Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely little woodlot on a hillside where people are seen lying in the sun or reclining in the shade as squirrels and other forest creatures play in the trees.
Stare at those people long enough, however, and you’ll notice that they never move. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat are lying down because they’re all very much dead — they’re cadavers sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition. They’re the lifeless bodies of people who have very nobly and generously donated their bodies to science after their death, and forensic science owes them a huge debt of thanks.
Arpad Vass, a scientist at UT’s Anthropological Research Facility and he sees dead people every day. His job is to evaluate how the human body decomposes under various conditions: buried in shallow graves, stuck in car trunks, wrapped in plastic bags, submerged in a man-made pond, just to name a few — all the different ways the human body can be disposed of or dumped by a murderer. The data collected helps forensic scientists and law enforcement work their cases. Think of what a CSI vacation site would look like and you get the idea.
You’d think that such a grisly scenario would cause a guy to toss his cookies a few times, but Vass sees it differently. Asked about what makes him queasy, he says, simply, “One day last summer I inhaled a fly. I could feel it buzzing down my throat.” Gross, but still not as disgusting as measuring the amount of fly larvae are laid in a rapidly decomposing body.
Vass used to be a little freaked out by seeing the faces of each dead person, rolling them over on their stomachs so that he didn’t have to look. Now, it’s no big deal. Still, the work is important and the cadavers serve a definite purpose, giving their bodies over to, “corruption” as the King James Bible puts it, for the sake of science and catching bad guys.
Vass is one of the people profiled in Mary Roach’s book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, an informative study on the various ways that research on the dead is used to benefit the living. Roach profiles a number of researchers who work with the recently dead, like those trying to perfect human head transplants (really!), those analyzing the effects of car and airplane crashes on the body (generally, bad), the damage that bullets and bombs can do (again, seriously bad) and, of course, the use of cadavers and body parts for practicing complex medical procedures. Add to that a chapter about how morticians do their funeral home work and another about cannibalism, among others, and you’ve got a real window into the secret world of human stiffs. Not that most people want to look through that window. We’d rather keep it closed and keep the smell out, thank you very much.
The truth is that in the 21st century, at least in the industrialized world, death has been thoroughly sanitized for our physical and emotional protection. We’d rather think of death as the moment we leave the body in a purely spiritual transition, where there’s a tunnel of light and an eternity of harp-plucking for the spirit, while the body decays in gross and icky ways that we’d rather not think about.
Consider the ways in which we celebrate Easter — with pink bunnies, marshmallow chicks, plastic grass and colorful eggs. But that’s not what the story is about, in the main. It’s actually a lot more like Halloween — a corpse, burial clothes, embalming, sepulchers — that sort of thing.
The disciples and the women who went to the tomb that morning fully expected to encounter a dead — and already decaying — body. Back then there was no morbid funeral home to dispense with the dirty work. Family and friends were the default morticians. They knew what death smelled like, what death looked like, what death does to a body. Tombs were closed, barricaded by large rocks and stone, but everybody knew what was happening inside, in the darkness. That morning, they intended to make certain that the dead body of their friend, mentor and rabbi was prepared properly so that it could decompose quickly in this borrowed tomb (that’s what the spices were for) and then, a year later, they would return, gather up the bones and put them in an ossuary or “bone box” and then put the ossuary in a niche in the back of the tomb permanently.
That morning, the women and disciples expected to find a cadaver. Although Jesus had hinted at his resurrection in various conversations with them, they really didn’t “get it.” He had talked about “this temple,” his body, which God would raise it up again in three days; but that was inconceivable to them. How can you be the Messiah if you’re dead? They’d seen him die horribly, cruelly, painfully on Friday and there was absolutely no doubt that when they arrived at the tomb they would find the lifeless body of Jesus. They wouldn’t need a forensic scientist to tell them how he died. Most hadn’t had the stomach to stay and watch, but they knew. He’d been on a Roman cross and while you go up on a cross alive, you come down off a cross dead. Simple as that.
