WHAT KIND OF BODY WILL BE RESURRECTED?

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Adapted from David Winter’s book, Hereafter, Harold Shaw Publishers and The Christian Book Promotion Trust, Wheaten, IL, 1972

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What was it that the Christian eye-witnesses saw? It is an important ques­tion, highly relevant to any investigation of life beyond death. It is not enough to say that they saw, or met, Jesus. In what form did they see or meet Him? Was He exactly the same in every way as before His death? If not, in what way had He changed?

Perhaps the simplest way to answer that is to make two lists, one noting the dissimilarities be­tween the pre- and post-resurrection Christs, and the other describing the similarities.

 

The transformation of the body of Jesus

Into the first list—the negative one—must go a number of pieces of eye-witness evidence which are frequently overlooked, or else seized upon to support a preconceived notion of the nature of Jesus after the resurrection. For example, it is un­deniable that the appearance of Jesus was changed, and changed to such an extent or in such a way that even His closest friends failed to recognize.  Mary Magdalen supposed He was “the gar­dener”1 on the morning of the resurrection. Two disciples walked seven miles to Emmaus with Him that same day and did not recognize Him until a familiar mannerism connected with giving thanks for the evening meal “opened” their eyes.2 Less obviously, Peter and the other disciples needed— and received—other evidence than the evidence of sight that it was in fact Jesus who met them during their fishing expedition on the Sea of Tiberias. This incident is in some ways the most revealing of them all.3

After the resurrection—and apparently slightly impatient at the delay in bringing in the Kingdom which they were expecting—seven of the disciples took a boat out on this inland sea for a night’s fishing. Despite their professional skills, they caught absolutely nothing. However, “just as day was breaking” Jesus stood on the beach and called to them. The disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He told them to cast their net on the star­board side of the boat. They did, and caught an enormous quantity of fish. John then shouted to Peter “It’s the Lord!” and Peter, impulsive as ever, jumped overboard and swam ashore to greet Him. When the others followed, they found that Jesus had already lit a fire on the beach and they all had breakfast together. At this point John observes, “Now none of the disciples dared ask Him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” Obviously it was not the sense of sight that gave them this knowledge, or they would not have even thought of asking “Who are you?” It was the miracle He had done, and the personality they knew so well, that convinced them that they were once again in the presence of Jesus.

But it was not simply the external appearance of Jesus that was changed. The physical properties of His body were also changed, and very radically indeed. Although He specifically denied that he was a ghost or spirit4 (and clearly He was not, because He could be touched, and He was able to prepare and eat a meal) and although He had “flesh and bones,” as the disciples could see,5 yet He was able to enter rooms through locked doors,6 appear in places many miles apart without apparently travelling by any recognized means, and eventually be “taken from their sight” on the Mount of the Ascension.7 It is hardly necessary to say that none of these things is feasible for a human body, and in fact none of these things had happened to Jesus before during his earthly life. Before the resurrec­tion His body was unquestionably that of a normal human being. If He did not eat, He got hungry. If He did not drink, He was thirsty. At night He was tired and needed to sleep. If He was cut, he bled. His long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem took weeks and there was never the slightest suggestion that He might travel by any other but a completely normal way.

Yet after the resurrection all this was changed.

Quite obviously Paul was right when he claimed that “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him8.” That in itself says something very remark­able about the body of Jesus after His resurrection. All human bodies are mortal. They lie under the “dominion” of death. Or, to put it in more usual language, they begin to die from the moment they are born. But this new body of Jesus was not sub­ject either to the sudden onslaught of disease or accident, nor to the pro­cess of growing old.

