PhD, (Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Apologetics for the 21st Century, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, and C. S Lewis: An Apologist for Education.
1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York : Harper Collins, 2001), 172-177.
2 Ibid., 159.
[Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]