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The Case of the Missing Liver (I Cor. 15:44)

by Carroll E. Simcox

Dr. Simcox was the former editor of the Living Church Magazine in 1987 He was residing in Hendersonville, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 26, 1986, p. 200. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Recently, Dear Abby received this letter from a woman signing herself "Katherine in Georgetown, Texas":

I sent for a donor form from the Living Bank because I wanted to donate my organs after my death. I received the form, but I can’t get any witnesses to sign it.

My husband said, "You can’t imagine how hard it would be for me to agree to something like that."

The rest of my family refused because they are afraid some doctors might get "scalpel happy" and start removing the organs they need before I’m dead.

I took the form to church five Sundays in a row trying to get two witnesses for my signature, but nobody would sign it. They said I might need all my parts at the Resurrection, and they didn’t want to, be responsible for my being resurrected without a badly needed organ.

The only person who was willing to sign was my son, and he’s only 17. What else can I do, short of standing on a street corner soliciting signatures from total strangers?

As usual, Abby’s answer was sensible and compassionate. I need not quote it in full, because only one of Katherine’s problems seems worth discussing. That is the contention of her fellow Christians that she "might need all [her] parts at the Resurrection." Abby commented that "the benevolent act of willing one’s organs after death has been approved by most religions, so should you return to live again in the body of your previous life, trust the good Lord to miraculously restore or replace the missing parts." That is well said, but I am constrained to say something more.

What was a problem to Katherine’s fellow parishioners astounds me by being a problem to any Christian. Some very fundamental words of Jesus come instantly to mind: "He who loses his life for my sake shall find it." Apply this truth to our vital organs: heart, kidneys, liver, brain, whatever. The person who loses -- gives -- any such organ as a servant of Christ shall find it.

That is not a medical truth or a philosophical truth or even a moral truth. Rather it is a truth of him who is, for Christians, the Truth. I would like to say to those cautiously calculating souls in Katherine’s church: Come now, and let us reason together. Just suppose that you will need your present liver in that body with which you will be clothed in the resurrection. And just suppose that you appear before the Lord of life and he says: "You seem to have come through the swelling of Jordan very well, practically intact, except for one thing. Dear friend, you’re minus a liver. Do you mind telling me what happened to yours?"

You reply sheepishly: "Well, I know this sounds rather silly and irresponsible but before I died I requested that my liver be given to somebody else after I was through with it -- or thought I was. Evidently that was done, so I don’t have it now, and I don’t even know the name and address of whoever got it."

At this the Lord purses his lips in thoughtful consternation and finally says: "I’m so sorry you acted upon such a purely sentimental whim. It’s a pity you didn’t know more about the human anatomy in both its terrestrial and its celestial stages. How on earth -- or perhaps I should now say, how in heaven -- do you expect to make do without a liver through all eternity?"

As a Christian I believe in the resurrection of the body, and my thinking about it begins with the resurrection of Jesus. His body was raised from the dead, and on it were the raw wounds of the lash, the thorns and the nails. It was the kind of body we ordinarily mean when we speak of a body, though it also had supernatural properties. I am sure that it had every organ that today can be transplanted from one body to another. But it was a body in transition from its earthly form to its heavenly form, and we obviously are given no data concerning it after his ascension. Our resurrection will be in the likeness of his, though likeness does not imply exact and total similarity.

Our concept of resurrection must be grounded in the Lord’s promise that those who give their lives in obedience to God in love for others, keep -- find -- their lives forever. Jean Jacques Rousseau spoke as a Christian when he said "When a man dies, he clutches in his hands only what he has given away in his lifetime."

Somewhere in England a tombstone bears this epitaph: "Here lies Estella, who transported a large fortune to Heaven in acts of charity, and has gone hither to enjoy it." And does not Jesus enjoin us to lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupts, and thieves do not break in and steal? That treasure consists of what we have given of ourselves -- nothing less and nothing other. Our resurrected body will be our present body in fruition, like an oak tree is an acorn in fruition. The acorn dies in giving birth to the tree, yet the life of the tree is the life of the acorn that died. One of the primary points of I Corinthians 15 is that whenever God creates any living thing, he provides it with a body appropriate to its life. At every second, really, God is giving us a new body, for any body that is infinitesimally different from the body of a minute ago is a new body. We are normally unconscious of this constant renewal and piecemeal replacement of ourselves, but the truth is that when we got up this morning we got up into a body designed for today. We will get another new one tomorrow; we are getting a new one now. And this is resurrection -- slow, silent, constant resurrection.

Our present body will have heart and lungs and liver and spleen for as long as it needs them, and that will certainly be until we die. What then? Shall we need these physical organs in the body with which we shall then be clothed? Paul believed that our body is "sown as an animal body" and "raised as a spiritual body" (I Cor. 15:44) I am satisfied that Katherine and all the rest of us will not need any of our animal "parts" in our resurrection, but who knows? Que sera sera -- what will be will be as the Lord disposes. And if we stand on his promise, we need not worry as Katherine’s friends seem to be worrying.

I must say that something is terribly missing from the Christianity of anybody who is more concerned about what happens to a liver after death than about what happens to somebody who needs a sound liver while still alive. That person’s religion is defective on two counts: first, it is selfish. We are all selfish, of course; nevertheless, the measure of our selfishness is the measure of our failure as Christians. Second, the anxiety in such a perspective implicitly denies the power of God to create whatever needs to be created. Can we really believe that a liverless human being appearing before Almighty God would present God with a problem beyond his power to solve?

Lest, however, we who do not share that anxiety become exultant in the afflatus of our superiority let us remind ourselves that we, too, have our own absurd beliefs and our own selfishnesses and childishnesses and meannesses. We need constantly to refresh our minds and memories of what it is to be a genuine follower of Jesus.

The essence of discipleship is loving and giving in his image. As we make this our sole rule of living, we enter the divine paradox in which we are saved: finding our lives by losing them; keeping them by giving them away; at our death, clutching in our hands only what we have hitherto given away. Nobody ever expressed it better than did St. Francis in the closing words of his beloved prayer: "It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."


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