Thursday, May 5, 2016

Bodily Resurrection: Part 2a (New Testament)

As we saw in the previous article, the doctrine of the resurrection of believers is taught in the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul identified it as a promise upon which the hope of the Jews rested as they earnestly worshiped (Acts 26:6-8).[1] The precise nature of the resurrection, however, was not clear and is one of the things made known through the person and work of Christ (2 Tim. 1:10).

Whatever extent the teaching remained in shadows throughout the Old Testament, the doctrine of the resurrection is a clear and central theme in the New. In fact, the author to the Hebrews lists the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead as one of the elementary and foundational doctrines of Christ (Heb. 6:1-2). It is therefore something all Christians must understand and believe. In the next two posts I hope to show that this New Testament resurrection is undoubtedly a physical bodily resurrection.

Clear Statements Regarding Physical Resurrection:

The teachers who prompted this series of articles accept that resurrection is a central claim of the New Testament but they spiritualize it and deny its physical nature. The New Testament, however, repeatedly makes the explicit claim that the resurrection is physical and bodily in nature.

Paul speaks of the hope of salvation to include the redemption of our bodies in addition to the spiritual blessings we already have when he says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved...” (Rom. 8:23-24)

Paul has already explained that the power of God displayed in the raising of Christ is the same power through which our bodies will be raised. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)

In the longest and most important passage on resurrection Paul emphatically defends bodily resurrection, even addressing the question, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35). The Corinthians, influenced by Greek philosophy, could not understand how material bodies could possibly inherit immortality. Paul explains that the resurrection is not merely a reanimation of corpses but that a change takes place that makes our bodies fit for glory. Although these new bodies are spiritual, they are still bodies. Paul says, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.” (1 Cor. 15:42). Notice, that which is raised is that which was perishable, namely our bodies.[2]

Paul also affirms the physical nature of our resurrected bodies elsewhere, explaining we will be like Christ. “… we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21). The Apostle John says the same thing more succinctly when he says “We know that when He appears we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2).

As Murray Harris has said, “In distinctive New Testament usage, resurrection signifies not [only] the reanimation of corpses but the transformation of the whole person into the image of Christ by the power of the indwelling Spirit, in spite of the intervention of death.”[3] Our lowly bodies will not be discarded but will instead be transformed to be like Christ’s.

Christ’s resurrection body was a physical body (Luke 24:39) and although it was changed, it was the same body He previously had as is demonstrated by the empty tomb as well as the wounds in His hands and side (John 20:27). He ate food, had conversations, and was even mistaken for other people.

Jesus also affirms the physical nature of the resurrection when He says, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29). The emptying of tombs requires the reanimation of the physical body and cannot be a spiritual resurrection.

Preterists often claim Paul’s condemnation of those who denied the resurrection does not apply to them because he wrote before what they think was the resurrection event in A.D. 70. What is clear, however, is that the emptying of the tombs of the righteous and wicked did not happen in A.D. 70. If this day is yet future, then not all prophesy has been fulfilled and preterism cannot be correct.[4]

Resurrection as a Defined Term:

As we have seen, there are several passages that clearly assert that our physical bodies will be redeemed in addition to the spiritual blessings we already possess as believers (Eph. 1:13-14; 2 Cor. 5:5).[5] Support for bodily resurrection, however, is founded on even more than the verses explicitly mentioning our bodies. In fact, all of the New Testament references to resurrection entail a physical bodily event. As good students we must take the time to see how the New Testament authors define the terms they use. When Paul, Jesus, John, etc. use a term like resurrection we must ask what exactly they meant.

There are no examples in the New Testament where resurrection language is used only of the spirit of a person. In fact, scholars who have studied the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period have concluded that 1st Century Judaism did not have the concept of resurrection without a body.[6] Although Jewish views of the afterlife were diverse and complex, scholar N.T. Wright asserts “if a first-century Jew said that someone had been “raised from the dead,” the one thing they did not mean was that such a person had gone to a state of disembodied bliss…”[7]

The New Testament contains many references to resurrection including over 40 uses of the specific term ἀνάστασις. These references were all understood in their Jewish contexts to involve the raising of the body. When Jesus, Paul and others use the general term resurrection they mean a physical bodily resurrection. Indeed, it was confusion about this Jewish concept in the Greek Church at Corinth that prompted Paul’s extended explanation of the doctrines of resurrection and glorification in 1 Corinthians 15, which I plan to deal with in detail in the next article.

Immortality as a Defined Term:

Likewise, terms related to immortality in the Bible do not carry the Platonic ideas that so strongly influence our current cultural views. These days most people think of immortality as a characteristic of the soul or spirit that is eternal or continues after death. This, however, is not the New Testament view.

There are 3 words in the New Testament that are used to refer to immortality. These terms are never used of the soul or spirit of human beings. They are only applied to entire human beings in relation to the future state of believers. Only God Himself is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16). Human beings gain immortality when they become partakers of the divine nature though their union with Christ and are glorified through the power of God (Rom. 8:30, 38).

Biblical immortality is not the continuation of the spirit after death or into eternity. All human souls will persist after this life, some to glory and some to judgment. Human immortality in the biblical sense is deliverance from the suffering and decay of the flesh and the torment of the Second Death. This is accomplished in our final glorified state. There is never any mention in the Bible of an immortal or glorified human spirit. Biblically, human immortality is directly connected to the hope of the bodily resurrection.

We even see this in various subtle ways. For example, believers who have passed away are often said to be asleep (1 Cor. 15:51; Eph. 5:14). To sleep implies an awakening. The image seems clearly to indicate it is the body rather than the soul primarily in view (2 Cor. 5:1-9). Likewise, we are said to be clothed in our bodies and are longing not to be unclothed (no body) but that we would be further clothed (glorified body), “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor. 5:4)


There is much more that could be said regarding the New Testament teaching on this issue but this article is already too long. I pray that it is at least clear that there are several New Testament verses that explicitly teach a physical bodily resurrection. Beyond that, the New Testament concept of resurrection itself entails a physical aspect. Finally, the Biblical concept of immortality is always developed in coordination with the glorification of the body. Having laid this foundation, I plan to focus on Paul’s extended teaching on resurrection in 1 Corinthians in the next article.


[1] Having been most clearly developed in the Prophets, the resurrection was denied by those, like the Sadducees, who did not accept the writings of the prophets as Scripture.

[2] I will deal extensively with Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 in the next article.

[3] Murray Harris, “Resurrection and Immortality: Eight Theses,” Themelios 1, no. 2 (1976): 51.

[4] Russell acknowledges that the reference in John must refer to a literal resurrection. Even in placing the events fully within a Palestinian context, however, he fails to make any adequate case to account for the scope of Christ’s words. Essentially, his position is that almost nothing is known about the events taking place for 60 to 80 years after the end of Acts and so a lot of stuff could have happened. The quotes he uses to support this view are referring to specific knowledge of historical development within the Christian community. It is not true that we have no historical records from that time. One would expect to find references in Greek, Roman, Jewish, or other sources if there was a massive emptying of graves associated with the Roman occupation in Jerusalem. Nothing of the sort is mentioned.

[5] Notice that Ephesians 1:3 establishes that we have every spiritual blessing, yet verses 13-14 indicate that the Holy Spirit is a down payment on us receiving the fullness of our inheritance which we have yet to possess. The full inheritance is the completion of our redemption in glorification.

[6] N.T. Wright, “Resurrection of the Son of God”, especially chapters 3–4.

[7] N.T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem.