Contrary to the popular belief that our ultimate hope for life after death is to be found in “going to heaven,” Scripture teaches that believers can expect to be resurrected on earth in physical bodies. As I demonstrated in the first article in this series, the physical resurrection of Christ is the archetype for that of those who trust in him. Yet, there are some common misunderstandings of various passages about the nature of the resurrection body which warrant our attention.
A Spiritual Body
Despite the clear teaching of Scripture that the resurrection body will be physical, some texts have been twisted out of context by those who would disagree. In Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, for example, there are a few phrases that some take to imply that the resurrection body will be an immaterial entity. When these verses are understood in their full context, however, it is obvious that they teach nothing of the sort.
In 1 Corinthians 15:44, Paul says of the resurrection body, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (ESV). The word “spiritual,” here, is sometimes mistakenly understood as a reference to an “immaterial” reality. However, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has shown, the Greek word translated as spiritual (pneumatikos) does not refer to the substance of a thing but to the energy that operates within it.1
By using this word, Paul was not trying to say that the resurrected body will be immaterial, as opposed to material. Instead, he was saying that the resurrection body would find its energy in God rather than worldly things. The resurrection body will no longer be driven by natural things (e.g. sinful desires, mortality, etc.), but by godly things. This is supported by the context of the preceding verses: “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42-43, ESV).
Later in the same passage, Paul makes the interesting statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50, ESV), which some take to be another indication that an immaterial state of affairs is in view. Much in the same way that it is wrong to read “spiritual” as “immaterial” and “natural” as “material,” it is also wrong to read “flesh and blood” as “physical.” This phrase wasn’t used in Paul’s culture to refer to the physicality of a person, but to their mortality. Again, Wright explains: “‘flesh and blood’ is a way of referring to ordinary, corruptible, decaying human existence.”2 This is similar to the way that Scripture uses the language of “dust” in reference to mankind not to speak of their material makeup but of their inability to escape death.
Utilizing Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 15 to do away with the material reality of the resurrection body twists his words far out of context and produces a theology foreign to him. In this text, Paul nowhere implies that physical human bodies must be discarded before people can be glorified. He is actually teaching precisely the opposite. It is physical human bodies that must be raised and transformed in order to make believers fit for the inheritance of God’s kingdom. Notice that Paul continues this same thought by explicitly stating that the body that dies is the same one that is raised: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53, ESV, emphasis mine).
A Building From God
Let’s examine another passage that is sometimes pressed into the service of those who want to do away with the physicality of the resurrection of the dead.
Here, Paul uses the metaphorical language of “tent” and “building” to refer to the current mortal body and the future glorified body. Many see the contrast between the two as an indication that the old must be done away with in order for the new to come. The contrast between the “earthly home” and the “heavenly dwelling” is also utilized to prop up an imagined dualism of the present “material” body versus the future “immaterial” one. However, there are a number of reasons why we should not read the language this way.
First of all, to suppose that our earthly bodies must be discarded, we would have to reject the clear teaching of scripture that we have already examined together, that the body that is raised is indeed the same as that which was buried. Let’s not forget that Jesus’ resurrection left behind an empty tomb.
Even within the context of the passage currently under consideration, in the very next verse, Paul makes it clear that he has resurrection in view:
Paul makes it clear that he is not ultimately looking forward to a disembodied state (what he refers to as being “unclothed”), but to an embodied one (“further clothed”). This language of “what is mortal” being “swallowed up by life” is a clear reference to our current mortal physical bodies being made immortal. This is why Paul can say elsewhere that Jesus will grant resurrection life even to our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). It is because God intends to redeem our bodies and make them fit for eternity with him. It’s not that our physicality will be replaced by immateriality. Rather, our mortality will be subsumed by immortality.
Transformation, Not Replacement
Scripture teaches that those who are in Christ will be raised to life, just as he was, and if Jesus’ resurrection is any indication, this means that we will be raised in the same body that we now possess. We must not forget that the body that was crucified on the cross is the same one that walked out of the tomb three days later. And yet, it was also different in some important ways.
The risen Christ remains embodied, but he no longer inhabits a mortal body. While still thoroughly human, Jesus is now no longer subject to death. Paul wrote, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9, ESV). This is an aspect of our Lord’s resurrection that we should look forward to as well. Consider these words of Paul, which further demonstrate that we should look to Christ as the example of what awaits us:
In this passage, Paul draws a direct connection between the glorious resurrection body of Christ and that of those who believe in him. First of all, we should note that the point about our citizenship being in heaven is not that we will go to be with Jesus there. It is that we are waiting a savior who will come to us from heaven. When he does, according to Paul, he will transform our bodies to be like his. Among other things, this means that the Christian doctrine of resurrection does not involve the replacement of our bodies. The resurrection body will be a real human body that will have continuity with the current one. And yet, there will be important points of discontinuity as well.
In its current state, the human body is subject to the curse of sin and death. However, our Lord has overcome these things by living a perfect life and rising from the grave in victory over death. Similarly, those who belong to Christ will also be brought back to life gloriously free from the curse, just as he was. Jesus taught that believers will be given a body that “cannot die anymore” (Luke 20:35-36, ESV), just like his own resurrected body. As Paul put it, “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53, ESV).
In addition to being free from death, there are hints in Scripture that the resurrection body will have other properties and abilities that we do not yet understand. For instance, Jesus is depicted not only as bearing scars and eating fish (Luke 24:39-43), but also as appearing and disappearing in locked rooms at will (John 20:19). It is quite clear that Jesus was not an immaterial spirit, as he went to great lengths to demonstrate, but his body did seem some unusual features. Interestingly, the same will be true of our resurrection bodies since we will be made like him. The apostle John put it this way:
So, while there is continuity between the body pre and post resurrection (it will be the same body, after all), there are also important differences. At the resurrection, we will be transformed to be like Christ. Among other things, this means that we will no longer be subject to death. However, there are also things about the resurrection body that we do not fully grasp as of yet. Despite this, Scripture plainly teaches that believers will not dwell finally and forever with God in an immaterial state, but as fully-fledged material beings. This is the destiny of those who are in Christ, and it is the true biblical hope that we share.