Having established that mankind was created “very good,” in the image of God, overflowing out of the infinite joy of the Trinity, we must start to peel back the layers to understand why this does not square with our current experience, why the physical body often does not seem to aid our hedonistic pursuit of God but seems to be one of the primary hindrances as we experience pain, sickness, fatigue, hunger, etc.
The reader, no doubt, already knows that we are bringing up the fall of mankind into sin, which affected the whole physical creation. Before delving into the specifics, let us first establish the nature of this fall.
Did the fall of mankind change the design and intent of creation? If so, then we should can all which we have heretofore mentioned, which may make you suspect my answer. Sin did not transform the inherent realities and intentions of creation; it is simply a parasite (Wolters 57). This means that understanding God’s original design is beneficial in our understanding of the physical life insofar as we can identify the parasitic features of our current experience and seek the proper treatment, so to speak.
In the narrative of the Bible, we see that this parasite on all of creation is directly linked to mankind’s disobedience toward God. This broke mankind’s perfect enjoyment of God, brought about a broken relationship with God, and, secondarily, brought about enmity with the physical world and the sufferings of bodily existence.
Romans 8:19-22 shows clearly that all of creation has been affected by mankind’s sin and is longing for redemption (more about redemption in the next section):
This passage helps us fight against our inherent tendency to “demonize” the physical creation and our physical bodies, because we see that sin, and therefore subjection to frustration, is not part of the original created order.
All of this sounds interesting, but why should we care? Because improperly dealing with fallen creation leads us, at best, to a meaningless existence in the physical body, and, at worse, a wholesale rejection of the body as evil. As mentioned previously, gnosticism had no room for the inherent goodness of God’s creation, which thus led to the rejection of the body, which has resurfaced strangely in evangelicalism as an escapist mentality, while seeking spirituality that does not have a compartment for the physical body, which, at best, results in a dichotomized life in which Christ does not reign over every square inch.
Contrariwise was the Platonic ideal, which portrayed the body as a prison for the soul, in which one could only find freedom in breaking the bonds of the body’s enslavement.
Later, significantly, Renes Descartes’ model of irreconcilability with the physical body led him to postulate: “I think. Therefore, I am.” This split between mind and body is foundational to the philosophical underpinnings of today’s Western individuals’ identity crises.
All of that is to say that the biblical notion of a good creation, and thus good bodies, means that humans are most fully human when they embrace their God-given bodies. This is the psychosomatic unity, the mysterious interplay and unity of body and soul to form a genuinely whole person.
As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Part of my contention in this treatise is that we are not fully alive humans if we do not embrace our bodies. In light of our topic of health and fitness, this means at the very least that our ability to enjoy God and glorify Him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q1) is severely hampered if we demean, or are careless toward our God-given bodies.
Yet of course this must be qualified here (and in a number of forthcoming points later). One may argue from the place of physical malady or from besetting addiction such as an eating disorder that it feels as though the physical body is indeed the enemy.
One need only recall Paul’s thorn in the flesh and have interpreted the physical body as the enemy itself. However, though heavy the reality of these burdens are indeed, the foundational point stands that creation, and thus the physical body, are not the enemy, but have a parasite attached, that which we call sin, and its effects.
“Cursed is the ground,” says Genesis 3:17, as the result of human sin. We see here the commencement of an intertwining narrative throughout Scripture that shows the fate/purpose not only of each individual person affected by sin, but rather the entire physical creation attached to the fate/purpose of His image-bearers.
Later we read that “the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom 8:19). The effect of mankind’s sinning brought about suffering, disability, congenital malformations, weeds, unhealthy lifestyles (to open a few cans of worms we will fish with later). However, all of creation groans for its being made new, when the sons (meaning also daughters) will be revealed in the new creation.
The distinction between creation becoming evil with the entrance of sin into the world and between creation being inflicted with sin as with a parasite bears weight for how we approach the body. If the body, as that part of physical creation of which we are intimately unified, is evil, then we must flee it.
