The Nicodemus Problem
The church has a Nicodemus problem. Perhaps you remember the fraught dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-21. Nicodemus, introduced in the story as a Pharisee and one of the “rulers of the Jews,” politely approaches Jesus as a miracle worker, presumably leading up to some theological question or challenge, but Jesus doesn’t wait for the question. He says to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth: unless someone is born anew, they will not be able to see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus responds, “How can anyone be born when they are old? Are they able to enter the womb of their mother a second time and be born?”
Typically, Nicodemus’s response is taken as a misunderstanding: Jesus is talking on a spiritual level; Nicodemus, on a physical level. But this misses the point of Nicodemus’s comment. He is not talking about physical birth any more than is Jesus. What he is saying in response to Jesus is that after seeing the world from one point of view—the “mother” tradition of which he is a part—it’s hard or perhaps impossible to see it differently. Can one, he is asking, having lived so long with one understanding of God, now suddenly see things in a new way? Theologies, traditions, readings of scripture harden into dogma. We see the faith in certain ways. Once we see scripture or tradition in a certain way, we have a hard time unseeing it.
This seems to be the case with the early chapters of Genesis, especially the story of the Garden of Eden (and its Cain and Abel sequel). Traditional theology—the sort of theology I learned in Sunday School and was taught again in seminary—reads the garden story in terms of a perfect beginning and a subsequent fall for the human race. In an earlier post (Barbie), I gave the story a reading that takes into account the rather different way the story reads in the light of the concerns of the Mesopotamian literary tradition into which the biblical story belatedly emerged—a reading, not incidentally, shared by the Barbie movie. I’ll not repeat that discussion here except to comment on one feature of the traditional theological interpretation: the idea—a peverse idea, I might add—of human perfection.
I was taught, and probably you, too, that the first human beings—call them Adam and Eve—were perfect. To be fair, the best traditional theologians recognize that this perfection is “relative” (Louis Berkhof’s term; see his Systematic Theology, 226-8). Berkhof adds, “This does not mean that he [sic] had already reached the highest state of excellence of which he was susceptible.” The first humans were, Berkhof says, rather like children, still learning their way.
But we shouldn’t let Berkhof and other such theologians off too easily in this regard. The notion of perfection is hardly transparent in this theology. What does it mean for humans to be perfect? The perfect height, the perfect weight, the perfect hair? And what color would that be?
Or turn it around: what would constitute an imperfection? A limp? Less than 20-20 vision? Adam, growing old, having trouble hearing Eve? Or Eve developing a bit of arthritis in the knee? Does a perfect human experience no pain? Never drop a piece of fruit and say, well, whatever a perfect human would say when things don’t go the way she or he wishes? In the Barbie movie one of the first clues that things are not going the way they should is that Barbie’s arched feet (made for high heels) fall down. She is consigned to wearing Birkenstocks. What is the Birkenstock equivalent for the Garden of Eden story?
The problem with the idea of human perfection is that it assumes a prototypical human being—a Barbie or a Ken. But these ideas of perfection are culturally relative. What did Adam and Eve look like? What color was their skin? Was their intelligence in the normal range or was it superior? The more one pushes on the idea of human perfection, the less coherent the idea becomes.
But, you say, it’s not that kind of perfection (although, as we will see, it is just that kind of perfection people have in mind); it’s moral perfection. Humans were sinless. Perfect in just this sense. Never mind that this is not what the story says. It does not say of Adam and Eve that they were perfect. I’ve already established in other places that this theology is not actually based on Genesis 2-3; if it’s biblical at all, it based on a reading of the Genesis story in Romans 5, and even there it misreads the passage. The idea of right and wrong—of a moral code—does not exist in the garden, any more than it exists for animals. Adam and Eve, like Ken and Barbie in the movie, just do what they do. They don’t make moral judgments. For moral judgments, you need, well, the knowledge of good and evil,
An aside here. The command of God in the story, the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is portrayed rather carefully as a warning. A warning is not a moral command. A warning is what you give to your two-year-old when you say firmly, “Don’t touch the stove.” This is how Eve understands the command. She says to the serpent, “Of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden God said, ‘Don’t eat it or touch it lest you die’” (3:3). It’s a “don’t touch” command. Disobey the command, and consequences follow.
