Readings — From the October 2018 issue

Prophecy Wonk

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From The Book of Revelation, a history of Revelation that will be published this month by the Princeton University Press. St. Augustine was a bishop and Christian scholar of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Anticipating questions from skeptical readers of the Book of Revelation, Augustine was concerned to address potential complications with regard to both the mass judgment and the mass resurrection.

In what form will the dead be resurrected? Augustine expected that the resurrected body will be a perfection and completion of the formerly fallen body into an ideal one suited for the purified City of God. Those who died as infants will be resurrected to their fully matured “perfect stature,” which was theirs “potentially, though not in actual bulk,” from birth. If the infant’s potential is to be taller than Jesus Christ himself, he will be resurrected to that height. Likewise, those who died young will be raised to their prime. Those who died past their prime, on the other hand, will not be restored to that younger age.

What about the sexes of the resurrected? Presuming that the first woman was created from the first man’s rib and is therefore derivative, will women be raised as men? No, Augustine explains, because it is not sexual difference but sexual desire that is the fallen state of humankind. “The sex of woman is not a vice.” Therefore, “he who created both sexes will restore both.”

What about hair and nails? Jesus said, “Not a hair on your head shall perish.” Does this mean that all the trimmed parts will be restored to resurrected people, extensions on their fingers and heads? No, Augustine says. Think of hair and nails in terms of number, not length. If a person lost hair or nails in life, the original number of hair and nails will be restored, at normal length. Bald people will get all their hair back, but not all its length. Likewise, people who were obese or emaciated in life will be restored to their ideal proportions and body mass. Blemishes, scars, and other marks on the body will be removed, restoring each person to her or his ideal form—with the exception of the wounds of martyrs, which Augustine says are not deformities but marks of honor that “will add luster to their appearance, and a spiritual, if not a bodily beauty.”

Finally, Augustine addresses the greatest challenge to his interpretation of the resurrection of the dead. That is, that dead bodies decay, turn to dust, get eaten by animals, consumed by fire, or turned to liquid. How can a dead person’s “dissolved elements” be regathered to reconstitute her or his body? What about a person who has been eaten by another person? How can an eaten body be restored, “for it has been converted into the flesh of the man who used it as his nutriment”?

Whatever was lost to decay or liquefaction will be restored to its original body. The flesh of the person who got eaten will therefore be returned to its original body, “for it must be looked upon as borrowed by the other person, and, like a pecuniary loan, must be returned to the lender.” Where will this payback leave the cannibal, now short of flesh? The flesh that he lost to hunger went into the air through evaporation. God will recall it from the atmosphere and restore it to its original owner.

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