Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Physical Resurrection

In a previous article, I spent a good deal of time discussing the significance which the future resurrection has for our present life--it occurred to me afterwards that it might be necessary to say something in defense of the doctrine itself. Is there sound reason, biblically, to believe that such a thing as a physical resurrection is going to happen at all?

First of all, let's clear a few misunderstandings out of the way. The physical resurrection does not necessitate the old physical body as a starting point--it is not a simple metamorphosis. There is nothing in scripture to say that the resurrected body will take as its starting point the same atoms that the old body had when it died. Wesley argued somewhere that since God is omniscient, He could gather together the scattered remains of the body--and He could. And He may. More likely God will use the old body as a starting point if it's still intact and start from scratch when it is isn't. But this is all speculation and it does not affect one way or the other the doctrine of the resurrection itself. Just because we do not know where the resurrection body comes from is no proof that it cannot come at all.

Secondly, the resurrection of the body does imply some kind of a world. A physical body must have a physical world to inhabit. It might be something more than physical, but it could not be anything less. However, this does not mean that the present physical world will simply be “freshened up a bit” as, apparently, was the view of some Christians in a previous century. The Bible makes it very clear that the entire world as we know it--the entire time-space-matter continuum--is going to be destroyed. Destroyed but not, perhaps, annihilated. The case can be made that nothing is ever really annihilated and that the world will not be taken out of existence but rather experience something analogous to being melted down and reforged--or, better, of dying and being resurrected. In my previous article I said that the world would sink like a ship beneath the waves and then “will rise a new ship, gleaming in the sun.” That is one picture, but sometimes the Bible seems to imply a different one. Jesus told the disciples in the paschal discourse that He was going to prepare a place for them--not that at some point in the future He would transform the world into a place for them. The same picture seems to be in John's sight of New Jerusalem descending to earth from heaven. It may be symbolic, but symbols point to something. It is as if Christ is preparing something for us which will someday be joined to this world, transforming both into something new. Paul does not say that this mortality will give way to immortality nor that this mortality will be transformed into immortality, but that this mortality will “put on” immortality. But, again, all this is speculation and the truth or falsehood of any of this does not impact the doctrine of the resurrection itself.

What, then, is the doctrine of the physical resurrection? It is simply this: at some point in the future, those who have died in Christ will receive, in some manner, a body, physical in its basic composition and yet somehow different from the old body. For that matter, those who are alive in Christ will also have the privilege of being resurrected without going through the bothersome preliminary of dying. The wicked dead and (if there are any by that point) the wicked living will also be given a resurrection body at that point or at some later point--but about this we are told next to nothing in Scripture, not even enough to say how similar it will be to the resurrection body of the Christian.

The reason for the physical resurrection is obvious. God made man as a physical/spiritual being. That is what it means to be a man--it means to have a body and to have a soul, just as it means to have two legs and two arms. A man can live without two legs; he may do great things and be a useful member of society. But he is not, in one sense, a complete man. And man as a disembodied spirit may do good things and have good experiences--but he is not a complete man. “Human beings are... intended to be the meeting place of matter and spirit, and a human without a body is not fully human.” (Purtill, 126) That is why both the wicked and the righteous will be raised and judged and in their body suffer their punishment or reward--because that is the end fitting to our species.

Now, it is clear that the resurrection body will not be exactly the same as the present body, any more than a flower is exactly (or even remotely) like a seed. It will be similar and yet have a distinct glory, just as the sun, the moon, and all the stars are broadly similar and yet distinctively different. (1 Corinthians 15:35-41) We might compare this present body to an artist's sketch and the resurrection body to a completed masterpiece. The two are very different in detail and composition--they may exist in entirely different media--and yet they are also obviously the same thing.

However, one primary objection surfaces. Wayne Jackson comments that at the resurrection, the “dead bodies that come forth from the grave will be 'spiritual,' and not 'physical'” and cities as proof 1 Corinthians 15:44, where Paul states of the body that “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” This concept--that our future hope is that of a body that 'spiritual' and not 'physical'--is fairly common, if not explicitly spelled out, in modern Christianity and is worth looking at. (Indeed, I am somewhat confused on this point. Sometimes modern Christianity speaks of the Heaven as being entirely spiritual and sometimes as being entirely physical--either both views have their proponents or many people confusedly hold both or people hold one view but fall into the language of the other or perhaps they have found some deeper synthesis.) In order to do so, we will have to look at the whole New Testament concepts of flesh and Spirit, which is important enough to merit discussion anyway.

