The bodily resurrection: does Jesus have a body now?
Posted: 15th December, 2006
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 have a bearing on two distinctly different, yet both vitally important, tenets of belief:
1. 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? As the Scottish Paraphrase of 1 John 3 says, “High is the rank we now possess, but higher we shall rise, though what we shall hereafter be, is hid from mortal eyes”. If we are to be just like Jesus following His resurrection, we can have some idea of “what we shall hereafter be”; if not, we can only wonder and dream.
2. Rarely considered in discussions of Jesus' resurrection body is the implication of the “bodily resurrection” for the issue of the nature, or economy, or essence, of God (known to theologians as “ontology”). Classical understanding of God teaches that He has no body, no parts, and is completely indivisible, a view which is believed to fit neatly with the biblical assurance that God “is spirit” (John 4:24). (For a discussion of these ideas, see "Spirit and matter?") Further, heaven itself has no dimensions and cannot be mapped. Since Jesus is God and, as Scripture tells us, only one God exists (Mark 12:32, 1 Tim. 2:5, James 2:19, not to mention numerous Old Testament passages), how can the heavenly Jesus exist in material form as a separate entity with a body “divisible” from God? Does He currently occupy a few cubic feet of space — the same amount He took up when He talked with His disciples moments before ascending — and, if heaven has no “places”, can He perhaps be found at some location in space instead? The question of how one God could enter flesh as a human being without thereby creating a second “God being” is difficult enough; contemplating a material God — that is, composed of the stuff of the material creation — at some location in a location-free heaven somehow sitting next to "God the Spirit" makes that problem pale by comparison and calls classical concepts of God into serious question.
We ordinary folk need some kind of understandable explanation of what the angel meant when it told the disciples Jesus would return “in like manner” as He went — will He come back with His resurrection body intact? Will He bear a tear in His side and holes in His hands (Luke 24:39)? If He had “flesh and bones” then, will He do so again? 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 begin to tackle the issue of the bodily resurrection we need to introduce a thoroughly mind-blowing concept concerning the miracle commonly known as "the Incarnation". 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).
Don Carson says the same thing in slightly different words:
When the Word became flesh, this new condition was not designed to be temporary (1991, p. 557).
What a staggering idea — the miracle of the Incarnation continues to this moment. The miracle began two thousand years ago when the one God — invisible, indivisible spirit, without body and without parts — entered flesh at the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary giving mankind a visible, touchable instance of Himself. Jesus was not a separate God being, but a begettal in flesh of the One True God. That's hard to understand, but is plain Bible teaching. However, the teaching that the Incarnation miracle continues in modified bodily form — in heaven rather than on earth — as bodily resurrection proponents insist, is open to serious question.
This article will show that the Incarnation does exist, and always will exist, in one sense, but not in the sense that Craig or Carson mean, that is, that the resurrected Jesus has and always will have a material body. Rather, the glorified Jesus has a “spirit body”, not a “material body”.
The new “God phenomenon”
Yes, the birth of Jesus Christ did usher in a new “God phenomenon” — in some real sense the One True God who has existed for all eternity now has an “added component” (contrary to the dogma of classical theism that God cannot change in any way at all) in the form of the resurrected, glorified Jesus Christ. Jesus ascended to His Father shortly after His resurrection (John 20:17). 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). The apostle Paul anticipated death with joy so that he could “be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). The book of Revelation tells us that one of the believer's greatest hopes is to be married in the future to “the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7). Revelation 22:3, taking us into the distant future when the consummation has occurred, says,
And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.
God and the Lamb are one being, as indicated by the pronoun “him”, not “them”. Yet glorified saints will forever know the Lamb, Jesus Christ, as a distinct part of that one God. Yes, Jesus is now a new, genuine distinction within the Godhead. We may ask why God has so “changed Himself” as to always present Himself to the saints, at least partially, in the form of Jesus Christ. We will give one possible answer to that question when we conclude.
Some who adhere to a "strict" version of the classical belief of divine immutability, according to which God cannot change in any way, will reject the notion that the Incarnation in its continued form has "added" anything to God. However, we see no reason to deny the possibility that the infinite God can "reconfigure Himself" or be "added to"; an infinitely large musical symphony always has room for the insertion of another movement, one that encapsulates the main themes of the whole piece.
Though the Incarnation continues, the widespread belief that the incarnate Jesus, resurrected and glorified, even now has a material body that, if only we could get there, would be visible to our eyes, and that believers will likewise be re-embodied with a physical form in the resurrection
The typical view concerning the bodily resurrection of Jesus states that He was raised from His grave in the very same material body in which He had walked this earth for over thirty years; hence the empty tomb. His body was, however, glorified, in the sense that it was now immortal. Forty days later that same body ascended to heaven as is, where Jesus now sits next to God. If you could find Him, you would see Him just as the disciples saw Him — same size, same looks, same everything. This view is based on certain assumptions deemed to be “necessarily so”, to be self-evident. When one examines these assumptions step by step they are all found to be “not necessarily so” at all.
