From the Jan/Feb, 2016 issue of Touchstone


Glorious Flesh by Robin Phillips


Glorious Flesh

How Dorothy Sayers Taught Me the Meaning of the Resurrection

Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, the doctrine of resurrection functioned as a kind of footnote in my thinking, while my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to the salvation of the soul. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ's resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul's lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.

It wasn't until my wife urged me to listen to a recorded lecture by Edith Schaeffer that I experienced what is often called a "paradigm shift." In this lecture Mrs. Schaeffer showed from Scripture what might seem obvious by definition but was for me a new revelation: the resurrection of the body will be experienced bodily. She explained that in heaven we will have physical bodies, though of course the body will be transformed through being delivered of corruption. I still remember walking among the English hedgerows as I listened to the lecture and thinking, "Wow!"

My experience raised a question. How was it that I had been to an Evangelical Bible College and even wrote articles for Christian publications, yet somehow missed the fundamental truth that resurrection is resurrection? The question is not unique to my own experience. In the years following my epiphany, I have had occasion to talk to many people about the resurrection of the body, and I sometimes find that practicing Christians have never even heard of the doctrine. Why is this?

It wasn't until later in my life, when I discovered the writings of Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957), that I began to discern the answer to this question. According to this detective-novelist-turned-theologian, one reason why so many Christians are ignorant about resurrection stems from the influence of "Gnostic" assumptions on English-speaking Christianity.

It's easy for Christians to use the label "Gnosticism" as a kind of catchall for everything we don't like about contemporary culture. But when Dorothy Sayers used the term, it had a very focused meaning: the tendency to depreciate the physical world through positing a false antithesis between spirit and matter.

But before considering Sayers' critique of "Christian Gnosticism," let us lay out some historical background about ancient Gnosticism.

Ancient Gnosticism

"Gnosticism" is a fairly recent scholarly term used for a broad network of second-century religious movements that developed independently of Christianity but quickly took on a Christian hue. At their most basic level, these heretical movements taught that salvation could be achieved through the attainment of hidden, esoteric knowledge (gnosis in Greek). Significantly, this salvation did not involve release from sin and death, but liberation from the inherently bad material world to a realm of pure spirit.

The Gnostics saw Jesus as a messenger from the realm beyond who came to offer the chosen few the gnosis needed to awaken the divine spark within and liberate the real person from the prison of the body.

The Christology of Gnosticism differs from that of the canonical tradition by asserting that both the humanity and materiality of Christ were deceptive -appearances: Jesus merely appeared to have a body of flesh and blood. Again, the basic idea is that the realm of the spirit is at utter odds with the realm of matter, and that in order to live life in the former, one must reject
the latter.

An "Intimate Unison"

You might ask what all this has to do with modern Christianity. Here is where Dorothy Sayers proves helpful.

In her writings in the 1940s, Sayers began identifying Gnostic tendencies within the Christian community of her day. In particular, she urged that the common separation of spirit and matter—of which the denial of physical resurrection served as a flashpoint—was a particularly widespread and alarming tendency. In labeling this tendency "Gnostic," Sayers did not mean that Christians had explicitly embraced the entire Gnostic package, complete with its elaborate creation accounts and its denials of Christ's material body. Rather, the target of her critique was an operational or implicit Gnosticism that often existed in tension with the explicit doctrinal formulations of the churches. That is, she believed that certain aspects of Gnostic thought were subtly tincturing the belief and practices of Christians without their realizing it.

The antidote to these Gnostic assumptions was what Sayers called a "sacramental" view of matter. She articulated this idea in a letter to the Church Times on May 16, 1941, in which she criticized the "perverse" and "unsacramental" theology that denied "the intimate unison between spirit and matter." She said this denial was "in fact a denial of the Incarnation."

Sayers believed that the bringing together of the spiritual and the physical had implications beyond the immediate issue of resurrection—implications that affected how people approached work, the world, cultural institutions, and life itself. In a 1940 BBC broadcast titled "The Sacrament of Matter," she had made a similar argument, urging that the goodness of matter is the very foundation on which the Church stands, since it is central to a correct understanding of the Incarnation. Anticipating some of the points she would make in her letter to the Church Times, she told her radio audience that the Incarnation showed the intimate and unbreakable union of spirit with mind and matter:

. . . in affirming that God was made flesh, the Church affirms that matter and the material body are good and not evil. The fear and hatred of matter and the body are not orthodox Christianity; they belong to a very ancient and very tough and enduring heresy—the heresy of the Manichees. . . . the Christian religion works from within outward, drawing more and more of the world of matter within its own orbit. . . .

