The Bible and the End-time (3): the Resurrection Body
Two thousand years after the death of Christ, it’s safe to say that for many Christians their own death is their furthest horizon, illuminated by the hope that, though the body dies, the soul lives; and not merely lives, but lives in perfect holiness in the company of Christ and his saints.
But when the first Christians spoke of a blessed hope, they looked further than the end of their own lives. They looked to the return of Christ; and not only to the blessedness of the soul, but to the resurrection of the body.
A doctrine too far?
It was clearly a doctrine too far for sceptics of the first century, not least the sceptics in the young church at Corinth. The immortality of the soul was no problem. After all, that belief was widely held among their contemporaries, and the unseen world of the spirit was clearly active among themselves in the amazing prophets, tongue-speakers and healers who were the glory of their assemblies.
But a resurrection of the body? ‘Tell us,’ they asked sarcastically, ‘how are the dead raised?’ (1 Cor. 15: 35) They clearly assumed that resurrection meant merely resuscitating a dead body, and they pretended to want to know the mechanics: ‘Will someone just shake them, and then they’ll waken up?’ St Paul answers with more than a trace of impatience: ‘You fool!’ The scoffer has forgotten something: the power of God; and in the last analysis that’s what lies behind all the objections to a bodily resurrection. They forget what God can do, or, to put it otherwise, they forget the great opening line of the Bible. ‘In the beginning, God.’ Once we accept that, and with it the fact that he built the universe, we can have no problem with the thought that he can raise the dead.
But not only do they forget what God can do: they forget what he has already done. He has raised Christ from the dead, and if that’s the case you can no longer scoff at the idea of a resurrection from the dead. ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Cor. 15:12) That fact, for fact it is, has radically changed our view of what is possible.
Then the apostle turns directly on the cynic. ‘You,’ he says (and the ‘you’ is emphatic), ‘you sow seed, don’t you, and that seed dies, but that’s not the end of it. It comes alive again; and not only does it come alive again, but it comes alive in a more splendid form. It is perishable, and it perishes, but God gives it a body. But first, it must die. So,’ he concludes, ‘it will be with the human body. It perishes, but God will bring it alive again and give it a body of his own choosing.’
Continuity and discontinuity
As Paul develops his analogy what he highlights is the contrast between the seed that is sown and the harvest that is reaped. How different the stalk, heavy with wheat, from the tiny seed that is sown! The same is true of the resurrection of the dead. Yes, as in the case of the seed and the stalk, there will be continuity between our present body (what is sown) and our resurrection body (what is raised); or, as C. K. Barrett puts it, ‘the same historically continuous ego makes use successively of two different kinds of body.’ (A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 373). God is not only able to give the resurrection body whatever form he pleases; he is also able to match each body to each person’s DNA.
But if there is continuity, there is also discontinuity. Our present bodies are perishable, weak, sensual (psuchikon) and without honour; the resurrection body will be incorruptible, glorious, powerful and spiritual (1 Cor. 15:42-44). The key term here is ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikon). This doesn’t mean that Paul is denying the materiality of the body: an immaterial body is a contradiction in terms. The contrast he draws is not between the material and the immaterial, but between what is pneumatikon and what is psuchikon. There is no single English equivalent to this latter word. Literally, it means ‘soulish’ and stresses the merely biological life we have in common with other ‘living creatures’ (Gen. 2:7), with the additional idea that we now possess even this life only in a state of weakness and growing decrepitude, and in a state where we are always tempted to give its demands (‘what we shall eat, what we shall drink, and what we shall wear,’ (Mt. 6:25) priority over the demands of the unseen and eternal.
When Scripture describes the resurrection body as ‘spiritual,’ it is not making a statement about the ‘stuff’ our new bodies will be made of, but about their adaptation to the world we are destined to live in, and the kind of life we are destined to live there. The spiritual body, in other words, will be one which is perfectly adapted to the needs, aspirations and obligations of the person who, in the language of B. B. Warfield, is ‘not self-led, but Spirit-led’ (Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 480). It will not, like our present bodies, impose physical limitations on our heavenly ministry and reign. Instead, it will fit us for all that God wants us to do; and it will be perfectly suited to enjoying life in New Jerusalem, able to appreciate colours, sounds, tastes, fragrances and textures far beyond our experience in this present world.
Still, we cannot help asking, ‘Apart from being spiritual, what will the resurrection body look like?’ Here again it is Paul (who had been caught up to the Third Heaven and heard things so glorious that they cannot be told, 2 Cor. 12: 2-4) who comes closest to giving us an answer. When the Saviour returns, he declares, he will transform our lowly bodies to be like the body of his own glory (Phil. 3:21). The Apostle John lays down the same marker: ‘we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.’ (1 Jn. 3:2) But almost in the same breath John struck a cautionary note: ‘what we will be has not yet appeared’. The glory of the risen Christ is itself ‘hid from mortal eyes,’ and even the glimpses we do have (for example, the appearance to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road) tell us nothing about the physical form of the exalted Lord, apart from its unique and overwhelming majesty: such a majesty as not only to blind the hate-driven persecutor (Acts 9:8) but to make the Beloved Disciple fall at his feet as though dead (Rev.1:17). Yet the main point made by both apostles is clear. We shall look like the exalted Christ, the glory of God shining in our human faces, and in the powers and beauties of our human form. We shall tempt the angels to envy, and be a wonder to ourselves.
The soul left naked
In the meantime we wait and, if we are like St Paul, we do so with a measure of apprehension. He shrinks from the prospect of his soul being separated from his body, and left ‘naked’ (2 Cor. 5:3). ‘Man’ is a psycho-somatic unity, death is a violation of that unity, and it’s hard to imagine how the soul can function without the body. Without eyes or ears, or the senses of touch, taste and smell, how can the naked soul have any contact with, or even any impression of, the world around it? Dreading this state of nakedness, Paul groans, longing to be clothed with his heavenly dwelling, the resurrection body. Only then will our redemption be complete, and only then, reunited with the body, will the blessedness of the soul itself be perfect.
And so, far from being weary of his body with all its ailments, Paul shrinks from being ‘away’ from it. He has an affection for his earthly tent, and feels secure in it. But it has one great disadvantage: being at home in the body means being away from the Lord and able to see him only by faith, when he longs to see him by sight.
Which would he choose? He gives an emphatic answer. Hard though it is to contemplate being away from the body, he ‘would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.’ (2 Cor. 5:8)
We don’t all have Paul’s faith and we couldn’t all express his preference so confidently. But then, the choice is not ours. Some of us will fall asleep in Jesus; others will remain till he returns (Jn. 21:22) and make the transition from our lowly earthly body to our glorious heavenly one in the twinkling of an eye.
And so, concludes the Apostle, ‘whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.’ (2 Cor. 5:9) The questions of where and when can safely be left in his hands.