The Body and Theodicy

There are only two ways to think theologically of the human body. The first is that it is merely an instrument to some extent designed by God and to some extent evolved to allow human beings (who are essentially spirits) to interact with the material world. The sensations we have (the sensual appetite, whose passions are pleasure and pain being distinguished from the intellectual appetite or the will, which experiences joy and sorrow) permit us to know which actions make us happy and which unhappy. Thus we are in reality "angels in costume," as Peter Kreeft explains this position. There is no resurrection of the body, but rather eternal heavenly existence for the righteous after death as pure spirits equal to angels contemplating the infinite divine essence. We are only in this world to learn how to love by doing good and fighting evil, etc. The body is a tool, a means to an end, and death is a liberation from its prison and a passage to glory and eternal happiness.

The second way to think of the body is that it is, on the contrary, an essential part of being human. Either separated souls do not really have true identities (that is, they are not "I"s) and wait in some celestial storage for their bodies to be reconstituted to them; or the souls, while being perfectly conscious and happy in heaven to the extent that souls can be happy, nonetheless "miss" their bodies and yearn to be reunited with them. In that case after the resurrection their happiness "overflows" into their perfect and incorruptible bodies and thereby increases. Or, at least, that's how St. Thomas Aquinas figures it.

Now prima facie, the second way is far more appealing. To imagine the body as a utilitarian invention designed to get us to manipulate physical objects is to treat it as something foreign to us, something which we have been stuck to enable us to progress in virtue as a wayfarer to glory. If the body is working perfectly, most of the time you feel simply Ok; if something goes wrong (and the enormous complexity of the human body and the ubiquity of the organisms that greatly desire to "do us in" and other dangers ensure that something always goes wrong), it can be torture. It is almost as if the body is designed to make us miserable. But to allow oneself to be swept up by such arguments is to imagine the body to be an evil, something to be endured until the release through death. And that has been recognized and condemned as a Christian heresy for a long time.

It can be argued at this point that the body is still good because it serves God's (and our) purposes, though not as an end but as a means. Yet even that causes us to despise the body as a hindrance, a thing to be shed after one goes on to his reward. But we know instinctively that the body is a good thing. The pleasures of touch and intimacy or of food or the beauty of the sunset... surely, the angels must envy us sometimes.

Further, bodily delight feels "natural," as if it is right that we feel it. (Aquinas writes, for example, that insensitivity is as much a vice as lust.) There is something not quite right with the idea that heavenly pleasures are purely intellectual. Great and exalted though such pleasures are, to lose the ability to feel sensual delight seems unsettling. It is true that the union with the divine spouse is the greatest joy there can be, but the "overflow" of happiness into the body, despite the purely spiritual joys of mystical ecstasies, seems somehow fitting to us.

Further, according to St. Thomas, we are to love our bodies (though with intensity lower than our love for God, our souls, and our neighbor's souls). That, too, indicates that bodies are good intrinsically.

But if we adopt this second view of the body, then we immediately face very difficult problems. For how to reconcile the connaturalness and goodness as an end of the human body with the fact that bodies get sick and ultimately die? Why does something so good break so often and is destroyed at the end? Death is odd precisely because in dealing with it we must act contrary to everything we learn to do in life. If life is a struggle for happiness in which we must never give up, then death is, on the contrary, something that demands that we do give up. It is not a matter of if, but of when and how. (And here the problems of medical care for the terminally ill, euthanasia, etc., come up.) Why did the perfectly good God make our bodies corruptible?

To answer this question, an impressive edifice has been erected in Christian theology. It all starts, of course, with the Garden of Eden some 6,000 years ago. The doctrine states that man was seduced by Satan and sinned through pride by desiring to be as God. That was the Original Sin, the Fall, as a result of which Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden to fend for themselves in the world. The Incarnation of the Word in human flesh took away this original sin and redeemed the fallen humanity by reconciling us with God the Father. The resurrection of the body will follow the Second Coming of Christ and Final Judgment. Finally, physical evil, pain and suffering are our punishments for the sins of our first parents.

This explanation admits numerous objections from the most basic to the more subtle. Yet, surprisingly, replies can be found to many of them. Let us see what we can learn from dissecting this view.

First, it would appear that if the Garden and the angel with the flaming sword who guards it existed on this earth, then they must still exist, and in that case they would have been discovered a long time ago, as almost all of the earth has been populated or, at least, explored and mapped. Now to this argument Aquinas replies that "The situation of paradise is shut off from the habitable world by mountains, or seas, or some torrid region, which cannot be crossed; and so people who have written about topography make no mention of it." But in the age of Google Earth, that answer seems somewhat quaint.

