This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.
Several weeks ago, I discussed how the Christian hope as revealed in Scripture is not “going to heaven when we die” (and then talked about it more in the last post). In fact, that language is never used in the Bible. Really, the Christian hope is not based on what happens when we die, but what happens when Jesus returns, and that is what we have been talking about in this series.
Generally, though, people do talk about “going to heaven when we die” as being the source of Christian hope, and when they do that, very frequently, they have in mind some sort of “spiritual” existence, where “spiritual” means something other than existing in bodily form. In this post, I want to emphasize that the Bible clearly teaches that the Christian hope is not about living eternally as some sort of disembodied spirit; rather, the Christian hope is the resurrection from the dead, and the idea that we will live eternally as embodied people.
As we examine the idea of resurrection, I am going to emphasize two major ideas:
- Jesus is the firstfruits of our own resurrection, so we can learn about our own resurrection by looking at Jesus.
- Our resurrection bodies will be both similar to and dissimilar from our current bodies. There will be continuity and discontinuity.
To support and flesh out these two ideas, we will be looking at three New Testament passages: two narratives involving the resurrection of Jesus, and some detailed teaching by Paul on the nature of our own resurrection.
This passage recounts Jesus walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus following His resurrection, and then His appearance to the disciples as a group. From this passage, we get multiple indications that Jesus’ resurrection body seems to have both continuity and discontinuity with His earthly body.
Continuity: Though unable to do so initially, the disciples do eventually recognize Jesus (24.31). He also describes Himself as “flesh and bones” in contrast to a spirit (24.39), and eats with them (24.43). Summing up this element from the Lukan passage, Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson state:
“Luke describes the resurrected Jesus so there is no misunderstanding what resurrection means. The skepticism of the disciples provides the opportunity to dismiss any thought of resurrection as the continued life of a disembodied soul. The resurrect Lord commanded the disciples to “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.”
Discontinuity: But, there are other ways in which Jesus seems different from the way He was prior to resurrection. At first, His disciples fail to recognize him (24.16), and He also seems able to suddenly vanish (24.31) and appear (24.36)
This section of John’s Gospel provides several different post-resurrection appearances by Jesus: to Mary Magdalene, to the apostles without Thomas, to the apostles with Thomas, and to a group of disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Again, we get multiple indications that Jesus’ post-resurrection body is both similar to and different from His earthly body.
Continuity: Jesus’ wounds from His crucifixion are still visible (20.27). In fact, this is a key point of His interaction with Thomas, and helps to answer his doubts: this Jesus was, in fact, one and the same as the man who had been crucified a few days before. Also, as in the passage in Luke, here Jesus eats with His disciples, sharing a breakfast of fish over a charcoal fire (21.10-13).
Discontinuity: As in the account in Luke, Jesus is not immediately recognizable (20.14; 21.4), and He suddenly appears in their presence, despite the doors being locked (20.19).
Looking at these accounts from Luke and John, we can see that after the resurrection, Jesus’ body was similar to what it was like before…but also different. He had a tangible, touchable, visible, material body, but it was different from what it was like before.
1 Corinthians 15.35-58
The Christians at Corinth were mixed up on a variety of issues related to doctrine and morality, and one of their points of doctrinal confusion was related to the idea of resurrection. In the Greco-Roman world, people were not like modern secular humanists; they believed in life after death, but for them, it was the soul that was immortal. Resurrection, on the other hand, was a scandal to the Greek mind, worthy of mockery and derision (Acts 17.32), because it referred to what would happen to the body—physical bodies that are buried in the earth (or cremated, or whatever) are, in some way, reanimated or reconstituted. As N.T. Wright explains:
“In content, resurrection referred specifically to something that happened to the body; hence the later debates about how God would do this—whether he would start with the existing bones or make new ones or whatever. One wug have debates like that only if it was quite clear that what you ended up with was something tangible and physical. Everybody knew about ghosts, spirits, visions, hallucinations and so on. Most people in the ancient world believed in some such things. They were quite clear that that wasn’t what they mean by resurrection. While Herod reportedly thought Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the dead, he didn’t think he was a ghost. Resurrection meant bodies.”
In Corinth, the believers didn’t seem to deny the reality of Jesus’ resurrection; they just didn’t see how it mattered for them. Paul insists, though, that resurrection is a two-stage event: Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits of our own (15.20, 23), so what happened to Him will also happen to believers (see also Philippians 3.21).