And this body was not confined within the limits of our space-time world. It simply could not have been composed as ordinary bodies are. It may indeed have had flesh and bones, but it was not limited by them in the way we are. Bars and bolts could not shut it out, and death itself could not touch it. Yet, it was undoubtedly a real body. Hun­dreds of people could not have been so mistaken, especially when Jesus offered clear evidence of it. But it was not an earthbound body. It was some­thing that bore a developmental relationship to an earthly human body, but it was not identical with it. There was clearly a continuity of life between the body of Jesus and the body of the resurrected Jesus, but in the time between His death and resur­rection it had undergone a very fundamental change.

So much for the list of dissimilarities: the body of Jesus after the resurrection had a different ap­pearance and also a different form. It was like the previous body, it had some sort of developmental relationship to it, but it was obviously not identi­cal with it.

Now we must consider the similarities. Strange­ly, they all came down to one factor, but that factor is so important that it outweighs all the dissimilarities. It is simply this: Jesus before and after the resurrection was undeniably the same person. No matter what extraordinary changes had taken place in His bodily form, all who knew Him well had no doubt Who He was. They “knew” it was the Lord.

Let us see how they recognized Him. Mary Magdalene recognized His voice—or, possibly, a famil­iar mode of address by the way He said “Mary.” The two on the road to Emmaus recognized His man­nerisms: the way He broke bread. The disciples by the lake recognized His characteristic activity in the way He performed the miracle of the fish. Even more than that they recognized His characteristic thoughtfulness in lighting the fire and preparing breakfast. In other words they all recognized the Person, or the personality, of a Man they had known well, and were so sure of His identity that they were prepared to die for that belief, as many of his early followers did.

What we must conclude in examining the resur­rection of Jesus is exactly what we found in all the other evidences of survival: essentially what sur­vived death was His personality. But in this case an earlier supposition—that this surviving personality would need a new bodily vehicle in which to ex­press itself—becomes a fact. The personality of Jesus after His resurrection from death expressed itself in a new body, no longer subject to the limi­tations imposed on a space-time, earthly body. The message was the same—to use Professor Mackay’s illustration quoted earlier—but the transmitter was new, and better. Not only was it better, in general terms (less confined, less limited, immortal) but it was also perfectly designed to live on in a spiritual environment. It was no longer at home in this world.

 

The transformation of our bodies

And this is the pattern, according to the Bible, for all resurrection. Not immediately at death, as in the case of Jesus, but just as radically our bodies will be changed, and we shall enter a new environ­ment in a form perfectly suited to life there. And it will be truly us, not our ghosts, not our souls, but the whole personality will break through the bar­rier of flesh and on into a new realm of living, just as it did with Jesus. The apostle Paul puts it very dramatically:

Lo, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the im­perishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality . . . Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”9

 But what is the relationship between our earth­ly bodies and our changed heavenly ones? Is there any link, any connection at all? And if not, how can there be any recognition of those we love in the life beyond death?

In a way, these questions have already been an­swered, if we accept the resurrection of Jesus as the prototype of all resurrection from death. As we have seen, there was a very real connection between the earthly body of Jesus and His risen one, but they were not identical. I have described the link as developmental, because that seemed a way of expressing the kind of unity which is in­volved. The second develops out of the first. It is a refinement of it, a further stage, a mutation, if we want a scientific term. But it could never work the other way. The one is incomparably “higher” and more advanced than the other. The continuity is of personality; the change involves the form in which that personality presents itself. Flesh and blood is our present form, with the limitations that that it imposes. But what is to be our form in the life beyond this earth?

The early Christians at Corinth put precisely that question to the apostle Paul. Here is his reply, in full:10

 But perhaps someone will ask, “How is the resurrection achieved? With what sort of body do the dead arrive?” Now that is talking with­out using your minds! In your own experience you know that a seed does not germinate with­out itself dying. When you sow a seed you do not sow the body that will eventually be pro­duced, but bare grain, for example, or one of the other seeds. God gives the seed a body according to His laws—a different body to each kind of seed.

Then again, even in this world, all flesh is not identical. There is a difference in the flesh of human beings, animals, fish and birds.

