But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees: touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question” (Acts 23:6).
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the cornerstone of Christianity: Paul ties the legitimacy of the faith to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Since Jesus was raised from the dead, Christians maintain the hope of the day when they also will be raised from the dead (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:21-58, Philippians 3:8-14, 20-21). Yet what is this “resurrection” all about?
In the New Testament, this question is not an issue: all involved understood that the resurrection involved the resurrection of the body from the dead. Whether the dead would be raised was one of the main disputations between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, seen in Matthew 22:23-32 and Acts 23:6-9. When Paul preached to the Athenians regarding the resurrection of Jesus, some of them mocked the idea (Acts 17:30-32): in many strands of Greek philosophy, the goal was for the soul to escape the body, and so the idea of resurrection proved quite repugnant. Elijah and Elisha raised the dead bodily through the power of God (1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:18-37, Hebrews 11:35). Jesus did the same (Luke 7:10-17, 8:40-42, 49-56, John 11:1-45), as did Peter (Acts 9:36-42). When Jesus Himself arose from the dead, the tomb was empty, and He appeared to His disciples in bodily form (Matthew 28:1-17, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:25).
Yet it seems the idea of the resurrection of the body has become misunderstood over time. Some of the confusion comes from the heritage of Greek philosophy and its emphasis upon soul over body and their expectation of life after death in terms of the soul finding bliss in a disembodied state. Some of the confusion comes from over-applying spiritual understandings of resurrection, as with baptism as a spiritual death and resurrection in Romans 6:3-7, as well as the over-emphasis of the “spiritual” nature of the “spiritual” body in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49. Yet it is the elevation of the expectation of heaven as the ultimate goal for the Christian, based on John 14:1-3, and how that expectation was enshrined in the hymns and popular devotions of many Christians, that has led to the under-emphasis on the resurrection and its importance in Christianity. As a result, the afterlife is understood in almost purely spiritual terms: the destruction of the physical realm leading to eternity in the spiritual realm in heaven. The resurrection from the dead is often re-defined to fit this particular concept of the afterlife: the resurrection becomes “life with God in heaven forever.” Yet is this what is taught in the New Testament?
In the Bible, as seen above, resurrection involves the raising of a dead body to life: the return of the soul/spirit to the physical body. The sons of the widows of Zarephath and Nain, the son of the Shunammite, Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and Dorcas/Tabitha had all died, their spirits/souls having departed from their physical bodies, and through the power of God, their spirits/souls returned to their bodies and they lived again. Granted, all these would again die.
Jesus’ resurrection is considered as the paradigm for the resurrection of believers: He is considered as the firstfruits, the firstborn of the dead, under the assumption that many others will follow on the final day (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). The Gospel accounts are in complete agreement: on the day of His crucifixion, Jesus died. His spirit/soul departed from His body. On the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead: His soul (and spirit?) was restored to His body, and He presented Himself to His disciples as having flesh and bones (cf. Luke 24:39), yet He could seemingly transcend the space-time continuum. The authors of the New Testament consider Jesus to have been raised from the dead in the body, yet the body was in a transformed, glorified form (cf. Philippians 3:21).
The New Testament makes important distinctions that we do well to consider. In the New Testament, the afterlife is not equated with the resurrection; therefore, the resurrection is not exactly “life after death.” Jesus, after all, was alive after He died: His soul did not perish on the cross, but went to Paradise (Luke 23:43-46). Paul understands that the sooner he would die, the sooner he would be with Christ, and how good that would be (Philippians 1:22-24), yet expects the resurrection to happen on the final day, the day of judgment, and recognizes that those “asleep” in Christ await the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). One can make a good argument based upon John 14:1-3, Philippians 1:22-24, and Revelation 6:9-11, 7:9-17, that the Christian’s soul/spirit goes to heaven immediately upon separation from the physical body: that would be life after death. Yet the New Testament has a further expectation: the day will then come when the dead will be raised (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Thus, the resurrection is truly life after life after death: the return of the soul (and spirit?) to the body, just as Jesus’ soul returned to His body.