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, like most other words, it carries a spectrum of meanings, some of which bear almost no connection to the word's centre of gravity. When one speaks of a committee of scientists as an “august body of men of science”, obviously the connotation deviates considerably from normal. Outside scientific jargon, few words carry only one precise meaning (univocal) in everyday usage . That the Greek term translated “body", soma, was sometimes used differently to its normal connotation of form and substance is easily established. 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. In Romans 6:6 Paul speaks of the “doing away with” (KJV: “destruction”) the “body of sin” of believers in this life upon conversion, yet believers still have a body. In 8:10 he tells us that our bodies are “dead” through sin, yet our bodies are not dead. Precisely what he meant in these sayings is hard to say. Then, of course, we have the well-known usage of soma in the phrase “body of Christ”.
Another factor kicks into play. We are all free to invent new words and phrases or to impart a new meaning to an existing word or phrase; such new words or new meanings of old words are called “neologisms”. Of course, if we want our listeners to grasp our meaning, we either have to ensure that the syntax or context flags the neologism and self-explains its usage or we have to laboriously explain what we mean. Furthermore, and this is critical, we are sometimes forced to use an old word in a new way; this generally occurs when words simply don't exist to communicate the concept we have in our heads. Intuitively, we pressgang into service those words that most closely express the idea we have in mind, putting them to new use and hoping that our listeners will intuitively grasp our novel usage. Stop and think. How else did the phrase “body of Christ” come to be? The concept Paul was expressing was new; he chose the word “body” because it was the closest equivalent to the idea he was talking about.
Nowadays, writers often flag such a new usage by putting the word in inverted commas, as will be done often in this article. Paul could not do that because they didn't have such punctuation marks in his days. If they did, he would probably have written about the “body” of Christ. He would surely have put the word “bread” in inverted commas when he declared that believers “are one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). To rightly divide the word of truth we must be sensitive to the possibility of a new usage for an old word. (In addition to being familiar with many other figures of speech that were common at the time.)
The Trinitarian doctrine takes an old word, “person” (meaning, originally, “mask”) and gives it a whole new role — to describe “part” of God. And “part” here is in inverted commas because no word exists to properly describe God's many “components” (here we go again). First of all, we don't even know what we are talking about when we speak of the incredibly complex being that is God; second, even if we did, human words cannot do justice to the very being of God — He is like nothing in the created order (Is. 40:25).
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 so-called “biblical meanings” 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. Indeed, some insist that the word "resurrection" invariably includes the notion of the restoration of the long-decayed body and that therefore any concept of being raised to life from death that does not include flesh and bone of some sort should not be called "resurrection". Such an imposition of constraints on the meaning of "resurrection" has no basis.
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. Please read the chapter: notice all the analogies Paul calls on to explain his meaning. Such analogies scream loudly that he is talking about a realm of being we have no personal knowledge of. Why would we insist that the body he refers to as our future residence must have your genuine, everyday form and substance? 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. To claim that Paul had to be thinking of — under inspiration — form and substance rather than individual personhood seems to be out of kilter with the context.
The likelihood that Paul used soma in just such an abnormal way in 1 Corinthians 15 increases when we consider yet another factor in passages where the language used hints that familiar terms are being employed in an abnormal way — the “jargon factor”. To illustrate what I mean, consider the word “fruity”. If I were to tell you that something tastes “fruity”, you would have a general concept in your head of what I mean and your concept would be accurate. But if a wine taster tells you that a wine is fruity, he is using the term in a special way that has a narrow meaning to wine tasters. You would not know what he really meant even though you are perfectly familiar with the word fruity. Paul was talking to wine tasters, and was using their terms.
As much as we may wish otherwise, jargon appears often in New Testament writings; the words are normal words, but to both the writer and his audience they take on a particular meaning we may not be familiar with. A large part of the task of New Testament scholarship lies in elucidating the background against which something was written. A large part of the controversy between scholars lies in disagreements about the milieu in which something was written, and therefore about the usage of words. For instance, although it has become exceedingly popular for many scholars to see a gnostic under every bed and to interpret Paul's writings as rebuttals of gnosticism 1, others disagree. New Testament scholar, Seyoon Kim, for instance, calls the attempts to interpret the letters to the Corinthians as in large part a reaction to gnosticism “anachronistic”; gnostic writings did not appear until decades after Corinthians was written (1981, p. 75n.). Some scholars interpret Paul's writings through the filter of his supposedly being a rabbi, while others run away screaming from any such suggestion. Factors such as these make Paul's letters contain “some things hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:15). If they were hard enough for people back then what chance have we got? We should not throw up our arms in despair and quit reading Paul; we just need to exercise caution and do some digging.
If any of Paul's writing could be expected to contain this sort of thing it would certainly include 1 Corinthians 15 where he was writing to a congregation that, all agree, was being heavily influenced by some bizarre philosophies about a topic that, all agree, pertains to an unfamiliar realm. James Dunn goes so far as to say,
It is clear, particularly from 2.6 – 3:4, that Paul was confronting in Corinth those who called themselves pneumatics, spiritual ones ( pneumatikoi ) — a key gnostic word; indeed, in all three instances where Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians he seems to be picking up the language of his opponents… (1977, p. 277).
