By Candida Moss Yale, 195pp, £35/$45
Most Christians would agree that heaven is a place that can’t be conceptualised from our feeble earthly perspective. But it has always been tempting to make the imaginative leap and the issue of bodily resurrection has been a tricky topic. Many thinkers have assumed that some continuity of identity will prevail on the other side and, here in the vale of tears, what we look like is crucial to our sense of “me-ness”.
As Candida Moss explains in her excellent new book, this raises many puzzling questions. Suppose you lost an arm and now have a prosthetic replacement. Which version will turn up in heaven? Will bodily attributes that denote gender or ethnicity make it through the pearly gates? Will you be in your youthful prime or as you were at the moment of death?
Paul wasn’t keen on this kind of talk. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom” (1 Corinthians 15:50) seems like a fairly unambiguous statement, but some biblical texts point to other possibilities. Moss spends a lot of time looking at Mark’s Gospel, notably the section where the resurrection of deformity is touched upon. Transgressions are sometimes punished in the here and now through physical injury, and perhaps these will be on display in heaven: that’s much better than getting away with a crime and ending up in the pit of hell.
Such issues have offered precious insights into a given culture’s anxieties about bodily annihilation; a desire to have our somatic identity make the journey into the next world, and – an excellent point, this – put persecutors in their place. Sure, you can boil or burn our saints and martyrs alive, but they’ll be trotting around in heaven soon enough.
Perhaps lame men will have lost their disabilities and leap around like deer. Perhaps, dread thought, there are pharmacies and dentists’ drills in heaven. Or perhaps – and this is where the smart money should probably be placed – the reality is entirely beyond our imagining.