IN LATE ANTIQUITY, the resurrection of the body was a pivotal issue in Christian theology. Paul asserts that a corpse is “sown a natural body; it shall rise a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). This created a paradox for theologians, who struggled to reconcile the idea of radical transformation with the need for material continuity. Resurrection of the same material was thought necessary to conserve personal identity.
The paradox raised a theological problem more disturbing than the problem of evil: the problem of genitals. Given radical transformation, would our spiritual bodies sport sexual organs? And if so, would they remain functional?
In the middle of the debate, sometimes getting awkwardly in the way, were genitalia.
Tertullian (ca. 155-230), one of the Latin Church Fathers, penned an early and comprehensive response. He argued – paying careful attention to the re-animated genitals – that the resurrection body will be of exactly the same flesh. The resurrection body, he insisted, will contain all organs. However, genitals will be non-functional. For Tertullian, reproduction – like digestion – represented physical process and thus corruption. Genitals and mouths will therefore neither copulate nor eat. Instead, mouths will sing praises to God. Genitals will survive for the sake of beauty. Medieval scholar Caroline Bynum sums up Tertullian’s approach: “We will not chew in heaven, but we will have teeth, because we would look funny without them”. The same could be said for genitals.
St. Augustine (354-430), the celebrated Latin theologian and philosopher, built on this view to formulate an even more detailed apologetic. Between Tertullian and Augustine stood Origen (ca. 185-254), who had drawn on Platonic philosophy to postulate a spiritual resurrection body. (Incidentally, it is alleged that Origen castrated himself, taking Matthrew 19:12 quite literally). Augustine rejected the idea of a spiritual vehicle, defending the traditional notion of resurrection as reassemblage of the same flesh.
Augustine had a sordid history of genital fixation. Originally a Manichaean, he led a debauched life in Carthage before fleeing to Rome to avoid his school fees (also once my plan). He converted first to Neoplatonism and later to Christianity. During his Christian years, he formulated the doctrine of original sin: original sin exists and is transmitted biologically, through semen. He was haunted by his own sexuality. In Carthage, Augustine had begged God: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. Indeed, he linked lust to original sin: as Bertrand Russell summarised it, “The need of lust in sexual intercourse is a punishment for Adam’s sin, but for which sex might have been divorced from pleasure”. The stirring of the first genitals was also the first act of divine retribution.
It is therefore a surprise that in The City of God Augustine has our resurrection bodies retain genitals:
I feel that theirs is the more sensible opinion who have no doubt that there will be both sexes in the Resurrection. . . . However, the female organs shall remain adapted, not to the old uses, but to a new beauty, which, so far from provoking lust, now extinct, shall excite praise to the wisdom and clemency of God.
Notice, however, that this is no ordinary vagina. It is rather a glorified vagina. Instead of exciting sexual desire, it provokes hymns. Though made of the same flesh, it has been stripped of sexuality and has undergone a radical transformation: from siren to muse. But what of the penis?
A wise internet source notes:
Augustine does not discuss the genitalia of the Redeemer, but if he thought that the organs of woman—that lowly creature and instrument of the Devil—are to be glorified in the afterlife, it is more than likely that his theological argument would allow for the male organ to achieve even higher glorification through the Incarnation.
So although women receive a glorified vagina, men might receive an even better penis. Jesus himself, we can assume, possessed such an organ after his resurrection. The modern Christian might ask, a bit facetiously: “Will I also be able to play the piano – perhaps with my super penis?” But Augustine had a serious concern: preserving hierarchical power relations in the afterlife. In fact, it stands to reason that status will also be reflected differentially along other spiritual lines. So that Pope Benedict XVI, for example, will have the best super penis; Abraham a somewhat bent version; Mohammad a controversial penis; and so on and so forth right down to Mormons.
It’s interesting to ponder that if paradise is a place where the genitals no longer stir, the case should be the opposite in hell. The genitals should be functional. Hell is a raging boner. Augustine isn’t clear on this. On one hand, endlessly stirring genitals seem have been his ultimate nightmare, and therefore a fitting plight for the worst place imaginable. On the other, he argues that resurrected bodies in hell will also be glorified, in order to survive eternal punishment. This state of glorification could imply the same negation of process that renders the genitals non-functional in heaven.
A final issue to consider is transparency. Augustine asserts that in Heaven nothing will be hidden. Caroline Bynum interprets this to mean that Augustine thought our resurrection bodies will be see-through. This must have been a reassuring comfort for people who liked the idea of glorified and non-functional genitals, but preferred the idea of glorified, non-functional and transparent genitals. Indeed, Augustine even speculates that our bodies will be weightless, and aged about the same age as Jesus at the crucifixion. This presumably also applies to the sexual organs.
Augustine’s ingenious final conclusion, then, is that we will possess genitals, but that these will be weightless, glorified, non-functional, see-through, and about 30 years old. His solution attempts to capture both the essence of radical transformation and material continuity.
Augustine’s perspective on the resurrection body cannot be underestimated. His complex and influential views lived on – to lay a firm foundation for Medieval genitals to come.