Paul's readers would have understood what he meant. Some modern readers may object to the notion that God would inspire Scripture containing jargon or unusual usages of words. However, what “law of inspiration” governs the modes of expression God may or may not choose to use? The onus rests with us to dig deep, if necessary, to discover the meaning of His Word. It's part of the fun of studying the Bible.
Having demonstrated that the word “body” can be used without the absolute requirement that it must have form and substance we will look at other “not necessarily so” ideas. Bear in mind that “body” from now on will be used in a number of ways; the context should make clear what is 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.
Many theologians place equal emphasis on their commitment to the belief that His resurrection body was corporeal in nature, with the implication that unless one reads the gospel accounts to teach that Jesus' fleshly body had been reconstituted “in modified form” one falls willy-nilly into the camp of those who dismiss the gospel resurrection accounts outright as fiction. Craig says this:
… there is still one aspect of the resurrection that a great number of scholars simply cannot bring themselves to embrace: that Jesus was raised from the dead physically. The physicalism of the gospels' portrayal of Jesus's resurrection body accounts, I think, more than any other single factor for critical skepticism concerning the historicity of the gospel narratives of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
One can fully identify with Craig's concern. To him, one either accepts that Jesus was resurrected physically or one doesn't accept the resurrection at all. Craig also makes the statement that, “every gospel appearance of Jesus that is narrated is a physical appearance”. Certainly Jesus appeared to human eyes in material form, but that doesn't equate to proof that He was made of matter. Eyes can't see the non-material world; by very definition, any appearance had to be physical in appearance.
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. Granted, at that moment He was to all intents and purposes very fleshly. But since His purpose was to convict His disciples that He was alive again, it makes sense that He would appear to them in such manner. They would have many years ahead of them to contemplate the metaphysics of the resurrection! One cannot extrapolate from this that He was, in reality, the “same old Jesus” as before. Stop and think. Jesus did not say to them, “I am not spirit”. He told them that “a spirit” cannot be handled. 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. That divine spirit has the ability to take on a bodily form without actually having a body is evidenced by this passage from Luke:
And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form [somatikos] like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased” (3:22).
Nobody seriously suggests that the Holy Spirit has a body of any kind. Why should one insist that Jesus' resurrection body was material in nature? So was it or wasn't it? Consider this evidence:
Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight (Luke 24:30-31).
Jesus became invisible to them before their very eyes. If His body was material, the only way He could have become invisible was by changing state from solid to gas. Or possibly by some remarkable transformation into transparent substance such as the purest of glass. Are we going to resort to a supposed change of physical state to explain His disappearance? God forbid! If Jesus were to remark on this incident, He may well have said, “Flesh and bones do not turn invisible before your eyes, as you saw I did”. In like manner, flesh and bones cannot walk through walls as Jesus apparently did (John 20:19).
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.
Much more could be said. We will conclude this section with the observation that, in all likelihood, 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.
We do not absolutely deny that Jesus' resurrection body was material; we are merely saying “not necessarily so”. The “real” Jesus — the fullness of the mind of God — went from death to life. The constitution of His “life form” depicted in the gospels cannot be used to prove one thing or another. Those who make much of the physicalism of Jesus' resurrection forget one simple truth — not a single creedal statement can be found in the New Testament about Jesus' “bodily resurrection”. Nowhere can the terms “bodily resurrection” or “resurrection of the body” be found in reference to Jesus (or to believers, for that matter).
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).
We will not deal with the implication of these words, perhaps unintended by Carson, that Jesus' resurrection body with its “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39) had previously existed and constituted the Son's pre-Incarnation glory; but we will probe the implicit assumption that Jesus in heaven now has exactly the same body He had when He appeared to His disciples. This idea is widely held by those who stress the material nature of Jesus' resurrection body.
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.
What evidence can we call on to prove that a dramatic change may have occurred when Jesus ascended to heaven? Well, none. But we can present Scriptures which show that what the disciples saw fell far short of the current reality. However, nobody can say for sure whether these prove that a real change occurred at the Ascension, or whether the post-resurrection appearances merely occurred in heavily subdued form, with the volume knob turned to near zero, in order not to blind or kill those privileged to see. Whatever the case may be on that point, what we can do with confidence is to show that Jesus' appearances to His disciples during the forty days after His resurrection took a form dramatically less glorious than the form He now has in heaven.
Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus after His resurrection, and she thought He was the gardener (John 20:15)! His bodily appearance, then, was obviously about as inglorious as one can imagine. Some may respond that He was hiding His glory at that moment. This paper is seeking to correct the standard creed concerning His bodily resurrection, according to which Jesus' post-resurrection appearances showed Jesus as He really was. By this creed, His incarnate body was revived in immortal and glorified form; that same body ascended to heaven forty days later as is and now sits next to God. So what Mary saw, according to this view, was not a brilliant glorious body toned down to accommodate human eyes but was the “real thing”. Such an idea seems impossible in the light of Jesus' prayers that in the kingdom of God…
1. His disciples should see Him in His glory:
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).
