The bodily resurrection: does Jesus have a body now?
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Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.
AS JESUS WENT, SO HE SHALL RETURN. This simple statement gives rise to many questions which prove anything but simple to answer. Nevertheless, the questions need to be considered carefully, as they go right to the heart of the Christian hope. Scripture tells us that believers will be resurrected to the same glory Jesus now has (Phil. 3:21, 1 Cor. 15:49, 1 John 3:1-2). Does Jesus now have the same body that He had while alive in the flesh? Received theological wisdom insists that Jesus was raised with a “physical, material” body — His resurrection entailed a resuscitation of His incarnate body, though in modified form. The tomb was empty, we are told, because His body had been brought back to bodily life. Does the future resurrection body of believers comply with His resurrection body, or did His resurrection body undergo dramatic change or even disappear during or after the Ascension?
The belief that Jesus' mortal body was raised from the grave, and that He will return in the same state, is generally coupled with the conviction that He exists in the same state even now. He ascended to heaven in His material, resurrected body from where He will return in the same condition.
Before we discuss the question of the bodily resurrection, let us consider a truly mind-blowing thought. Let William Lane Craig explain:
For the gospels and Paul alike the incarnation is an enduring state, not limited to the 30 some years of Jesus's earthly life (1980).
What a staggering idea — the Bible shows that the miracle of the Incarnation continues to this moment. The martyr, Stephen, saw in vision the Son of Man “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Right now the risen Jesus Christ is working actively as the believer's high priest (Heb. 4:14-15) and, together with the Father “comes” to believers and takes up residence in them. In the day of judgment, Jesus will judge each and every person who has ever lived (John 5:22). Such passages attest to the continuance of the resurrected Jesus. However, the concept that this miracle continues in modified bodily form in heaven cannot be sustained.
This article will show that the Incarnation does exist, and always will exist, in one sense, but not in the sense that Craig means. The glorified Jesus has a “spirit body”, not a “material body”.
Let's establish some working premises and then, adequately armored, consider the commonest argument from logic used to establish that Jesus has a material body. We will begin by establishing some “not necessarily…” premises. Those who argue that Jesus has a material body make certain assumptions they deem to be necessarily so, to be self-evident. Here we will give reasons for questioning those assumptions.
1. That “body” always has form and substance
The English term “body” has a plain meaning when used in reference to living things — it has a shape and is made of matter; it has, in other words, form and substance. However, the Greek term translated “body”, soma , was sometimes used differently to its normal connotation of form and substance. Paul says, for instance,
Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For "the two," He says, "shall become one flesh."
Here, “one body” actually consists of two bodies. So when it comes to the word “body” (Greek: soma) we should be alert to the possibility of its appropriation for a new, perhaps unique, use. Many writers stumble over this point, going to great pains to analyze the “biblical meanings” (note inverted commas!) of words such as body, flesh, soul, and spirit. Although such studies have great value in aiding comprehension of Scripture, they can also prove misleading if we stick religiously to “the meaning” of a word, and fail to appreciate its possible fluidity.
The discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 — the key chapter about the resurrection of believers — deals with a topic so “other-worldly”, so utterly beyond our experience, so alien to the categories of everyday existence with which we are familiar that, dare I say it, the word “body” was obviously being stretched beyond its flesh-and-blood, form-and-substance parameters. Shape and matter are not the only attributes that can be ascribed to the everyday concept of bodily existence. When you see a body you are not only seeing shape and matter. You are seeing a person, a personality, a certain je ne sais quoi , an indefinable something that makes up an individual, unique and recognizable to his or her acquaintances. Paul's Corinthian readers would have understood what he meant.
2. That Jesus' resurrection body was material
Books have been written on the nature of Jesus' resurrection body, in most of which great stress is laid, appropriately, on the fact that the tomb was empty when the disciples arrived. Absolutely! Jesus was risen! Death could not maintain its grip on God-in-the-flesh. Hallelujah! The most important event in history — the passion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior — proves beyond doubt God has power over the grave. Jesus is the “firstfruits of the dead” for believers; herein lies our brilliant hope. The key passage in support of the notion of a material resurrection is Luke 24:36-40:
Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, "Peace to you." But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, "Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? "Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have." When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.
These words, together with the emptiness of the tomb, are taken to prove that Jesus' fleshly body had been resuscitated. Maybe, but not necessarily. The disciples were scared speechless when they saw Jesus, thinking they had been jumped by a spirit — whether good angelic or evil demonic we are not told. Their old friend, Jesus, allayed their fears by proving that He was Jesus, not a spirit. Spirits cannot manifest themselves as bona fide matter, but He certainly could. The marks of crucifixion dispelled any doubts they might have entertained.
