Is the Devil in the Details?

By Ben Swift

‘If you just focus on the smallest details, you never get the big picture right.’ (Leroy Hood)

Of those who belong to Christ, few would dispute the fact that we currently live in between Christ’s resurrection and the new Heaven and Earth. To put it another way, in reference to the time in which we now live, the world, the universe and everything in it continues to groan as it awaits a perfect regeneration upon Christ’s return.

Fundamentally, there are several biblical understandings that the majority of Christians will confess to believing. You simply have to examine the creeds that each denomination adheres to. The surprise comes however, when after years of attending church and reading theological books, you come across discussions that throw new questions into the mix. Questions that lead to debates that dig down to the core of context and linguistics. To make the situation even more interesting, those involved often differ in the measure of importance they assign to particular understandings.

Take for instance a conversation that occurred over coffee following a sermon in which the preacher referred to Christ’s body as rotting in the tomb following His crucifixion on a Roman execution stake. While this was not the focal point of the preacher’s message, it did grab the attention of the more theologically educated listeners whose ears pricked up at what had been suggested. It would be fair to assume that most people, particularly fans of the television series CSI, would think nothing of the fact that a human being would begin to decompose almost immediately after death. Those who have acquired a detailed knowledge of the Scriptures however, would recall the following words from Acts 2:26-27, “For this reason, my heart was glad; and my tongue rejoiced; and now my body too will live on in certain hope that you will not abandon me to Sh’ol [the place of the dead] or let your Holy One see decay.”  The problem raising the theologian’s neck hairs, therefore, lies in the argument that death is a direct consequence of sin, brought forth by the actions of Adam in Eden. Christ however, being sinless and therefore not subject to its consequences would not decay in the tomb prior to being resurrected. This has flow on effects to how we interpret the events of Easter in relation to the words of the Prophet David and to the way we approach understanding our own resurrection bodies as we are made to be like Him.

So what you may be asking? Are these details important or is this just another example of the devil getting into the details, causing divisive confusion amongst believers?

The answer, I believe, is not a resounding yes or no. While we certainly need to understand the Bible correctly, in context and aligned with accurate teaching, we also need to be careful not to let the details alter our focus, making our narrow path just a little bit too narrow.

It would make sense then to return to the example of what happened to the body of Jesus inside the tomb. But in order to avoid making our focus too narrow, we must bring the investigation into a larger arena. One that seeks a larger context, leading to deeper theological understandings.

Douglas Macintosh in his book, ‘Theology as an Empirical Science’, asks, “What became of the atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and other elements which composed the earthly body of Jesus?” After all, science has revealed to us that throughout our lives and certainly immediately following death, our physical bodies are changing through both a constant shedding and renewal of skin or following death, the decomposition of all organs as bacteria get their chain gangs working. Jesus, being both fully human and fully God, would have certainly shed his elements throughout his life, so why not in his death? Scientifically speaking, when your heart stops beating, your body’s cells and tissues stop receiving oxygen. Brain cells are the first to die, usually within 3 to 7 minutes. Bone and skin cells, however, will survive for several days.

It would be reasonable to assume that in the days of Christ, the appearance of a dead body, in less than 3 days, would not show outward signs of decay. As Jesus’ body was resurrected on the third day, perhaps according to the Jewish understanding at the time, decay never occurred. This is in contrast to what happened with Lazarus whose body after 4 days showed clear signs of decomposition. Interestingly, according to a passage from Jewish literature, “For three days the soul hovers over the body, intending to re-enter it, but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs.” In light of this tradition, the resurrection of Lazarus, four days after his death, would have been seen as especially remarkable. (Doug Ward)

The question needs to be asked, “Just how are we in today’s technological and scientific age, to read verses such as Acts 2:26-27?” Perhaps, the resurrection of Christ, from an Ancient Jewish perspective, did align with the words of the prophet David. His body saw no decay and was raised in a physical as well as spiritual sense, providing us with some insight into what lies ahead for our own resurrection in Him. Maybe, by analysing verses such as these through the lens of a powerful microscope and through modern medical knowledge, we lose the intended meaning and significance. But I’m sure there will be many who will argue that ‘no decay’ means ‘no decay’ at any level of understanding.

Certainly, while seeking to answer questions that stem from the details, investigations such as these just open up a whole new set. But without unanswered questions, wouldn’t the faith God demands of us be rendered redundant?

So it appears that while there may be times where the devil can be found in the details, God can be found working more powerfully, as he transforms our minds and hearts to the knowledge of His truth through His Word. It is through the powerful work of His spirit that in the details, we start to get the big picture right.

“Thus says Adonai the maker, Adonai who formed the universe so as to keep directing it – Adonai is his name: ‘Call out to me, and I will answer you – I will tell you great things, hidden things of which you are unaware.’” (Jeremiah 33:2-3).

5 thoughts on “Is the Devil in the Details?

  1. How long Jesus’ dead body lay in the tomb after it was placed there on Good Friday nobody except God knows. All we know is that it wasn’t there on Easter morning and that the Father raised Him to new life. Your blog has got me thinking about the Nicene Creed and The Apostles’ Creed which both state that Jesus was raised on the third day but that was only when it became evident because the tomb was seen to be empty and Jesus was identified by Mary as she spoke with him outside the tomb after mistaking him for the gardner. Perhaps the best evidence we have for the third day is Jesus’ prophesy before his death that he would rise on the third day. Interesting!!

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  2. Its interesting here the authorities of truth that at least seem to be held in opposition to each other. On one hand, Scripture and science seem to oppose each other so a modern Christian might assume that Scripture must be revisited to find another perspective. We probably agree that in the final analysis though, we’d side with Scripture against science if we were left with no hermeneutical elbow room. Then a comment was made highlighting possible opposition between two other authorities (Scripture and the Tradition) in light of another authority (science). In this case it seems easier to grant more authority to science as opposed to Tradition and use it as a tool to interpretation rather than the Creeds.
    How would you say we ought to navigate this?

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    1. Hey Donnie, thanks for your comment. Using the example from my post about what happened to Christ’s body between his death and resurrection, I would say that we need to look at the bigger picture rather than focus on the scientific details as we are able to in this day and age. I believe that Christ, in his resurrection, was not abandoned to the place of the dead and thus not left to see decay in that sense. The resurrection occurring on the third day as prophesied is the key that the Christian faith hinges on, not whether or not on the first or second day, Christ’s cells decomposed at a microscopic level. Having said that, when analysing Scripture, it is important to consider what we have learned through Science and History etc so long as we read Scripture in light of context and the overarching messages intended for its readers. My question is to anybody reading this blog, “Does the Christian Faith start to crumble if we disagree amongst ourselves about the details such as those in this blog?”

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