There are bodies which exist in this world, and bodies which exist in the heavens. These bodies are not, as it were, in competition; the splendor of an earthly body is quite a different thing from the splendor of a heavenly body. The sun, the moon and the stars all have their own particular splendor, while among the stars themselves there are different kinds of splen­dor.

There are illustrations here of the raising of the dead. The body is sown in corruption; it is raised beyond the reach of corruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in splendor. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. As there is a natural body so will there be a spiritual body.

It is written, moreover, that:

The first man Adam became a living soul. So the last Adam is a life-giving Spirit. But we should notice that the order is natural first and then spiritual. The first man came out of the earth, a material creature. The second Man came from heaven and was the Lord himself. For the life of this world men are made like the material man; but for the life that is to come they are made like the One from heaven. So that just as we have been made like the material pattern, so we shall be made like the heavenly pattern. For I assure you, my brothers, it is utterly impossible for flesh and blood to pos­sess the kingdom of God. The transitory could never possess the everlasting.

The dead and the living will be fitted for immortality.

Listen, and I will tell you a secret. We shall not all die, but suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, every one of us will be changed as the trumpet sounds! The trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised beyond the reach of corruption, and we who are still alive shall sud­denly be utterly changed. For this perishable nature of ours must be wrapped in imperish­ability . . .

This statement repays close study, because in it Paul expresses the heart of the Christian (as com­pared to the pagan) doctrine of immortality. Here is no crude idea of dead bodies rising from their graves or miraculously re-assembling after crema­tion, but a profound picture of development from a simpler to a more complex form of life. Paul is quite clear that our earthly bodies die. They are perishable, with all that that implies. Those who ridicule the whole idea of resurrection must accept in fairness that Christianity has never taught that a dead human body is anything other than perish­able. If they wish to attack the doctrine, let them at least pay it the minimum compliment of getting it right first. Bodies die and disintegrate, and that is that, so far as the body is concerned. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” says Paul, describing what happens when a seed is planted. When the plant has fully grown, what has become of the seed itself? It has gone, disap­peared—its life now part of a greater, more com­plex being, its body utterly disintegrated. And that, he argues, is what happens to our bodies at death.

He goes further. There is to be a change of kind. For that he uses two analogies. The first is of different kinds of “flesh”—earthly bodies. “Not all flesh is alike,” he argues. “There is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds and another for fish.”11

 In the strictly biological sense there is not a great deal of difference between one flesh and an­other. Body tissue, after all, is body tissue. But Paul was not using the word in the biological sense. “Flesh” in the Bible is either the lower side of human nature or—as here—simply the bodily form of an earthly creature. There is a difference between the forms of men, animals, birds, and fish, but it is a difference within limits. They have life in common, and much more: senses, appetites, animation. But within a circle of comparability they are yet distinctively different. So – he clearly implies—is life after death from life before death.

Spiritual life is better

Paul’s second analogy is a rather obscure one to mod­ern eyes. “There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.”12 It is tempting to read into this passage more than it can bear. All Paul is saying, it seems to me, is that once again, within the created order, there are differences within cir­cles of comparability. Obviously the moon is different from the sun, and the sun is from the earth, and one star from another. But they are all bodies in space, “heavenly bodies.” It is also very probable that, using the cosmology of his day, which saw the stars and planets in a sort of hierar­chical order, he was also saying that within this limited similarity there was an ascending order of “glory” from the lowest to the mightiest.

All of this leads to his positive statement that spiritual (or heavenly) life is like physical (or earthly) human life, but is more glorious. Earth­ly life is perishable, crude, weak; heavenly life is imperishable, glorious, powerful. Yet there is a cir­cle of comparability. They are not really two dif­ferent things, but one is an extension or devel­opment of the other. “But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiri­tual.”13 The development is not from a higher form of life to a lower one, but the opposite. There is, as we saw in the case of the risen body of Jesus, a developmental relationship between the earthly body and the resurrection body, but it is a development upwards. At death we move to a higher, not a lower plane of existence.