A possible reply is that what happened to the Garden of Eden is really beside the point. Maybe it turned invisible or been taken up into heaven or indeed resides deep in some African jungle (or the North Pole?). The most important claim of traditional theodicy, namely, that physical and moral evil are punishments for the Original Sin, does not depend in any way on the highly peripheral difficulty of the fate of the Garden.

And yet, peripheral or not, it is a problem.

Second, the world is billions of years old which seems to contradict the Biblical account of the Fall.

William Dembski suggests that one could reconcile early Genesis with old earth and modern science by saying that God foreknew Adam and Eve's sin and because of that created a world which always had physical evil. The Garden of Eden in which He placed the first humans was a safe heaven, a paradise amid a hostile world, in which Adam and Eve resided awaiting their temptation and Fall. Once the forbidden fruit was eaten, God pushed our couple out, their punishment having been already prepared for them. Therefore even though physical evil predates the Fall in chronos, it follows it in kairos which "denotes time in combination with purpose."

Yet ingenious though it is, Dembski's theory does not help us understand why God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden in the first place. Was it a test? But why did Adam need to be tested? The trials we experience in this life result either in glory (something greater than natural happiness) or contempt (something less). Adam, if he had persevered, would simply have continued to enjoy the amenities of the world in which he had been created. Nor was Adam apparently shamed upon sinning; at least we read of no such thing in the Bible. What was the point?

Third, though there have surely been design events in the past, which are God's grace manifesting itself as inventive problem solving and engineering improvements in creatures (since unaided nature has not sufficient creative powers), I find it somewhat more plausible that human beings have arisen from their more primitive ancestors rather than been specially created. In other words, life has come only from other life.

To that one could point out that there is nothing contradictory in the idea that there was a special creation of human beings. For if life had to be specially created, and I find that extremely plausible, then why not other species, including humans?

Yet there appears to be a progression of species from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans all the way to Homo sapiens, each of which is closer to us than the one before. Did Homo heidelbergensis evolve through grace, yet Homo sapiens created through a miracle? Or was there a some sort of dual creation?

Fourth, human beings have a long pre-history that begins hundreds of thousands of years ago. Could the Garden of Eden have existed so long ago?

Again, we could reply that the time of the first couple's expulsion is not really that crucial to the Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, it would throw into doubt the Biblical genealogies with many of which we are presented in the Good Book.

Fifth, the childish question of whether Adam and Eve's children committed incest in order to populate the world is completely unanswerable by any Christian devoted to the account of creation given in Genesis. Was this sort of thing allowed then though not now?

Strange as it might sound at first, the answer could simply be "Yes, why not?"

Sixth, and relatedly, consider Gen 4:13-14. "Cain said to the LORD, 'My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.'" Who could possibly find Cain when he, Adam, and Eve were at that time the only, as far as the text lets us know, humans on earth?

This could certainly be read as, let's say, a parable of crime and punishment. And yet the transition from our three people to entire civilizations covering the Middle East when we get to Noah and then to Abram is so quick that we are left to wonder how "men began to increase in number on the earth" at such fast pace and how "from [the clans of Noah's sons] the nations spread out over the earth after the flood."

Seventh, the world contains many races and nationalities that differ in physical and mental capacities to a great extent; furthermore, human beings are found in all corners of the world. While human origins is a controversial topic even among paleoanthropologists, that all human beings who have ever lived arose from a single pair of first humans seems dubious. Might there not have been, for example, evolutionary biological convergence?

The existence of Mitochondrial Eve (and Adam, too), defined as most recent common matrilineal ancestor of all humans alive today, it could be replied, contradicts any multiple-origins theory. Convergence may have occurred at some earlier time with respect to the ancestors of human beings, but probably not within the past several hundred thousand years.

Now let us get a little more sophisticated.

Eighth, if Adam and Even had not sinned, none of us would now exist. They would still be in the Garden. The evil of their expulsion from the Garden has thus resulted in a great good: life for billions.

St. Thomas sees this problem when he writes that "In the state of innocence there would have been generation of offspring for the multiplication of the human race; otherwise man's sin would have been very necessary, for such a great blessing to be its result." (ST, I, 98, 1) Further, "our first parents did not come together in paradise, because on account of sin they were ejected from paradise shortly after the creation of the woman; or because, having received the general Divine command relative to generation, they awaited the special command relative to time." (2, reply 2)

According to our doctor, man in his innocent state would have possessed all the knowledge proper to him and all the virtues, properly understood. Moreover, grace would have encountered no obstacles in him and therefore absolutely his actions would have been more meritorious than human actions after the Fall.

