Last week was Easter.
And in the Gospels course I teach, we spent time reading on the nature of the Resurrection.
As Scripture teaches, Jesus’ resurrected body was both like and unlike his prior one.
It bore deep scars of crucifixion, yet it no longer suffered, died, or was ravaged by disease. His new body was “glorious” in a sense unlike the mortal one, and it did things—like passing through a locked door—that transcend normal limitations.
In other words, Christ’s resurrection life is physical sans fallenness. Or in the words of N.T. Wright, it is supra-physical.
This becomes even more relevant to us because, according to Paul, the same will happen to our bodies in the Age to Come.
Christ is the “first fruits” of resurrected humanity (1 Cor. 15.20), hence what happened to him will also happen to his people. As Paul writes in Philippians:
the Lord Jesus Christ … will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Php. 3.20–21).
And in 1 Corinthians:
42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15.42–44).
But what does any of this have to do with Down Syndrome?
WHAT WILL MY SIBLING BE LIKE IN THE RESURRECTION?
In our class discussion, I pointed students to an article written by my friend, Ryan (R.T.) Mullins. He is a PhD theologian from St. Andrews, and his sister (Kelli) has Down Syndrome.
In the article, he interacts with voices from the field of “Disability Theology,” and in particular the theologian Amos Yong. Like Ryan, Yong’s sibling (Mark) also has Down Syndrome.
But despite a common desire for the church to be more inclusive toward those with disabilities, the two thinkers (Yong and Mullins) come to different views on how the resurrection may transform their loved ones with Down Syndrome.
First, for Yong:
- TO ELIMINATE THE DISABILITY IS TO ELIMINATE THE PERSON (YONG)
Following Stanley Hauerwas, Yong contends that to eliminate his brother’s disability would be to eliminate his brother’s unique personhood and personality. As Yong asks:
If people with Down Syndrome are resurrected without it, in what sense can we say that it is they who are resurrected and embraced by their loved ones?
It would not be a “healing” but a kind of murder.
After all, Down Syndrome is not a “disease” (from which people are “suffer”) but a chromosomal condition that is constitutive of their unique and beautiful humanity.
An analogy might be the extent to which the “XY” chromosomes are constitutive to my identity as biologically male. To take that away (say, by giving me the “XX” building blocks) would be to erase an important part of who I am—even if it is not the MOST important part.
One strength behind Yong’s point would seem to rest in the sense that many of us have when interacting with persons with Down Syndrome; this involves the feeling that maybe WE are the ones with a “disability” of a different kind—a loss of childlike wonder, a resistance to joy, and a tendency to misplace our pity in ways that dehumanize others.
But I’ll come back to that…
- TO ERADICATE A DISABILITY NEED NOT ERASE THE PERSON (MULLINS)
On the other hand, Mullins takes issue with Yong’s extreme assertion (taken from Hauerwas) that “to eliminate the disability is to eliminate the subject.”
As Mullins writes:
I can imagine, perhaps as through a mirror dimly, my sister Kelli without Down Syndrome. This is because she is not identical to her disability. She has various character traits that are shaped by her Down Syndrome, but they are not causally determined by her Down Syndrome.
It is true … that her disability has shaped her personality, but why think that she would need to be continually disabled in order to retain that personality?
A RESURRECTED IMAGINIATION
While there is much more to Mullin’s argument, I want to focus on a single phrase within the quote above: “I can imagine…”
Because while Yong’s treatment of disabilities in the Age to Come seems to spring from noble motives, it may also suffer (at least in my view) from a lack of biblical imagination.
Going back to Jesus, we saw that his resurrected body was both “like” and “unlike” his prior one in certain ways. The marks of wounds were there, but now scarred over. The physicality was real but amplified in power.
Perhaps even his appearance was altered. (Which might explain why some who knew him well apparently had trouble recognizing him [Jn. 20.15; Lk. 24.16].)
There is much we do not know about the life to come.
But that ought not quell our sense of hope and possibility.
EMILY WITHIN THE AGE TO COME
After class, I brought some of these thoughts to the Dean of my department.
Dr. Weeter is himself a theologian, and the father of a daughter (Emily) with Down Syndrome. Having known Mark and Emily for years, it was not difficult for my mind to wander to what she might be like ten thousand years from now.
After all, the hope of salvation is for everyone.
Is it possible to imagine Emily (and countless others) with all the beautiful aspects of Down Syndrome, without the accompanying trials? I think so.
Gone would be the heart defects, the vision challenges, and hearing loss that so often come with the condition. Yet gone too would be my sense of misplaced pity or superiority when I and other (so-called) “able-bodied” persons sing next to her within the heavenly choir.
Gone might be certain mind-related limitations in both of us. But who’s to say who might need more transformation. For Paul, the “darkened mind” had nothing to do with ACT scores; and Christ’s words were that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18.3).
With that as a pre-requisite for resurrected life, it seems possible that my own transformation from perishable to imperishable may be more dramatic than that of many image-bearers with Down Syndrome.
How recognizable will I be to my loved ones?
Whatever answer there may be to such speculative questions, the hope of Christ remains the same for all:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep [in death], but we shall all be changed (1 Cor. 15.51).
On the subject of Resurrection, I’ve been loving the new Andrew Peterson album (Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1):
 Credit to my student Sam Thomas for bringing up this point in class.
 Thanks to Rylee Kelly (a nursing major) for pointing out these accompanying aspects of trisomy-21 in class discussion.
For more on this subject, see:
Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, 2007).
R.T. Mullins, “Some Difficulties for Amos Yong’s Disability Theology of the Resurrection,” in Ars Disputandi, Vol. 11 (2011), 24–32.