Book 3 Chapter 25 Section 1-12
In the final chapter in Book 3 Calvin brings us back to the heart of the gospel and the subject of the last resurrection. After the complex sections on election and predestination, this is a welcome return to the centre of Christianity and a great way to finish off what has been a fruitful journey through the life of the Christian. I have broken this chapter down into three sections:
1. The difficulty of faith – Calvin introduces his topic by stating that unless we understand the nature of hope we will find the path too hard and soon become discouraged with the many difficulties we face. Our hope and faith are in things unseen, and yet our many trials are all too readily before our eyes – how important it is then to have a sure foundation for our hope lest “worn out with fatigue we either turn backwards or abandon our post.” Indeed, we can now understand why faith is so rare in the world for “nothing being more difficult for our sluggishness than to surmount innumerable obstacles in striving for the prize of our high calling.” So how does this tie in with the resurrection? Well, Calvin reminds us that “he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection.”
2. The importance of the resurrection – as we have seen above, the promise of the resurrection is important in sustaining our hope. However, Calvin recognises how rare a belief in the resurrection is among the mankind, particularly the philosophers. Indeed, while many assert the immortality of the soul, few believe in the resurrection of the body. Calvin admits that a belief in a bodily resurrection is above natural human apprehension, but “to enable faith to surmount this great difficulty” scripture has provided two auxiliary proofs: firstly, “the one the likeness (example) of Christ’s resurrection, and the other the omnipotence of God.” Calvin exhorts us to remember our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Knowing that this union must be completed one day by our resurrection to join him where he is. All our hope rests on Christ’s resurrection, for if Christ be not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15.13-17). Secondly, if God is omnipotent, then nothing is impossible for him – Calvin reminds us of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones and Paul’s reference to the grain of wheat that even in the midst of its corruption is able to bring forth new life (1 Cor 15.36).
3. The nature of the resurrection – Calvin considers it futile to speculate where the place of abode is until they are raised for “the dimension of the soul is not same as that of the body”. The faithful depart to “the bosom of Abraham”, meaning the presence of the Lord. Calvin also considers the nature of the resurrection body and has little time for those who expect to “obtain a new and different body”. He explains that we shall posses the same body in regard to substance but it will different in quality. The mode of the resurrection will depend on whether we are alive at the time of the last day or whether we died long ago. For the former “it will not be necessary that a period should elapse between death and the beginning of the new life.” Finally we are reminded that “there will be one resurrection to judgement and another to life”, for all will be raised to receive the just reward for their life on earth.
Calvin issues a stark contrast between the destinations for the faithful and the rebellious. For the former he exhorts us to “always remember that the end of the resurrection is eternal happiness, of whose excellence scarcely the minutest part can be described by all that human tongues can say.” However, for the latter, “as language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, unextinguishable fire and the ever-gnawing worm.”
“Away beyond the blue,
One star belongs to you.
And every breath I take
I’m closer to that place.
I’m gonna meet you there,
On the outskirts of the sky.
I’m gonna meet you there.
And we will fly”
These are the lyrics of Beyond the Blue, a beautiful, soulful song by Beth Neilson Chapman, a song that reminds us of our mortality and the longing for reunion beyond the grave. But in contrast to the ethereal hope described in this song, the resurrection of the believer is something much more down-to-earth. In fact our hope is to come up-from-the-earth, that rather than being a vague spirit wondering the universe, we will once again fill our fleshly bodies. Bodies that will be undeniably and individually “us”, but at the same time have a depth of quality that we have never experienced. Ours is to be a fully human resurrection. This is our hope, and our expectation.
But let us not forget the fate awaiting those without Christ on that day. When they will see the glory revealed in the children of God, the majesty of their creator, the beauty of Jesus, and yet be eternally banished from his presence. They will be given their bodies back, but not for eternal blessedness and communion with God, rather for eternal separation from God. While our minds struggle to grasp the depth of this judgement may we live in such a way as to rescue many “brands from the fire”. Brands that on the final day we will meet again and who will thank us for extending the love of Jesus to them.
“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12.3