After establishing the connection, Paul goes on to offer direct teaching on the nature of our resurrection (so I will include the whole passage):
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
(1 Corinthians 15.35–58)
In this passage, Paul compares our physical bodies to a seed that is sown perishable and raised imperishable. This highlights a continuity between our current bodies and our resurrection bodies, but also a change. Seeds are not the same as the wheat they produce, but they are closely related: they are made of the same “stuff”, and one has the necessary DNA for the production of the other. So again, like with the accounts of the post-resurrection Jesus, we have the idea of similarity and dissimilarity; continuity and discontinuity.
Paul says that those who are in Christ will be raised with “spiritual bodies.” We need to think about both of these words. The Christian hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating around in a non-material existence. But neither is the Christian hope to have the same old bodies that we have right now, which are “natural” or “fleshly”. We must keep both of these ideas in mind.
The idea of dissimilarity, or discontinuity, that we have already seen in the stories about Jesus’ resurrection body is repeated here. Paul is clear in these verses that there are some major differences between our current bodies, and our future, resurrection bodies (15.42-44):
- Our current bodies are perishable, while our future bodies will be imperishable
- Our current bodies are dishonorable, while our future bodies will be glorious
- Our current bodies are weak, while our future bodies will be powerful
- Our current bodies are natural, while our future bodies will be spiritual
As significant as these differences are, in other ways, our bodies will be the “same” as our current ones (which shouldn’t surprise us, considering the texts we read about Jesus after the resurrection). Like the resurrection body of Jesus, they will retain points of continuity with our previous bodies.
When talking about “spiritual bodies”, we need to spend some time defining what “spiritual” means here. Because for many people, when we read about a “spiritual” body, we assume that Paul is referring to a resurrection body that is “spiritual” in the sense that it is “non-material”; something that can’t be touched. When “spiritual” body is contrasted with “natural” body, many people assume that Paul is drawing a distinction between our current “material” bodies and a future “non-material” existence.
It is important, though, that we not insert our own understanding of the word “spiritual” into the text and, instead, allow Paul to define his own terms. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul has already told his readers what he means when he uses the words “natural” and “spiritual”:
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself judged by no one. 16 For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
(1 Corinthians 2.14-16)
In this passage Paul speaks of tangible, material, physical-bodied Christians as being “spiritual” because they were living in harmony with the Holy Spirit. This is repeatedly what the word “spiritual” means in 1 Corinthians (3.1; 6.19; 14.37). He does not use the word “spiritual” to mean “non-material”; rather, it refers to men and women whose character and lifestyle is consistent with the Holy Spirit. So for Paul, the words “natural” and “spiritual” are not talking about a contrast between the material and the non-material; they describe a contrast between ordinary human life and life given by the Spirit.
When Paul says “spiritual body,” the emphasis is on what provides the driving force for the body—it is animated by God’s Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, it will be God’s Spirit (elsewhere described as a down payment on our salvation) that raises us up from the dead and gives power and life to our resurrection bodies. Paul says this elsewhere, in Romans 8:
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
But what about 1 Corinthians 15.50? There Paul says, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Doesn’t this mean that we won’t have bodies in the resurrection?
Well, no. It cannot mean that. After all, this whole section is answering the question of “what kind of bodies” we will have (1 Corinthians 15.35). Again, we need to let Paul define his own terms. Earlier, Paul has already described what he means by “fleshly” people:
1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you re not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and having only in a human way?
(1 Corinthians 3.1-3)
Here, Paul uses the term “of the flesh” to describe the same people that he earlier described as “natural” in 2.14-16. The “natural” people who are “of the flesh” are those who walk “only in a human way”, as opposed to the “spiritual” people who live in harmony with the Spirit. For Paul, “flesh” does not mean “made out of matter” or “material” or “tangible” but refers to people who live in sinful rebellion, and for our current bodies that are destined for decay and death.
So, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he is not claiming that material “bodies” cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Rather, he is saying that the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable—unless the nature of our bodies is changed from “corruptible” to “incorruptible” and “merely human” to “spiritual”, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
But this is exactly what this passage is talking about: our bodies will be changed. They will be sown perishable, but raised imperishable; sown dishonorable, but raised glorious; sown in weakness, but raised in power; sown natural, but raised spiritual. Our resurrection bodies will be suited for an eternal existence with God.
The resurrection is not about us being freed from our bodies to live as spirits; it is about our bodies being transformed into something glorious that is both similar to and different from our current bodies.
Will we be raised with physical bodies? If by “physical,” we simply mean “bodily”, then yes, we will be raised with material, “physical” bodies. If by “physical” we mean “corruptible” or “mortal”, no our bodies will not be physical.
