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In heaven, will a blind man see? How Christians with disabilities imagine resurrection
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Eric Pridmore might not be blind in heaven.

The possibility strikes him sometimes. Blindness has been a medical and emotional burden, and it's tempting to hope for perfect sight.

"There is some loss that goes beyond social or cultural issues," said Pridmore, 44. "I can't see the faces of my daughters."

However, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Poplarville, Mississippi, is open to the idea that resurrection, or the Christian belief that we will return to a physical body some time after death, won't alter his eyesight. Instead, resurrection could change the way he's treated by others.

"When I think about resurrection, I don't think of it in terms of it curing blindness. I think of it in terms of blindness not being an issue," Pridmore said.

Easter is the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection a time for believers to reflect on the promise of eternal life, as well as how this teaching influences Christian life.

According to Christian scholars, belief in bodily resurrection for all believers grounds moral systems and helps people make peace with their bodies. But it's also a difficult subject to explore and explain, and can inadvertently end up offending people with different perspectives of perfection.

"Thinking about the resurrected body is a way to reconsider what it is that makes us human," said Ben Rhodes, a research scholar at the Christian Institute on Disability. "For people with disabilities, that gets very personal."

Pridmore would like to believe he'll be able to see his daughters in heaven, but he, like many others with disabilities, doesn't want to wish for that at the expense of his current relationship with his body. After all, the retinitis pigmentosa that took his vision 20 years ago also gave something: a new way to look at the world.

He embraced his dependence on others and was forced to abandon the 'I can do it myself' mentality that governs many people's lives.

"While it's not maybe what anybody would choose, (having a disability) does offer the opportunity to engage with the world in a way that you would not have otherwise. I think there's a real gift in that," he said. "Going into the next life, I don't think you want to lose that gift of lessons learned."

Resurrection of the body

The resurrection of the body is prophesied in the Old Testament and described in the New Testament by witnesses to Jesus Christ's appearances after his crucifixion.

"He said to them, 'Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have,'" notes Luke 24: 38-39.

People of faith look to passages like these when they consider what happens to the body at their resurrection. But, like Pridmore, many are uncertain about what a resurrected body entails.

Faith leaders use resurrection theology to instill belief in an afterlife and to make a variety of arguments to justify barring believers from choosing cremation or getting tattoos. However, few pastors address it from the pulpit, with the possible exception of Easter, said Matthew Lee Anderson, author of "Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith."

"When I went around talking about 'Earthen Vessels,' I had a radio host admit to me that he had never given a sermon on the physical body in 30 years of pastoring," he noted.

Christians with disabilities are the exception to this general lack of engagement with resurrection theology, said Bill Gaventa, chairman and coordinator of the Collaborative on Faith and Disability. There are lively debates within the disability community about what a resurrected body encompasses.

People with disabilities approach resurrection from a variety of angles, depending on their perception of perfection, Gaventa said.

"You've got people with disabilities who have said, 'When we get to heaven, I'm not going to be in a chair,'" he noted. "On the other side, people will say, 'Wait a minute. My disability is a core part of my identity. It's part of me and I can't imagine being in heaven without being me.'"

A third camp contains those who prefer not to make guesses, but, like others who engage with this debate, draw hope and strength from the promise of resurrection, Gaventa said.

"It's a way of saying, 'I believe that I don't have to become something different to be in heaven or to be loved by God,'" he said. "It brings resilience now to say that, in heaven, you won't have to deal with the kinds of attitudes or architectural barriers that you (deal with) now."

Disability and identity

People with disabilities have different ways of understanding resurrection because they have different ways of understanding their disability, Rhodes said.

For some people, particularly those who weren't born with a disability, physical difference isn't a core part of identity. Members of this group imagine hearing or walking again with joy, even as they learn to accept the challenges of here and now, Rhodes said, noting that he resonates with this view.

"I'm a Type 1 diabetic. I sure hope I have a working pancreas in heaven," he said.

Others feel that their disability is inseparable from who they are and believe that what actually needs to be made new is society's understanding of their bodies, Rhodes said. They argue that resurrected bodies don't need to be uniform to be perfect. After all, scriptures teach that Jesus rose from the dead with scars from the crucifixion.

"They talk about difference, rather than deficiency," Rhodes added.

Pridmore's sense of heaven aligns most closely with this second group.

"If we say disabilities go away after resurrection or in heaven, then we've undercut the argument that we're good enough as we are now," he said.

As a pastor, Pridmore knows that part of what people seek from him and from God is the promise of healing.

But being blind has taught him that healing can come even when there's no cure to a disability.

"I'm a whole person even though my eyesight hasn't been cured," he said. "I'm healed because I'm a whole person in my relationship with God and Jesus."

Confronting uncertainty

Resurrection is often discussed in terms of the perfection of the physical body, but everyone has unique ideas about what it means to be perfect, Anderson said.

However, efforts to grapple with resurrection are still valuable, because they remind us that our body with its crooked nose, stretch marks and other imperfections is a gift from God, he added.

"That gives a kind of gladness to a person. They might go about their lives differently if they didn't think that," Anderson said.

Resurrection theology also grounds other Christian claims, helping believers grasp that what they do with their body matters, Rhodes said.

"If you quote (the New Testament apostle) Paul saying your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" as the reason behind prohibitions of smoking or drinking or premarital sex, it seems like he's "harshing your vibe," Rhodes said. With a deeper understanding of bodily resurrection, you can acknowledge that these rules are meant to affirm the importance of the body, rather than shame you.

The distinction of this Christian teaching is more apparent when it's compared with the views on the body held by other faiths. Hindus, for example, believe in reincarnation, leading to a detachment from the body, wrote Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, an associate professor of South Asia studies at Wellesley College, in an email.

"The present body is seen as a temporary abode for the immortal soul or self. Therefore, one should neither be proud, nor ashamed of the type of body one has," she said.

When people believe in reincarnation, it might be easier for them to accept their body's limitations. "If one is not happy with it, there is always hope for the next birth," Shukla-Bhatt said.

But this Hindu tenet can also further complicate the human tendency to judge others, she added.

"Sometimes, people tend to be less empathetic to bodily ailments. (They may) endure their own bodily pain unnecessarily by taking it to be some punishment for an act done in the previous birth," Shukla-Bhatt said. "Similarly, they may see others' pain as a result of karma."

Wholeness, now and later

While bodily resurrection may be difficult to define, Pridmore said, the biblical teachings on the topic help people find meaning in suffering and confront death with hope.

"My Christian faith certainly helps me face pain and loss and suffering," he said. "It helps me face the hard realities of life. In my case, that I don't see (my daughter's) faces."

However, when people of faith discuss what heaven will be like or what bodily resurrection entails, they must be sensitive to those who know that an imperfect body can still be a blessing, Pridmore noted.

"It does do harm for a faith leader to stand up and say, 'This is how it's going to be,'" he said. "If you're arguing for perfect bodies, what is a perfect body? Those of us with disabilities think our bodies are OK."

Blindness deeply affects Pridmore's life in positive and negative ways. He can't see his daughters' faces, but he now celebrates their company on bike rides, instead of being tempted to ride alone if he had his sight.

People might look at his challenges and assume he's worse off than others. Here on earth, we're obsessed with measuring up our bodies against the people we meet, Pridmore said.

"Perhaps in the next life, there isn't that spectrum. There is simply human nature in all of its variety," he said.
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