God is life, full stop. Mortal beings that we are, we cannot imagine life that is not in some way spoiled by the corroding power of death. With Saint Paul, we praise the King of kings and Lord of lords, “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). We praise him because he alone is im-mortal, untainted by mors. God alone is life, untouched whatsoever by death.
Yet the same Apostle Paul, when he talks about the resurrection, claims that we shall be changed on the last day: This corruptible must put on incorruption, this mortal must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). We, our bodies, shall become incorruptible, immortal—surely an astounding thing if immortality is strictly the prerogative of God.
The church’s first sermon ever—that of Saint Peter in Acts 2—deals with corruption and death. Peter, I suppose, had been forced to come to grips with the issue, after his upper room experience. Jesus had come through shut doors (which only immortal bodies can possibly do), but then had shown him his hands and his feet (which showed unmistakable traces of death). What kind of body was it, Peter must have wondered, that comes through doors and yet shows mortal wounds?
Peter’s post-Easter sermon shows that his vision of the risen Lord had taken him back to the Scriptures, and in particular to Psalm 16, where David entrusts himself to God: “Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption” (Ps. 16:27).
The question pressed itself upon Peter: What might these words of the psalmist convey? Remarkably, Peter ignores any meaning these words might have had for David himself. David, he suggests, both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us today. In other words, David was abandoned to Hades. David did see corruption. So, David must be a prophet, speaking of somebody else: David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:31–32).
Psalm 16, Peter says, is not just about David; it is first and foremost about Christ. In fairness, David will have taken comfort from singing these words, “Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption” (Ps. 16:27). And we take comfort from them as well. For we, along with David, benefit from our Lord’s incorruptible body. But, as the great Apostle says, each in his own order: Christ is the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:23); we, with David, make up the rest of the harvest. Scripture is always first about Christ; it is always only second about us. Whatever hope David expresses, whatever hope you and I entertain, it all stems from the incorruptible resurrection life of our Lord.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is a remarkable promise, not just because the thief’s history would seem to put it in doubt, but also because Jesus himself was about to die. His body would go to the grave, his soul to Hades—the realm of the dead. Death separates: The body goes one way, the soul another.
Paradise is a heavenly place where neither sin nor corruption can enter. That is why Christ ordered cherubim with flaming swords to guard the east entrance after Adam had sinned. The tree of life—paradisal life immortal—was now out of reach.
We dare not think of Paradise in earthly terms. It is a place far more glorious than we have ever seen or ever can imagine. It is a heavenly place, for it is where Christ forever dwells in glory—incorruptible, immortal. When we are with Christ, we are in Paradise.
“Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption,” confesses David in Psalm 16. Here is Peter’s reading of the psalm: Christ’s death is unlike David’s death; Christ’s death is unlike any other death. Why? Because Christ’s death is a death that conquers death; Christ’s death is a death that brings us back to Paradise.
Reflect for a moment on those three days. What happened to Christ’s body? We know what Martha thought was happening to Lazarus’s flesh: “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39). I’m not sure what happened to Lazarus’s flesh during those four days. But we do know that the flesh of Christ did not see corruption. The reason is simple: Jesus having conquered death upon the cross, his body took on incorruptibility and immortality. Jesus’s body in the grave did not decompose; it did not corrupt.
Jesus’s soul, separated from his body, was in Paradise. It is the place where Abraham received a mansion. It is the place where David went to sing his psalms forever. It is the place where poor Lazarus went when finally he was relieved of all his sores. It is the place where the thief went, too, after he had breathed his last upon the cross. Christ’s death on the cross unlocks the gate to Paradise. His death on a tree opens the gate to the tree of life. His death is why Abraham is there. It’s why David is there. It’s why Lazarus is there. And it, too, is why the thief is there.
We don’t know what it is like for the thief to enjoy the tree of life in Paradise. But it seems beyond doubt that he is there in the company of Abraham, David, Lazarus, Jesus—for all their souls are paradisal souls, sharing in the immortality of God.
Easter is good news: Christ’s body is raised immortal, incorruptible—joined together with his soul in paradisal glory—so much so, that Peter sees it entering through doors that are closed.
Easter is good news: Our bodies too will be raised immortal, incorruptible—joined together with our souls in paradisal glory. They’ll be like bodies entering through doors that are closed.
Only God is life; only God is immortal. But our God is not a stingy God. He is a God who shares. He shares his life with us because he shares his Son with us. Saint Paul puts it this way: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Life to your mortal bodies . . . that is an Easter gift, for at Easter, God does the most amazing thing of all: He shares his life and immortality with us.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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