Monday, April 18, 2016

Bodily Resurrection: Part 1 (Old Testament)

Among the central tenants of orthodox Christianity is the hope of the physical bodily resurrection of believers. The blessed hope that we shall be brought back from the dead as whole persons is a theme that weaves its way throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Unlike the idea which became particularly popular in ancient Greece, where life after death was a spiritual existence freed from the prison of a physical body, the Bible presents the separation of the body and the soul as an unnatural condition brought on by sin and death. The defeat of sin and death in Christ therefore ultimately involves the redemption of both our bodies and our souls. This is a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith.

I recently became aware that certain Bible study groups in my area, having come under the influence of a type of full-preterism, have been questioning if the resurrection will be physical. As I understand it, they believe Paul’s comment, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Cor. 15:50) implies a denial that the resurrection is physical. In this series of posts, I would like to show that the Bible teaches physical resurrection. In this post, I would like to show that the hope of the physical resurrection can be found in the Old Testament. In Part 2 I will show that the New Testament clearly teaches a physical resurrection. In Part 3 I will explore the theological significance of this truth for the Christian faith.

The Hope of Physical Resurrection in the Old Testament:

The teaching of a physical resurrection is found in the Old Testament although not nearly as clearly as in the New Testament. Indeed, it was a topic of debate among Jews at the time of Christ (Acts 23:8). However, it was apparently not something so difficult to see that only scholars embraced it. For example, Lazarus’ sister Martha expressed her hope, presumably derived from her understanding of the Old Testament, in a future resurrection (Jn. 11:24).

In any case, the apostle Paul makes it clear that the Old Testament without question teaches a twofold doctrine of the resurrection. When he is before Felix at Caesarea Paul says, “…I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” (Acts 24:14-15). Jesus also confirms that resurrection is an Old Testament teaching in his dispute with the Sadducees (Mt. 22:31-32).

I should point out here that the 1st Century debate within Judaism was regarding a physical bodily resurrection. These statements by Jesus and Paul must be understood within the context of that doctrinal debate. This alone is sufficient to settle the question regarding the teaching of the Old Testament on the matter. They also have interpretive significance for us because they indicate conclusively that we should expect to find Old Testament passages that address the question.

Implied Old Testament References:

There are a number of Old Testament texts that are at least pointers toward resurrection such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. As Abraham is preparing to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God, he says to his men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” (Gen. 22:5). The author of Hebrews explains, “He considered that God was able even to raise him [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”  

There are other possible types and figures such as Joseph, etc. in the Old Testament as well as three people who actually were physically brought back from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:35, 13:21).

Of course, these texts are not conclusive. Abraham’s circumstances are unique and these other people died again. None of these definitively demonstrates a future hope of bodily resurrection. They do, however, establish a certain pattern that is consistent throughout the Bible. God’s power is frequently demonstrated through the raising of the dead. These signs generally accompany further revelation about God’s redemptive purposes and it is not altogether unfounded to see them as closely connected.

Beyond these, there are many Old Testament texts that contextually imply a hope in a physical resurrection even if they do not directly state it. The Bible commonly uses words in resurrection contexts such as awake, live, rise, to stand up, etc. For example, when David says, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”  (Psalm 17:15) his phrase “when I awake” is best understood as a reference to his confidence that this promise will be fulfilled after his death, that is in the resurrection. Most of the Old Testament texts related to resurrection are of this type. They do not directly spell out the hope of the resurrection but rather assume it. Thankfully, there are a few Old Testament passages that more clearly indicate a hope in a physical resurrection.

Clear Old Testament References:

Job, for example, expresses his confidence that in the end he will see his redeemer in the flesh, even should he die when he says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God…” (Job 19:25-26 ESV)

Likewise, Isaiah includes physical resurrection as part of the hope of the deliverance of the Lord, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!          For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19 ESV)

The prophet Daniel also discusses physical resurrection as part of the events associated with the time of the end, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2 ESV)


When we combine these prophesies with the implied texts and the general connection between the imagery of redemption and resurrection (like we see in places like Ezekiel 37 etc.) we can better understand Martha’s confidence. If we look carefully, in the Old Testament we see a glimpse of the hope of physical resurrection which becomes far more explicit in the New Testament. This combined with the confirmation of Paul and Christ assures us that this is a doctrine found in both Testaments. Paul tells us that it is through the coming of Christ and the Gospel that light has been shed on immortality (2 Tim. 1:10). I hope to show in Part 2 that this doctrine which is revealed dimly in the Old Testament is undeniably bright and clear in the New Testament.