Similarly, and ninth, remember that even in the Garden man did not see the essence of God. He was immortal and his body was impassable through divine grace, but he did not enjoy the vision of nor the union with God that the blessed enjoy in heaven. He further had no wisdom (the ability to judge good and evil), yet it was Christ who said that we are to be wise as serpents (Mt 10:16). If he had not been thrown out, no descendent of Adam would have seen the face of God and the fullness of truth, in which man's greatest happiness consists. Once again, the evil of the Original Sin has resulted in the far greater good of salvation and eternal bliss for many. Now while the last two points can be regarded as God's making good even out of evil, the evil seems so trivial while the good so enormous that it would have to be obviously planned for and used by God for His own ends. And so the means are fully justified by the end and are therefore good, as well.

In addition, according to Gen 3:22, "And the LORD God said, 'The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.'" Nowhere does it say that man wanted to define good and evil for himself, as some Christians preposterously believe; only that after eating the forbidden fruit he came to know good and evil inasmuch as these are "objective" or bounded by human nature. This is corroborated by the fact that Adam and Eve made coverings for themselves out of leaves, understanding that walking around naked was, in fact, really, shameful. If it is objected that they suddenly started to feel sexual attraction for each other, then the reply is that it is no sin either.

Just think of what kind of creatures Adam and Eve had been before. Did they perhaps engage in scientific study of the things in the Garden? Unlikely, and without technology they would not get far anyway. Did they make beautiful music or create art for the glory of God? No. Did they do works of mercy? Certainly not; there was no one to do good to. They were, it would seem, little more than zombies.

What can a defender of tradition say in response to this argument? Could the Original Sin have indeed been necessary? And if so, should we not dispense with such a self-contradiction altogether? One would think so, until one reads the following near-death experience account by Howard Storm:

I inquired [of the Light and the angels] as to where the world would be going in an optimistic future -- one where some of the changes they desired were to take place. The image of the future that they gave me then, and it was their image, not one that I created, surprised me.

My image had previously been sort of like Star Wars, where everything was space age, plastics, and technology. The future that they showed me was almost no technology at all.

What everybody, absolutely everybody, in this euphoric future spent most of their time doing was raising children. The chief concern of people was children, and everybody considered children to be the most precious commodity in the world. And when a person became an adult, there was no sense of anxiety, nor hatred, nor competition. There was this enormous sense of trust and mutual respect. ...

What people did with the rest of their time was that they gardened, with almost no physical effort. They showed me that plants, with prayer, would produce huge fruits and vegetables. People, in unison, could control the climate of the planet through prayer. Everybody would work with mutual trust -- and the people would call the rain, when needed, and the sun to shine. Animals lived with people, in harmony.

People, in this best of all worlds, weren't interested in knowledge; they were interested in wisdom. This was because they were in a position where anything they needed to know, in the knowledge category, they could receive simply through prayer. Everything, to them, was solvable. They could do anything they wanted to do.

In this future, people had no wanderlust, because they could, spiritually, communicate with everyone else in the world. There was no need to go elsewhere. They were so engrossed with where they were and the people around them that they didn't have to go on vacation. Vacation from what? They were completely fulfilled and happy.

Death, in this world, was a time when the individual had experienced everything that he or she needed to experience. To die meant to lie down and let go; then the spirit would rise up, and the community would gather around. There would be a great rejoicing, because they all had insight into the heavenly realm, and the spirit would join with the angels that came down to meet it. They could see the spirit leave and knew that it was time for the spirit to move on; it had outgrown the need for growth in this world. Individuals who died had achieved all they were capable of in this world in terms of love, appreciation, understanding, and working in harmony with others.

The sense I got of this beautiful view of the world's future was as a garden, God's garden. And in this garden of the world, full of all beauty, were people. The people were born into this world to grow in their understanding of the Creator. Then to shed this skin, this shell, in the physical world, and to graduate and move up into heaven -- there, to have a more intimate and growing relationship with God.

Storm's vision bears a remarkable resemblance to St. Thomas' idea of the world that might have existed if there had been no Original Sin (including its inhabitants' righteousness and near-perfect knowledge of matters related to this universe). And since it contains no contradictions, even perhaps in its description of death and passage to heaven, it can serve as a reply to the objection.

Tenth, the very possibility of sin logically precludes immortality in this world (because in infinite time all possibilities would be realized, including that of suicide). Yet Adam and his children which would populate the world retained the potential to sin. Even if Adam has remained steadfast, how likely is it that his billions of descendants would? Even if sin was not necessary, could it have been practically inevitable?

This is a difficult objection, and any suggestions are welcome.

Eleventh, perhaps Christ's main achievement was earning the right from His Father to forgive actual sins. Before sins were not forgiven and no one could go to heaven, since no one is without sin. (Only Christ attained salvation solely on His own merits. Mary, too, though her success was accidental due to special divine grace in that she could sin but did not, while Christ's was essential in that He could not sin.) And since the Son's love is unconditional, while the Father's love is conditional, now all sins are forgiven to those who accept the Son's forgiveness and love.

To that it could be replied that Christ performed both feats. Or, one can defend the orthodox position as follows. The main problem indeed was the Father's punishments for the Original Sin. These included the temporal punishments of bodily suffering and death and the eternal punishment of the privation of the kingdom of heaven. And just as the sacrament of confession transmutes the eternal punishment into a temporal one, so, too, did Christ remove the eternal penalty for the Original Sin while keeping the temporal ones. Thus, men were granted heaven, yet they were not returned into the Garden of Eden.

Twelfth, if we are not to be spirits in heaven forever but will regain our bodies, what kind of society will there be on this new earth? Will there be space and time as they are here? The sun and the moon? Will there be different geographical locations? Will people feel bodily hunger or sexual desire as bodies seem to do naturally? Will there be scarcity, an economy, a division of labor, social cooperation, money, the stock market, production and consumption? How about private property, legal disputes, lawyers, governments, etc.? Even if the resurrected bodies are perfect, can a perfect human society be conceived? I admit that here my powers of imagination fail utterly.

A reply can be simply that "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Cor 2:9)

The thirteenth objection concerns the problems with the notion of the Second Coming of Christ. I mention some of them elsewhere. In thinking about it we may want to appeal to the principle of becoming. Things are born, they mature, grow old, and die. If we are to speculate on the fate of the human race, then that is the vision of unfolding history that we must heed, if, indeed, this sort of biological law applies to human societies. I, for one, find it more plausible that any other possibility that the human race may die out simply because people will refuse to have children. Fertility rates in advanced countries are plummeting, and this could be just the beginning. Then, once the last human being dies, the world will cease to have a reason for its existence and will be destroyed.

Nevertheless, just because the Second Coming is an extremely obscure piece of dogma does not mean that God will not be able to surprise us with His solution to it.

Fourteenth, St. Thomas puts forward the following potent objection:

Further, all are equally descended from our first parents. Therefore if death were the punishment of our first parents' sin, it would follow that all men would suffer death in equal measure. But this is clearly untrue, since some die sooner, and some more painfully, than others. Therefore death is not the punishment of the first sin. (ST, II-II, 164, 1, reply 4)

The angelic doctor's reply is that while the punishment proper, death, is the same for everybody, how we come to die is in a way not God's concern.

Fifteenth, why should we be punished for our ancestor's deeds? This is the most obvious objection. But I think that St. Thomas answers it well enough.

Sixteenth, our nature is supposed to be corrupted by the original sin. But this sounds strange. For people are simply not perfectly loving, nor omnipotent, nor omniscient. Though strictly speaking sin is not necessary, people who attain the age of reason will make mistakes. The world and ourselves are simply too complicated in order for our strivings for happiness to be flawless. And, of course, though we pay for our mistakes, we also learn from them. To blame our bumbling on the disobedience of Adam and Eve makes little sense, as it is completely natural for us not to be perfectly selfless, or so powerful as to overcome any obstacle to happiness, or perfectly cognizant of how to attain happiness. We improve as we gain experience in life, but the process of spiritual growth is long and hard and painful. If God wanted to ensure that there was no such thing as sin (error), He should have made us as perfect as He Himself is.

The claim here is that this time actual sin is inevitable. True, but the reply is that it in no way shows the falsity of the Biblical account. God's original grace to the species man was taken away, and we are now left to our own devices.

It seems then that the case for the correctness of the orthodox doctrine is at worst inconclusive. And therefore it is unclear whether the body should be regarded as intrinsically good or as an instrument and a means to an end. To invoke again near-death experiences, people who have had them report that heaven is far more complicated than we think, and that perception, communication, personal identity, etc. are quite possible without bodies. (Alternatively, we can suppose that separated souls are re-embodied immediately after death.) I think it would be prudent at this point to hold one's opinion until more data are in.

October 1, 2006

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