Again, we will close with how we began: continuity and discontinuity. In some sense, our bodies will be the same, but they will also be transformed into something new and different. Our bodies will be spiritual, incorruptible bodies, but we will not be bodiless spirits. We will have a tangible, material existence. Our dead bodies will actually be raised and will be made new.
And all of this fits quite seamlessly with the larger picture of cosmic redemption that we have been discussing in this series. Just as creation itself will be transformed and changed into something new, so, too, our bodies (as part of creation) will also be transformed and changed into something new. Creation isn’t thrown away; it is redeemed by God.
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
Excursus: Did Jesus’ Resurrection Body Change After His Ascension?
Sometimes, when discussing resurrection, people will basically acknowledge what I have said above about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body and its tangible nature, but will then make the argument that this radically changed after His ascension, and that He now lives a “spiritual” existence.
The first and most important response to this notion: Scripture never actually teaches this anywhere. It is an assumption we make based on the assumption that you can’t have a “tangible” body in heaven. It seems to be an effort to reconcile what appears to be a contradiction between 1 Corinthians 15.50 and what we know about Jesus’ resurrection body. But if we accept Paul’s definition of “flesh and blood” as described above, there is no contradiction.
Furthermore, other places in Scripture continue to assert the continuity between Jesus’ post-ascension existence, and his human, bodily existence:
- Acts 1.9 teaches that Jesus will return in the same form as He was in when He ascended (His resurrection body)
- In Acts 7, Stephen saw the “Son of Man” standing at the right hand of God. “Son of Man” means “Human One”; it has messianic connotations that make it mean more than a simple reference to humanity, but it doesn’t mean less than that. Jesus still still an embodied human (though, with a glorified, imperishable, resurrection body).
- 1 Timothy 2.5 refers to “the man Jesus” in the present tense—Jesus didn’t lose his embodied humanity after the ascension.
John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 112.
That is clear enough, but for awhile, this passage troubled me: if Jesus’ resurrection body possessed scars, will I have scars in my resurrection body? Will one of my thumbs still be weaker than the other, atrophied by a long-ago injury? Will those who suffered paralysis in this life still be paralyzed? Will my own daughter still possess her significant disabilities? Some of these maladies seem to contradict an eternity where there will be no crying, mourning, or pain.
The answer, I believe, can be found In Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, Q.54, Art. 4: “It was fitting for Christ’s soul at His Resurrection to resume the body with its scars. In the first place, for Christ’s own glory. For Bede says on Luke 24:40 that He kept His scars not from inability to heal them, “but to wear them as an everlasting trophy of His victory.” Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxii): “Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ’s name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body.” (emphasis mine)
As one commentator states: “These wounds are a dignity not a deformity, a sign of love not of loss, an indication of obedience not of onerousness.”
Sometimes people will try to take Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in John 20.17—“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father…”—to indicate that Jesus was immaterial and Mary was not able to grab or touch Him. This doesn’t seem to be the case, however. Jesus’ point seems to be, “It’s okay, Mary, you can let go. I’m not going anywhere yet; I’m not immediately ascending to the Father.”
Embracing Creation, 112.
N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 36.
Embracing Creation, 113.
I initially said “clear teaching,” but based on how often this passage is misconstrued to mean something other than what Paul means, it is clearly not “clear.” Our distance from Paul’s time (and our significant influence by neoplatonic thought) does make this a challenging passage, but I think it is understandable.
The following section is greatly influenced by a series of excellent articles by Tyler Boyd. For more, see “Resurrection: The Redemption of Our Bodies”, “We Will Have ‘Spiritual Bodies’”, “Will We Have ‘Physical’ Bodies?”.
Much of this next section relies specifically on Boyd, “Spiritual Bodies.”
Embracing Creation, 114, “The adjective spiritual does not refer to the composition of the body, but what makes it “tick.” While sin and death are like leaven bring corruption and decay, the Spirit of God animates resurrected bodies.”
Wright, Surprised By Hope, 155, echoes the same idea. Discussing the Greek words for physical and spiritual says that adjectives of this type “describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?” (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, “Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?” (the energy that powers it).
Boyd, “Will We Have “Physical” Bodies?”
Wright, 156, speaking of the “flesh and blood” reference: “he doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. “Flesh and blood” is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we call nonphysical, but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.” (Emphasis in the original)
Boyd, “Will We Have “Physical” Bodies?”
I am indebted to Ethan Longhenry, evangelist at the Venice church of Christ, for this insight.