One may even recall referents to this wording or idea throughout the New Testament. Is this not what we are called to do – to kill the flesh and flee the things of the world? Does this not imply that physical creation has become evil in and of itself?
Albert Wolters points out that one’s “understanding of this word [‘world’] functions as a litmus test of his or her worldview” (Wolters 63). “World” conjures up negative connotations in the Christian’s mind due to how it is often used in the New Testament, such as “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2).
So it can stand for “the totality of unredeemed life dominated by sin outside of Christ” (Ridderbos 91, cited in Wolters 64). However, the semantic domain of “world” (κόσμος) also can refer to the physical world more generally (e.g. Rom 1:8).
The purpose of bringing up this “litmus test” is that it reveals the gnostic tendency within Christianity. That is, it is easy for us to jump to the conclusion that anything physical is inherently evil, when the semantic domain of κόσμος itself, and, more importantly, the context of redemptive history and the Gospel story itself, contradict this notion, which we will continue to unfold.
“Flesh” may also be another litmus test for gnosticism. Romans 8 may be prominent in a Christian’s mind. Potently, Paul states, “Those who are in the flesh (σαρκὶ) cannot please God” (v 8). He here sets forward clearly a dichotomy between “flesh” and “spirit,” declaring that setting one’s mind on the flesh brings death, but, conversely on the Spirit, brings life and peace (v 6).
So doesn’t Paul here inherently teach gnosticism – that flesh is bad and spirit is good? At first blush, so it seems!
Martin Luther wrestled with this passage, and provides insightful clarification, which seems more faithful to the Gospel and Paul’s intent than our gnostic tendencies may at first allow. In the preface to his Romans commentary, he clarifies that the whole person is flesh, meaning “corrupted by sin,” which must all be redeemed by the Spirit (with a big “S”).
We see that flesh then stands for the totality of a person crushed under the Law by sin. Douglas Moo states that being in the flesh, according to this passage, is not even a possibility for the believer, because the Spirit has granted freedom from the Law and newness of life.
Flesh also cannot mean merely the physical body because then the Son of God would have been inherently sinful by His “in-flesh-ment” – the incarnation. However, “by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (v 3).
We see here that Paul doesn’t endorse gnosticism, as though the physical body is “bad” and the spiritual life is “good.” Rather, the “flesh” is here utilized as a picture, for Paul, of the realm where sin reigns, which is tangibly felt by the effects of the Fall on the physical body. For Paul, it stands for the life enslaved to sin. For instance, Luther points out, “You can learn the same thing from Galatians, chapter 5, where St. Paul calls heresy and hatred works of the flesh.”
Thus, he calls non-physical acts fleshly while then saying also that the Spirit will make alive their mortal bodies (σώματα, v 11). Though he here uses a different word, yet he gets the point across that the physical body isn’t inherently evil. Rather, the whole person is maimed by sin, and the whole person is redeemed in Christ by the Spirit.
To circle back then, the “world” and the “flesh” are not evil in and of themselves, but are representations of evil and sin that fall within the semantic ranges of their usages in the Bible.
To take one part of their semantic range and apply it to the totality leads to gnosticism, which results in pious and well-intentioned believers neglecting or debasing a large part of life God has created and ordained for His glory and their enjoyment (WSC, Q1).
To pass these litmus tests, then, we need to affirm the essential goodness of God’s original creation and see sin not as completely transforming the physical world and the physical body, but rather should see sin’s attachment as a parasite, an infectious agent, that is remedied by the Spirit, accomplished by Christ’s vicarious death and resurrection. In affirming the original goodness of the body, thought maimed by sin and the fall, we have a foundation for thankfulness, pursuit of God in the body, and beginning to experience the foretastes of redemption while we live in this “time between the times,” the “already, and not yet.”
And it is to this redemptive flavor that we will shortly turn.