In the mid-1950s, Sayers developed this point further, contrasting the Christian faith with what she termed the "Gnostic and Neoplatonic" or "Oriental" approach. In her Introductory Papers on Dante (1954), she laid out the contrast as follows:

Notice how entirely different [Christianity] is from the Gnostic and Neoplatonic thought which characterises the great Oriental religions and so often tried to infiltrate into Christianity. For the Gnostics, creation is evil, and the outflowing of the One into the Many is a disaster: the true end of the Many is to lose the derived self and be reabsorbed into the One. But for the Christian, it is not so. The derived self is the glory of the creature and the multiplicity and otherness of the universe is its joy. The true end of the creature is that it should reflect, each in its own way and to its capacity great or small, some tiny facet of the infinite variety comprised within the unity of the One. . . . The higher the created being is, and the nearer to God, the more utterly it is itself and the more it differs from its fellow-creatures. (48)

She goes on to assert that

there is a fundamental error about the Church's attitude to the Active Life—a persistent assumption that Catholic Christianity, like any Oriental Gnosticism, despises the flesh and enjoins a complete detachment from all secular activities. Such a view is altogether heretical. No religion that centres about a Divine Incarnation can take up such an attitude as that. What the Church enjoins is quite different: namely, that all the good things of this world are to be loved because God loves them, as God loves them, for the love of God, and for no other reason." (113)

Sayers on the Resurrection

Sayers's teaching on the goodness of the body culminated in her teaching on physical resurrection. The separation of the physical from the spiritual had led in her day to a mode of theology that placed stress on the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body as the fundamental Christian hope. This tendency was reinforced by the neo-Platonic bent of post-Victorian Christianity, manifested in the common employment of the word "resurrection" as a shorthand term for the soul's immortality. Even Christ's own resurrection, Sayers noted, was often spiritualized to mean something that had no relation to the physical body. As she put it in The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, "When I was a girl, G. K. Chesterton professed belief in the Resurrection, and was called whimsical. When I was at college, thoughtful people expressed belief in the Resurrection 'in a spiritual sense,' and were called advanced."

The down-to-earth Sayers had little use for this type of de-physicalized spirituality. Christ rose in the flesh, she taught, not simply to redeem man's invisible soul, but to bring salvation to the whole person, including the body. Any "excessive spirituality" that left the physical body out of the picture was not Christianity at all but Gnosticism. In her 1957 work, Further Papers on Dante, Sayers even went so far as to suggest that the doctrine of the soul's immortality is comparatively unimportant in Christianity compared to the doctrine of the body's resurrection:

. . . the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, though Christians do in fact believe it, is not particularly characteristic of Christianity, nor even vital to it. No Christian creed so much as mentions it, and theoretically, it would be quite compatible with Christian belief if soul as well as body had to undergo the experience of death. The characteristic belief of Christendom is in the Resurrection of the Body and the life everlasting of the complete body-soul complex. Excessive spirituality is the mark, not of the Christian, but of the Gnostic." (93)

Modern "Christian Gnosticism"

In going to such lengths to establish what she termed "the intimate unison between spirit and matter," Sayers was reacting against the disjunction between the material and the spiritual that had been a recurring motif in discussions of resurrection in her day. Over and against historic Christian theology, which maintains that the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection make possible the marrying together of matter and spirit, much popular piety throughout the twentieth century (both before and after Sayers's career) seemed to urge a complete divorce between the physical and the spiritual.

An example of the type of "Christian Gnosticism" that Sayers opposed can be found in the British writer Clarence Rolt, who wrote in 1920 of that "glorious transcendent state in which all physical conditions shall be left far behind" (The Spiritual Body, 12). James Campbell illustrated this same tendency in his 1924 publication Heaven Opened, where he wrote, "When the material world perishes, we shall find ourselves in the spiritual world; when the dream of life ends, we shall awake in the world of reality; when our connection with this world comes to a close, we shall find ourselves in our eternal spirit home" (114–115). Behind Campbell's words lay the assumption that matter and spirit are utterly divisible and contradistinctive; the material world is at odds with reality and not our true home.

In writing against Christian Gnosticism, Sayers may also have had in mind the "death literature" that had been around for at least a hundred years. Much of this sentimental literature, which aimed at comforting those whose loved ones were dead or dying, followed the Gnostics in presenting death as a kind of salvation from matter. This is implicit in the section "What Is Death?" from McGuffey's 1968 New Fourth Eclectic Reader, where we read,

How beautiful will brother be
When God shall give him wings,
Above this dying world to flee,
And live with heavenly things!

