Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What are resurrected bodies like? (I Cor 15)

The resurrection of Jesus is not only good news for him but also good news for us. With the news of Jesus' resurrection from the dead comes the promise of our resurrection. This is not merely a vague hope for an afterlife. It is a future promise established on a past history: God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruits of our resurrection. Trust is build up over time; in Jesus Christ, God has taken the time to build up trust in his resurrecting power. But since our hope rests on what happened to Jesus, talk of our future life after death cannot proceed by means of mere speculation. When it comes to resurrected bodies, we have something to go on: the risen body of Jesus.

So, based on what we know about the risen Jesus, what are resurrected bodies like?

Paul asks himself this question in I Corinthians 15. It was likely being asked by the Corinthians themselves. After making it clear that the truth of the gospel hangs on the resurrection of Jesus, Paul asks after the meaning of this claim. What does resurrection do to bodies?

It is in this context that Paul makes his famous claim that resurrected bodies on spiritual bodies. Resurrection is no mere continuation of natural embodiment. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. The natural must put on or become spiritual. Resurrection is a spiritual reality. Jesus has been raised spiritually. We will be raised spiritually.

Does this mean that Paul rejects bodily resurrection?

I do not think so. Bodily resurrection and spiritual resurrection are not mutually exclusive. To treat them as such is to read Paul's comments here out of context, importing our own meaning of "spiritual" that contradicts the gist of the passage. There are three things I would like to point out that ought to prevent us from pitting spiritual resurrection against bodily resurrection.

(1) The Logic of First fruits. In this passage, Paul repeatedly states that the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of our resurrection. The logic of first fruits entails a strong similarity between Jesus' resurrection and ours. Since Jesus' resurrection takes place in time ("on the third day") and space ("from the grave"), we every reason to think that our resurrection will be temporal and spatial. Will our interaction with time and space be greatly altered? Yes. But will we still be embodied creatures? Yes. The logic of first fruits implies whatever "spiritual" means, it does not mean non-bodily.

(2) Use of Parallelism. When the meaning of a word is contested, it is a good idea to check for parallelism which may provide clues. Just such parallels appear in this passage. The contrast between natural and spiritual bodies does not hang isolated, but is accompanied by three other contrasts: perishable/imperishable (v. 42b), dishonor/glory (v. 43a), weakness/power (v. 43b). I suggest that whatever "spiritual" means in the passage, it primarily has to do with describing an imperishable, glorious and powerful body. Such adjectives imply a radical transformation of our bodies, but not necessarily the setting aside of bodily life.

(3) Putting the Spirit back in Spiritual. Lastly, I would suggest that the language of "spiritual" not be pre-determined by our understanding of "spirit" in contrast to "nature," but rather be linked definitively to the Holy Spirit (a.k.a., the third person of the trinity). As Paul says in numerous places, it is by his Spirit that God raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is linked to God's act of resurrection. Perhaps "spiritual" bodies are bodies whose life is no longer temporarily sustained by the cause-and-effect system of nature, but eternally sustained by the Holy Spirit who indwells them as God's very presence and power.

In light of these points, I would argue that the spiritual character of the resurrection does not set aside the body, but is a gift given to our bodies. Resurrection surpasses yet includes bodily life.

Any thoughts?
What can we really say about our future in Christ?
Do these points help clarify the sense of "spiritual" bodies?
What are the implications for present life in the body if our bodies will be raised?


WTM said...

Why in #1 do you assume that our interaction with space / time will be "greatly altered"? #2 is good and I really like #3. Re: #3, I just read someone (I can't recall where, but its that time of year!) making a similar move with the term 'spiritual,' and it seems to me that this is on the right track.

Keith Drury said...

Helpful... "Spiritual Body"... "Bodily Spirit"...

An altered body yet a body that can eat? Or only eat before rising? Is the marriage Supper of the Lamb spiritual feasting or physical in some way?
(I have not had my breakfast yet ;-)

JohnLDrury said...


Sorry, but I have no idea. I just tend to think that there must be some kind of continuity or we will loose our identities, and yet there must be radical change or resurrection doesn't offer much hope.

JohnLDrury said...


I learned #3 from Jonathan Edwards by the way (cf. "Religious Affections" WJE vol 2 and "Treatise on Grace" WJF vol 21)