Jesus was dead and nothing was going to change that gruesome reality. And that’s the point the apostle Paul drives home again in I Corinthians 15, when he speaks to the church some 25-30 years later: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried…” The death that stalks us all came to God’s own Son.
But when the women came to the tomb that first Easter morning, those first witnesses saw something unprecedented in the history of human corpses. This one, the physical, material, fleshly body of Jesus of Nazareth, somehow became a former cadaver — the first case of a secret stiff going public, being very much alive. The same Jesus who had died had been, as Paul puts it, “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (v. 4).
The Meaning of Resurrection
The people of Israel had talked about the word resurrection throughout their history, but often as a metaphor for the reconstitution of God’s people into a new nation. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37) is a prime example. In Daniel 12, the prophet had a vision of that future resurrection: “May of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,” Daniel wrote, “some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever.” Many Jews were expecting that at the end of time God would resurrect the dead to new life — a reversal of the curse of death brought on by human sin, which we read about in Genesis 3. But the idea of resurrection and the defeat of death was a future hope, a dream, a distant concept. Nobody expected it to happen to a person that they knew right there in the middle of history— especially one who was so publicly and thoroughly made dead.
But the fact was that, on that Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. Even modern science hasn’t found a way to change dead bodies into live ones — only transplanting parts of the dead as a way of benefiting a living individual. Easter was the first and only case of one dead body benefiting the whole world by becoming not so dead.
And this is the core of the gospel, the good news about Jesus. “For since death came through a human being,” Paul says, “the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (v. 21-22). Paul’s point is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the assurance or guarantee of our own resurrection. It is the sign that death will be defeated, and sin along with it.
Paul offers the evidence: Jesus was dead, and then he was made alive, and was seen by numerous witnesses whom he lists in verses 5-8. Those who had seen him die saw him alive, but it wasn’t just a resuscitation, kind of like the story of a funeral service for a woman who had just passed away. At the end of the service the pallbearers were carrying the casket out when they accidentally bumped into a wall, jarring the casket. Suddenly, they heard a faint moan. They opened the casket and find that the woman was actually alive! She lived for 10 more years, and then finally died again. The ceremony was held at the same place, and at the end of the ceremony the pallbearers were again carrying out the casket. As they were walking, the husband cried out, “Watch the wall!”
No, Paul makes it clear, as do the Gospel writers, that Jesus didn’t just stagger out of the tomb having awoken from a bad beating and crucifixion. He had come back from the dead and his body had been transformed in a way that it would not die again.
And Paul’s point here is that what happened to Jesus will happen to those who have faith in him. Jesus resurrection is the “first fruits” or, as we would put it, the “prototype” for the resurrection to come for us (15: 20). He goes on to discuss the changes that the body went through with Jesus and that, in the future, ours will go through — from a physical body to a spiritual body (15: 44).
What he means is not the Greek concept of the separation of body and spirit, but rather that, in the resurrection, our bodies will no longer be subject to the gross and disgusting spiritual decay of sin and the decomposition of physical death (soma psyche). Instead, the body will be remade a spiritual body (soma pneumatikon), a body animated and fully indwelt by God’s Spirit, but a body nonetheless — a body that, like that of the resurrected Jesus — will be “imperishable” (15: 42).
For Paul, resurrection wasn’t about a simple spiritual transfer — the body being left behind while the spirit flew off to heaven — it was a complete move away from death itself. The promise of resurrection is, God’s people would be dwelling as renewed people in a renewed world, the creation God had intended from the beginning. Heaven is indeed for real, but the ultimate goal of God’s mission is the bringing of heaven and earth together. It’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer—thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. As one of my favorite theologians puts it, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.”
The resurrection enables us to live without fear of death.