Many writers have commented on the peculiar capabilities of Jesus after His resurrection and acknowledge that they certainly were not a function of flesh and bone. “Our Lord's risen body appears to have been in some sense like the natural body and in some sense different… It would seem that the risen Lord could conform to the limitations of this physical life or not as he chose” (Morris 1980, ed. Douglas, Part 3, p. 1332). Hear, hear.
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were designed to convince those chosen by God to be privy to the pivotal truth of His release from death in order to bruit it abroad that Jesus was no longer dead but alive. The “fleshliness” of those appearances should not be taken to insist that He was in fact made of a modified version of reconstituted flesh and bone.
3. That Jesus' current body is identical to His resurrection body
Following on from his earlier statement, Carson (p. 557) says this:
When Jesus is glorified, he does not leave the body behind in the grave, but rises with a transformed, glorified body… which returns to the Father and thus to the glory the Son had with the Father “before the world began” [John 17:5] (p. 557).
The truth is, not one Scripture can be called on to support the widespread belief that Jesus returned to heaven with the same body as that which was placed in the tomb and then came out of it. The belief amounts to a mere assumption. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus after His resurrection, and she thought He was the gardener (John 20:15)! This earthiness of His immediate post-resurrection appearances is a far cry from the immense glory Jesus now has in heaven (John 17:24-5). Jesus, now, has a far more glorious body than He appeared to have between His resurrection and ascension.
Having equipped ourselves with some vital not-necessarily-sos let's now look at the argument from logic that is often used to prove the physicalness of Jesus' heavenly body. (One often sees the second premise reversed — Jesus now has a material body — with the conclusion then being that believers will have a material body. This whole question of the bodily resurrection can be argued in either direction.)
Premise One: Jesus now has the same kind of body that believers will have upon glorification — Philippians 3:21
The logic of this argument cannot be contradicted. The question is, how true are the premises? Philippians 3:21 proves the first premise beyond dispute:
… who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.
As for the second premise — believers will be given a reformatted version of their old physical body at the resurrection — here we have a whole ‘nother story.
Prominent New Testament theologian, Millard Erickson, says, “There are several passages in the New Testament which affirm that the body will be restored to life” (1985, p. 1196), and then adds that “In addition, there are inferential or indirect evidences of the bodily nature of the resurrection” (p. 1197). He includes as direct references Romans 8:11, Philippians 3:21 and 1 Corinthians 15, listing Romans 8:22-23 and 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 as inferences. Note Romans 8:11:
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Rom. 8:11).
Armed with such passages, most theologians today, even though they recognize that the Bible is silent about the nature of the resurrection body, are fully convinced that glorified saints will live eternally in the kingdom of God as material creatures with mass, visible body parts and silhouettes. In this spirit, The Westminster Confession of Faith states that, “… all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever” (Chapter XXXII, II).
This view ignores Jesus' words that, “… the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). (As is obviously the case here, body and flesh are often synonymous: Jesus told His disciples the night before His death that eating the Eucharistic bread amounted to “eating His body” [Matt. 26:26], while He also says that those who eat His “flesh” shall have eternal life [John 6:54].) If it profits nothing, why would we imagine that it will be restored at the resurrection?
1 Corinthians 15
More than any other passage, 1 Corinthians 15 is called on to support the second premise that believers will have a material body in the kingdom of God. Paul presents a question that he was obviously challenged with by some adversaries:
How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come? (vs. 35).
In answering this question, he called upon a number of fascinating analogies to illustrate the difference between now and then, such as the contrast between the nature of the seed sown (corpse into the ground) and the plant that comes from it (glorified saint). Then he came to his summary statement:
It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body (vs. 44).
The question is, what did Paul mean? Though we cannot know fully who and what Paul was opposing we can, however, determine the heart and core of the dogma he was challenging. And once that has been elucidated, we will see that the near-universal view that Paul was concerned with proclaiming bodily resurrection over against spirit resurrection simply is not true. Note the context of the discussion in chapter 15:
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (vs. 12).
Note carefully: the issue was not the nature of the resurrection body but whether or not the faithful are raised to life after death. Those who asked the question, “With what body do they come?” were not believers in resurrection mocking the idea of bodies being resuscitated but were unbelievers who denied the resurrection. They mocked the resurrection by saying, “How can you have a resurrection when the dead don't have a body to be raised?” They thought, mistakenly!!, that the church taught that bodies would be resurrected; they thought they had painted Paul into the proverbial by sarcastically reminding him that most dead saints don't have even an intact toe bone or tooth to be raised.
Paul's argument is not directed at proclaiming a restoration of bodies but at pointing out that sons of the resurrection don't need a body! For this reason, those who are alive when Christ returns and still have a body that doesn't need to be resurrected (by their reasoning), “… have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep” (The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, “Resurrection in the NT”, p 52) and whose bones had long since turned to dust and been scattered far and wide.