2. He would be restored to His pre-Incarnation glory:
And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was (John 17:5).
These words can only make any sense if the glory Jesus was talking of was something so magnificent that He could hardly wait to cast off His earthly tenement of clay and so impressive that it would give endless, eternal joy to His followers to see it. This true glory of Jesus infinitely outshines the very human-looking, flesh-like glory manifested in His appearances to the disciples for fifty earth-spinning days. Other passages that pull the teeth from the as-He-was-so-He-now-is concept spring readily to mind:
… and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters (Rev. 1:13-15).
… and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light (Matt. 17:2).
Jesus, now, has a far more glorious body than He appeared to have between His resurrection and ascension.
4. That our future resurrection bodies will be identical to Jesus' pre-ascension body
In line with the insistence that Jesus' resurrection body was material in nature goes the conviction that our resurrection bodies will be the same as His body was between His resurrection and ascension. Craig says that the notion that, “Paul equated Jesus's resurrection body with our future resurrection bodies, is surely correct”. He then lists three passages — Phil. 3:21; I Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18 — as support for this connection. However, an examination of these three passages will show that no such identification is made. In the first case we are told that our resurrection bodies will be same as the body Jesus has now, not the same as the body He appeared with to the disciples before He returned to His Father. The other two passages convey the sublime yet simple truth that just as death did not maintain its grip on Jesus neither will it keep us prisoner forever.
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?
Premise one: spot on
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.
1 John 3:2 provides further support:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
Bearing in mind the comments made earlier about the new phenomenon wrought in the very being of God by the miracle of the Incarnation through which Jesus' resurrection and ascension added a new dimension to the one God's essential being, this verse tells us that as Jesus “now is” we shall be. Romans 8:29 also tells us believers are destined to be “conformed to the image of His Son”, using the same adjective, summorphon, meaning “having the same form”, as in Philippians. So taking these verses in about the only way they can be taken, we are told that the destiny of man is to “be like Jesus Christ as He now is”! Such a concept should blow us away. Who can begin to picture the glory that awaits us when we are fashioned like Jesus Christ, the “captain of our salvation” (Heb. 2:10)? Don't misunderstand. The glorified Jesus Christ is not all of God but a “mere” part of the infinitely rich tapestry that makes up God in all His glory. But to contemplate that we will be fashioned to be like any “part” of God should thrill us to our innermost being.
Well now, 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.
Premise two: the resurrection body of believers
The doctrine of the bodily resurrection is so deeply entrenched in Christian thought that any opposing view wouldn't even get a hearing. The Roman Catholic doctrine of resurrection was developed by the theologians St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and Tertullian, who stressed the resurrection of the flesh. It was propounded largely in order to deal with some pagan ideas about immortality.
The Gnostics and Manichaeans, who were condemned by the early church for heresy, denied the resurrection of the body, maintaining the purely spiritual character of the afterlife. A third view, represented in ancient times by the 3rd-century Christian theologian Origen and in the 19th century by the German Protestant theologian Richard Rothe, affirms that the perfected personality in heaven assumes a "spiritual body". What does Scripture say?
A number of passages can be called upon that suggest believers will be resurrected in physical bodily form. Isaiah spells it out quite simply:
Your dead shall live; together with my dead body [Heb: nebelah ] they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead (26:19).
Translating this passage slightly differently, the clause rendered here as, “together with my dead body they shall arise” can be accurately rendered, “… my carcass shall rise”. This verse can certainly be read as revealing that his body will be restored to its former condition and that he will live on in the flesh. But must it be read that way? Was Isaiah enunciating a doctrine of bodily resurrection? Not necessarily; not when you understand that what really counts in communicating an idea is the thought behind the words rather than the precise form of the words themselves. Just as one can find more than one way to join two pieces of wood in cabinetmaking, so too thoughts can be conveyed in a multiplicity of ways. Take the words of Psalm 84:2:
My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
The Psalmist's “soul” yearned to go to the temple, while his “heart” and his “flesh” urgently sought God's presence. Are we to draw a doctrine of divisions within the human condition (dichotomy or trichotomy) from this passage? If we are determined to interpret Isaiah's reference to resurrecting corpses as teaching bodily resurrection, consistency would require us to imagine the Psalmist's “flesh” itself crying out. No. All that the Psalmist meant, in our way of expressing the thought, is that He yearned to have communion with God “with every fiber of his being”. All Isaiah meant is that he would live again. Those who insist that he meant that God would resuscitate his carcass have a serious problem — no Isaiah carcass exists. At the most, a few bones may still be sleeping in the dust, but even that is unlikely. Besides, bones do not make a carcass any more than clothing makes a man.
Job said something that should be looked at, too:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God… (19:25-26).
This translation is misleading. The last clause should be rendered, “… from/out of my flesh I shall see God”, suggesting other possible ways of understanding what Job meant. What is certain is that Job believed he would be resurrected from death and would see God. What is uncertain is whether he meant he would see God “from within” his flesh or “absent from” his flesh.
