Contrary to the popular belief that our ultimate hope is to be found in “going to heaven,” Scripture teaches that believers can expect to be resurrected 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. Believers look to the risen Lord as the model of what awaits us in our own resurrection. In the words of Paul, “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:6). Due to this, we can be sure that our resurrection will be a material one. This truth is made plain in scripture. And yet, some of the texts that describe the resurrection body in more detail have been misunderstood in various ways, leading to still more confusion about the final state of those in Christ. We will first examine some of these confusions and then explore a method of understanding the resurrection that best makes sense of Scripture.
The Building From God
Despite the clear teaching of Scripture that the resurrection body will be physical, some texts have been misconstrued as teaching the opposite. In Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, there are a few phrases that appear to some to imply that the resurrection body will be a sort of 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.” 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 With this word, Paul is not trying to say that the resurrected body will be immaterial, as opposed to material. Instead, he is saying that the resurrection body will 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).
Later in the same passage, Paul makes the interesting statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50), 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.” Again, Wright explains: “‘flesh and blood’ is a way of referring to ordinary, corruptible, decaying human existence.”2 Using this phrase to do away with the material reality of the resurrection body, then, twists Paul’s words and takes them out of context. 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, emphasis mine).
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 the imagined duality 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 just examined together, that the body that is raised is indeed the same as that which was buried. Remember, Jesus’ resurrection left behind an empty tomb. We would also need to ignore the biblical evidence concerning the physicality of the resurrection body to see a dualism of material and immaterial here. Consider an analogy that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15: he utilizes an agricultural illustration to show how the buried mortal body gives rise to the glorified body in the same way that a seed that is planted in the earth gives way to the life of the flower that then blooms. Even within the context of the passage currently under consideration, 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:
This is why Paul can say 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.
Resurrection and Transformation
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). This is an aspect of our Lord’s resurrection that we should look forward to. 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. Rather, 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), much 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). Related to all of this is the Christian doctrine of “sanctification,” which details the process by which we are made more and more like Christ in terms of character and morality. Scripture also promises that this process will be brought to a head at the resurrection when Christ returns. Paul wrote, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). As a bit of a side note, I suspect that the sanctification and glorification of believers are in the background of what Peter was talking about when he mysteriously wrote that believers “may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). The reason we will be without sin or death is because we will share in the very nature of God himself.3
In addition to being free from the curse of sin and 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, but his body seemed to have some unusual abilities. Though we know for certain that Jesus’ post-resurrection body is incorruptible and unable to die, there are other things about it that we do not yet comprehend. This also holds true for our own 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 be made perfect and will no longer be subject to the reign of sin and 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.
- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 348-351.
- Ibid, 359.
- I want to be careful here to distance myself from some who have utilized this language to suggest a strong form of “deification,” in the sense that we will be made equal to God and may become masters of our own worlds at some future point. I do not believe it is possible for anyone to be made equal to God. Nor do I think that we can possess perfection or immortality in and of ourselves. These will be gifts to us from God, and we will continue to depend upon his sustaining power throughout eternity. I believe that looking at Peter’s words in the way I am suggesting might give us a way to comprehend what it means to be partakers of the divine nature without going too far, as I believe some have.
Last modified: June 3, 2021