The idea here—which can also be found throughout the corpus of nineteenth-century hymnody—is that the goal of salvation is to flee from this world and those things associated with it, including, of course, materiality. Accordingly, the very notion that God will one day renew the earth sounds like an anachronism to many.

Instead of understanding heaven as a place where the departed in Christ are awaiting their resurrected bodies, which they will enjoy in the new heavens and the new earth after Christ returns, much of the devotional literature of the past two hundred years presents heaven as a dimension in which the departed have already attained their final goal. This wrong understanding of eschatology fortifies the dualism between matter and spirit that Dorothy Sayers labeled Gnosticism and that the author Randy Alcorn has more recently termed "Christo-platonism" in his book Heaven.

Widespread Notions

It would be nice to think that these sub-Christian notions are limited to merely nominal or liberal branches of Christendom, but such is not the case. In his 1974 publication Where on Earth Is Heaven? Arthur Travis of Houston Baptist University was reflecting widespread beliefs among conservative Christians when he stated, "The fact is, we shall not live in physical bodies after death. . . . we shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess physical bodies in heaven" (16).

At the close of the last century, Time magazinereported that two-thirds of Americans who say they believe in a resurrection of the dead do not believe they will have bodies after the resurrection (March 31, 1997). In 2006, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll found that among those who consider themselves to be "born again," only 59 percent answered "Yes" to the question, "Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?" Reflecting on the poll, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, commented, "I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this [doctrine of bodily resurrection] taught in their local congregations."

Mohler is not alone. Many pastors report that their congregations are illiterate in the matter of the doctrine of bodily resurrection, assuming that salvation means liberation from the realm of matter. Although the doctrine of Christ's physical resurrection is affirmed and celebrated every Easter, and even every week in churches that recite the Creed, when it comes to the resurrection of believers, it is often assumed that this simply means salvation—a salvation that does not culminate in the
renewal of the body, but involves eternal disembodiment. Many who consider it a sign of theological liberalism to spiritualize Christ's resurrection into something non-physical are quite comfortable doing the same thing with respect to their own.

Just how widespread these notions have become can be seen in the fact that the secular community now routinely assumes that eternal disembodiment is the orthodox Christian hope. In his book Death and the Afterlife (2000), biochemical researcher Brian Innes claims that "current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas."

It is equally revealing to note that, after N. T. Wright published his excellent book Surprised by Hope (2008), setting forth the historic Christian teaching on this subject, ABC News referred to Wright's idea that "God will literally remake our physical bodies" as "a radical departure from traditional belief." Although the Nicene Creed contains the statement, "We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," and although the Apostles' Creed professes belief in "the resurrection of the body," most of secular society now takes it as unquestioned that Christianity has moved beyond such notions. Hence, when a teacher like N. T. Wright articulates historic scriptural teaching, the newspapers—eager as ever for sensation—characterize it as an exciting deviation from Christian orthodoxy.

Effects on Funeral Rites

This shift in perspective has been reflected in changing funeral liturgies. Christian funeral services have traditionally focused on the fact that the dead are in heaven, waiting for their resurrected bodies. Although this is still widely referred to in Christian funerals, it often runs parallel with emerging notions in which going to heaven, not resurrection, becomes the primary locus of the Christian hope. In his book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, Thomas Long shows that a "disembodied, quasi-gnostic cluster of customs and ceremonies" now surrounds the Christian funeral. This network of quasi-gnostic customs exists in tension with the more traditional elements that have been retained:

Often today two rival theological understandings battle it out for the soul of the funeral. To put it starkly, on the one hand, there is the gospel. The one who has died is an embodied person, a saint "travelling on" to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God's promise to make all things new. On the other hand, there is a more "spiritualized," perhaps even gnostic, understanding of death. The body is "just a shell," and the immortal soul of the deceased has now been released to become a spiritual presence among us, available through inspiration and active memory. In this view, the body, no longer of any use, is disposed of, but the "real person" is now a disembodied spirit. It is therefore not the deceased who is travelling, but the mourners, on an intra-psychic journey from sorrow to stability. (96–97)

The semi-Gnostic assumptions embodied in these changing funeral rites often orient us towards the notion that it is not so much sin that separates man from God as the body itself.