As for the New Testament, prominent 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. Here we will reproduce just the two from Romans; they present the strongest case for believing that the Bible teaches the revitalization of corpses that have gone under the sod:
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).
Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Rom. 8:23).
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. Augustine, Jerome and Tertullian, for example, all stressed that the new body was a body of flesh, just that in the resurrection it would be a perfect fleshly body, one that could live forever, with a never-ending ticker and teeth much harder than diamond. In other words, a superior model, but fundamentally the same vehicle. 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). The Heidelberg Catechism lists "the resurrction of the body" as "necessary for a Christian to believe", but does not elaborate on the nature of the resurrection body. Article 37 of the Belgic Confession states that, "when the time appointed by the Lord is come… our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. " Article 19 on the "Two Natures of Christ" claims that, "His human nature has not lost its properties but continues to have those of a creature — it has a beginning of days; it is of a finite nature and retains all that belongs to a real body. And even though he, by his resurrection, gave it immortality, that nonetheless did not change the reality of his human nature; for our salvation and resurrection depend also on the reality of his body." Modern theologians tend to fall in line with the creeds; hence, Vern Poythress speaks of the future new heavens as being, "as physical and solid as Christ's own resurrection body" (1987, p. 47).
In short, according to most belief systems, you've just got to believe that Jesus, now, in heaven, has a body and a "human nature", that He continues to exist in the form of a "creature", that is, made of the same basic elements of the periodic table from which Adam and Eve were made. According to this conception, the material universe — or at least some of it — must endure forever in order for Jesus' human nature to likewise endure forever.
Most believe that right now dead saints enjoy pleasure in the presence of God in disembodied form, and that their bliss will be taken to its fullest height at "the resurrection" when their souls are reunited with their bodies in renovated, updated, invigorated, immortal form. Thus, Ladd says, “The one point to be emphasized here is that this involves a real body, however different it may be from our mortal physical bodies. The work of redemption does not mean merely the salvation of the soul or spirit; it includes the redemption of the body” (1974, p. 465). Erickson says, “At the resurrection… there will be a return to a material or bodily condition” (p. 537). Later he says that, “At the second coming of Christ, there will be a resurrection of a renewed or transformed body which will be reunited with the soul. Thus orthodoxy held to both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body” (p. 1175).
Such a view of the “intermediate state” must be rejected on a number of grounds, including the implication that it puts getting our old body back equal to, or ahead of, being in the presence of God and the Lord as the ultimate source of joy. Daniel 12:2 equates receiving eternal life with the resurrection which, according to orthodox teaching, is when the already-living soul receives its body back. Thus, the essence of eternal life, according to orthodoxy, lies not in communion with God, which is supposedly already being enjoyed by departed saints, but in having a material body! This view also 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].)
This author believes that the whole dogma concerning the physicalness of the resurrection body springs out of the error of belief in immediate passage of the disembodied dead-in-Christ to paradise at Christ's side. The error of belief in the restoration of the physical body at the time of the resurrection has been contrived to rationalize the error of belief in immortality of the soul. I mean, the biblical teaching of the resurrection has to be explained somehow. Rather than simply accept the simple truth that the dead are dead, unconscious, non-existent, the belief that they are now alive in heaven has required that “something” happen at the resurrection. That “something” is explained as the restoration of dead bodies and their re-occupation by the disembodied souls of their former hosts. The whole teaching amounts to a tragedy of errors.
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? This author doesn't pretend to have any exceptional insights into the meaning of the contrast between “natural bodies” on the one hand and “spiritual bodies” on the other. Most expositors, recognizing the difficulties of walking in Paul's shoes, refrain from extravagant interpretation. However, with few exceptions, most all agree that the phrase “spiritual body” should not be taken to suggest that the future “body” is non-material, that is, made of spirit. Rather, they envisage the “spiritual body” as being a physical body refashioned for life in the new order, one which “meets the needs of the spirit” (Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Resurrection, p. 1332), the distinction between a “natural body” and a “spiritual body” being one of origin — from heaven, not from earth — rather than of composition. The New Bible Dictionary puts it this way:
A “spiritual body does not mean a body made of spirit but one completely vitalized and transformed by the Spirit of life. The resurrection body does not belong to a wholly other order of existence; it is the present body redeemed… (“Eschatology”, p. 388).
Paul does not attempt to describe the nature of the resurrection body. He knows nothing of its constitution… The resurrection body will be pneumatikon [spiritual], i.e. not constituted of pneuma [spirit], but adapted to all that the life of the pneuma, God's pneuma, means (p. 564).
Ladd seems to be saying that the spiritual body will not be composed of pure spirit but will be a physical body perfectly designed for the “life of the spirit” in the same way that fish are perfectly designed for life in a watery world. In this author's opinion, obfuscation is often the order of the day when it comes to such explanations of Paul's meaning — what, really, is meant by “life of the spirit”?
Craig explains more clearly: he insists that Paul's use of the term spiritual body “indicates, not a composition, but an orientation”, and that “psuche [soul, living creature] and pneuma [spirit] are not substances out of which bodies are made, but dominating principles by which bodies are directed”.
