A friend recently recounted a conversation with his precocious 10 year old. Their child had sustained an injury some years ago which means that they now have an obvious scar, and the subject of how this makes them feel regularly surfaces. On this particular occasion the conversation turned to the dividing line in their life between before and after,
‘I sometimes think about my life before the accident, when I didn’t have a scar, but now I do. It feels so different and I wish I could go back.’
My friend felt the weight of these words heavily, but from a clear blue sky he spoke a thought which he hadn’t previously worked through fully,
‘Just think of the Lord Jesus. He was born with no scars, and yet he got so many before his death and during his time on the cross. He has even taken those scars with him back to heaven, they’re now part of who he is.’
This thought intrigued the little one with the big burden to bear,
‘Do you think I’ll have my scar in my resurrection body Daddy?’
He responded, again surprising himself with his own words,
‘I don’t know, but if you do it will be a mark of God’s grace and help to you through this; it will be a sight which speaks joy rather than sadness, and you’ll know that that kind of accident will never happen again.’
I have been mulling those words over ever since, thinking through what we naturally do with the idea of a glorified body, with the cessation of pain, with the hope of a better Day in heaven. I have been wondering if our view of glory might be too simplistic, if our perspective on where pain fits in the Final State of perfect blessedness might be too narrow, and if we might be missing out on some of the pastoral import of the fact that we have a glorious Saviour in heaven, who yet bears the marks of being marred in his human life. The following are some suggestions, not yet fully realised conclusions, that have been working their way into my mind:
The übermensch fallacy
Perhaps our most dangerous misjudgement about our glorified bodies is to imagine them as some Aryan ideal – athletic, lithe, bronzed, airbrushed without the software, capable and prime specimens in their perfections. Under this model, glory is physically flawless according to the cultural preferences to which we have subscribed, or which we have unconsciously imbibed. In a famine culture the glorified body might be plump, in a culture grown diabetic on the fat of the land it might be slim and flab free. All of these are mere approximations of perfection, usually plotted against the excesses or contingencies with which we daily live.
This is almost certainly a fallacy. The idea that beauty is measured by the depth of skin, by the geometry of limbs, by the symmetry of facial features, by the curves and carriage of the physical frame is deeply conditioned, horribly superficial, and is nowhere to be found on the pages of Scripture. Doubtless the effects of the fall, the frailties of our death-stalked physical existence, the ebbing of our energies, the decline of our faculties, the invasion of illness and breakdown will be suddenly and gloriously reversed on that day. We will then be all that we are not now. But exactly what kind of beauty that assumes, what physical form and features it takes is less than clear.
Deep wounds yet visible above
What we do know about the resurrection body is best inferred from the first fruits of that yet-future event – the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The physicality of Jesus’ rising from the dead and ascending into heaven are often lost on us in the West, with our half-formed gnosticism and elevation of the spiritual over the material. We need to remind ourselves that Christ Jesus rose in a body which bore scars from his passion, whose feet and hands evidenced the sinew shattering work of Roman nails, whose side bore testimony to the plunge of spear and the certification of death. Was his brow dotted with the poisoned kiss of thorns? Did his back depict the lashes that humbled him at the hands of those who hated him?
Those are questions for which we may not be able to find answers, but we know his wounds were still apparent when he issued his invitation to Thomas to use empirical tools to determine his identity, and we know from Revelation that he appears as a Lamb that had been slain. Heaven is presently home to a glorified God-man whose earthly pain is still apparent, but which is glorified in the beauty of what redemption means, whose healed over lacerations spell out the covenant of grace in letters of blood-deep love. Glory has glimpses of the suffering that preceded it, but those ‘deep wounds yet visible above’ are now ‘in beauty glorified’. When we see Jesus, we will fall before a man who evidently was wounded, but who has conquered; the divine Saviour who laid down his life to take it up again, and who forever proclaims that death is dead, that hell’s keys are held in hands which bore the weight of sin at Calvary.
Wounds that sing his worth
Part of heaven’s health will be the remoulding of memory. From some of our pronouncements about heaven it might appear that believers will undergo a kind of ‘memory wipe’ when they get to glory, that our worship will be sanitised of every thought of the gall that just getting by as a Christian entailed. The biblical picture is different. God will not make us forget our tears, but he will wipe them away, the souls of martyrs know that they were murdered for Christ’s sake and wait the Final State that follows God’s sure assizes. As Andrew Peterson has phrased it, ‘we’ll look back on these tears, as old tales’.
Could it be that God will wipe the tears from our eyes, but not from our memories, that the renewed experience of the glorified saint will be to recall those sadnesses with the transforming joy which God’s presence and God’s disclosed providence will bring? Surely part of our praise in heaven will not merely be that we are now saved, but that we have been saved, that the very title of being those who have conquered means that our memory of victory will include a transformed awareness of what the whole battle meant.
What a difference this could make to my suffering. The scars I bear in my body, my mind, my soul, the adversities and setbacks, the pains that may yet await me before I get to heaven, the relational wounds, the memories from which I struggle to recover, the darkness of doubt and the battles with unbelief, will not necessarily be removed when I get to heaven, but they will be redeemed, they will be transformed by the long view that being perfected in the presence of my perfect God will bring. What an experience it will be to probe the scars, but to no longer feel their pain – to see them as contour lines of God’s grace by which I ascended into glory. What could it mean for my wounds to sing his praise, for my scars to record his perfections, for my memory of old pains to be set in the context of a new and never failing joy. That makes suffering sufferable now, and glory all the more glorious then.