A few years ago, I had the chance to hear Dr. Stanley Hauerwas give a lecture at Fontbonne University. Hauerwas is known for his biting wit, against-the-grain combativeness, and unfailing pacifism—three things that are utterly threatening to me. On this particular night, his topic was the theology of aging, though in the question and answer period that followed he talked about a variety of issues related to human embodiment. At one point, he laid out a thought question to support one of his central points.
He simply asked, ‘Will there be disabilities in heaven?’
Which, if I understood him properly, he wondered whether those people who have (what most observers would call) disabilities such as multiple sclerosis or Down’s Syndrome would retain their condition into eternity?
Most of those in attendance that night answered quickly, I surmise: Of course not. There are no tears in heaven. Clapton told me so. To say that God allows disabilities in heaven is to charge God as unsympathetic to the suffering of the less fortunate. The argument proceeds as follows: God created a world in perfect goodness, without disability or deformation. Sin came into the world which brought all manner of sickness, disease, and human imperfection with it. The story of redemption is the story of God restoring all things back to his original intentions. Thus, human beings are returned to their good and holy position of dignity, free from sadness and suffering. I admit there is meat on the bone here.
This general gut reaction should be instructive on several fronts. First, it seems to me that we should be hesitant about building or defining someone else’s identity. In other words, if I’m not afflicted with cerebral palsy, trying to stake a claim on how or what such a person should think about themselves feels remarkably patronizing. It’s like telling Jordan Spieth how to putt better via a tweet. Defining another’s identity—apart from extraordinarily unique situations like adoption—is precarious (even dangerous) work. Too often, the action is a power play where the strong label the weak in order to keep them from rising.
But if we chase this theological rabbit down the hole, aren’t we admitting that we essentially believe a Downs Syndrome child is less than whole and complete as a human creature? If recent studies out of Europe are to be believed, many people already have this disposition.
Second, the very gut instinct we naturally have tells us that we generally think of physical disabilities as sicknesses to be cured. I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it. Surely ailments like multiple sclerosis were not a part of God’s original design for humanity in the Garden; yet we are people who live after the Fall. Nail scars were not necessarily apart of God’s original design for humanity, yet Jesus has them—after rising from the dead.
Even now, I have trouble answering the above question in a satisfactory way. I surely don’t want to insist that these brothers and sisters bear their burden silently and impotently. I equally want to avoid a position that doesn’t allow a disabled individual to claim their disability as a condition that helps define who they are in the most positive of senses. In fact, further inquiry might force us to answer questions in the same constellation:
Does an ugly person remain ugly in heaven?
Does an obese person remain obese in heaven?
Does a physical specimen on earth retain his/her ‘natural’ beauty in heaven?
I once heard a young woman speak about her extreme physical disability—she was forced to use crutches in order to walk— in the following way. She simply said (paraphrased), ‘Every morning I wake up and my physical need reminds me of my spiritual need. I do not bemoan my condition but see it as a blessing from God.’ What do we do with that atomic bomb of a statement? When we even say the word, ‘disability,’ we may be missing the point altogether. One’s very idea of God is formed by certain contextual markers like experience and language (hopefully always evaluated through Scripture), so for the disabled, we have to be willing to acknowledge that their understanding of God is deeply formed by their condition. I’m not sure I’m willing to remove these uniquely gifted insights into God and/or the human condition just because their physical condition brings about some sympathy, empathy, and/or personal discomfort.
Perhaps over-and-above all of this theorizing is a simple, but grand point. The body is central to the ways we understand our own identity. This not just in the superficial sense, where a guy like me is recognized because of an unruly beard and a shockingly receding hairline. Rather, that I am a created being. As such, my Creator endowed me to look a certain way (grizzled), to walk a certain way (gangly), and to talk in a certain way (nasally). Sure I wish I had a voice like Johnny or Waylon, but then again, isn’t it funny how we associate these men’s identities with their voices? Their physical features?
The trick might be a simple prayer: Lord, let me see the world as you see the world. How does God see the afflicted? Does God even see the affliction? Or, does he call it blessing in disguise?
“How does God see the afflicted? Does God even see the affliction?“
I do not know if I will be balding at the Last Day, when I am raised to life in a same-but-new body. I think it’s consistent with Scripture to think that my new body will be recognizable … and if that’s so, perhaps I’ll keep other things that I’m convinced ‘are me’: a particular sense of humor, the scar on my left hand, the shape of my nose. I remain confident, however, that my eyes will be opened to see that which is really true about my neighbor: his dignity, my common kinship with him, our mutual humility before a sovereign and gracious God. If his physical impairment remains, then we will see God’s glory working through that as well.
This is Passion Week. And to prove that he was physically resurrected, Jesus shows his scars to a doubting, but ever-so-pragmatic, Thomas. Scars. He kept the scars, even as he was going about the radical transformation from dead to alive. This has to mean something. Apparently the Father considered the Son’s physical reminders of a truly horrific earthly experience important enough to Jesus’ identity that they should remain … to this day.
Some scars I wish to shed. Others have become a part of my history, even my identity. I’m sure God can sort out what parts of Joel should remain on the Last Day and which parts to excise or transform. There, before the throne of God, we are all made able once again.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.