We argue here that, frankly, as far as our topic is concerned it doesn't really matter which of the two basic approaches one takes to the meaning of verse 44 — whether Paul was saying that the new body will be adapted or oriented to the spiritual or “heavenly” realm or that the new “body” actually consists of spirit. The point is, the word “body” doesn't have to be understood at all times as referring to form and substance. In theological terms, the principle of analogia fidei (principle of analogy), which states that one can use entities within the created order (in this case bodies) to speak about otherworldly things (in this case the nature of the resurrected person), comes into play here. Yes, Scripture speaks of redemption of the body, but standard principles of biblical interpretation allow for interpreting this in analogous fashion. So… yes, he spoke of the resurrection of (1 Cor. 15:44), the redemption of (Rom. 8:23), and the giving of life to (Rom. 8:11), the [mortal] body. As for what that means, all we can say for sure is that believers will rise from the dead in a mind-blowingly glorious state. Paul had no choice but to use existing words and ideas they were familiar with when speaking about the unfamiliar realms of God, spirit and heaven.
Thus, Paul may well have had spirit in mind when he spoke of bodies. Some may ask why, if that is what he meant, he didn't say, “It is sown a fleshly body and is raised a spirit”. Two possibilities exist.
First, we must remember that words, particularly abstract ones, carry different connotations in different languages; few words have an exact equivalent in another language. Whereas to English-speakers today “spirit” has the connotation of being one of the two forms of reality, the “other reality” of existence being matter (and it is in this sense that this article argues that Jesus Christ now, and believers in the future, will be “spirits” rather than “bodies”, non-material rather than material), it is hard to know for sure exactly what pneuma [spirit] meant to the Greek-speakers people Paul was writing to. Many books have been written about the various Greek philosophies of the first century; a brief perusal of any of them shows that interesting ideas as to the nature of pneuma abounded. Indeed, one quickly finds that to many, pneuma was itself a substance rather than a non-substance, the word having connotations of, “… ‘breath' or wind, the most impalpable, ubiquitous and apparently the most refined of all substances” (Davies 1995, p. 179) — it was, in short, a form of matter. Davies adds that it was often associated with fire, “… so that it may have been considered as one of the four elements” (ibid.) from which the world is made according to Greek thought. In short, the concept of “body” in its connotations of personality and individuality may have more accurately depicted to Paul's non-Jewish audience the reality of the future state of believers than the concept of “spirit” would have done.
Second, and as a special-case variation on the point just made, remember the point made earlier — he was “picking up the language of his opponents”, fighting fire with fire. The same words may well have had quite different connotations to his opponents and their worldview. But we are hampered in our understanding by our ignorance of the precise nature of the philosophy he fought against. Was Paul really opposed to the “Greek idea” of non-bodily existence, as Ladd insists?
The basic argument of I Cor 15 is directed against a Greek view of the survival of personality apart from any form of bodily existence… The survival of personality that is often presented as the essence of the Christian hope is a Greek teaching and is not the equivalent of the biblical hope of a fulfilled redemption (Ladd 1974, p. 465).
Other researchers see incipient gnostic philosophies or the philosophy of Plato as Paul's bête noire. 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. Taking rejection of the resurrection of the faithful as the error Paul fought against changes the whole complexion of this chapter. 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?” These individuals understood a basic fact of death: bodies decay and vanish. 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.
Early commentators on Paul, Conybeare and Howson, recognized that Paul was battling non-believers in the resurrection, not believers in a spiritual afterlife as distinct from a bodily afterlife. They said,
St. Paul asserts the resurrection of the dead; to which they reply, “How can the dead rise to life again, when their body has perished?” This objection he proceeds to answer, by showing that individual existence may continue, without the continuance of the material body [emphasis mine] (1974, p. 413).
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. The same article recognizes that Paul's intent is to preach the fact of the resurrection, not some philosophy of resuscitation of vanished corpses.
As regards the nature of the resurrection body, Paul's sole point is to stress that, for all the identity of person, there is a radical discontinuity of form.
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! Though the better latter is in some mysterious way directly connected with the inferior former, note the repeated emphasis on difference rather than on connectedness.
Yes, seed and plant are connected; the “new you” will be truly you in a vital sense, with your memory and other personal individual attributes. But you won't be a man or a woman, fat or thin, tall or short. You will shine as brightly as the sun (Matt. 13:43). The ultimate destiny of human beings is to be made like Jesus Christ in His glory; insisting that He consists of matter occupying some tiny portion of space cheapens both His glory and the incredible potential of human beings.
No body in the hereafter
Note a couple of Scriptures that throw body-makeover concepts into chaos:
Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them… (1 Cor. 6:13).
As Adam Clarke comments on this verse: "All these lower appetites and sensations will be destroyed by death and have no existence in the resurrection body". One wonders what might take the place of the stomach in the torso of an immortal yet material body. And, by extension, the brain in the head, lungs in the chest and muscles in the arms and legs. The notion that we must have a body in order to be "happy" yet not need most of what takes up the space in a material body and makes its workings possible just doesn't make any sense.
