In the minds of many, hope for life after death is couched primarily in terms of “going to heaven.” The physical reality in which we presently abide is merely a passing phase; a dim shadow that anticipates the blissful ethereal realm awaiting us. As the saying goes, “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” Our material human bodies are just shells for our real selves; prisons from which will be freed when we die.
There’s just one problem. This isn’t a biblical picture of future hope.
What About Resurrection?
In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel wrote, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). This teaching is picked up by Jesus in the New Testament in the gospel of John: “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Paul also plainly stated that his hope rested in the resurrection of the dead: “I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14-15). These plain statements of scripture speak of a future time when those who have died will come back to life.
The early church also held firmly to the belief in the resurrection of the dead, as is made clear by the fact that it was included in even the earliest creeds as a definitional element of the Christian faith. The Apostles’ creed declares belief in “the resurrection of the body,”2 while the Constantinopolitan creed states that believers “look for the resurrection of the dead.”3 Those who denied the biblical teaching concerning the resurrection of the dead were considered heretics: false teachers who were not Christians at all. Significant portions of the writings of the early church fathers deal extensively with the topic of the resurrection of the dead, often going to great lengths to refute those who rejected it.
The biblical witness and the testimony of the early church speak together with one voice that there will be a future resurrection of the dead, but what exactly does this mean? Are we to understand this as an event in which the corpses of people from ages past will literally walk out of their tombs? Or should we take it as a metaphor for a greater spiritual reality? In order to attempt to formulate a sufficient answer to these questions, there is no more appropriate place to begin than by examining the resurrection of our Lord, who is the foundation and source of our hope.
Christ, the Firstfruits
The resurrection of Jesus lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. This distinctively Christian belief is quite possibly the single greatest focal point of disagreement between Christianity and other religions. Even many who would claim the name of Christ have tried to find ways to re-interpret the testimony concerning his resurrection. As far back as the earliest centuries of the church, heretical groups have denied that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Even more recently, some have argued that the biblical teaching about the resurrection of Christ ought to be understood as a spiritual metaphor intended to convey something like exaltation. However, New Testament scholarship has repeatedly shown that attempts to misconstrue the language of resurrection in this way are ultimately futile.4 This is simply not the way this language was used.
This “purely spiritual” understanding of resurrection cannot make sense of the biblical text. It is inexplicable why the biblical authors would have chosen the specific language they used to describe our Lord’s resurrection if a physical event were not in view. For example, the emphasis placed on the empty tomb in the gospel narratives makes no sense if Jesus’ physical body was not raised. If the language of resurrection was merely a poetic way of describing the life of Jesus’ spirit, it wouldn’t matter if his body were still in the tomb. On top of this, Luke portrays Jesus as having scars and even eating food in his resurrection body, and Jesus himself appealed to these things to prove to his disciples that he was not merely a spirit: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).5 Jesus even told his disciples to touch him in order to prove that he was really “in the flesh.” Scripture undeniably presents Jesus’ resurrection as a manifestly physical occurrence.
Another important detail we need to consider is that the body of the risen Jesus is the same body that was dead for three days in the tomb. Before his death, Jesus predicted that his body would be brought back to life three days after he was killed: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’… he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19, 21). In their preaching, Peter and Paul also taught that Jesus’ body was not left to rot in the grave, but was raised to life (Acts 2:24-31, 13:32-37). The same body that went into the tomb is the one that came out.
These observations about Jesus’ death and resurrection are not ancillary to the broader discussion of the Christian hope for life after death; they lie at the very heart of it. This is because our Lord’s resurrection is the precursor and model for that of those who belong to him. Consider Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15:
In this text, the resurrection of believers is linked closely to Christ’s own resurrection. Paul weaves them together in this way because, in his mind, they depend on one another. Take note of how he describes Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection. The Greek work translated into English as firstfruits (aparche) referred to the literal “first fruits” of a crop. In popular usage, the word was used metaphorically to indicate that something was to serve as an early sign of what would come later. This is Paul’s way of saying that Jesus’ resurrection is the inauguration of the general resurrection of the dead. Remarkably, this makes the resurrection of Christ a first glimpse at what the future resurrection of believers will be like.
The weight of this cannot be stressed enough. The bodily resurrection of Christ is the very cornerstone of the Christian faith. It was the centerpiece of apostolic preaching. If we fail to get this right, we will have missed a definitional element of Christianity. And yet, Paul taught that to deny the resurrection of the dead would be tantamount to a rejection of the resurrection of Christ. For Paul, you cannot have one without the other. If we understand the resurrection of our Lord to be a real physical phenomenon, then Paul’s logic should lead us to conclude that our future resurrection will also be physical.
Resurrection, Atonement, and Incarnation
Along with serving as a launchpad from which we can explore the believer’s hope for life after death, the resurrection of Jesus is also a lens through which we can understand other elements of Christology. For instance, the nature of Christ’s resurrection is bound up with the essence of his work on the cross. If Jesus’ resurrection was not at its core a physical event, then the physicality of his death on the cross is merely a coincidence. Re-interpreting resurrection as a metaphor for exaltation necessarily empties the physical death of Christ of its meaning. Likewise, the Scriptural teaching that Jesus’ resurrection displays his victory over death is made unintelligible by this move. Yet, it is through his physical death on the cross that he atoned for sin…
… and it is by his physical resurrection that he is vindicated.
Casting resurrection in immaterial terms also has implications on our understanding of the doctrine of the incarnation. The New Testament teaches that Jesus chose to take on mortal human flesh in order to identify with us and so that he could accomplish the work of redemption by dying in our place.
The physicality of Jesus’ incarnation is such a crucial part of the message of the gospel that the apostle John plainly stated that those who do not acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh are not of God (1 John 4:3).
Clearly, the consequences of tinkering with the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ are massive. If we rid ourselves of belief in the physical aspects of Christ’s resurrection, what remains will bear little resemblance to the faith of the apostles and the early church. Yet, the resurrection of Jesus serves as the fount and model of our own resurrection. Because of this, we ought to think twice before saying that our hope lies in leaving material reality behind. The true hope presented in Scripture is that we will be resurrected, just like our Lord, and that we will one day see him face to face.
- Gnosticism is an ancient philosophy that set itself up against the message of the early church. Gnostics asserted that reality is divided into two portions: a material portion, which is inherently bad, and an immaterial portion, which is good. In the gnostic scheme, human persons are viewed as immaterial souls trapped inside material bodies whose ultimate salvation is to be found in escaping corporeal existence altogether.
- Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Part 1, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Cosimo, 2007), 22.
- Ibid, 28.
- For more on this, see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
- Some people have made a big deal out of Jesus’ apparent ability to appear and disappear at will, marshaling this as evidence that Jesus must be some sort of incorporeal entity. Given the context of the other data presented in the New Testament concerning the risen Christ, however, it makes much more sense to say that Jesus’ glorified body is indeed a material body, but that it has properties and abilities that we don’t yet fully understand.
Last modified: June 3, 2021