This, said the apostle, was the foundational fact of faith. Christ’s resurrection made this defeat of death and the union of heaven and earth possible and if Christ wasn’t raised, if the tomb wasn’t empty, if death couldn’t be reversed somehow, then “your faith has been in vain” (15:14). The resurrection, then, was of “first importance” to Paul and the linchpin of human history (15: 3). That one formerly dead body has made all the difference, giving hope to the living.
But it’s not merely a future hope. Because of Easter, we are invited to begin living that resurrection life right now—a life without the fear of death. One of the reasons that talking about decaying bodies makes us squeamish is that we’d just rather not talk about death. We do everything we can to avoid the subject and not speak of it—it is the “thing that shall not be named” in human life. We use all kinds of euphemisms for it—“passed away, gone, etc.” But what we miss is the fact that this fear of death is actually the source of a lot of our human brokenness. Fear of death brings about anxiety, and we will do everything we can to put off that anxiety. For example, fear of death can cause us to fear the loss of our life and livelihood, so we acquire and hoard things via the sin of greed as a way of staving off death by trying to live the good life now. Fear of death puts in us a manic need for security, which will cause us, in the extreme, to sin by killing others who would threaten to take security away from us. Fear of death can cause us to begin to believe that everyone is expendable and less than human than ourselves, which leads to the sins of lust and hatred (which are often connected). Economic oppression, racism, genocide, war, and a host of other sins are the result of fear—a fear of death that is so debilitating that it causes us to go inward in self-serving and self-preserving ways that are really the root of the sin that stings us. If this is all there is, then life is ultimately hopeless—better get it all while you can.
If you look at many Roman tombstones from the first century, they express that sentiment, the same sentiment that many people even today seem to live with: non fui, fui, non sum, no curo—“I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.”
As long as the fear of death holds us under its dominion – whether consciously or unconsciously – we dare not take the necessary risks to live fully, selflessly, and in a way that reflects the way of Christ.
But Paul says that when Jesus ultimately defeats death, and the fear of death, then sin will be defeated along with it. His resurrection was the proof of that promise. Therefore, we can have power over sin in the present because, in Christ, we no longer have anything to fear. History has been decided. Our ultimate future secured. The tomb won’t stay closed forever. That’s the hope of resurrection, and it’s a hope we can begin to live right now. What would happen if we began to live without that kind of fear? What would you do for Christ if you had nothing to fear? What sin that you deal with would melt away if you really believed in the hope of resurrection? How would your life be different with that hope as your confidence, rather than the fear of death?
It’s resurrection hope that gives our lives meaning and purpose. When we live without fear, we are able to be the people God created us to be from the beginning and the things we do for Christ and his kingdom have eternal significance. Look at how Paul ends the chapter (v. 58). “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (emphasis mine). This is the glory of Easter—the good news that because of what Christ has done, your life matters forever, and it’s a life worth caring about.
Sure, the metaphysics of this are baffling and are the subject of debate among scholars, philosophers and theologians. You kind of get the sense in reading this chapter that Paul himself was trying to describe a process that is somewhat mysterious to say the least. The bottom line, though, is that somehow, at God’s initiative and through the resurrection of Christ, death became a lot less about blood and guts and more about the power of new life.
After his resurrection, Jesus invited his disciples to check him out — put their hands in the wounds, feel inside, touch him. Unlike the cadavers in a research lab, Jesus could offer an invitation that wasn’t silent. It was a proclamation to everyone that the secret, dark world of death had been exposed — the ghoulish turned gorgeous in the bright light of a Sunday morning.
On this Easter morning, we come to celebrate this new reality. For while there’s still a lot of grossness in this world, the promise is that it won’t always be that way. A cure for death has been found — which we could only have learned from examining a former corpse.
Thank God for people who’ve donated their bodies to science to benefit humankind.
Thank God for Jesus Christ who donated his body to death only to take it back again for the benefit of all.
Thank God that as we declare the resurrection, we declare our own. As he lives, we too shall someday live!
Kaylor, Bob. “The Secret Life of a Stiff.” Homiletics. April 16, 2006.
Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers. W.W. Norton: 2004.