We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
So the body will be destroyed, not revivified, and those who get to enjoy Christ's glorious presence won't get to shake His hand. Yet, in line with the principle of analogy stating that things in the material realm reflect “something” about the spirit realm, resurrected saints will get to sit down at a banquet and be served wine by Jesus Himself (Luke 12:37). Kingdom life can best be described by recourse to familiar activities of this life.
Jesus told us we would be like the angels, neither marrying nor giving in marriage. One could argue that this inability to marry is the sole similarity between angels and glorified saints; one cannot prove a contrary position. Indeed, human beings are slated to enjoy glory much higher than the angels, so that the differences between glorified saints and angels may considerably outnumber the similarities. But the plainest sense of Jesus' words is that glorified saints cannot marry because they will have a similar makeup to angels, lacking dangling and floppy bits. And they are that way because they are “spirit bodies”, not material bodies. That angels are spirit cannot be gainsaid:
Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation? (Heb. 1:14).
Here the terminology does not carry Greek connotations. This epistle is written to Jews who were familiar with the Old Testament use of such terms, and would have understood spirit according to biblical categories of thought rather than according to Greek philosophical categories. In standard biblical language, spirits don't have form and substance (Luke 24:39) or occupy space (and therefore have size), which are characteristic of matter. (For further discussion on the nature of matter and spirit, see "Spirit and matter".) Nevertheless, they have “bodies” in the same sense that glorified saints will have, characterized by individual personality, preferences, patterns of thought, and personal memory. And, remembering the principle of analogy between the realm of heaven and the realm of material order, cherubic angels are described in Ezekiel as “looking like” winged versions of men, lions, oxen, and eagles (Ez. 1:5f.). Thus, spirit in “heaven” has a loose equivalent to form/shape enabling occupants of heaven, sometimes referred to as “spirit beings”, to sense each other in a manner superior to our ability to see, hear, touch and smell. Spirit is not spooky. Being capable of eternal existence, spirit is more durable than matter which has a long but limited shelf life.
Since God is spirit (John 4:24) and angels are spirits, why oh why would we insist that Jesus Christ and glorified saints are made of matter? It just doesn't make sense.
We have shown that we have no grounds for insisting that Jesus returned to heaven with His resurrection body, and even that His resurrection body may have been spirit rather than matter. And we have shown that the argument from logic supposedly proving that Jesus now has a material body on the grounds that His current “body” is the same as a purported material body to be given to believers in the future is tottery at best. Let's conclude with some other weighty considerations.
Jesus — spirit or matter?
Let's consider further evidence that the “glorious body” of Jesus Christ in heaven is spirit in nature, not matter. Unfortunately, barring possibly 2 Corinthians 3:17, the meaning of which is open to interpretation, no Scripture explicitly says, “Jesus is spirit”. Scholars make comments about the “striking combination of the Spirit with the Son” (Guthrie, p. 568), but invariably add words to the effect that , “… it cannot be established that they are to be identified” (p. 571). Such discussions, however, usually take place in the broader context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not in dealing with the question of the nature of Jesus' heavenly body. In fact, nobody seems to really focus on the question of how Jesus Christ can have a body in heaven. Orthodoxy insists that Jesus rose and ascended bodily to heaven but remains silent on just how such a thing can be.
We observe here that, leaving aside the reference to His “body” in Philippians 3:21, not a single passage can be found that suggests Jesus in heaven is material in composition while a number of passages at least imply that He is spirit in nature. Specifically, a few passages speak of the “Spirit of Jesus” (Phil. 1:19) or of “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9, 1 Peter 1:11). It could be argued that the Spirit being spoken of is, specifically, the Holy Spirit, and that it is connected with the risen Jesus inasmuch as He is the one who determines its action in the life of the church. More likely is the interpretation that Jesus Himself is spirit and is therefore able to act without any physical constraints in fulfilling His duties, among others, of high priest and head of the church.
Location in space
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).
The first man to go into space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, supposedly declared that God does not exist because he, Yuri, didn't see Him out there. (Maybe that's one of those urban legends, I don't know.) We may laugh at such a putdown of believers in God, but on the other hand, when we talk about Jesus' body being in heaven, we shouldn't be contemptuous of Gagarin's point. If we insist Jesus' glorious body is material, then it must be out there somewhere, because matter, whether it be solid, liquid, or gas, occupies space.
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.
Christ in you
The notion that Jesus now has a material body cannot be reconciled with Paul's teachings concerning Jesus' indwelling presence in believers, as taught in the following two passages:
To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you , the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live , but Christ lives in me… (Gal. 2:20).
If Jesus has a material body how can He possibly indwell believers? He can only do that as spirit. The only “logical” way to maintain the dogma of Jesus' material body is to suggest (as many do) that the miracle of the Incarnation continues today, so that, just as Jesus on earth had a material body while the Son hypostasis in heaven was spirit so too now Jesus in heaven has both a material phase and a spirit phase. This “logical solution” just seems too illogical to hold to. (For some thoughts on the miracle of the Incarnation, see “Was Jesus God?”)