First, it may be helpful to put in clear terms what we generally mean by the difference between physical or material and spiritual. The following summary from Richard L. Purtill puts it fairly clearly. “Rocks and rivers are purely material; they occupy space and are subject to such physical laws as gravitational attraction. God and angels are purely spiritual; they have no location in space and are not subject to the laws that govern the behavior of matter. Human beings are both material and spiritual... Activities such as running require a body; activities such as thinking requires a spirit. Human beings can both run and think. Angels can think but not run, rivers can run but not think.” (126) It may be that these categories of our are completely wrong and do not correspond to reality. But it is from within such categories that the discussion about the physical resurrection takes place.

There is a fairly common idea that states, usually not in exact terms, that our physical bodies are the organs of sin or at least temptation and that when the Bible tells us to walk after the Spirit and not after the Flesh, it is speaking of some conflict between our spirit and our physical body. Immediately we think of how sins such as gluttony, drunkenness, and fornication are linked to our bodily natures--to the functions we share in common with the animals. It is compelling point of view--until one stops to think about it steadily for about five minutes. And then you realize just how absurd it really is. It may be true of the three sins above mentioned, but when Paul lists the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21, he mentions other kinds of sin too--social sins like hatred, emulations, and strife; intellectual sins like seditions and and heresies; and spiritual sins like idolatry. And even in the case of drunkenness and fornication, the body is the means of the sin and the source of temptation, but it is not the sin itself. Indeed, even as the source of temptation I think it may be overrated. I am doubtful as to how many people become drunkards merely out of physical thirst, and I am next to positive that nearly as many people are led into fornication by societal expectations, corrupted mental imaginations, and hubris as by merely physical lust. Clearly, by flesh, the New Testament does not, at least in every case, mean physical or material. And if it does not, then Spirit (which is usually put in opposition to flesh) should not be understood as nonphysical or immaterial, either.

Of course, for Paul, Spirit is not a name for an immaterial substance in philosophy--it is the name of a person, the name of God. It is not merely spirit, as such, but the Spirit of Christ. We have two choices, Paul makes clear--to follow our “flesh” or to follow the Spirit of Christ. In other words, flesh is not the opposite of spirit, as such, but of God. Flesh, for Paul, does not mean our physical body but our unregenerate nature, our “old man”--the man we were, all of us, before we came to Christ and which we will be again if we turn from Christ--the old usurper who had seized the throne and will seize it again the instant the King departs. That is why we must be continually filled with the Spirit--for if we aren't, we will fulfill the lusts of the flesh.

It is in light of this that we can understand Paul's comment that the resurrection body will be a spiritual body. It should have been clear from the outset that this does not mean a immaterial body, since a body “that is unextended and intangible would have been a contradiction in terms for the apostle.” (Craig, 157) What do people mean if they say the resurrection body will be spiritual and not physical? I am afraid they are thinking in comic-book pictures--of a body drawn with dotted lines to show that it's invisible. If Paul had meant to speak of a non-physical immortality, he would have just talked of a spiritual spirit and not dragged the body into it at all. A nonphysical resurrection is not a resurrection at all. Paul is following his usual wording--the resurrection body (of the righteous, for that is what Paul is speaking of here) is spiritual in the sense that it submitted to and empowered by the Spirit of God. It is “'spiritual' in the sense of orientation, not substance. The resurrection body will be an immortal, powerful, glorious, Spirit-directed body, suitable for inhabiting a renewed creation.” (Craig, 157)

However, there is a stronger case to be made, and it goes back to the very essence of Paul's argument for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15--and to the central Biblical case for the physical resurrection. And that is the connection between our resurrection and Christ's resurrection. Rather, Paul's argument seems to be that there is no “our resurrection.” There is only Christ's resurrection, and we share in it. (And perhaps the wicked are caught up unwillingly and hatingly in the outermost rim of that Resurrection? But this too is speculation.) Paul's whole contrast between the natural body and the spiritual body follows through with a contrast between the first Adam, with whom we share our natural life, and the second Adam, Christ, who was a quickening spirit and whose image we will bear. But Jesus' resurrection was clearly physical--He told Mary Magdalene not to touch him which would have been pointless if He couldn't be touched; He told Thomas to place his hands in His scars; and He even ate with His disciples, specifically to prove that He was bodily present and was not a disembodied spirit. No doubt His body was different from His old body. Most likely, His body will different from ours (since He is the captain and we only His followers). But if we share in His Resurrection, then our resurrection must be of the same essential type with His. He had a physical body--but He has it still--and so will we in the resurrection, for we will be made like Him.

Craig, William Lane. “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” 141-176 in Jesus Under Fire, Wilkins and Moreland, ed., Zondervan, 1995.

Jackson, Wayne. "Will Heaven Be on Earth?" Access date: May 27, 2017.

Purtill, Richard L. C. S. Lewis's Case for the Christian Faith. Harper and Row, San Francisco: 1985.

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