But why a return to the body? We do well to remember that while the Bible testifies how mankind has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and often speaks of sinfulness in terms of the desires of the flesh (cf. Romans 3:23, 8:1-11, Galatians 5:17-24), the Bible never suggests that the body is intrinsically evil. Quite the contrary: God made man and woman in His image, with body, soul, and spirit, and called that creation “very good” (Genesis 1:26-31). The Bible nowhere suggests that we would be in a better state if we were soul/spirit without a body; there is no Biblical conception of humanity as anything else but an organic unity among body and soul/spirit. As Paul explains in Romans 8:18-25, the problem with the body is the same problem that plagues the whole creation: God has subjected it to futility and decay, no doubt on account of the presence of sin and death in the world (cf. Genesis 3:1-23, Romans 5:12-18). While humans seem quite willing to give up on God’s creation, God and His creation itself prove less willing: as Paul continues to explain in Romans 8:18-25, the creation groans to be freed from its bondage to futility and decay, hoping to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Little wonder, then, that John sees the end as the beginning in Revelation 22:1-6, with God’s people in the presence of God and Christ in the “new heavens and a new earth” with the river of life and the tree of life on its banks, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden from which we fell (cf. Genesis 2:1-3:22, Revelation 21:1). The New Testament, therefore, does not envision our ultimate end as disembodied bliss in heaven; it envisions a new heavens and earth, in which righteousness dwells, where humanity is restored to the position it once had before God.
Paul also sets up another contrast in Romans 8:18-25: the “now, not yet” nature of our salvation. In Romans 6:3-7, Paul speaks of baptism as being joined into Christ’s death and resurrection: a spiritual death and a spiritual resurrection. Thus Christians are alive spiritually before God in Christ, having obtained spiritual redemption through His blood, and through Christ can be considered as adopted sons (cf. Romans 8:1-16). And yet in Romans 8:23 he says Christians wait for adoption as sons, defined as the redemption of the body, and emphasizes in Romans 8:24-25 how this is our hope and therefore not yet manifest to us. A similar construct is seen in 1 Peter 1:3-9: Christians are now saved and guarded through faith, but they are guarded for a salvation ready to be revealed on the final day. We can understand these descriptions by understanding the differing natures of soul and body. When we speak of “spiritual” death, we do not mean actual death: we speak of such a death as a separation between the soul and its Creator, and do not mean that the soul has actually, substantively, perished and has ceased to exist. When we put our trust in Jesus and begin serving Him, we are reconciled to God through Him and His blood, and have the opportunity to maintain that spiritual relationship for eternity (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 1 John 1:1-7). Yet, even with that spiritual relationship, Christians die physically. Even with this spiritual relationship, there remains more that God has promised for Christians: not only are our souls redeemed, but God will redeem the body as well. We should be in a saved relationship with God right now, but we have not obtained the fulness of salvation just yet. The physical body, which is subject to actual, substantive death, must also gain victory over death in the end.
How this resurrection will take place, to the extent that we can presently understand it, is set forth in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Philippians 3:21. The translation of the terms which Paul uses has led to much confusion: he speaks of the “natural” body, and then the “spiritual” body, and then says how flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, and so many are led to conclude that the physical body must not be at all involved. Yet this is not what Paul is saying. “Natural” is the Greek psuchikos, and “spiritual” is the Greek pneumatikos. How these terms are used is made evident in 1 Corinthians 15:45. The first Adam, made from dust, “became a living soul” (soul is Greek psuche). The last Adam, Christ, is a life-giving spirit (spirit is Greek pneuma). Therefore, Paul is making a contrast between a “psychical” body, the body we now have, corruptible, perishable, and empowered/enlivened by the breath of life, or psuche, and the “pneumatical” body, the body in the resurrection, incorruptible, imperishable, and empowered/enlivened by our spirit or perhaps the Spirit, the pneuma. So how do we get from the “psychical” to the “pneumatical” body?
Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54: yes, flesh and blood does not inherit the Kingdom, but that does not mean that flesh and blood is not involved. Paul goes on to explain himself: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. This corruptible must “put on” incorruption; this mortal must put on immortality. When that happens, the saying will be true: death is swallowed up in victory.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul assures the Thessalonian Christians that the dead in Christ will rise, and “we who are alive” will also be caught up meet the Lord in the air. In Philippians 3:20-21 Paul speaks of our present citizenship, and thus affiliation, as in heaven, but from it we wait a Savior so that our body may receive the transformation toward conformity to the body of His glory.
Thus we can see the nature of the resurrection: the body is raised from the dead and is then transformed for immortality. Those who are alive when Christ returns will not experience death but will experience the same transformation. The dead are not raised in a transformed body: the dead are raised in their physical body, which is then transformed. Incorruption and immortality must be “put on” over this corruption and mortality; this is no doubt a figure, but it is a figure of transformation.
It is through the resurrection of the body that Christians obtain the victory over death. The soul does not die like the body dies; it is either connected to or separated from its Creator. If the goal of Christianity were simply a matter of spending eternity in heaven as disembodied souls, the resurrection would be entirely pointless: we could have that automatically after physical death, as Jesus also could have. Likewise, Greek philosophers would have entirely agreed with the Christian view of the afterlife; no one in Athens would mock Paul for suggesting that the afterlife featured disembodied bliss. Yet early Christians stubbornly insisted that Jesus was physically dead but made alive again and such is the hope for all who trust in Him.
Many good questions arise on account of the resurrection of the body. How could the body be raised if the body were deformed, cremated, or had decomposed significantly? The Bible does not directly address this question, but we are given an interesting example in Matthew 27:52-53: Matthew claims that after Jesus was raised from the dead, many of the bodies of the “saints” which had fallen asleep were raised, came out of their tombs, and appeared to many. This record of Matthew, preserved nowhere else, leads to more questions than answers. Who were they? How long were they alive? What happened to them afterwards? Nevertheless, Matthew does say the bodies of the saints came out of the tombs, and if those saints had been deceased for at least a year or more, there would have been nothing left of them but bones if even that much. We necessarily infer that God re-constituted their bodies so that they could come forth from the tombs in a form recognizable to people of the day. As God is able to make man from dust, He is able to re-make man from dust (cf. Genesis 2:7). Other details we would like to know are left entirely unaddressed.
What happened to Jesus in the resurrection? A common assumption is that after His ascension, Jesus returned to His pre-incarnate form. Yet the New Testament text does not justify such an assumption, and actively speaks against it. In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul considers himself a witness to the Risen Lord, and makes no distinction between his witness to Jesus and the witness of those who saw Him between His resurrection and ascension. He witnessed the Risen Lord in Acts 9:3-7: yes, the text there only indicates that he saw a great light, but in 1 Corinthians 9:1 he claims to have seen “the Lord,” and thus we must conclude that Paul saw Jesus in His resurrection body. We also should note Paul’s language in Philippians 3:21: in the resurrection we will be transformed in order to be conformed to the glory of His body. Paul speaks of Jesus having that body in the present tense; therefore, the conclusion that makes the best sense of all the evidence is that Jesus has been in His resurrected body since the day of His resurrection. In this way Jesus remains both man and God even presently (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5).
Much, much more could be said about the resurrection of the body. It ought to remain the centerpiece of the hope of the Christian today just as it was for Paul (cf. Philippians 3:8-14). As Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, died on the cross, dwelt in Paradise, was raised from the dead and transformed, and remains for eternity in His resurrection body, so we can cherish the hope of the same. We live in the flesh, and unless the Lord returns quickly, will physically die. Our souls will return to God and dwell with Him until the final day upon which our bodies will be re-animated/re-constituted and transformed for eternity, ever to be in the presence of God in the new heavens and the new earth, having received the redemption of our souls and bodies as well as the creation itself, glorifying God in the form of His creation which He always intended for us to have and enjoy. Let us comfort one another with these words and wait patiently for our full redemption!