The Dancing Dead Arrive in Africa

Recently I was asked what I thought about Joburg’s latest exhibit: human corpses on display. That’s right – actual cadavers, filleted and flayed, carved and strung up in an array of poses for your viewing pleasure, and signed by the designer himself.

One rides a skinned horse, while holding both of their brains. Another stands holding his own skin. Another is a woman eight month’s pregnant in a sensual pose, with her dead baby still exposed in her womb. Other corpses are dancing, playing, driving, or even copulating. Is this a ghoulish scene from a horror film, an artistic expression, or just an educational experience?

This is Body Worlds, the product of a German artist doctor, Gunther von Hagens, who has pioneered “plastination”, a way of preserving dead bodies in plastic. After 70 world cities and 36 million visitors, grossing over 34 million dollars, this exhibit has come to South Africa. Cape Town drew 100,000 visitors, and now it’s Joburg’s hottest exhibit, held at the Sci-Bono Museum.

When first shown in Europe, Body Worlds sparked intense controversy, with humanitarian groups and churches almost unanimously condemning the desecration of human bodies for commercial profit. Because of such opposition, Dr. von Hagens moved to America, and also moved his cadavers from art museums to science museums, which has helped his popularity ratings. Yet still controversy has followed him around his father’s involvement (who was once a Nazi SS sergeant) and around some of his bodies that were revealed to be executed Chinese prisoners.

How should a Christian respond to Body Worlds? Better yet, how should a Christian think biblically about the human body altogether? Scripture makes clear that how we treat our bodies matters to God, both in life and in death. This is but one aspect of the biblical doctrine of anthropology. Whether we realise it or not, we all have an anthropology (a view of mankind) – the only question is whether it is a true, biblical one or a false, unbiblical one.

From Genesis onwards, we learn that God has made us body and soul in His image, unique from all other animals (Gen. 1-2; Ps. 8:4-9). Thus the human body is not to be violated (Lev. 19:28), and murder is an assault on God’s image reflected in the whole person, body and soul (Gen. 9:6). We do not merely “have” a body; we are a body-and-soul person, and will be so in eternity (Matt. 10:28).

When a person dies, it is not just any body that their departed soul leaves behind. It is that person’s body, as seen in the way Scripture and Christ Himself speaks about those in the grave: “where have you laid him” (not just “a body”, or “it”)(Jn. 11:23, 34, 43; Mk. 16:6). Though at death your soul enters eternity, it is still part of “you” returning to the dust also (Gen. 3:19).

Never does Scripture rank the soul as more important, or more pure, than the body. At the heart of Christianity is the Incarnation, when God Himself takes on a human body (John 1:14). Christ’s body was raised, just as ours will be (1 Cor. 15)! Jesus still has a body today as He reigns in Heaven and intercedes for us (Rev. 1:12ff). Christ is equally Lord over all things physical and spiritual, material and immaterial, seen and unseen.

A biblical doctrine of the body then affects the way we treat the deceased. Throughout Scripture we see a pattern of care for the dead (even enemies) and shame for corpses left exposed (Gen. 23; 49:29-31; 50:25; Deut. 21:22-23; Josh. 8:29; 24:32; Num. 25:4; Jer. 25:33; 36:30; Amos 2:1). God Himself buried the body of Moses (Deut. 34:5-6). At the risk of their lives, the men of Jabesh Gilead retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons, and were rewarded (2 Sam. 2:5-7). Likewise, the disciples of John the Baptist courageously retrieved his beheaded body (Mark 6:29). Burial is also a part of the natural grieving process in saying farewell to a loved one. How we treat human bodies matters to God, both in life and in death.

One thing that distinguished the first Christians from their pagan neighbours was their care for the dead. The Romans viewed the early church, meeting in catacombs, as a kind of burial society. Julian the Apostate wrote that Christianity’s concern for the deceased was one of the three keys to its rapid spread. It was pagans and Eastern religions that were known for cremation and disregard for the human body. Dismembering and burning your body was what your enemies did to you (Dan. 3; Heb. 11:34; 1 Cor. 13:3).

Ours is an age that has drifted far from a biblical doctrine of the human body. Gluttony is a taboo topic. Modesty is ‘legalistic’. People treat their bodies as a mere tool for self-expression, a canvas for art, a dartboard for endless piercing, a wall for skin graffiti, a billboard for marketing, or a museum piece to be stuffed and hung up.

Ours is an age that trivialises death. Constant news feeds numb us to violence and murder. Abortion and euthanasia are legalised and celebrated. Skull and crossbones is the fashion. Society has embraced a culture of death, and it desensitises us. We treat death as an anonymous, abstract thing, when death is actually very personal, and its consequences eternal.

Instead of conforming, Christians should be resisting “the spirit of the age” (Rom. 12:2). Although there is room for Christian liberty in applying biblical principle, we must answer this question: ‘How can I love God with “all my strength” (my body) and “glorify God in my body”, since my body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 12:30; 1 Cor. 6:19-20)? How we treat our bodies matters to God, both in life and in death.

We can join the culture, hide the nausea, and tell our children not to be squeamish about corpses. Or we can protect them from such unnecessary exposure. We can teach them that seeing a dead body (in a casket, not a show) should cause us to reflect soberly on that person’s eternal destiny, and our own (Eccl. 7:2; 12:7; Heb. 9:27). Scripture depicts the dead as sleeping, one day to be awakened by the risen Christ and joined with their eternal souls to face final judgment (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25-29). These bodies may be dancing now on von Hagen’s stage; but unless they knew Christ, their souls are suffering eternal torment.

As one Johannesburg resident rightly reacted in the news, “There are two prices to pay for the show – the entry fee, and a further surrender of your humanity”.

Tim Cantrell is the Pastor-Teacher of Antioch Bible Church, Randburg.