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.
We may be tempted to respond that He does it “through the Holy Spirit”, but then it would not be Jesus doing these things, but the Holy Spirit doing these things. Jesus would not be our high priest, the Holy Spirit would be. Jesus would not be the judge of all mankind, the Holy Spirit would be. The simple fact of the matter is this: if Jesus is material, He is limited by all the constraints of matter. He can have only one head, one mouth, one pair of eyes and ears. His head would be whirling trying to keep up. He could not possibly be instructing the Holy Spirit what to do if He Himself could not keep pace with all that is going on on earth. And indeed, if He is material, He can only handle information that arrives to Him in forms that matter can handle — light and sound. He could not hear us speaking, as sound cannot transmit across space. He would have to wait for the light to get from earth to wherever He is to know what's going on.
Obviously, what I'm suggesting is absurd. But please don't blame me. Blame must be laid at the feet of the notion that Jesus is “made up” of a spiffed-up version of His earthly, material body. The only way Jesus can do all the things ascribed to Him is if He is spirit, not matter.
The judgment seat of Christ
Along similar lines, one must reckon with the biblical teaching that,
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10).
If Jesus has a material body, that means He can only be in one location at any given moment. Thus, the dead must line up in order to appear before Judge Jesus. Taking, arbitrarily, a mere five minutes as the amount of time required to hear each case and pass judgment, how long would the judgment take? Assuming ten billion souls are involved, at five minutes each, simple arithmetic tells us it would take 97,000 years for judgment to take place. That means that all the raised people would have to live for 97,000 years in suspended animation before final sentence is passed on the last one!
Fellowshipping between Jesus and the saints
Let's apply the same process of analysis 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. For the sake of the argument, imagine how much personal, one-on-one time with Jesus Christ you would get to enjoy if you shared Jesus' presence with a billion believers (and that is undoubtedly a very conservative figure). You can work out for yourself how many years you would have to wait before your turn rolls around to have a thirty minute conversation with Him. And that's assuming you get equal time with every other saint. Don't you think Jesus would give more time to the 12 apostles, to Abraham, to King David, and so on?
Look. Let's be honest. If Jesus' body is “material” then what I am saying is the truth of the matter. Any theological attempt to get around this problem — such as suggesting that He will communicate with us through the bodiless Holy Spirit — would raise so many knotty problems it's not worth messing with. We would then not be “with the Lord”, we would be “with the Holy Spirit”.
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 an integral 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 supreme joy of eternal life consists of having unlimited personal contact with our Savior (and, eventually, with “God in the full” [Rev. 21:3]). At His “right hand” are pleasures evermore (Ps. 16:11). If billions of glorified saints have material bodies, only a few at a time could be anywhere near His “right hand”. The best the rest could hope for would be a glimpse from a distance.
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.
The word of God, the ultimate arbiter of truth, also tells us that the material universe, just as it had a beginning, will also have an end:
And: "You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; And they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not fail (Heb. 1:10-12).
Creeds and confessions may insist that Jesus now has a material body, and always will have a material body; these words tell us that the material order was created impermanent and will eventually "vanish away like smoke" (Is. 51:6). If Jesus' "glorious body" (Phil. 3:21) were material, it too would end. But it isn't.
And so into eternity
We asked earlier why God has so “changed Himself” through the recent Incarnation miracle as to always present Himself to the saints, at least partially, in the form of Jesus Christ. The answer to this, in short, must surely lie in a noble truth — God alone is infinite in glory and attributes. Raised saints will be like God, but they will remain forever finite. They will have limited knowledge, finite power, finite goodness. Although the ultimate joy of eternal life is to “see God's face”, that is, see Him in all His glory, finite beings cannot see it all in one sweep of their heightened sensory capabilities in one moment. Maybe glorified saints will be able to comprehend the entire solar system, in fine detail, from the creatures in the depths of earth's oceans to the finest details on one of Saturn's 56 moons, in the same gaze. Yet our solar system is a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert by comparison with the universe. Figuratively speaking, God is “bigger” than the universe (1 Kin. 8:27); for all eternity we will constantly see more and more of the glory of God.
What a staggering prospect! 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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References and notes
1 Gnosticism: generally, any form of religious belief which emphasises opposition between the alleged evil material world and the good spirit world and/or the possession of secret knowledge. Such ideas became very popular in the second century; some Bible scholars believe it was also widespread when most of the New Testament epistles were written.
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Craig, W. L. 1980, The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, Gospel Perspectives I, pp. 47-74. Edited by R.T. France and D. Wenham. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980, available on the web at www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/bodily.html
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Kim, Seyoon 1981, The Origin of Paul's Gospel, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
Ladd, G. E. 1974, A Theology of the New Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
Morris 1980, ed. Douglas, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Poythress, V. S. 1987, Understanding Dispensationalists, Academic Books, Grand Rapids
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The interested reader is advised to consult a good standard theology text such as those by Guthrie and Erickson listed above in "References and Notes"
For an extended discussion on the nature of Jesus' resurrection body, see "The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus" by W. L.Craig
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