Morality requires something more: a sense of justice, of right and wrong. Adam and Eve at the beginning of the story are not so much morally perfect as morally oblivious. Morality itself has not yet intruded into the garden. Traditional theology’s insistence on construing Eve’s (and later Adam’s) eating of the fruit as a great offense against God doesn’t arise from the story itself but from the need to make this a fall story. Even then, it’s not really convincing: would a human parent, let alone a loving God, condemn an entire species to hell because they touched what they should not have touched?
But let me not get lost in the weeds. All of this becomes clearer if we turn it around. Instead of looking backward toward the origins of human beings, we might look forward to the future—to the Christian teaching about resurrection. For resurrection, we have two primary biblical sources: one is the resurrection appearances of Jesus in the gospels; The other, Paul’s extended commentary on resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. There are many other biblical references, of course, but these have served to shape Christian teaching.
Both suggest the same thing: in resurrection there is continuity and discontinuity. Resurrection bodies are both the same as before and different. Take the gospel stories of the risen Jesus. The disciples initially have trouble recognizing Jesus—discontinuity—but then they do. They do because of the way he breaks the bread, the way he speaks, and the wounds on his body. Paul does the same. In his elegant disquisition on resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 he mostly assumes continuity and spends much of his time on the discontinuity: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (15:42-44a).
In both the resurrection stories and in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 commentary on resurrection, what is new seems to be the basis for life. It is no longer strictly biological, subject to the rules of biology: Paul’s “spiritual body” and Jesus entering a room without going through the door. That sort of thing. This should caution us not to think of resurrection as resuscitation.
But it’s not discontinuity that’s important for us here but continuity. Whatever resurrection means, it must be me who is resurrected. But which me? The 20-year-old I once was? The 40-year-old in the prime of life? The 60-year-old I was too many years ago? The person I am now with a body that is beginning to fail me? Or, if I live on for more years, the senile old man I may become?
You say in response that at the resurrection whatever has gone wrong with my body will be fixed. But what does that mean? Suppose the person I am or will become is very much tied up with some “imperfection” in my body. Suppose I have come to my way of thinking because I can’t see well or at all? Or that I have developed a rich inner life because I can’t hear? Or that I was born with Down Syndrome, and the person I have become cannot be separated from that fact about my life?
The issue here is whether in the resurrection God raises up actual people or some idealized form of people. We like to quote in this regard Isaiah 40:31, “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Or Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” But the question is not about the new order per se; It’s about who I am in the new order. And if who I am is inseparable from my “imperfections,” then in some sense my “imperfections” must accompany me into the next life.
Our clue here is Jesus, the risen Jesus, whose resurrected body bears the scars of the cross. He carries his suffering into the future. In the language of the book of Revelation, he remains even in glory a wounded lamb (Revelation 5). This is who he is. Scars are a kind of imperfection, but Jesus is not Jesus without them.
The Perversity of Perfection
Perhaps you see where this is going. The idea of perfection, whether applied to creation or to resurrection quickly becomes perverse. Looking back to the beginning, we imagine Adam and Eve as prototypes. This is just what the report on human sexuality presented to Synod 2022 of the Christian Reformed Church did. The report insisted that the human race started from a pristine pair. No hint, the report argues, of the variations in human sexuality that now occur. And from that the report concludes that the variations in sexuality that now appear must be seen as imperfections—a falling off the standard by which human beings should be judged.
This argument is silly on many counts. It misreads the Bible. It does not take into account basic science. It does square with our experience. There is no and never has been a human prototype, no Ken and Barbie at the dawn of history. Human beings have always come with variations: height, weight, eye color, intelligence, sexuality, and more. Much more.
I often encounter the same argument for the other end of human history. Well-meaning people tell me that sexual variations in the human race are the result of the fall and that at the resurrection, they will be “corrected.” Presumably this means that queer people will become straight. But will they then be the people they now are? It would be a bit like taking a Picasso portrait from his Cubist period and rearranging it so that all the pieces of the face were in the “right” location. Doing so might serve someone’s idea of the way things should be, but the painting would no longer be Picasso. It would instead be most likely something drab and boring.
God is a better artist than our theology will allow. God sees perfection where we see imperfection. God loves actual people, not “perfect” people, and actual people come in many shapes and sizes, many ways of thinking and many ways of loving. The idea of perfection when applied to Adam and Eve or to a resurrected you or me is someone else’s idea of what humans should be like.
Here’s to the actual you.