Paul labors to show that the power of the resurrection does not depend upon the existence of a body that could be raised in a new, robust, everlasting form. Rather, he understood that the loss of the body at death means nothing; he believed Jesus' words that the flesh profits nothing. When a grain is planted, it disappears from existence! What comes up in its place is totally different from what had ceased to be. Paul was correcting erroneous concepts about what the church taught. His opponents thought the church harbored childish concepts of resurrection that involved believers smashing through the soil overhead at their last fixed address when the time of harvest comes. He was advising them that the church's teaching on the saving purpose and plan of God involved a more mature concept of resurrection: God's intention is not to bring back the same old bodies, dust them off and primp them up. Quite the contrary. Note the contrast Paul developed: unpromising-looking seed on one hand and a luxuriant watermelon vine laden with fat, mouth-watering fruit on the other!
Jesus — spirit or matter?
Now stop and think. If Jesus has a physical body at this moment, He must be locatable. And, since Scripture tells us that He is at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56, Rom. 8:34), then God — in all His glory — must also be locatable in the same spot of space. Yet Scripture tells us that the entire universe is “too small” to hold God:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built (1 Kin. 8:27).
No, Jesus is not to be found out there somewhere if only we knew where to go and had the means of getting there. He is spirit, invisible to all eyes and all instruments.
Matter has limits
Stop and think again. A material body has limits imposed on it by dint of the nature of matter. A material body has an edge, beyond which it doesn't exist. It can operate at only a limited speed — the fastest “thing” in the material world is light, which travels at 186,000 miles per second. The fastest computers can only analyze finite amounts of information in a given time period. If Jesus were material, He could not possibly be doing all the things Scripture tells us He does. For one, as the judge of all mankind (John 5:27), He must be reading the thoughts of every human being simultaneously. A material body could not do that. No material object can read minds, science fiction fantasies notwithstanding. And most certainly, a physical body out there in space somewhere could not pick up signals radiating out of human heads. As the high priest of all believers, Jesus is busily at work saving them. How can He be influencing our very thought processes from a distance if He is restricted to a location in space?
He told the disciples that, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). A material object in space cannot both stay out there and also “come” to earth and take up residence in believers.
Fellowshipping between Jesus and the saints
Let's move ahead to the future when Jesus and the glorified saints are in communion with one another in the kingdom of God. Paul could hardly wait to “be absent from the flesh” so that he could join Jesus in the kingdom of God:
But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better (Phil. 1:22-23).
If Jesus is locked into a modified version of His earthly material body, and thus has one head, one mouth, one tongue and one set of ears, and is located in only one spot at any given moment — which is the way of “material bodies” — then He can engage in personal, intimate communion with only one saint at a time. Stop and think. How much “being with Christ” would each saint enjoy? Imagine a million believers are raised at Jesus' return. How long might you have to wait to get a thirty minute conversation with Jesus? Well, if you were the last in line, you would have to wait 500,000 hours, or 57 years!
If raised believers are to have intimate, ongoing, personal contact with the Lord, the only way it can be done is if Jesus' body is not material, not limited by any of the restrictions imposed by matter. Being part of the infinite God Himself, He will be perfectly capable of holding one-on-one conversations with billions of us all at the same moment. A different conversation with each one, mind you!
The end of all matter
In January, 1997, astronomer Fred Adams of the University of Michigan “decided to calculate the future as precisely as standard cosmology and physics will allow” (Discover January, 1998, p. 31). He concluded that black holes will evaporate, all protons will fall apart (for want of a better way of putting it), so that by 10 100 years from now “there should be nothing left but a smattering of electrons, positrons, neutrinos, and photons skittering across space”. In short, all nuclear matter will eventually decay (The Future of the Universe, Scientific American, March 1983, p. 74), and that would include “material bodies”. Eternal life is not possible in a material body. Jesus' glorious physical body would eventually falter and fall apart. But if, like God Himself, Jesus is spirit, problem solved.
In order to make intimate, ongoing fellowship with limited creatures possible, God has given us, in Jesus Christ, a “user-friendly interface” — a distinction within the being of God who will be on the same level as ourselves, a Jesus Christ hard drive, if you will — who shall be like us. God has formatted Himself with a new, heavenly Jesus Christ fashioned like we will be so that we can be like Him. God has humbled Himself in the form of Jesus Christ to make communion with us possible; we will be raised up to His humbled level. As glorified sons of God, we will be like Jesus Christ, we will not be like God in His infinite fullness.
And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people . God Himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev. 21:3).
God will always be infinitely more glorious than glorified saints. But just as Jesus is God's Son, we too, being fashioned like unto Him, will also be His precious sons, made in His image and likeness, treasuring those things He treasures, hating those things He hates, perfect in character, sinless in thought and deed, immortal spirit in form, enjoying intimate fellowship with every other son of God, and even more fulfilling and intimate fellowship with God and the Lamb. Eye has not seen nor ear heard the things God has in store for those who love Him.
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