This is very important, if only because some survival theories, including reincarnation and many kinds of spiritualism, imply the contrary. The wispy spirits who are said to blow trumpets and tap out pathetic messages from the beyond could never be described, surely, as more glori­ous than living, breathing, rational, earthly hu­man beings? Glory is simply not a word one could apply to most of them or their misty world of half-reality. Equally a man reincarnated as an ani­mal or an insect—or even another man—could not be said to have moved upwards to a higher, more glorious mode of existence. (I realize that in most doctrines of reincarnation there is also the oppor­tunity to move “upwards,” but only in certain cir­cumstances).

So the body we possess after death (the resurrection body) is a development, a refinement of our present one, which disintegrates at death.

There is a relationship between them, but the spiri­tual body is infinitely higher and in every respect superior. The personality—the “message” – remains, but the transmitter is a much better one.

The result is that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”14 They are excellent vehi­cles for the message of the human personality in space and time, but quite inadequate for it in a mode of existence where space and time are mean­ingless concepts. That is why this great change that Paul speaks of, this metamorphosis, has to take place. Just as the caterpillar has to be changed into the butterfly in order to “inherit” the air, so we have to be changed in order to inherit heaven. There is simply no alternative.

Let us stress again the most important fact in­volved here—that the spiritual body and the spiri­tual life are better, more glorious, more real than their physical predecessors. Once we really begin to think in these terms our whole attitude to death will be transformed. If all we have to look forward to at death is, at best, extinction, and, at worst, a shadowy ghost-existence in some twilight spirit world, then no wonder men face it with distaste and even fear. We do not enjoy the thought of ceasing to exist, but neither do we as normal, life-loving humans relish relegation to a kind of sub-life, which is all that most non-Christian theories of “survival” really amount to. The best of them can do is look forward to some kind of blissful union with “the ultimate;” but none, it seems to me, can match the Christian emphasis on the superiority at every level and in every way of the life that begins at death. This is the great theme of the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: the resurrection life is a life of power, achievement, splendor, beauty. It has everything good from this earthly life, but without the things that make it earth-bound, limited and frustrating. Over everything on earth hangs the dark shadow of time. We never seem to have enough of it to do all the things we should like to do, to become the people we ought to be or to get to know others as we should like to know them. And there are other limitations: pain, failing strength and sight and hearing, physical handicaps and so on. All of these detract from the quality and satisfaction of life on earth, though in overcoming the challenge of limi­tation men have achieved nobility and greatness, and have proved the power of God to work through human weakness.

But in the life beyond death all of these maladies are no more. “God Himself will be with them,” says John in the Revelation; “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, nei­ther shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”15 Yet in losing them, we do not lose what is essentially human. We do not become ghosts. We carry over all that is essential (the “kernel” as Paul put it 16), but “God gives it a body as he has chosen.”17

 All of which emphasizes the fact that if the Christian doctrine of resurrection is true then there is no need for distaste or trepidation in the face of death. All that lies beyond, for those who are to be raised in Christ, is superbly good. The God who made this earth so splendid, with its wonderful variety of color and form, its joys of human love, family, and work and its magnificence of art, music, and literature, has Himself promised that the next life will be better.

What more could any doubter ask than that?

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Citations:

1 John 20:15.

2 Luke 24:30-31.

3 John 21:1-13.

4 Luke 24:38, 39.

5 Luke 24:39-43.

6 John 20:19.

7 Acts 1:9.

8 Romans 6:9.

9 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.

10 1 Corinthians 15:35-53 (J. B. Phillips’ translation).

11 1 Corinthians 15:39.

12 1 Corinthians 15:40-41.

13 1 Corinthians 15:46.

14 1 Corinthians 15:50.

15 Revelation 21:3, 4.

16 1 Corinthians 15:37.

17 1 Corinthians 15:38.

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