Understanding the "Spiritual Body"

Given that the Apostle Paul was clear about Christ being "the savior of the body" (see Rom. 8:11, Eph. 5:23, 1 Cor. 15, Phil. 3:21), it is strange that these Gnostic-type ideas should have permeated so deeply into Christianity. Even though Christ was clearly corporeal after being raised from the dead (he ate and drank, people could touch him, and he explicitly said, "I am not a ghost"), it has become commonplace for many Christians to believe that resurrection means something other than the resurrection of the body.

Part of the problem has hinged on a misunderstanding of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul opens this chapter with a defense of our Lord's resurrection against those who were denying it (15:1–19, 29–34), but his mind moves naturally from Christ's resurrection to the resurrection of all believers (15:20–28, 50–58). Thus, the chapter ends with the famous promise that we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet (15:52).

In the middle of this discussion, the apostle addresses a question that some people had apparently been asking him—namely, "What will the resurrected body be like?" His answer occupies the middle section of the chapter, verses 35–49. The tricky words occur in verse 44, when he is contrasting our present mortal body with our future resurrected body. Paul writes, "It is sown a natural[psychikos]body; it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikos] body." Given the associations we have with the term "spiritual," it has been easy for many people to assume that the antithesis Paul is making here is between a physical body and a non-physical body. The RSV even makes this false assumption explicit when it translates verse 44 to read, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body."

The problem can be solved by delving into the original Greek. In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright explains how the original audience at Corinth would have understood verse 44:

He speaks of two sorts of body, the present one and the future one. He uses two key adjectives to describe these two bodies. Unfortunately, many translations get him radically wrong at this point, leading to the widespread supposition that for Paul the new body would be a spiritual body in the sense of a nonmaterial body, a body that in Jesus' case wouldn't have left an empty tomb behind it. . . . The contrast he is making is not between what we would mean by a present physical body and what we would mean by a future spiritual one, but between a present body animated by the normal human soul and a future body animated by God's spirit. . . . Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble post-mortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily
death. . . .

The first word, psychikos, does not in any case mean anything like "physical" in our sense. For Greek speakers of Paul's day, the psyche, from which the word derives, means the soul, not the body.

But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in -ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the different between asking, on the one hand, 'Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?' (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, 'Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?' (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyche (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God's pneuma, God's breath of new life, the energizing power of God's new creation.

This is why, in a further phrase that became controversial as early as the mid-second century, Paul declares that 'flesh and blood cannot inherit God's Kingdom.' He doesn't mean that physicality will be abolished. 'Flesh and blood' is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we call nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.

The early Church, which spoke Greek as its native tongue, understood these distinctions. Many of the church fathers (including Irenaeus, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the writers of the Didache, Justin Martyr, Tertullian) went to great lengths to make clear that the bodies of departed Christians will be raised in a way comparable to the resurrection of Christ. While the resurrected body will be many things we cannot presently imagine (1 Cor. 2:9, 15:35–38, 1 John 3:2), we can be sure it will be physical.

Sacraments of Divine Glory

Dorothy Sayers grasped this with a clarity possessed by few other twentieth-century writers. As an antidote to the Gnosticism around her, she spoke in Further Papers on Dante of the "holy and glorious flesh" that Christ had purchased with his blood on the cross, and the resulting need for us to honor material things as very sacraments of the divine glory:

The visible universe is not an illusion, nor a mere aspect of Divinity, nor identical with god (as in Pantheism), still less a 'fall into matter' and an evil delusion (as in the various Gnostic or Manichee cults). It is made by God, as an artist makes a work of art, and given a genuine, though contingent, real existence of its own, so that it can stand over against Him and know Him as its real Other. . . . From the Incarnation springs the whole doctrine of sacraments—the indwelling of the mortal by the immortal, of the material by the spiritual, the phenomenal by the real. After an analogous manner, we all bear about with us not only the immortal soul but also the glorified body in which we shall be known at the Resurrection, though now it is known only to God, or to those to whom love may reveal it. It is this that lies at the bottom of Dante's whole Beatrician Vision: because he loved the mortal Florentine girl, it was given to him to behold her, as it were, walking the earth in her body of glory. And this is why, in the Commedia, a stress so disconcerting to the minds of those who like their religion to be very "spiritual" is laid continually upon her bodily beauty. A sure mark of Catholic Christianity is the honouring of the "holy and glorious flesh", and indeed of all material things, because they are sacraments and symbols of the Divine glory. 

Robin Phillips is the author of Saints and Scoundrels (Canon Press) and has a Master's degree in historical theology through King's College, London. He works as a freelance writer for a variety of publications and operates a blog at

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